“A superior seaman”, said the American shipmaster Captain Richard Cahill, author of a number of important safety textbooks, “uses his superior judgement to keep out of situations requiring his superior skills”. In these more analytical times, we would call it “risk management”, while agreeing that the sentiments expressed have a timeless quality about them.

But if, despite all this superior judgement, “stuff happens” and a ship suffers some unexpected accident, the superior officer is thrown back on his superior skills to mitigate the situation. This is where constructive anticipation, in having thought through such worst-case scenarios and above all, their rehearsal in the shape of drills, becomes so important.

Safety drills are sometimes still considered a burden, a ritual that must be carried out to enable the correct entries to be annotated in the logbook for the subsequent approval of the Port State Inspectors and others. The occasional detention of a ship whose crew, despite logbook entries showing boat and fire drills had been faithfully accomplished, prove completely unable to carry out either task, demonstrates that these basic lifesaving precautions are not treated with the seriousness they deserve. Perhaps an extreme example of this frivolous attitude to safety was a four month old ship with lifeboats which had been tack-welded into place by the builders, but which the crew had yet to discover.

Drills are more important today than they have ever been, not least because of the need for a small crew to intervene fast in the event of an emergency and the communication difficulties which can be found on ships where there is multi-national (and multi-lingual) manning. Indeed, as a Chief Inspector of a marine accident investigation department has pointed out, in such situations only regular and realistic drills, taken seriously by all concerned, can provide any real assurance of safety.

Despite the very real suggestion that “people panic in their own language”, with the well-drilled crew, “training kicks in”. How much more important is this in a large passenger ship, where the nationalities of passengers and crew can be numbered by the dozen and the vast majority of all aboard may have the language of the sea as their second language.

Navies, of course, understand this very well, with drills being part of everyday training, with the knowledge that knowing what to do in the most dire circumstances ensures the very best outcome in this eventuality. Increasingly, tanker operators will simulate and rehearse realistic scenarios which train the crew to deal with a wide range of emergencies, from the recovery of persons from enclosed compartments to the breakdown of steering equipment. Perhaps the remaining commercial world can learn from this attitude and consider how such training and drills can help them develop those “superior skills”.

The greater use of simulators can be of great benefit in this respect, although there is a lot that can be generated aboard ship which can build resilience and an ability to handle the untoward. We have heard of one Master who, concerned that his young officers had become in his opinion too reliant on their electronics, regularly insists on a “back to first principles day”, where his navigators are expected to react to all the ship’s electronics and computers “going down”. It is, he says, a matter of “being prepared”, which is one of the tenets of seamanship.

Author: The Watchkeeper              Source: BIMCO