April 08, 2008

Soft Skills, hard realities.

The following is a short summary of things I wish I had known before my first Command. I would have made a better Master, and have been easier to work with.
This list will be almost certainly useless to the many Masters who are now sailing. Regardless, I just thought some things needed to be said- maybe they will be of some use to future Masters.

My own checklist, so to speak, and one I find more useful than most:

Communicate with the Chief Engineer first. He is critical. More critical than the Chief Officer, because, in a crunch, you can do that man’s job but not the Chief Engineer’s. Start building trust. What are his problems? What are the machinery and manpower issues? Is he finding enough time for preventative maintenance? Any safety or other issues? Anything broken down now? Waiting for important spares? Are things good at home? (Oh yes, that matters far more than we think. I defy anybody to be working at his peak if there is turmoil on the home front).
Familiarise yourself with Engine Room machinery. What are the fallbacks in the event of failure of critical machinery? What happens if this happens during manoeuvring? Are there any engine driven pumps which may immediately stop if the M/E trips? Generators? Compressors? And a hundred other similar critical issues. Stress on the Chief that as far as possible that during critical times, the main engines should be run on slow speed to give you on the bridge time to manoeuvre away from danger. Stress too, that a sudden drop in speed is usually manageable, loss of steering in a sudden stoppage less so. In my experience, this is, since it is not their area of expertise, not obvious to many Engineers.

Encourage a daily half hour before meals for an impromptu get together over a beer, or in these days of treating seafarers like children, a soft drink. Eat your meals together if possible. A visibly friendly Chief and Captain solve a few problems just by making this fact clear to the rest of the crew.

A high level of professional trust between a Master and a Chief Engineer is critical. What happens is, in the absense of this preparation, the only time these two then talk is when there is a problem, when they are strangers to each other and under stress. Heat of the moment issues tend to flare up because they don’t really know each other.
Familiarity breeds trust too, not neccessarily contempt. A Chief Engineer or a Master who trust each other pay each other the highest professional compliment.

Communicate with the Deck Officers. Try to gauge competencies. Your conversations will also give them a chance to gauge your style of working and the kind of person you are. Again, start building trust. Stress that you don’t want yes men, and that everybody agreeing with everybody is a recipe for creating an organisation of pygmies. It can also lead to disaster. Stress that you are perfectly happy to have them disagree with you. Stress that this disagreement does not mean that a ship has suddenly become a democracy, but that you will hear them out. Change your mind on less important matters if this happens, make them happy that their input is important. A boss who listens to his juniors often learns as much as he teaches, and makes them more confident- which is excellent for the ship he is on.

Communicate with the Engineers and Crew. Encourage them to surface their problems through Department Heads. Ensure decent quality of food and entertainment on board, ensure their grievances are addressed. This is more important today: with shore leave very infrequent, it is more critical now that all on board are as comfortable as is possible. Address usual hiccups with allotments etc immediately. It is not a favour, it is your job.
One comment here: Many Masters, including me, have no knowledge of cooking. In a multinational crewing environment, it is important that suitable people be then nominated from different cultures to give the cook and the mess committee (oh yes, form a good working one asap, and be transparent with provision purchases) decent feedback, and suggestions for improvement.

Encourage email wherever the facility exists. Push for this facility with Management- a few there, as well as a few Masters on board do not seem to realise how little time and money this takes, how important this is, and how much impact this has on crew morale and well being. Anybody who has sailed will tell you that, though many think a periodic pep talk is all it should take for crew morale to be up. Morale is the sum total of a crew’s psyche, it is not a bunch of ticks on a checklist, or a monthly meeting as per ISM.
Surprisingly and in my experience, quite a few of the officers and crew do not use this facility even where it exists. Though it is hard to believe this in today’s age, some actually do not know how it works. On one ship, I emailed my son to setup an email account for a Filipino AB, who was thrilled after his family was able to communicate with him.
Did that AB go that extra mile for me henceforth? You bet he did.

Back your people: Back them when they have made an honest mistake. Back them when they are tired. Tell them when they have done something wrong, but don’t generalise. “You are a third rate watchkeeper” doesn’t do anybody any good. Tell them what you expect, and be tough but fair. Back them with shore staff if the crew is right. Stick your neck out a bit. Be a Master, not just an administrator.

