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Life-saving with Project Management

Gavin Reid

01 November 2016

Heroic alumnus Gavin Reid recalls how his LUMS studies helped him in a dangerous situation.

As novice sailor Gavin Reid clambered from his clipper onto an unknown boat in the early hours to try and free a sailor trapped up the mast of his yacht off the coast of Australia, he surprised himself by his thought that he ought to set up a series of recognisable commands.

Born profoundly deaf, Gavin is of course highly communications aware, but in this case it was his lessons in project management theory from his studies at LUMS (MSc Project Management, 2010) that came to the fore under pressure, with an 110-knot storm imminent. He realised that with only months’ experience under his belt as crew in the Clipper Round the World Yacht race, the rescue would only succeed if he could work with these strangers via sign language.

“I had not got the time to arrange a project charter with a communication plan, which is what you are taught you should do when setting up a project,” laughs Gavin. “But the first thing that came to mind was the importance of arranging a few basic commands such as ‘hold” with a clenched fist and ‘ease” with a hand pointing down.”

He had volunteered to attempt the rescue in the final Australian leg of the race, as he was the only one of the crew to have climbed a mast before and not to suffer from the seasickness which would be a serious problem as it swung in the wind. Above the deck, being sworn at by the sailor, he focused on thinking systematically - except when he nearly lost his handhold and nearly became stuck himself.

The rescue was completed before the storm struck and Gavin’s courage was recognised with the Henri Lloyd Seamanship Award. He is now looking for the right job where he can bring his project management knowledge and his sailing experience to the best use to help others.

He is surprised at how much his LUMS experience fed into his 11 months as volunteer crew on the 70-foot clipper, whose 47,000-nautical-mile journey was undertaken by a 22-strong amateur crew. He says: “The intense environment of the boat put the main strands of good leadership I had learned at Lancaster into high relief - the need to allow people to air their gripes, know their end goal and to ensure that there was no discord. Leadership skills were required in the 60% of time I spent working with other crew members.”

Having started as a simple crew member, he was determined to make it to Watch Leader, which he did, meaning that when the Skipper was asleep, he was responsible for the safety of the boat and crew, changes of sail configuration, motivation of his colleagues and even cleanliness of the ‘heads’ or WCs.

He says: “Deafness has given me the motivation to prove other people wrong. It is always a driving point for me to push myself a little more.”

Born into an army family, his hearing impairment was not diagnosed until he was two and a half, and supplied with two powerful hearing aids. He has become a skilled lip reader. His parents were convinced that their son should be equipped to operate in a hearing world, so put him into a mainstream school from the start. He excelled at sport, and has full colours for representing Scotland in Deaf Rugby.

He joined LUMS after completing his undergraduate degree in English Literature at Lancaster University. He had originally been attracted by the campus, the collegiate system, the reputation of the university and its location near the Lake District. He also liked the fact that students had rated it the friendliest university in England. Before coming to Lancaster, he had spent a gap year teaching English to mentally disabled children in Tanzania.

After graduating with his BA he decided he wanted a practical career in the management of international development or sport, where it was clear what positive impact he had made. To do so, he needed the core tools to project manage effectively and Lancaster’s Project Management course seemed to fit the bill.

He was happy to stay on as he had enjoyed his time in Lancaster and had achieved sporting success on the rugby field and full colours for representing the university. He also knew that the only concessions he had needed for his studies were a note taker provided by the university for lectures and a vibrating smoke alarm to put under his pillow.

“The course was really challenging,” he says. “I had not struggled at all with studying English, but this Project Management degree was something else. It was so intensive that I had to put aside any dream I had of afternoons playing rugby. However it was very practical indeed and gave us the opportunity to take theoretical ideas and to test them out in real-life situations.”

He immediately saw the value of courses in leadership, financial planning and theories of project management in the many aspects of his life that interest him.

The project on which he wrote his dissertation was all about making a difference to an area of need, working in a group of four to create a sensory garden for a school for autistic pupils in Preston. This gave him satisfaction and gained him a Distinction for his report.

Theory learned on the degree was relevant in his first job after gaining his MSc - working for Raleigh International on an Indian health and sanitation project, then after that with Crown Agents in Surrey, especially when ensuring that work was broken down and tackled in the correct order. It certainly came in useful on his sea voyage.

He says: “It is difficult to apply theories directly to real life, but I have learned a lot of tools from my studies and I have also learned that it is essential to be able to adapt them to a situation, wherever you are.”