by Michael Grey

WHO remembers this helpful advice — “when in danger, or in doubt — run in circles, scream and shout”? That is not entirely correct; the real advice, written in night order books in every language, on every properly run ship in the world, would be: “If in any doubt, call the master”.

Sadly, it doesn’t always happen, and for a number of different reasons. People might delay, believing that they can sort out the matter themselves, perhaps out of misplaced pride, an overconfidence in their own abilities, or because they believe that their call will show them up as unprofessional. They might try to deal with it themselves because they know the poor old master was just about dead with exhaustion when he went below. But for whatever reason, the result is starkly identified in the subsequent casualty investigation.

Navigational Accidents and their Causes was the theme of the Nautical Institute’s recent London Command Seminar, the NI having just published a book of the same name. Edited by LOC’s Captain David Pockett, who has seen more evidence of man’s inhumanity to machinery than most, this compilation of marine disaster aims to dig a bit deeper into the root causes.

Curiously, on the way to the seminar I was reading a letter in NI Seaways from the director of the Confidential Hazardous Incident Reporting Programme, Captain John Rose, which deserves to be more widely circulated. Focusing on what might be described as the uneven quality of casualty investigation reports, he noted: “All too often, these reports are silent on, for example, the antiquated designs seafarers are asked to work with (eg mooring stations), fatigue and the critical application of minimum manning levels. No challenge is made on the behaviour of charterers, insurers or the flag state and yet all of these bodies have knowledge (or should do) of the type of operations carried out on board.”

Frank speaking

These seminars, which tend to be attended by those who know what it means to command a ship, invariably provide a lot of food for thought and frank speaking. How do you prepare for command, bearing in mind that the paper qualification is but a step along the road? How do you assess navigational competence in practice — as opposed to what that paper might assert? How do you deal with a lack of experience caused by accelerated promotion, which is a growing problem as the demographics bite? What is the contribution of culture and mindset, behaviour and limitations of human performance? All of these and more were touched on by speakers and debated.

We were reminded that command comes in many forms. A serving master who commands huge cruiseships showed how a large multi-national bridge team is organised in a port approach, starting with a comprehensive brief as the ship closes the pilot ground. We were given this in real time, as he had filmed all this as his ship arrived in Palma. It was very impressive, but it scarcely reflected the reality of the lean manning in most of today’s ships, when a “team talk” might be a rather one-sided affair.

There were interesting observations which themselves could have been subjects of their own. How often, these days, are people “shackled by procedure” when their own judgement (some might say common sense) tells them something else? Might there be a growing gap between procedures and practical implementation? Is there a role for intuition — or a feel for the sea, which is different in so many ways, from a safe shore-side environment? Might good seamanship, and its exercise by the individual, increasingly suffering from bureaucratisation?

There were thought-provoking interventions on the human element, suggesting that human-centred design was important, the real meaning of “complacency” as the attrition of expertise seeing people “drifting towards the edge of the safety envelope”. “Confirmation bias” meant people saw what they expected and were insufficiently stimulated to realise any difference. We heard the memorable phrase “death by over-engineering” and the error of being fixated on “zero accidents”. The importance of situational awareness and the value of an alert team member correcting his senior officer, when the wrong order had been given, was emphasised. How often does that problem feature when a ship, in pilotage waters, with the bridge team mentally “switched off”, comes to grief?

There were plenty of people present who knew full well the difference between what is laid down in the procedure and the reality of practice. Seafarers are brought up to improvise, to employ resilience and common sense in a flexible fashion as the situation develops, but this seems often to be rather deplored by those producing the regulations. The answer to every problem, it was inferred by sensible people, was not necessarily a new procedure. It is difficult to remain unaware of pressure from all directions, all-powerful charterers, commercial interests, or rigid procedures — “which must be obeyed”.

There was a lot of support for the concept of mentoring, a telling phrase coming from somebody who “didn’t realise he was being mentored” until he realised just how much he had learned from his mentor. We can probably all look back to the same experience, even when the mentoring took the form of a stern talking to for one’s idleness or bad attitude!

Mentoring was something needed as much ashore as afloat, as people newly ashore sought to establish themselves. And as the Princess Royal told us, in a world where design is distancing the individual from the natural environment, the “passing down of knowledge” was ever more important.

 The above very enlightened report was published in Lloyds List on 08 June 2017. Two days later, a lengthy article appeared in the Wellington Dom Post, which announced the arrival of unmanned ships – God forbid. Unmanned ships will solve all the problems that we have at sea today.

It stated that the IMO will consider changing SOLAS rules to allow ships with no Captain or crew to travel between countries. It is thought that unmanned ships will improve safety at sea where it is claimed human error accounts for 60% of groundings and collisions. The other 40% caused by badly designed ships, machinery failure, weather etc will apparently continue to happen with no loss of life but many shipping lanes blocked by sunken ships.

Control centres manned by land based ‘captains’ would be established ashore where a handful of people would monitor hundreds of ships and control the ships when entering or leaving harbour. “They can go home to their families after work and don’t need to be away at sea for months and months” said Oskar Levander, vice president for innovation at Rolls-Royce. He obviously did not know that before the PC brigade and OSH got involved with shipping, that many seafarers attributed their long marriages to the spells apart.   

A Danish professor stated in the article that ships travelling long distances would have a small maintenance crews as “if a ship gets stuck out in the ocean, it’s a terribly long way to send a tug”.   

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