First rule of good management: Treat shipmates respectfully

May 8, 2009 12:00 AM

In the early 1990s I was working on a tanker running from Panama to Valdez, Alaska. A new second mate joined the ship while we were anchored at Long Beach, Calif., to pick up stores and bunkers. The next afternoon when I came up to the bridge to test gear before departure, he was at the chart table laying out the charts for our outbound voyage. After I brewed a fresh pot of coffee and poured myself a cup, I offered him one.

He glared and snapped, "Can't you see I'm busy? If I'd wanted a cup of coffee I'd have asked for one!"

I was startled by his rude behavior, but said nothing. A few minutes later the captain came up on the bridge. The second mate greeted him profusely, showing him the charts and paperwork. I had been on the ship for months and knew the captain never drank coffee after noon, so was irritated again when, after I finished the steering gear test, the second mate called me over as though I were a waiter and said, "Bring the captain a cup of coffee, Third Mate."

It didn't take long before we all found out that the second mate treated everyone rudely and inconsiderately — with the exception of the captain and chief engineer. His yelling match with the AB on his watch and the near brawl with the boatswain that erupted while docking were topics of discussion around the ship for weeks. I put up with his immature behavior until he relieved me 30 minutes late on deck during a cargo watch on a cold, snowy night at Alyeska Berth #1. Then I told him what I thought of him face to face. He looked at me for a second, and then said snidely, "I don't care what you or anybody else in the crew thinks of me. I'm above you, Mr. Junior Officer, and don't you forget it."

Management skills at sea are vitally important, whether it's a captain with 25 to 60 people in his or her charge, or a third engineer supervising the watch QMED. In fact, including the boatswain, chief steward and all the officers, around 50 percent of the mariners on a merchant ship are in supervisory positions under normal conditions. In an emergency, anyone in the crew could potentially end up in command. Teamwork, mutual respect, and the ability to delegate, all play a role in the effectiveness of a shipboard supervisor. Anybody with management duties on a commercial vessel who can't handle people effectively is at best a nuisance or an irritant, and at worst may be a disruptive force that can cause a catastrophe.

The chief mate was the kind of guy who could never be wrong, wouldn't listen to anybody and was always taking chances and shortcuts. One night when I walked into the cargo control room, he and second mate were in a yelling match. The disagreement centered on whether to take the time to verify that the cargo pump had suction before opening the sea chest valve when loading dirty ballast. The second mate wanted to wait; the chief mate felt it was a waste of time. With an arrogant tone he yelled at the second, "You're not only slow, you're stupid."

After I paid off the ship, I heard that several trips later the chief mate lost the cargo pump with the sea chest valve open and caused an oil spill in Los Angeles harbor.

To try to curtail such incidents as those described above, and help ship officers understand the importance of a good professional relationship with their shipmates, crew resource management (CRM) classes are now mandated by many companies. CRM training seeks to help mariners overcome the shipboard problems crew mismanagement can cause and stresses the importance of listening to subordinates, teamwork and effective communications.

To improve shipboard safety and efficiency, Intertanko, a group of independent tanker companies operating around 3,000 foreign-flag ships, recently established CRM training standards for deck and engine officers on their oil tankers.

I am not a big fan of adding more required classes for merchant mariners like myself, but over the years I've had to work and live with sailors who've had real difficulties managing people — and have seen firsthand the problems that it can lead to. I think it's time to mandate CRM training for all mariners. Anyone who will serve as an officer in charge of a navigational or engine-room watch should be required by STCW-95 to take a CRM course, and companies should establish compulsory CRM training for all crewmembers through their International Safety Management (ISM) Code procedures.

When I was a cadet on a SeaLand containership, the captain, Virgil Robinson, was a hawsepiper with many years' experience. He was a very pleasant, professional skipper, and I enjoyed sailing on his ship. One afternoon I was put in charge of a couple of sailors, and was told to check all the lashings to make sure they were tight after we hit rough weather the day before. Well, in my youthful zeal to get the job done quickly, I "ruffled a few feathers" and the word got back to the skipper.

That evening he called me into his office and gave me a piece of advice I have never forgotten. He said, "Cadet, when you graduate in a few months, you will begin a lifetime of supervising people at sea. Don't forget that the most important thing is getting along with the others in the crew. I can train a mate in the finer points of navigation or stability, but if he can't get along with people I can't use him."

I took that advice to heart. Ever since then, I have worked hard at listening to and respecting all my shipmates, regardless of their position, and have found the truth of Capt. Robinson's words.

Till next time I wish you all smooth sailin'. •

Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at captsweeney@professionalmariner.com.

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