February 25, 2010

Perils of the mist of calibre.

Masters and Chief Engineers have long lamented the falling calibre of junior officers at sea. Companies, too, bemoan the fact that suitably qualified and experienced officers are difficult to get and hold on to. I can say from experience that the impact of lower standards is felt the most on the bridge during both normal watchkeeping and maneuvering, and felt most in the engine room during watchkeeping and the troubleshooting of machinery problems.

Gone are the days when junior officers had the competence and initiative to exceed the demands of their rank and therefore contribute to increased efficiency and safety; the problem is so widespread that an above average officer is often considered a bonus by many senior officers on ships today.

At sea, this problem of falling standards stresses out the few competent officers that may be available and results in, overall, a poor depth of knowledge on board. Given lower levels of competence, it is not uncommon to find ships where senior officers routinely perform tasks that should lie in their juniors’ domains; the inevitable and detrimental impact on safety is a natural consequence when officers up the ranks are thus overworked. Then, shipowners have exacerbated the problem by promoting policies that result in firms employing competent ‘top four’ officers and not caring all that much about the standards of other officers on ships. I have heard owners and manning departments say that the senior officers on board will ‘manage’ in this scenario. However, I submit that this attitude leaves many ships in a dangerous state; straining to ‘manage’ during normal operations, shipboard staff can be quickly overwhelmed by events in emergencies, even relatively simple ones.

I can see a time, not too distant in the future, when this lack of depth in competence will become an equally serious issue ashore in India. Where, for example, are we going to find the Technical Superintendents of the future from, if not from this same questionable pool of junior officers? It is common today to find a Superintendent who has the idiosyncrasies of the machinery of half a dozen ships in his head. More importantly, he is likely to have sound engineering education, excellent knowledge and decent seagoing experience under his belt. This has happened because he had the calibre at the outset and got pretty good training along the way, both ashore and afloat. The same situation cannot be forecast into much of the future when the basic academic and operational competence of many sailing junior officers (both engineers and navigators) is in doubt, as is the training.

Many will say I am overreacting or overstating the position; after all, the numbers of competent personnel required ashore are much lower than those required on ships. Perhaps it is just that most of the officers and engineers on board have reached their level of incompetence; the few that are better will come ashore, so where is the big problem on land?

I must disagree with this view again. For one, it presumes that lower standards at sea are acceptable, when I have just argued that they are not. For another, I do not buy the argument that a general lowering of competence at sea will not percolate to establishments ashore; it will. In the kingdom of the blind, we will be making one eyed men kings.

Behind any substandard product there are tens of reasons why, and so it is in this case too. For one, the industry now attracts people who have poorer academic backgrounds. Students weak in basic mathematics and sciences (particularly Physics) are ill equipped to understand the intricacies of either navigation or the main engine. Some foreign maritime educational establishments are even taking in Indian navigating cadets from the commerce stream! Granted that this does not automatically mean that their math and science is lousy, but the reality is that the vast majority of students studying commerce in Indian schools today do so because their mathematics is abnormally weak. They study commerce out of compulsion, not choice.

One can well take the stand, as many do, that rocket scientists are not required on ships these days, but this oversimplification is made at one’s own peril: do we really want Second Mates that struggle to do basic radar plotting without ARPA (or indeed, interpret ARPA output properly) or Chief Officers that struggle to do basic stability or ballast calculations without a computer? What impact does a terrible understanding of subjects like triangles of forces, trignometrical functions and even basic arithmetic finally have on the efficiency and safety on board is a question that is often ignored or downplayed. Again, to our own peril, for what we are then saying is that an intelligent or educated officer is not really required at sea today, for we have calculators, computer stability and navigational programmes and other gizmos on tap. We assume interpretation of complex equipment generated navigational data to be easy. In any case, we are then saying that we want, merely, equipment operators and not thinking navigators (or engineers, for that matter) who can function effectively when equipment fails or can interpret data correctly even when they struggle to multiply 26 by 8 in their heads. We are saying that thinking (and calculating) on your feet is not a requirement at sea, and so we are lying.

Then, to amplify the mess, we train badly at sea today, and often with disinterest. Senior Masters and Chief Engineers are most to blame here: we do not seem to feel a strong impulse to pass on to the next generation what the last one passed on to us. In an era of shortened sea time requirements and Distance Learning Programmes whose practical value is close to zilch, it is all the more important that trainees learn the ropes, and learn them well. Alas, we seem happier using cadets as clerks filling up checklists that we hate to fill up ourselves or assign them to other paperwork. How is a navigating cadet to learn navigation, I ask you, when most of his time on the bridge is spent not helping in navigating? Or learn about proper deck watchkeeping and cargo operations when he is assigned to administrative jobs in port?

There are other reasons too, we all know. Poorly motivated trainers and trainees (both at sea and on land), a lack of a feeling of belonging to a company resulting in a lowering of the bar (I remember when the term ‘a Scindias Cadet’ was used with some pride), shortmanning and shortsightedness (from the trainees, too, who want to quit tomorrow to do an MBA and exchange the boiler suit for just a suit) are just some of the biggies. We know all this; I enumerate these only to remind ourselves what we must fight against, for fight this descent into substandard competence we must.

Again, we all know what needs to be done during onboard training, so I won’t insult anybody’s intelligence by stating the obvious. I will, instead, make just one point, and that is this: given that we are not going to attract the best and the brightest into the profession by next Monday, the first battle in this war should be fought at the Pre Sea training institutes. Relevant Mathematics and Physics need to be a part of our admittedly tight syllabus; in fact, these should be taught the beginning of the course. Whereas one might find these subjects in some curricula, one struggles to find these taught effectively, and with an eye towards a trainee who may be inherently weak in the sciences. I fear that, without these basics in place, teaching navigation or engineering to many is akin to teaching a man without a foot ballroom dancing. He needs the Jaipur foot first.