Changing Course and The Secret Of gCaptain.

John Konrad
Total Views: 5
June 28, 2009

After the successful launch of gCaptain’s new Maritime Jobs Board we are ready for the next big idea. The jobs section was built to help solve a problem, clear away the clutter of existing job platforms and equip gCaptain community members (the best mariners in the world!) with a tool to find jobs that excite and inspire. This article is written to announce the next idea… a product that will change the way you operate and manage ships. The product will be available for purchase at  third party retailers for a modest price and, a warning, Version 1.0 will be dead simple. Many of you will ask why a maritime publication would build a product and worry about our level of commitment in bringing you the best maritime news and ideas you enjoy every day on this blog. Once we announce the product you will likely have more questions like “What does this have to do with maritime publishing?”. While I can not talk about specifics I do want to help you understand what we do here at gCaptain and give you a broad outline on the future of this site.

The Secret

Shortly after gCaptain’s coverage of the Cosco Busan incident I received a call from a writer, Capt. Smith, who worked a major publication. He informed me that the editors of this nation’s major maritime publications got together for an annual strategy meeting and the primary topic of conversation was The questions asked included “How are they getting so much national coverage?”, “Why is our significantly higher investment in online initiatives getting less attention?”, and, most importantly, “How is gCaptain planning to make any money?”.

But Capt. Smith soon made it clear he wasn’t interested in any of the those questions, he didn’t care about my answer and wasn’t surprised to find out I funded gCaptain myself. He called me directly to ask one question: “What drives you to devote so much time, energy and money to a website of limited value?”.

The answer to all the editors’ questions became obvious. The answer was Capt. Smith himself.

You see, there were a number of writers and editors in attendance that day. A few I had established relationships with and others where professionally trained in investigative journalism, but only one walked out to pick up a phone. Only one took action. Only one called the single person most qualified to answer the questions and he didn’t care about the data or information I could provide him. Captain Smith knew he could only get a clear understanding of the situation by communicating with me in a direct, no BS, manner.

The answer to Capt. Smith’s question comes in two parts of equal value.

  1. I want to facilitate communication among mariners to share ideas, build a community and improve our joint ability to operate ships.
  2. I love my job but do not want to be financially dependent on leaving my family for months on end to pay the bills.

Why Capt. Smith Is Different

That day was a turning point for gCaptain. One simple question opened up a door that unlocked the answers I, and apparently others, had been looking for. But why was Captain Smith, and not the countless editors and writers also seeking answers, able to find the answer so quickly? And… how did he do it?

Captain Smith did two important things that day:

  1. He identified a lack in situational awareness
  2. He took positive action (physically picking up the phone)
  3. He communicated in a straight forward, matter-of-fact manner

Sound familiar? What Captain Smith did that day was employ the lessons he learned at sea and in BRM training to quickly and effectively understand the situation his “ship” was sailing into.  More on this later.

John, what is the no BS answer?

For the answer I’ll let an expert, famed marketer Seth Godin, explain (paraphrased from memory); “The transformation of communication is real, it’s permanent and it’s more powerful than most of us notice.”

For why gCaptain is successful and how are we going to make any money giving stuff away for free on the internet… Seth Godin continues: “Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone and became wealthy but those with the foresight to use this technology to connect people that share common interests created countless fortunes. Google is creating wealth with the invention of tools that make finding information simple and fast but Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter are creating new fortunes by combining Google’s speed with communication to build tribes of people sharing a common interests.”

gCaptain Is Worthless, but not really, the website you are currently reading, is essentially worthless. First, we do not have a warehouse full of parts or manufacture a tangible product and if it were destroyed by hackers tomorrow the police department would not even file a report. gCaptain without the “.com”, the community you are joining here and on the web (facebook, twitter, blog or digg), is priceless. If the community you, I and thousands of mariners have built were destroyed tomorrow… if we were all prevented from creating friendships, learning about or industry and sharing our experiences at sea, ships would be lost and families would suffer.

So what’s the reason that gCaptain’s growth rate is multiples of that found in our industry’s print publications? Why were we featured on NPR, The San Francisco Chronicle and The NYTimes? Print magazines use money and control to build value in a product they own and, in return, facilitate one-way communication. gCaptain gives no value to anything we own and freely participates in places we can’t control (facebook, twitter, etc). Our money is spent to provide the tools that facility 1000-way communication and our energy is spent on building value in a community of mariners we do not own. We do not have a business plan or profit goal, only the knowledge that by facilitating communication the financial rewards will appear.

The problem we don’t recognize

gCaptain is building a product because we have a problem in this industry. The problem is communication. Currently we have two schools of thought in this matter with the supporters of each theory being fairly equally split.

Group 1 says that technology is ruining the industry! Mariners have safely navigated ships for thousands of years and it’s the new technology that is causing the recent increase in casualties by distracting us from our primary duties. Each time 20 alarms go off on the bridge to warn me of a close CPA, every time a crew member sends an IM to his wife and every new form I have to fill out on the computer puts the ship in danger. Sure, EPIRBs save lives but don’t get me started on shoreside managers who can track every move and micro-manage from afar!!

Group 2 says that technology is tool that will save the industry! We need to push forward on new sources of data like eLoran, AIS-SARTs and the next generation of ECDIS. Increasing the amount of information available will ultimately improve my situational awareness and improve my ability to avoid danger. Sure it can be “information overload” at times which is why we need to invest further in the technology and improve the human/computer interface to better manage the data.

