Shiphandling Competence: Learning how to get it right

01 Feb 2018 The Navigator

Captain George Sangil, a Master Mariner from the Philippine Center for Advanced Maritime Simulation And Training, Inc. explains how the right experience, mentoring and training are crucial to success in shiphandling.

In seafaring, competency is the foundation of everything we achieve in terms of safety, security and efficient shipping operations. One of the most essential skills for achieving competency as a ship’s officer is establishing proficiency in ship manoeuvring and handling. This is a skill seen by many as not only the most important, but also the most difficult to attain.

Exceptional seafarers know that factual knowledge and an understanding of the conceptual requirements of shiphandling is not enough. There is no substitute for experience. Fortunately, the chance to practise shiphandling skills is now more accessible than ever before, thanks to the advent of shipboard-like training environments. A great way to translate factual knowledge into practical applications is to use simulators; even while onboard an actual ship!

Learning by doing is how I train people in shiphandling. Allowing them to mimic the techniques that I have demonstrated, whenever it is safe to do so, is how they get to experience multiple tasks under my responsibility. These can vary from picking up a Pilot and manoeuvring in an anchorage to docking and un-docking and handling the vessel in heavy weather, to name just a few.

If the tasks at hand are not suitable for officers to do on the spot, it is important to take time wherever possible to teach them about the art of shiphandling through mentoring, including the deck cadets.

I believe each and every one of my officers deserves to possess this skill. Also, if I am ever indisposed, I will have the peace of mind of knowing that I have ample numbers of deck officers to back me up. By training and putting my trust in these officers, they can develop the kind of confidence that will take them to the highest levels of their chosen profession.

Whenever a ship’s safe navigation is threatened, e.g. when needing to avoid other watercraft, it is important to be resourceful by using all available means at your disposal (such as the ship’s whistle, fog horn, helm, Aldis lamp and main engine as necessary). When in doubt, it is never harmful to call a colleague to assist, even if you have been given full autonomy during a watchkeeping shift.

Competence in action
The very first time an officer swings the ship to pick up a Pilot can be one of the most terrifying situations one can encounter. I see to it that the officer is supervised, either directly or indirectly. One time, I put my Second Mate to the test and had him bring the vessel to the pilot station without me on the bridge. Initially, he called me on the radio to ask for suggestions on what he should do. I told him to use his common sense in dealing with the situation (without him knowing that I was all the time observing how he was handling the vessel from my porthole.) He did pretty well making the right decisions by himself, although if he had taken the wrong actions, I would have taken over. He really felt proud about what he was able to do and appreciative of the confidence that he gained under me.

There was also an instance when I allowed the deck cadet to manoeuvre the vessel (under my supervision) inside the anchorage to drop anchor. He was able to do it safely and in accordance with my expectations.

A critical manoeuvring situation can arise if a ship approaches a dock too quickly. Masters can intervene effectively with the Pilot in this case, using the appropriate skills and maintaining confidence.

Observe the practices used by the different Pilots you have worked with onboard, learn from the techniques they are employing and absorb the ones you would be comfortable with as a Master. I have always promoted the concept of ‘Challenge and Response’ during my command and have consistently encouraged the crew to be comfortable in challenging anything unusual or unsafe.

It is crucial to understand that anyone can be challenged, including the Captain and Pilot, both of whom are effectively part of the bridge team. Officers should be trained to voice whatever challenges they may see, never forgetting to be polite, respectful and diplomatic.

When dealing with a difficult situation, good practice is to make a logbook entry and call the Master immediately. If a ship is approaching a dock too quickly, the Master should immediately intervene by verbalising take-over of the conn (for the VDR to capture on record), immediately countermanding the Pilot’s order and executing the appropriate engine and helm orders to bring the vessel to a stop.

Masters can only do this with confidence if they have trained for such scenarios via a simulated environment, manned model or in-service training. Only through these type of training exercises can the Master recognise a dangerous manoeuvre from a safe manoeuvre. Otherwise, they might hesitate to intervene until it is too late to reverse an avoidable situation.

Seeking excellence
Most importantly, teachers and students should appreciate that learning is a dialogue. Only through efficient teaching, proper application of skills and sincere mentoring can growth be attained. Admiral Grace Hopper couldn’t have been more correct in saying, ‘A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.’ Like the ship, you are built to be more than who you are today. You should seek consistently for excellence in everything you do and never settle for mediocrity. With this as your mindset, you will have a sense of ownership of the great responsibility that you have to fulfil as global maritime professionals moving the world.