A Career Ladder Worth Climbing – Monday 19 May 2008
I OFTEN think about the little quirks of fate that determine one’s direction in life. They constitute a succession of ‘near misses’ that track one’s career down through the years, where the possibilities of the past gradually evolve into the realities of the present. It could be a matter of great regret that one didn’t take the career decision that would have made one’s certain fortune.
Conversely, the years might have demonstrated what a really excellent decision it had been to have invested in certain shares, proposed to a certain lady, or taken that job offer. It may seem a pointless exercise, but it is a pleasant enough matter, sitting in the garden on a sunny day, to muse what life might have been like.
I sometimes recall that period of my life when I had just come ashore, and was finding it very hard to adjust to life in what we like to call the shore-side infrastructure. I hated being in an office, never seeing the sea or the sky, and spent inordinate amounts of time applying for other jobs. Maybe I wrote an absolutely brilliant letter of application, in those days before psychologists and psychometric testing got into recruitment, because I kept getting offered virtually every one for which I applied.
But, happy as this situation might have been, there was invariably a snag attached to each of these ostensibly desirable posts. I can recall being offered the command of a small research ship, which seemed to offer enormous job satisfaction. The problem was its location, operating out of north Wales, where one’s children would be educated in Welsh when they went to school. I was offered a job as a cargo surveyor, by one of the finest firms operating out of City, but alas, accompanied by such paucity of financial award only a person of independent means could have afforded to take the position.
In one desperate week, I applied for, and was accepted as, a sort of ghillie looking after the islands of Loch Lomond for the environmental agency, largely on the grounds that I was familiar with a boat. One snag here was the almost neglible salary, but the real killer was the requirement to live in a stone croft and cook porridge on a peat fire, to which my wife made reasonable objection.
There were others which have largely faded into the memory. I was interviewed by a cheery chap for a deputy harbour master’s job in the Caribbean, and offered a mate’s job on a ferry being delivered to New Zealand. One really attractive job I recall was that of a pilot/marine officer in the great Pacific port of Suva. We were all set to go, but were warned at the last minute that it was not the place to take pregnant wives, and as I had one of these in the family at the time, we regretfully postponed the expedition. Then, blow me down, I applied to become a technical journalist on a weekly magazine, and my fate was sealed.
I had been rather disappointed about the Fiji job (although I kept it quiet from my wife at the time) because pilotage had been a job I always fancied. Shiphandling is an art, and a good shiphandler is always a real pleasure to watch.
Mind you, I have no idea how good a pilot I would have made. A few years ago I spent a couple of days at the excellent model lake run by Warsash at Marchwood and I recall the instructor telling us about the importance of spatial awareness. There were a very few shiphandlers, he told us, who were absolute naturals and, equally, a small number who should not be permitted within a mile of a ship’s bridge. Training and experience would produce very adequate shiphandlers out of the broad swathe of people who lay between these two extremes. Then, I was in a model 60,000 dwt ship and realised that there was no possibility of getting the way off the ship before it slammed into the quay I was supposed to be gently coming alongside. Perhaps I was in the latter category after all.
I have always been an admirer of pilots. I know these things come with experience, but really cannot quite comprehend how they can leap nimbly up the ladder and make sense of the often confusing scene they encounter when they arrive on the bridge. There are also ports where there are vast differences in the size and handling qualities of the ships entering and leaving their ports. Goodness knows what sort of adjustments they have to make to their brains as they move in the space of an hour from a VLCC to a 4,000 dwt general cargo ship, and back to a capesize in ballast. That, at least to me, takes a great deal of this spatial awareness.
Then there is the extraordinary sang froid of a capable pilot when all turns to ashes around him. When the engine fails to go astern, the helmsman appears to be completely deaf and the master, who has discovered the chief officer has neglected to take the lashings off the anchors, is having hysterics.
Because there is no denying that ships manoeuvring are more prone to breakdown at these times, that is, when it matters most. That is when the value of a top pilot is really demonstrated.
Good pilots are also communicators of some skill. And, let’s face it, language can be a considerable obstacle, despite all the earnest injunctions about the importance of the maritime vocabulary. Sign language, so a pilot friend tells me, can be a tremendous asset when the helm orders appear to have fallen on deaf ears and the request to take the tug on the starboard quarter results in a cup of tea and plate of sandwiches.
In all honesty, I don’t think I could have hacked it. Probably stress-related illness would have polished me off, even if I managed to avoid plunging a ship bridge deep into a concrete quay.
Because one of the most irritating things I would have experienced as a pilot would have been the constant niggling from shipowners about whether my job was absolutely necessary.
