Training to fail or failing to train?

August 22, 2017


It’s not uncommon to hear calls for new approaches to training for mariners that focuses on a system of continuous learning that properly equips men and women for the roles they will undertake and maintains that process throughout their careers.

Writing in the journal of the Nautical Institute this month, NI Fellow Chris Spencer suggests it is time for a total re-think of the process and makes two interesting points about training, competence and what future crew might look like.

The first is that training someone who is going to be an Officer of the Watch (OoW) and subsequently master of the ship in every last piece of ship’s equipment is a near pointless distraction. The second is that by the time new officers join their first ship they can be qualified but still may have very little experience in doing what they are there to do: drive the ship.

These are borne out of Spencer’s own experience during training, that by the time he arrived on the bridge, his training had not prepared him for the primary thing he was supposed to be there for.

A colleague who went to sea later in life outlined his training programme of University time leading to a degree, a year or so at sea, followed by a watchkeeping ticket. There seemed to be little of what Spencer would define as ‘experience’ but nevertheless, he was qualified.

“While new deck officers are more likely to know how the bridge works than we were, they are still a long way from ‘driving the ship’ with any confidence, which is the sole purpose of the Officer of the Watch,” he writes.

He also relates a story one of a former master who had left seafaring for the airline business who amazed his former colleagues with the speed and thoroughness of his training in that area and his subsequent rise through the ranks to become a senior Captain.

Once airline pilots have their commercial licence and type rating, they can fly the aircraft but what they do not need to do is vacuum the passenger cabin, unblock the toilets, strip down an engine, change a wheel or any other of the numerous maintenance tasks. Pilots will have some knowledge of this, but they simply get on with the real job of flying the aircraft.

“In the same way, drivers of the diesel and electric trains do not form part of the maintenance team. The sea is probably the last bastion of the generalist operator/maintainer,” Spencer says.

Thanks to its higher levels of manpower the cruise industry is leading a specialised approach but there is little point in this if the other half of the merchant fleet cannot reach similar standards in collision avoidance and ship handling. Spencer thinks little has changed in terms of bridge team practice onboard tankers, bulk carriers and container ships in half a century.

Deck officers on the watch need to be able to take complete charge and be confident in doing so but this is not the case at present he says, where generally, it’s a case of ‘Call the Master’ rather than the OoW doing what is needed.

“We need officers with years of training compressed into months on simulators to make sure they do the right thing every time. And they need to be job focused; which is to say they need to focus on navigation, navigation and navigation, not on navigation, firefighting, lifeboats, rescue boats, moorings, cargo, container and lashings, stores or repairs,” he says.

He cites an idea that dates to the 1960s of a navigation team and a deepsea crew taking charge for different stages of a voyage – though given that casualties can occur in either situation suggests the questions of experience and competence would be as relevant in either scenario.

With ships today bigger and faster, but with smaller crews and in need of more shoreside support, it is surely the wrong emphasis to insist that deck officers know about mooring gear and winches when the need is for more and better training for deck crews, he argues. Reading accident reports, he says it is clear that the same errors are being made time and again with seafarers dying in holds or tanks after failing to carry out proper safety checks.

There is a need, he concludes to review priorities, change existing procedures and develop new ones that reflect today’s seaways of today. It could be that ‘operators’ are trained ashore to bring training up to speed and pass on those skills once they get onboard.

Either way, there is a need for a pretty radical change in training and operations for onboard staff and crew. OoWs could be ‘watchkeeping qualified’ and pick up qualifications specific to general cargo ships, containerships, bulkers or tankers as necessary as they gather experience.

I can hear shipmanagers grimacing at the potential extra costs and training organisations licking their lips at the prospect of such an approach to sector-specific training, should such a thing ever be adopted or mandated. But one thing is for sure; new thinking about training and changes to the way it is undertaken are urgently needed.