Ingar Skaug was President and Group Chief Executive Officer of Wilh. Wilhelmsen ASA, a world leader in maritime services. Prior to that, he held numerous senior leadership roles with Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), after starting his career with Lufthansa. Currently, Skaug serves on the boards of a dozen organizations globally, including his role as chairman of the Center for Creative Leadership’s Board of Governors. Below is an excerpt from the recently published English version of his autobiography Make the Leap: Success, Failure, and Other Hard-Won Lessons of Leadership. It recalls what happened when one of Wilh. Wilhelmsen’s ships came to the aid of hundreds of refugees stranded on a boat near Australia.

For over 100 years, Wilhelmsen had sailed regularly to Australia. It was, perhaps, the continent where our fundamental values were just as strong as in Norway. As the values of Wilhelmsen more clearly became the basis and guideline for business and customer-related dealings, the more robust the organization became—even when undesirable incidents arose. Critical situations test the essence of our values. A crisis is the very moment of truth where you are tested as to whether you are able to make the right decisions, even when under considerable pressure.

Such a situation arose with our ship, Tampa, which was en route from Australia to Singapore on August 25, 2001, carrying 1,100 containers on deck. Many of the containers were empty and those in the hull had little cargo. The ship, therefore, sailed easily on the sea. The weather was perfect. The sun was shining from an almost clear sky. It was one of those days on board when you felt nothing could happen.

Suddenly a Mayday message came in from the Australian rescue service. The coast guard had observed another ship a few hours away which was probably in distress. The message confirmed it to be a small ship with over 80 people on board. HELP and SOS were written on the roof in uppercase letters. Of all the ships in the area, the Tampa was the closest to come to their aid.

Captain Arne Frode Rinnan didn’t hesitate a second in ordering the new course when he received the message in his office under the bridge. On the high seas, there is one thing that comes before consideration of punctuality, service, customers, and shipping company: human life. Rinnan was one of our most experienced captains. He ran away to sea as a deck boy in 1958; after that no job offer on land could keep him from becoming a sailor. At 60 years old, he was on his last regular tour with the Tampa. As it turned out, this trip would make him famous all over the world.

After four hours of sailing, the Tampa encountered a sorrowfully sinking ship. It was taking on water after what had probably been an explosion in the engine room and wouldn’t stay afloat much longer. There was only one solution: take everyone aboard the Tampa.

One by one, each passenger was lifted onto the gangway, which hung alongside the Tampa. It was difficult and dangerous work because the ships were out of sync on the sea. The operation was also considerably larger than expected: what was to have been 80 people on board turned out to be more than five times as many—a total of 438 people, of which 26 were women and 43 were children. They had fled from Afghanistan, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Conditions on board had been completely inhumane, with minimal food and water and hopeless toilet conditions. Few people could swim, and there were not enough life jackets.

Unexpectedly, the Tampa, which was certified for a crew of 27, suddenly had 465 people on board including the crew. Refugees were assembled on the container deck where tarpaulins were hung for shade. Amazingly, the onboard cook managed to provide food for everyone. Some were quite frail after horror-filled days on board the crowded, tiny craft. Several needed medical treatment. The refugees soon chose five advocates who asked for a meeting with Rinnan.

They thanked him for rescuing them and asked to be put ashore on Christmas Island, which was Australian territory and the nearest port. They made it clear that they could not go back to their home countries or to Indonesia or Singapore, where many of them had probably stayed illegally before human smugglers took them on board and embarked on the hazardous journey. For Rinnan and his crew, it was perfectly natural to go there rather than to continue the journey to Singapore or Indonesia, a solution we in management, of course, applauded.

That’s when the real drama began and showed what people were truly made of.

Australia had long been tired of virtually all ship refugees in the South China Sea landing on Australian soil, with many of them seeking and receiving asylum in the country. It was just prior to elections and Prime Minister John Howard, who was running for re-election, felt that it was high time to mark where he stood politically regarding the continuous flow of refugees into the country he led. Thus, the same authorities who had asked the Tampa to come to the aid of the sinking ship, Rescue Coordination Center Australia, now refused the Tampa entry to Australian territorial waters. Despite the fact that Rinnan reported that several of the refugees, including two pregnant women, were in critical medical condition, he received no offers of medical attention.

But Rinnan could not be swayed. He sailed toward Christmas Island and demanded that RCC send a doctor. The doctor came when the Tampa finally anchored outside the Australian island. A group of heavily armed troops from the Special Air Service also boarded the ship and, contrary to international law and customs when human lives are at stake, tried to force it out of Australian waters. Meanwhile, Wilhelmsen’s Australian CEO, Peter Dexter, was under tremendous pressure from known and unknown people at high levels in the Australian government administration. Prime Minister Howard personally called Dexter twice to get his recalcitrant Norwegian captain to leave Australian waters.

When that failed, he tried adopting an urgent law in the Australian Parliament to gain clearer legal authority to send the Tampa back out into international waters. The bill suffered defeat. Negotiations went on for several days. Meanwhile many of the refugees on board the Tampa suffered, even though the sickest got medical help and the crew did their best to take care of them.

Captain Rinnan was unwavering in his demand that the refugees be allowed to go to Christmas Island. He received full support from those of us in management. There was no disagreement about what to do. The lives and health of those poor refugees came first. We gave little thought to how adversely it might affect our otherwise good relations, whether it was with customers who were waiting for their goods or with Australian authorities. Conversely, we appreciated the invaluable support from the Norwegian government, particularly through foreign minister
Thorbjørn Jagland.

As the situation became public internationally, pressure increased on the Australian government. There was no doubt about which side the international public opinion took. On September 1, the parties came up with a solution. The refugees would be sent by an Australian troop carrier to Papua New Guinea. From there, 150 of them would be transported to New Zealand and the rest to the tiny Republic of Nauru in the South Pacific. On September 3, the refugees were transferred from the Tampa to a troop ship. The Australian police took care of the four smugglers who were responsible for having caused the hapless journey.

The episode resulted in several aftermaths. It turned out that the Australian military had bugged the ship throughout the whole drama, even conversations that took place between the Tampa and the Norwegian Embassy in Australia, and between the Tampa and the shipping company’s emergency response group. The Australian Army also illegally monitored Wilhelmsen’s and the insurance company’s Australian lawyer when he discussed, among other things, taking civil action against the Australian State if the Tampa was forced out of Australian waters.

The Australian Defense Force apologized later to the lawyer about the illegal wiretap.Captain Rinnan was deservedly celebrated as a national and international hero during this affair. He received a number of accolades and awards for his steadfast and humane attitude toward the unfortunate people who had risked their lives trying to make a better life for themselves. As a shipping line, I think we also won by sticking to our principles, even if some of our customers had to wait an extra week for their goods. A business always wins by putting concern for human dignity ahead of profit and politics. The way Captain Rinnan and the rest of the shipping line acted showed that our values were truly alive, even when under threat to act differently.

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