May 18, 2008

In pursuit of excellence.

There are deck officers, and then there are Deck Officers. Almost everybody gets a Certificate of Competency, and, in today’s desperate world everybody gets a job. In my experience, however, there is another factor, another something, which separates the men from the boys and the wheat from the chaff at sea. There are some who survive, others who excel. One doesn’t have to look too far to sort them out- ask people who have sailed with them; excellence, rewarded or not, stands out.

To answer the question, “What makes an excellent Deck Officer?” I have attempted, in this article, to enumerate the intangible qualities of these stars; a list, if you will, of stuff outside the examination and training system, of attributes which, alas, are not too common.
These stars are unfortunate that they are in an industry which, like a prison, rewards time served over its quality. The stars’ reward is often in their pride and self respect- that will have to be enough. Excellence is its own reward.

In my opinion, these traits can be developed quite easily, but they are not taught in Harvard Business School. Hell, they aren’t even taught in Lal Bahadur Shastri Nautical and Engineering College!

1) Mastery over their subject. They understand rather than mug to pass exams. They ask questions on board from senior officers and learn- and, in the process, since to teach is to learn twice- the senior officers learn something too. They know the basics, and sometimes much more, of the wide spectrum of maritime subjects, rules, regulations, company procedures and recent developments. And if they don’t know the details, they know where to look them up. These guys are the ones solving the nautical problems behind D.A. Moore’s thin but excellent book, “Basic Principles of Marine Navigation” in college (all thin books are deadly). They have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge; they sit at the table and demand more after the rest of us have overeaten.

2) Integrity, both personal and professional. They are truthful; they don’t hide their mistakes or blunders. They are personally and professionally incorruptible. They are on time, perform beyond expectations and behave professionally at all times. This includes dealing with shore management, agents and stevedores; in fact, everybody they come into contact with in their professional life.
An uncommon quality connected to this integrity is their ability to say no with authority, regardless of whether they are dealing with their seniors or juniors. They will not bend the important rules- and they know which ones to bend. They will not compromise safety under commercial pressure. They will not try to ingratiate themselves with juniors, seniors or equals by giving way on important issues. They mean what they say, and they do what they say. Their word is their bond.
They do not fear saying no and consequently getting sacked, because they know they are good enough to walk into another- probably better- job.

3) Ship specific knowledge: These are the guys who take time to look up basic drawings and plans of the ship soon after they sign on. They know the equipment on the bridge inside out, its limitations, features and quirks. They roam around the ship observing, asking older hands questions and learning. They know the cargo gear first hand; they will often operate it to ‘get a feel’. They are an asset to the Chief Officer and Master. They will be the ones to answer the usual questions about the ship (like- which other compartments does leaking xyz tank share common bulkheads with?) first, without any reference to anything.

They also know thoroughly well their own areas of responsibility, and details are always at their fingertips. If you have ever taken a surprise round of safety equipment with a star Third Officer, you will know what I mean. Nothing will be not working or not requisitioned or out of place. No expiry dates will be unknown. No routines will be due. No stone will be unturned.

4) Initiative: They are always ready to embark on new ventures, different ships or challenging ones. They are the first to propose a course of action, or carry it out. They lead by example. They will suggest improvements to systems and procedures- and they don’t get fazed by problems. They are not lemmings, blindly following archaic or well trodden paths. They welcome the new and are not wary of change because they are confident that they can improve on the old.

5) Situational awareness: Rarely will a Master come up to the bridge on their watch and find GPS positions plotted blindly when coasting. Rarely will he ask ‘what is that ship doing’ (out of maybe two dozen on the visible horizon) and not get a satisfactory answer. Rarely will he find the navtex with two metres of unread spewed out messages, navigational equipment untested, VHF volume low, problems unreported, or the officer obviously not in control of circumstances. These stars will know which engine room alarms are silenced and why, how a planned change of course will affect the CPA and aspect of all vessels in the vicinity. Also, and most importantly, they will know when to call the Master and will not hesitate to do so.
Under pilotage or approaching pilotage, these are the guys a Master wants on the bridge. They will free him from keeping track of the mundane and concentrate on maneuvering. Nothing annoys me as a Master more than having to interrupt concentration to remind the officer on the bridge of routines like calling officers and crew on arrival stations, preparing checklists for pilotage, reporting in a VTS area- or a plethora of small tasks which have to be done at every arrival, departure and maneuvering. It is a pleasure not to have to think of the minutiae’ - else, in this day and age it is not uncommon for a Master to have to remind officers to fly the relevant flags when approaching port- a crime which would have been a hanging offence in my cadetship days.

On deck too, the Chief Officer wants these stars on watch at more critical or busy times, and for
similar reasons. They tend to get sent on ‘stations’ fore or aft dependant on which is more
critical, they tend to be the ones looking after ballasting operations.
They tend to know their value, too. Good for their ego, confidence and pride. Good for the ship. Not so good for the little boy who lives down the lane and who got replaced by the star. Bad for
his pride, because he knows he is not really good enough.

6) Multitasking ability: Essential in an era of short manned ships and increasing paperwork and rules. Short port stays mean an officer may have to almost simultaneously manage garbage, cargo, surveyors, bilges, bunkers, port officials, ship chandlers, repair service personnel, arrival and departure formalities and the crew- or an eclectic combination of these- every watch while in port.
At sea, too, bridge watches are more complex, paperwork is routinely tasked on the bridge, UMS means more involvement with the Engine room machinery alarms, coordinating deck maintenance at times- frankly, a person who can’t manage to multitask effectively is unemployable at sea today.

7) Interpersonal relationships: High performers, if one must generalise, tend to be impatient. They cannot understand why everybody is not as quick or efficient as themselves; frustration at a shipmate’s slow and steady approach sometimes shows. But most of them understand fairly quickly that shipboard work is teamwork. They will therefore go out of their way to promote an inclusive approach, and they will get away with a little bit of murder because they are good at their work and are willing to help others.

With shore management too, their attitude sometimes may degenerate to ‘this is unacceptable’, (and, often, they are right- it is), but here, too, they will learn to manage the outcome without getting abrasive. This is important; there are plenty of good workers who never became stars because they could not manage people. They just degenerated into prima donnas, nothing more.

8) Thinking ahead: Achievers think a step ahead while at work. ‘What’s next?’ is an excellent question to ask yourself on a ship, you set things up and make life easier for yourself and everybody around you. The smooth running of a ship doesn’t happen by chance- in the words of a friend of mine, if the answer to “Is the ship running on autopilot?” a yes, then many people are thinking ahead, doing the small things which increase efficiency and decrease stress, and which then leave you time to take care of the unknown when it crops up- and crop up it will.

These folk also generally think a rank ahead. As a Second Mate, they will be playing ‘shadow Chief Officer’ in their minds, preparing, learning and assimilating. They are ready for promotion long before they are actually promoted. I always look for these folk to promote; in their minds more than mine, they are ready. That makes all the difference.

9) Hard Work: Self explanatory, really, except that many youngsters today do not want to get
their hands dirty; they would rather be filling forms than climbing down holds to check the bilges.
Without hard work, all the rest is nothing. There are many quotes attributed to Indira Gandhi, however, ‘there is no substitute for hard work’, is, according to me, the only worthwhile thing she has ever been quoted as having said.

Oh well, maybe everybody has one good saying in them.

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