November 05, 2015

Command decisions

The news should not have come as a surprise but it did: a Cadet I had sailed with while in command long ago would soon board a ship for his own first command. While this may well have happened before without my knowledge- it is logical that people you sail with progress professionally, after all, and that Cadets become Captains- this news was special because he was one of the very few Cadets with whom I had taken a special interest and tried quite hard to transfer some of what I had learnt and experienced at sea. The fact that he had potential and was interested in learning had much to do with my attitude, I am sure. Fortunately for both of us, the ship was less hectic than most I have sailed on, and that helped.

I have never met him since we sailed together all those years ago, but the man has always been generous in his praise for my professional performance, and he did this again when I congratulated him last week. Jaded as I am, I was surprised that I was so happy for him, and more than a little satisfied- rewarded would be a better word- by the feeling that I may contributed just a little bit, all those years ago, towards his eventual first command.

I was also surprised that I still wanted to tell him a few things.  Not professional, academic or operational stuff, but things nobody tells a brand new ship Captain, but which I have always believed he should keep in the top fifth of his mind. Things that have worked for me. Things that make sense.

First and this is not a trite comment, I would advise this: do your job properly. There will be times when you will be tired or distracted with problems at home or simply off colour. Forget all that for a while.  Get your game face on; you will need it.

Then, a Captain’s job is a lonely one. Get used to this.

Third, run in low gear. Pace yourself. Keep ample reserves- higher gears- so you can accelerate when the crap hits the fan. Masters who are working at a feverish pitch doing routine stuff do not have the ability to raise their game when the crap inevitably hits the fan in the second most dangerous profession on earth.

Fourth, put the crew above everybody else.  Follow Vineet Nayar’s ‘employees first’ mantra. It is part of your job to take care of your crew anyway. Besides, it does wonders for morale and transforms efficiency because people are happier- both good reasons for doing so. All shore entities- managers, auditors, inspectors et al- come later. They are the side dish; the crew is the main course.

Fifth, paper is not that important; real life is. This does not mean you don’t do the paperwork, by the way. It only means you take it less seriously than shore establishments want you to. Paper is their priority for a host of warped reasons; it does not have to be yours. Remind yourself that administration is not the purpose of any enterprise.

Sixth, the Chief Engineer is more important than the Chief Officer because you cannot do the former’s job.

Then, ignore the majority of shipmanagers who want to chip away at your authority- usually sneakily - without removing an iota of your responsibility. If you don’t do this, you may find yourself in a situation when you have put yourself, your crew and your ship at grave personal and professional risk. The lives of those ashore are never at risk, and they will invariably try to escape responsibility by quoting the ‘Master has overriding authority’ clause in their funny manuals.

Which brings me to the last piece of unasked for advice: At the end of the day, don’t give a damn about what anybody thinks.

Not giving a damn, when combined with doing your job properly, makes for a deadly combination. Remember that although owners or managers can choose not call you back for another contract- they can even sack you in the next port- they cannot countermand your command. A chunk of my time at sea was spent telling people ashore exactly this. Politely if possible, rudely if they were obtuse.

You have overriding authority. Use it when you need to.



RustyGunner said...

Congratulations, fair winds and following seas to your friend.

Unknown said...

Dear Manu,

You are a wise & thoughtful man. Your points should introduce every Captain's job description, and be drilled into every new Master!

I had such a mentor (in our smaller sphere of tugboats) who gave me similar advice - in particular regarding the crew, and also the Captain's unique authority & the responsibility that comes with it. To abdicate that responsibility in the face of pressure from the office almost never works out well, and it erodes the Master's ability to do every other aspect of his job. It's a failure of leadership. And this can be hard for a new Master; there is a tendency to want to please those who have elevated and trusted you. But it is critical!

(One wonders whether pressure from the office had any role in the El Faro tragedy. It's impossible to say at this point, but I hope not.)

Thank you, Manu, for mentoring this newly minted Master - our seas, and the world, will be a better place because of your efforts and his willingness to learn!


Barista Uno said...

Splendid advice, Manu. Many fledgling captains should be enlighened.