Risk And Reward At Sea

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April 23, 2018

By Captain George Livingstone – Choosing to be a professional mariner is more than a professional choice, it’s a life choice.  There are few other professions like it.  The stress and strain is more than professional, it’s personal, involving separation from all things familiar.  My motivation for writing has always been based on advocating for the mariner.  

SOLAS (Safety Of Lives At Sea)  

In the last few years we have witnessed three accidents involving total loss, the tanker Sanchi (which I have written about), the ARA San Juan (Argentine Naval submarine) and the El Faro.  This, of course, does not include the continued distressing international ferry disasters, which it seems, may keep happening as the responsible nations and international regulatory bodies struggle with rectifying the problem.

The El Faro has been back in the news, Michael Carr did a book review of Into The Raging Sea (Rachel Slade) on gCaptain.  Why is it important?  Because when things go awry in our world, lives are changed, sometimes forever along with a sometimes global impact.  In just the three accidents mentioned above, nearly 100 professional mariners lost their lives.  Of course any environmental impact is terrible, but what about the impact on the mariner and their families?  Honestly, outside of the professional mariners themselves, the world may not care much.  So it comes back to advocates, like Rachel Slade, gCaptain and The Nautical Institute, etc.  Mariners should not shy away from authentic conversations about the most critical aspects of our business.

Critical Learning

The following two paragraphs are taken directly from Tug Use Offshore, the 2006 Nautical Institute book my brother, Grant Livingstone and I wrote:   

‘Knowledge of the sea and the effects that the sea has on ships is a prime requirement for any successful mariner, regardless of the vessel in which one serves.  One starts with a study of the principles of physics and the available information relating to these principles.  Sometimes this study is done at a maritime school and sometimes it is accomplished on the job at sea.  Irrespective of the learning environment, the task is made easier if there is a sage instructor guiding you through the myriad of skills necessary to learn, first as tasks and then, as the total summation of the individual task sets.

Into the Raging Sea Book Cover
Related Book: Into the Raging Sea, Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm, and the Sinking of El Faro, by Rachel Slade

The basic knowledge acquired through study, must then be exercised at sea, in order for a mariner to truly ‘own’ what he or she has studied.  But, in order for the experience to be meaningful, there has to be a clear understanding of what is happening and why.   This is the reason why it is necessary for all available and pertinent information relating to the task to be assembled for the beginner, the intermediate and the advanced student of the subject.  There is a truism that permeates all experiences.  It is that there is a difference between twenty years’ experience and one year experience repeated twenty times.’

It doesn’t, however, end with the previous paragraphs, it begins there.  A vital challenge for the professional mariner is decision-making.  An essential part of command is to be able to make or justify difficult decisions.  And what is the underlying factor in decision-making at sea?  In my view, risk.

Decision-Making and Risk

There is risk in every endeavor attempted, even when crossing a street.  It is part of daily life.  In the marine transportation business, it’s magnified exponentially.  Until the Renaissance, risk was managed mostly through superstition and habit as is evidenced by attitudes during the voyages of Magellan (the world is flat, sea monsters, etc.).  Times have changed of course, but when it comes to risk, there may still be monsters lurking in the shadows for the individual in command.  

The book Minding the Helm: Marine Navigation and Pilotingsays:

Mariners are inherently familiar with risk, not in probabilistic terms, but in practical threats to safety that must be avoided or accommodated in operations.’

It goes on to state that other than professional judgement, there are few other practical means with which the mariner can assess all the factors involved with vessel movements and operations.  Essentially, a mariner’s response to threat is a reflection of accumulated experience and competence.  

‘Underlying causes of marine accidents have not been addressed methodically or effectively by most shipping companies, marine safety authorities or other interested parties.’ 

Let’s focus on risk, which may be identified in two ways; actual risk and perceived risk.  Actual, or mathematical risk, may be far different than an individual’s perception of said risk.  It could be argued that one’s perception may or may not reflect actual risk, and thus may lead to profound impacts on decision-making.  The detection and absorption of real world events comes through the input of both modern navigational tools and the mariner’s own senses.  Assuming identical real world views, bridge tools and assets available, what causes differences from one individual to another in command decisions for identical situations?  The difference may lie in the individual’s reaction to the input.  This may be a critical issue in how some accidents develop and occur as it may lead to an emotional component of decision-making.

In the 2003 USCG/American Waterways Operators (AWO) work group study (App 8 pg. 8-2) it states ‘Decision making is affected by a complex combination of mental model, experience, training, workload, physical well-being, etc., all of which will differ from individual to individual.’

Mental Model

The same study goes on to explain that an individual’s mental model can be inaccurate and contradictory, which could lead to poor execution of maneuvers, even eventually being a contributory factor in accidents.  The isolation one feels when making serious command-level decisions at sea should give us all pause, books and movies have been built around the subject.  The previous paragraphs highlight an underlying difficulty in marine transportation regarding an individual professional mariner’s tendency to rely on subjective decision-making, especially regarding risk.  It is vital to acknowledge possible contradictions in one’s personal view and the actual real world.  Always be cognizant to the possibility that one may incorrectly interpret ongoing events.  The difficulty lies in how to come to terms with that within the structure of the boarder marine transportation industry.  The only alternative, however, to not managing risk in business is to get out of business.  We choose to do business, thus we accept risk.


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