The Importance Of Memory At Sea

John Konrad
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May 6, 2011

As a new third mate I was always frustrated by those who demanded I memorize things and it was my belief that a good officer never guesses an answer but rather is able to find information. This is partly true, as the most successful officers have a good knowledge of finding information in publications and a great ability to ask the right people (e.g. Chief Engineer, Port Captain, Master), the right questions. The problem is, this only takes us so far. To truly excel in this profession you need to be a master at memorizing information and situations.
The primary reason memory is so important is that all other means of gathering information, from looking through publications to reaching for a calculator, is slow. This includes google. The time it takes to reach simple information critical to navigating a ship (e.g. the nav light configuration of an oncoming ship or the phone number of the engine room) may only take you 30 seconds to pick up your iPhone (or flipping through colregs) and find the information via google but, if memorized, can take less than one second to retrieve from your mind.
And this 30 second time difference is important. Sidelights are only visible at a range of 3 NM so if you are traveling 15 knots approaching trawler with an unusual configuration of lights that’s also going 15 knots you only have 6 minutes before collision and 3 minutes to make a decision. By not having memorized the information you have wasted nearly 10% of your available time.
So memory is an important skill!  But, I know what many of you are thinking, ‘I have no talent memorizing things‘. I thought the same thing for many years but, it turns out, I was wrong.
In his new book Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything Joshua Foer investigates the world of memory championships and discovers the best memory experts often had terrible memories before they began to practice. He writes:

“I asked Ed Cooke, a competitor from England — he was 24 at the time and was attending the U.S. event to train for that summer’s World Memory Championships — when he first realized he was a savant.

“Oh, I’m not a savant,” he said, chuckling.

“Photographic memory?” I asked.

He chuckled again. “Photographic memory is a detestable myth. Doesn’t exist. In fact, my memory is quite average. All of us here have average memories.”

That seemed hard to square with the fact that he knew huge chunks of “Paradise Lost” by heart. Earlier I watched him recite a list of 252 random digits as effortlessly as if it were his telephone number.

“What you have to understand is that even average memories are remarkably powerful if used properly,” Cooke said.

…At the time, I didn’t quite believe Cooke’s bold claims about the latent mnemonic potential in all of us. But they seemed worth investigating. Cooke offered to serve as my coach and trainer. Memorizing would become a part of my daily routine. Like flossing. Except that I would actually remember to do it.

Foer provides details on how to improve your memory in his book (a great summary of tips can be found HERE) but the important lesson is that memory is a skill learned through hard work and practice… not through naturally born talent. This is important for mariners because having good memory leads to good seamanship, especially when “snap” decisions need to be made. But it’s also important because countless studies of great CEO’s and managers show that top performers have all developed great memories.

But memory is not enough. A study of historically great Chess Grand Masters found that many had only average IQ scores and some even had bad memories for remembering facts. In one example a master won the world chess championship and, when leaving, could not remember where he left his umbrella. This is because chess masters have a different kind of memory… situational memory.

Aboard my first ship the Captain told me that “Traffic situations are like chess games, you need to understand the flow of the game and predict the moves of your opponent long before he steals your first pawn.” He, of course, was right but how do chess masters know what moves their opponent are going to make?

It turns out the best don’t remember tactics they studied in books, although this does help, they remember stories from their earlier matches. They talk of past games as you and I would tell the story of a close call at sea and stories are things that stick in our brains better than anything. This is why experience counts, master’s with long careers have more stories stored in their memory than the rest of us and some of these memories stick in your brain.

But which ones stick? It turns out the ones that stick are the ones we tell others the most, it’s this repetition that build memory. Think back to the traffic situations you remember best. It was probably a close call right? Now think how many times you told the story of that near collision to others.

A common phrase is “I’ll never make that mistake again!” and this is correct but not because you remember the close call itself but because you built a story around the collision and retold that story many times in your career… a repetitive act that makes it “stick” in your mind.


We can all learn from this lesson by purchasing Foer’s book and working hard at the practice of memory skills but a far simpler solution is to simply tell more stories. For this reason I suggest that all cadets, as part of their summer seaterm project, write the stories of their traffic situations on paper and recount these stories in class.

For the rest of us, those of us long out of school, we too can start writing stories around traffic situations we encounter by starting a journal. But it’s not enough just to write, you have to go back and re-read your stories and make a point of sharing them verbally with others. And remember; the most memorable stories are the most interesting so… get creative!

And note… it’s important to be truthful in telling your sea-stories! Otherwise your memory of events, memories you will need the next time you encounter a similar traffic situation, are based less on the facts and more on the stories you have built around them!


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