It is easy to blame accountants for this down on the pilotage profession. These are number crunchers who see any human input as a cost, rather than an investment, and say things like: “Why can’t the master handle his own ship? We pay him enough, surely.” Once such stupid statements would have been quickly refuted by a powerful marine superintendent, but too many of these people have themselves become redundant, or are so afraid of losing their jobs that they will not contradict those who handle the cash and prescribe the budgets.
Meat and drink to these people are imaginative schemes for remote pilotage, where a chap in a VTS tower can organise the detailed manoeuvring of half a dozen ships simultaneously. Are not all the tools — the radar, the radio and the automatic identification system already in place? The fact that the chap on the other end of the radio speaks no known language, and there is huge dispute, just short of fisticuffs, going on on the bridge of the ship, are contributory factors that will not emerge until the court of inquiry into the incident.
It must be a little depressing to pilots to have so many people attempting to diminish the importance of the vital job they do. But to a pilotage professional, it must also be rather vexing that there is a timelessness about these issues, which seem to be passed from one generation to the next without actually doing anything about the problem.
“Master’s orders on pilot’s advice.” This entry in a million bridge books belies the reality of so much indecision about the actual status of the pilot vis-à-vis a bridge ‘team’. A modern interpretation of the pilot’s role sees him or her firmly integrated into the bridge team, such as it is. The fact that the team members constitute the master and possibly a helmsman, if you are lucky, surely makes this integration even more essential. An interesting article by a Rotterdam pilot, which I read in the newsletter of the Confederation of European Shipmasters’ Associations, makes the analogy with aviation, where safe navigation and aircraft handling is undertaken by people who may be complete strangers, but who share language, terminology and procedures.
I think that there is a lot in this, and that it would be possible to provide ‘bridge team training’ that would see pilots integrated, and common procedures devised to eliminate as far as possible the one-person error.
But we have to be sensible in this, and not go overboard, and we must recognise that there is a plethora of different bridge situations, where there are very few different aircraft flight decks and training is type specific.
We also have to recognised the realities of crewing (which are getting more critical all the time) and the possibility that half the bridge team (the master) may be dropping from exhaustion.
But of all the things which face the contemporary pilot, that which I would have found hardest to face is the constant exposure to career-shattering blame if I made a mistake, or if somebody else thought I had made one.
Because, as every pilot knows full well, we are firmly within an era of total intolerance to accidents. Indeed the word ‘accident’ will probably soon be outlawed by the powers who govern these things. It is a funny thing. If you are a government minister, or a bank manager, or a mortgage lender, or a senior executive of a FTSE 100 company, you are permitted to make mistakes. Indeed, your accidents, stemming from the wrong decisions you have made, might have the most devastating consequences, costing billions of dollars or even lives. But they probably will not affect your career advancement, or the gigantic bonuses awarded by your friendly remuneration committee.
But if you are a pilot, handling very large ships in narrow waters, wild tides and heavy weather, you are not permitted to make the smallest mistake. A moment’s miscalculation of distance, the tide cutting in a few minutes early, the visibility clamping down or the engine failing to fire up going astern and crunch, it will be the pilot who will get the blame. There will be angry statements about pilot liability, by people who ought to know better. There will be silly things said about the number of accidents which occur with pilots embarked.
Worse still, there is an increasing tendency under many regimes for pilots to be prosecuted after accidents. Incidents which are investigated not by some professional analyst but by Mr Plod, who is only concerned with the oil in the water, or the political outrage which is demanding punishment of those responsible.
None of which is even remotely helpful in making people better at their jobs, or even encouraging them to take up pilotage. But it is a societal problem, a sort of collective madness that seems to affect all civilisations from time to time. I just think it is pretty remarkable that so many people are still prepared to take up pilotage as a career, when there are so many evident disadvantages. It ought to make us admire them even more.
PERPETUATING THE DRUNKEN SAILOR MYTH – Monday 19 May 2008
WHY is it that after a marine accident in a growing number of countries, the first people aboard are policemen bearing breath-testing kits?
Moreover, in any official announcement of the incident, while the technical circumstances or the subsequent salvage tend to be sketched over, the fact that the master and the pilot have been tested for alcohol misuse, invariably feature as something designed to reassure the public.
Just last week there was an exact case in point, with a containership aground in the Melbourne approaches. True to form, the brave constabulary were straight up the ladder with their little alcohol meters, testing — you’ve guessed it — the master and the pilot.
It transpired that the ship had lost power and swung out of the channel. But I bet they didn’t test the engineroom staff, who probably had rather more influence in the mechanical department than those on the bridge, who were only pulling the levers.
Why the authorities always make such a big deal about this testing, even when it is negative, which they won’t tell us, I suppose comes from a need to justify their existence to the number crunchers controlling their budgets. It could be that the myth of the drunken sailor is so well-established that it just won’t go away. I think it is time that shipmasters start to fight back against these reputational slurs.