MENTORING: Learning on board - Learning the Ropes

01 Jun 2017 The Navigator

Learning the Ropes Captain Andre Le Goubin looks at how on board learning has remained vital over the centuries, and how today’s seafarers can continue the tradition.

Next year – 2018 – will mark 250 years since Captain Cook set off on his famous voyage in HMS Endeavour to the South Pacific to observe the transit of Venus across the Sun. What fantastic navigators Captain Cook and his team must have been, sailing the same oceans as we do now with such basic instruments. Cadets (‘midshipmen’) and junior officers joined a ship for years at a time and gained most, if not all, their nautical knowledge on board. They spent their time quite literally learning the ropes and being taught by those more experienced than themselves who were prepared to pass their knowledge on. Their teachers were their officers and leaders but were also their mentors.

Some would have been very good at mentoring, and others not so good, but I’m sure most, if not all, would have passed on some of their experiential knowledge at some point. I am also fairly certain that they would not have been paid or rewarded for mentoring but would have seen sharing their knowledge and experience with those coming up through the ranks as part of their shipboard duties. Doubtless, many would have enjoyed and gained satisfaction from such a task.

Of course, the ‘ropes’ that they would have learnt are totally different today, but something that has not changed is the need for seafarers to ‘learn the ropes’ from fellow shipmates on board. Also different is the amount of time available for the learning to take place. Back then, you may have had two or three years on board a vessel before stepping up to become a watch-keeping officer. Nowadays, you have just twelve months. Of course you also have three years in college when you pick up the theoretical knowledge that you need to become a modern officer – but that is not what I am talking about here. Instead, I am referring to the on board, practical, experiential knowledge that is so valuable and, by its very nature, can only be gained on board.

10 minute challenge
This is where mentoring comes in. The lovely tradition of pulling someone aside and taking a few minutes out of your busy schedule to teach them something new, show them how to do an unfamiliar duty, let them try something for themselves under your watchful guidance, or (gently) correct a task they have got wrong, explaining it to them so they don’t make the same mistake again.

I call this my 10 minute challenge. That is the maximum time it need take (unless you want to take longer). The same time it takes to drink a cup of tea or coffee!

Let me give you an example I saw on a ship very recently. I was on board a large oil tanker and we needed to move a couple of miles, turn to a new heading to make a lee and stop in the water. Rather than have myself (the Mooring Master / Pilot) or the Master do it, the Master handed the conn to the Second Officer and let him perform the manoeuvre. The Master remained on the bridge and offered occasional advice and guidance but it was clear who was doing the job. There is no doubt that the young officer gained valuable experience from this but, from what I observed in the background, the Master clearly enjoyed being a mentor as well.

There are so many daily opportunities on board a ship for mentoring to take place and I encourage you to identify and pursue them as often as possible, either as a mentor or as a candidate (anyone who gains experiential knowledge by mentoring).

For those of you who are reading this ashore, I hope you will encourage mentoring at every opportunity on board your ships. Facilitate it and acknowledge it when you see it taking place but please, do not mandate it in any way. Of course, mentoring is not restricted to ships. If you are ashore, look around your place of work and identify opportunities to be a mentor. I’m positive you will find plenty.

Ropes at the ready!
So, whose responsibility is it to show us ‘the ropes’ on board? It could be anyone – Captain, Chief Officer, Second Officer, Third Officer, Senior Cadet, Bosun, AB… Let’s not forget about the engineers too, for they can teach us so much and they need to learn ‘the ropes’ as well. There may even be opportunities when a more junior seafarer may be called upon to show a more senior person how to do something. Let me caution you here though, as I had a bad experience when I was a Third Officer and tried to show my Captain how a new piece of equipment worked; I had been on a training course for it and he hadn’t. He certainly didn’t take kindly to my advice! Why? Well he hadn’t asked me for it, so rather than plunging on ahead like I did, wait until you are asked and then everything will be fine.

When should we start learning (and teaching) ‘the ropes’? How about today? Remember, your first day on board a ship is the first day you start training to be Master.

I know it may seem a long way off and you may have a long way to go, but the more you can learn and experience along the way the better a Master you will be.

Who should you mentor? Anyone you can make a difference to! No matter how junior someone is, start showing them the ropes anyway. I know from personal experience how powerful this can be. One day, when they are in a position to do so, they will take the time to pass on the experiential knowledge you have shared with them.

I predict that in another 250 years’ time, our successors will talk about us in the same awed tones as we do those who sailed in 1768 with Captain Cook. We are continuing the great tradition of seafaring; we’re just employing some slightly different methods. Although I do wonder if they will speak in amazement about having to use such basic instruments as GPS and ECDIS!

Captain Andre Le Goubin wrote more about mentoring and being a mentor in the very first issue of The Navigator – find it online at He is also the author of The Nautical Institute’s book ‘Mentoring at Sea – the 10 minute challenge’