OK, so I am exaggerating here. Most mariners, including myself, fall somewhere between the two extremes of thought, believing that technology is good if properly used, designed and training is offered. Basically the feeling seems to be that currently implemented technology has problems but also has great value and will improve as smart people work on solutions.

Maritime Industry Academics Are Brilliant

The good news is, they are working on solutions, good ones. Our friend Kurt Schwehr, professor at UNH, is one such individual. Not only is he highly qualified to improve the way mariners interact with technology, blogging about it routinely, but he also understands the importance of harnessing the gCaptain community to provide answers to these difficult questions. Just yesterday he started a forum thread asking; “How do you configure your AIS and why?“. As you can see from the comments, communication with the maritime community is providing real-time answers to his research questions!!

While not (yet) a gCaptain participant Captain George Sandberg, professor and director of nautical science simulation at the US Merchant Marine Academy, is another leader in this field that impresses us with his ability to recognize the problem, take positive action and communicate directly with the right people. In a recent Digital Ship (an excellent publication on maritime technology) article he tells us:

“There is so much information on the bridge of a ship now, all with the intent of making navigation more safe, however, there’s only so much that an individual can really comprehend and effectively process, especially under pressure or fatigued, or under unfavorable environmental conditions. Information overload can be confusing, and cause delay in the performance of necessary actions.”

“I’m not against new technology by any stretch of the imagination, but I think it’s changing the role of the watchstander on the bridge of the ship to that of a monitor of the equipment rather than being a decision maker,” he said. “The technology is making the decision for them.”

“I think that will result, in the long term, in the loss of the strategic planning skills necessary to navigate the ship safely. The old timers are going to have it, but the new generation coming up, who have been living with the new technology, might lose that basic strategic ability to make those decisions because the machine has done it for their whole career.”

“Those are some of the challenges we’re facing as educators with new technologies.” Meeting those challenges will be a key step in improving safety for the next generation of mariners. (Link to full article)

Well said captain, but…

Maritime Industry Academics Are Completely Off Base

The current discussion and the work Kurt, Capt. George and countless others are doing is important but dangerously limited in scope. In numerous articles gCaptain authors have written about technology being used in the wrong fashion. John Denham calls it Global Resource Management and, in discussing the idea with USCG acquisitions chief RDML Rabago, I call it the need for non-linear communication. In a recent email sent to Kurt I ask:

“If the pilot of the Cosco Busan or the Captain of the Pasha Bulker were sitting in a conference room with the captain&pilots of the surrounding vessels along with a handful of the world’s best meteorologists, port operation managers and marine safety experts… at the moment of their ill-fated decisions… would they have made they have made the same mistake?”

What is missing from current discussion on the use of technology to improve the safe movement of ships is using new technology to facilitate communication. The fact of the matter is, regardless of the amount of seatime a captain has, you rarely have enough knowledge on hand to fully understand a deteriorating situation. Most of us have enough experience to get us through even the worst situations at sea but, it’s never as much as we would like to have readily available.

gCaptain has recognized this problem from the beginning and even put hard work into a few ideas that turned into duds. Take, for example, our wikipedia clone. The idea was that the combined experience of all gCaptain community members amounts to millions of days at sea!! Why not harness that experience in an online “manual” for our industry with information that can be referenced by the mariner.

A wikipedia clone still has its merits but also has significant problems. First it is confusing to use. Knowing that the more experience a captain has the less likely he is to be a member of the “computer generation” it may be difficult to get the best material entered in a confusing system of social contributors. Second, very few ships have internet access and those that do have slow connections that make accessing data painstakingly slow. Lastly, it’s cumbersome.

Silicone valley insiders call the speed at which Google returns a list of results after clicking enter, “The Speed Of Google”. In fact the company has spend a considerable amount of money shaving the response time down by microseconds. Google has spent even more resources improving the speed of input through the development of a new browser (Google Chrome), mobile phone (andriod) and embed-able search bars like the one you see on the top right of your screen.

You see, while wikipedia has entries on almost anything you need, it takes time to turn on your computer, type in terms and find the data you are looking for. Even though searching wikipedia is incredibly fast by any standard it does not compare to taking a Google phone out of your pocket and asking (in speech!) for a result!

So right now you could buy and andriod phone, bookmark your favorite maritime publications and, on the bridge of the ship, find information fast. So what do you need gCaptain for??

The answer takes us back to Capt. Smith (not his real name, btw). He could have easily typed “How do blogs make money” into Google and found 100 articles that answer the question better than I, but he didn’t. Instead he took action and called me. This week gCaptain takes action and calls our developers for…


So, if you have read this far you are probably wondering “What the H#[email protected] is gCaptain building?”. Here’s the answer but note, if you didn’t read the entire article  you may have to go back to understand.. we are building a fast mobile communication platform.

What does this mean? I can’t exactly tell you and version 1.0 won’t have any communication features at all. But… imagine if the pilot came aboard with an iPhone and, within 30 seconds of pressing the button, had a full understanding of the current situation around him. Within 60 seconds he could have direct, no BS access, to colleagues and topic experts.

Are you confused yet? Good!

Programing starts this week…. get ready to change how we drive ships!

(Note: Oppurtunities are currently full but interested investors may add their name to the waiting list by calling Mike Schular at 1-805-720-6268.)

Back to Main