January 15, 2008

Runaway Train

The following incident is, sadly, true, though names, places and other details have not been mentioned to protect the guilty.

A ship docks in a port just off one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.
For twenty-four hours prior arrival, watches were doubled due to fog and zero visibility. I dozed on the bridge in a chair next to the radar when I could.
It’s a specialised kind of ship, deck crew planned to be in shifts to perform port related work/supervise cargo operations. 3 on, 3 off.
Twenty one crew. Expected port stay six hours.
Bunkers expected, two grades. Associated meetings and checklists. Chief Engineer hopes they have enough time given the short port stay, and is pushing for bunkers on arrival.
Major stores and spares expected. Paints expected. Provisions expected. To be checked itemwise on the quay as per ship’s ISPS procedures.
Garbage and sludge to be landed. More checklists.
Crew change approximately 10 percent of Officers and crew. Familiarisation requirement prior sailing.
One guy going for medical treatment.
Pre departure tests, checks, checklists and anti stowaway search to be conducted and logged. The poor cadet is checklist incharge.

Soon after we dock and while immigration is still on board, my walkie talkie crackles.
It is the AB at the gangway- “Cap? Errrrr, Capt. xxx is here to see you”
“Please ask him if he has come to relieve me”, I enquire.

Longish silence.

“I think he mebbe coming from the Office”- the Office could be anything from the Owner’s office to the Met Office, but I let that pass.
“In that case, please escort him to my cabin. I will be there shortly”, this, after checking with immigration who confirmed it was fine.

The gentleman in question informs me that he is from the Manager’s office, was attending another ship in the same port, and he has been sent here (I don’t know why they sent me, he says, I have no experience of this kind of ship) to conduct training in Bridge team management and some others (which, for the life of me, I can’t recall) . While the ship is in port, he will not be gracing us with his company at sea.

So, in between cargo operations, counting money out for the shipchandler, stores and spares, bunkers and crewchange, the taxi driver calling me repeatedly for the sick guy- and for the next four and a half hours, we watch a presentation on the trainers laptop, (the 3rd Officer goes ashore, halfway, to make a phone call home- incidentally he is the only soul who goes ashore in port, besides the sick crewmember), and so we are sufficiently trained to sail out, more tired and more sleepy, with another half a day of congested waters and poor visibility ahead of us.
Luckily the next port is two days away.
Luckily we can fudge the rest period figures for STCW.

I had only three questions. Why wasn’t I informed earlier, why couldn’t he just leave the CD behind so we could watch it at leisure, whenever that happened - and lastly, since the only reason for his visit was the Manager’s obvious desire to bill two Owner’s for the same Superintendent, why should we take his presentation seriously?
These questions remained unasked. I may be naive, but I am not too stupid, I hope.

My point here is that training of seafarers is often a bad joke. It is usually substandard, conducted under circumstances (whether afloat or ashore) which are absolutely inappropriate, is not taken seriously by anybody too often, and is sometimes conducted in circumstances which make many trainees resentful. Hardly a good combination for a healthy outcome.

While between ships or as a pre-requisite to getting our Certificates of Competency, we have all sat through courses which were poor in planning and execution. Worse, they were boring and of limited practical use. In fact, on the few occasions that these were acceptable or even (gasp!) good, the relief and interest in the classroom was palpable, and the trainer’s effort appreciated by many attendees. Despite grumbling about having to do these courses when we could be spending time home, many have, with the attitude of lying back and enjoying the inevitable ‘it’, appreciated good training. Unfortunately, this has been usually the exception rather than the rule.

Similarly with Company sponsored training. Usually familiarisation with manuals and ‘training’ in administration and the software for administration. Not only does the industry want to pass on clerical work at no extra cost to the ship, they want sailing staff to have the privilege of spending time out of their unpaid leave to get ‘trained’ to do so. Amazing.

On board training has its own problems; part of this is often passed on, quite correctly, to the senior officers on board. This is usually focused more towards professional training, which is good and appropriate. However, motivation issues, and more importantly, English language skills are deficient in many Officers and crew, particularly from certain countries which also happen to supply a fair amount of manpower. Trying to explain manuals or written procedures is often difficult here; as long as the training is mainly practical there is a much better outcome.

From the days when there was a periodic “Boat and fire drill”, the number of monthly drills today often goes into the double digits. On a busy run, there are sometimes not enough days at sea to conduct these drills! Quite apart from the practical difficulty of executing a Williamson’s turn when the ship is always in European waters in busy seperation schemes, or difficulties on a fixed run where ports will not allow you to lower your lifeboats and manoeuvre in the water every 3 months.

And, depending on the run, you will often have additional drills for ISPS, emergency response, stowaway search every port, specialised requirements often Statewise in the USA and European countries... I may have missed out some, my memory is going with age.

And the paperwork for each drill is a subject in itself. In one shipping company, just the chart of the drills to be conducted monthly and periodically used to be a complex piece of paperwork and jugglery.

It is clear to me that an overhaul of the training and ‘drill’ proccess is urgently called for. There are so many that we are diluting the exercise; too many of us at sea are conducting training and drills just to tick them off our lists. And too many ashore are mandating training without much of an idea what it means on the ground, and in the absence of any feedback, or conducting training as a marketing ploy or revenue stream alone.
We can still play the game, but we could improve the standard of the sport, I think. The intention should be to minimise drills and training or at least reduce them substantially, while maximising the quality and effectiveness of the drill.

We could start with

Vetting all training and non-statutory drills through a body of sailing seafarers, even informally within the same Company. Their purpose would be the give feedback on the usefulness and practicability of each training or drill.
Drills or training mandated by international bodies like the IMO should have similar practical review.

Classification societies approving the ISM should be involved in formulating drill and training plans. Once again, the intention should be to minimise drills or at least reduce them, while maximising the quality of the drill.

Training mandated as a pre-requisite to an Officer’s certification should have a strong Ministry of Shipping Overview, including the quality of the end product, not just the subjects covered and the number of sessions devoted to each.

Raise the standard of training, and see it more than just a business, or a chore to be lived with. Make it practical and stop the charade. As this is being done, more people will take training more seriously- in fact, this should be demanded of particularly sailing staff.

Examine whether any proposed training is really neccessary, or neccessary for the trainee in question. One example, ridiculously basic computer familiarisation or familiarisation with a PMS software is certainly not required for any officer with good computer skills. These guys often know more than the trainers.

Examine the additional impact of each training or drill, on board – however small the change may be, keeping the run of the vessel in mind.
Reduce the frequency of some drills. A helicopter evacuation drill need not be conducted every two months.

Reduce the paperwork involved with each drill. It’s a record, not a seminar.

Decently compensate all concerned who are called for Company sponsored training.

Give Masters leeway to conduct drills. Stop scheduling drills in the ISM far in excess of Statutory requirements.
Merge drills wherever possible.

And, lastly, just use common sense.

More is not always better. Repetition and greater repetitive experience in training is good only when the quality of each session is excellent.

Otherwise we are like the braggart who went around claiming that he had twenty years experience with women, when all he had was one year’s experience twenty times.

First published in www.marexbulletin.com

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