The Wisdom of Salt: A Grumpy Fisherman's 10 Secrets Of Leadership

Old Salt is a character in a book of creative non-fiction to be published this month (Salt Story, by Sarah Drummond, Fremantle Press).

He’s real, aged in his late seventies, has spent his life commercial fishing using a tinnie, lives in Albany, Western Australia, and is a direct descendant of the first commercial fisherman in that state.

We now know his name is Bill North after he outed himself on ABC local radio.

Sarah Drummond gathered these gems of wisdom about small scale commercial fishing while working as an apprentice to Old Salt.

We’ve translated Salt’s tips from gnarly Australian English into 10 lessons. We think there’s something here for everyone.

“There’s no better bilge pump than a frightened deckie.” (P. 28)

Picture: Kon-Tiki, The Weinstein Company

SECRET 1: Productivity is simple. The art of managing people is knowing when to do push and when to do nothing. If you are in an open boat in a storm, nothing you say or do will make your deckhand bail out the water any faster. Best to sit back, hand on the tiller and enjoy watching the deckhand’s frantic efforts. Very entertaining. The fear of death creates a sharp rise in productivity.

SECRET 2: When the market is on a wild ride, let others do the panicking.

“Fishermen don’t ask for help. And if anyone offers, refuse them. But always step up when yer needed.” (P. 96)

Picture: Moby Dick, Warner Bros.

SECRET 3: Don’t owe anyone anything. You’ll have to return the favour sometime and it will probably be something you don’t want to do. However, having someone owing you is a much better idea. And helping people makes you feel good.

The best thing about Salt is that in gnarly situations he will never chuck a tantrum. Ever. That’s my job. (Sarah Drummond, P. 29)

Picture: The Perfect Storm, Warner Bros Pictures

SECRET 4: Leaders remain calm at all times even when they are shaking with anger or fear inside. This calm exterior tends to make the troops less jumpy. And it unsettles the competition (other fishermen) when they know you should be nervous (such as when you’re being raided by Fisheries Department inspectors) but look nonchalant. Makes them think you know what you’re doing and it really gets up the noses of those fisheries people who, like all bureaucrats, follow rules.

SECRET 5: It’s OK for deckhands to tantrum. They aren’t management.

“Good. I can finally blame something on an amateur.” (P. 124)

Picture: Pirates of the Caribbean, Walt Disney Studios

SECRET 6: There are obvious benefits in having someone less experienced around. If anything goes wrong, embarrassingly wrong, then you can always point to the junior, shrug your shoulders: I’m training them up. I know, I’m far too generous. It’s a fault of mine. What can I do?

Working for Salt involves no contracts, few rules and sometimes I get the feeling this apprenticeship will never end unless one of us dies or I manage to snare myself a Fisheries officer for a husband. (Sarah Drummond, P. 19)

Picture: Captain Pugwash, BBC

SECRET 7: The free market rules. Salt believes in this, especially when it’s in his favour. Contracts just tie you down with annoying little things like work hours, rates of pay and safety. Keep it loose. That way you can make up rules as you go along to fit the situation. Saves a lot of argument and keeps the deckhand in her place.

It is on the official record that, according to Salt, I was carrying out my duty as a lightning rod. (Sarah Drummond, P. 166)

Picture: Kon-Tiki, The Weinstein Company

SECRET 8: Care for your staff. They have many uses. Being the highest point in a metal boat during an electrical storm is one of them.

He can mend bruises and dislodge gall stones but a busted reputation takes a lot longer. (P. 124)

Picture: The Bounty, Orion Pictures

SECRET 9: This is the equivalent to the old saying: my word is my bond. In a business with few assets apart from a banged up open boat, a sickly outboard motor, a few nets and a rusty toolbox, the market’s faith in you as a person is everything.

Salt doesn’t actually lose his temper, he cultivates his temper. (P. 169)

Picture: Jaws, Universal Pictures

SECRET 10: Keep them guessing. No-one should ever know what you’re doing next. And if you look grumpy, people are less like to question your decisions. Fishing, like most businesses in Australia, is more a service industry.

Salt Story by Sarah Drummond is published by Fremantle Press, November 2013

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