Learn to say No. when safety or your professional integrity demands it. This includes saying no to management, and no to your crew. How you say no, of course, is upto you, but this is a critical part of any Shipmaster’s job.
With management, this is not as difficult as it sounds. You just have to have an attitude of “If I am right- then, on important or critical matters, I would rather get sacked than do something I consider unsafe or wrong”. Then it is alarmingly easy.

Manoeuver the ship extensively at the first opportunity. In open waters clear of traffic, and preferably in calm seas with no current, put her through the motions. Get a feel of the ship, the extent of her transverse thrust going ahead or astern, her response to the rudder and, if applicable, thrusters, steering at low speeds, loss of steering going astern, effect of wind on her superstructure, stopping distance, crash stop .. and whatever else it may require for you to quickly understand that particular ship’s characteristics. Have a look at the manoeuvring diagram for comparison. The little time spend and the little money you burn doing this can save a lot of money and heartburn later.

Downgrade paper For the first two weeks, don’t spend unneccesary time on paperwork. You can catch up later. There is a growing tendency to have paperwork dominate our lives; even when handing over or taking over Command, paperwork- port papers, company and ISM requirements, accounts, victualling, payroll and month end papers, multiparty reporting requirements- tend to consume almost all the available time, leaving little time for what is really important. Which is the crew, the ship and the cargo.
So, initially, get on top of all these three. Concentrate on the old fashioned stuff- safety equipment, a drill or two, the ship’s condition, the ballast, the cargo, the people- and downplay paperwork except what is essential.
Put on a surveyor’s hat and inspect as much of the ship as you can.
Prioritise. Your first function is the Command, there is enough time to be a clerk later.

Be truthful with the Office. Surface the problems realistically. Admit mistakes made by any on board, including yourself.
Propose workable solutions.
Some in the office will distrust you anyway; experience with other Masters or their own paranoia drives them. Ignore such people. You have nothing to hide, and the only thing anybody can do is take away your job. If you are any good, it will hardly be the end of the world.

The Superintendents are your allies. Don’t assume otherwise. A good working relationship with the Superintendents is nearly as important as the one with the people on board. Don’t fall into a predictable antagonistic mindset. Superintendents are doing their job, and if you do yours, you complement each other.
Incidentally, treating them as collaborators instead of either adverseries or bosses is both counterproductive. Treat them as seniors, and be professional about it. Don’t kowtow. If somebody kowtows, it is suspicious; it signals that that person may not know his job.
By assuming this professional attitude you leave the door open for a constructive disagreement with a Superintendent- and a disagreement or two will surely arise from time to time. It is the nature of the beast, but, since both of you are otherwise on professional terms, the chances of this degenerating into anything more than a disagreement are very low.
A brief aside- I have never regretted disagreements with Superintendents, but I have regretted occasions when I let these degenerate into a squabble due to my own boorish behaviour- even though at least one Superintendent was big enough to continue to work with me for another couple of years despite that. I may not have been so magnanimous in his place.

Leave time for yourself: A ship is a twenty four hour job, and one tends to become jaded and burnt-out after awhile. Keep some time everyday to yourself to do what you like to do on board, and, barring emergencies, guard that time zealously. Difficult, I know, and depends on how hectic the run is, but I find this works. A change of scene- mental at least since a physical change is not possible- relaxes you and gives you a different perspective on your work. It also makes you calmer, and a calmer Master is good for everybody on board. He also performs better.

Distance yourself from your rank in your mind. Too many Master’s seem to be unable to do that. It is as if without that ‘Captain’ as the tag, they have no identity.
We are all, finally, just people. We harm ourselves by associating ourselves too deeply and only with the rank or the job. We all know what that does to us, and sometimes our families, because we continue to be authoritarian when we step ashore, unable to adjust to a different reality. Or, by the time we do, it is time to shift realities again.
While the imperatives of Command cannot be ignored, it is good, even while on board, to tell ourselves once in awhile that there is more to us than just being Masters, and that this job is not our only definition.

Else, by the same reasoning, we become nobodies when we relinquish command, and I certainly and vehemently disagree with that notion.

Published in www.marexbulletin.com

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