“Whether you’re in upper management, a safety director, port captain or captain, it’s easy to forget the real circumstances that the mariners under your direction deal with day to day. That concept was brought home to me when I found myself in Alaska working alongside the people I hire, train and dispatch.”
So begins Back on Deck, the title of the article that Captain Jeff Slesinger , Director of Safety & Training at Seattle’s Western Towboat Co., wrote for the Spring issue of QSE Solutions’ Safe Voyage e-magazine. Capt. Slesinger’s article is not just a mere breath but a full-on, Force 12 arctic blast of fresh air. A Williwaw, as they say up in Alaska, which, as it happens, is exactly where he was. He flew up to south-central Alaska to meet three of his company’s tugs that were all arriving simultaneously after being delayed in crossing the way-gnarly Gulf Of Alaska by weather (no surprise there; take a look at a random report from the Central GofA buoy). He was there to serve as a roustabout: to assist the crews and do whatever needed doing with no task being beneath him. What he got was a valuable lesson and a solid reminder of what can happen to the thought process when you’ve become too far removed from the action, an inevitable occurrence once you decide to swallow the anchor or even, to a certain extent, when you move from the deck to the wheelhouse. For those who’ve never worked a day on deck it’s nearly impossible to relate or understand. This isn’t a character flaw or personal shortcoming, it’s just a fact of life.
Originally, I felt inspired to write a lengthy post about this subject. But as I went through the piece a second time, trying to decide on which of the many gems that I should quote from, I abandoned the effort. Slesinger nails it dead on, and trying to improve on it would be a useless exercise. Instead I’ll simply quote the second to last paragraph in its entirety. “I have years of sea-going experience, and I hold the expertise of professional mariners in high regard. Yet, if I don’t periodically get down on deck, or in the wheelhouse or engine room I lose the feel for the work. And that loss becomes a barrier to understanding and appreciating what I’m asking our mariners to carry out in the execution of their duties.”
Some may shrug and say, so what? That’s the wrong attitude to take. The barrier he speaks of, when it becomes wide and high enough, tends to manifest itself in the form of institutionalized indifference to the challenges of our dangerous and watery workplace as well as unrealistic or overly burdensome regulations, policies, procedures and additional duties that compete for our limited time. Well-intentioned though they may be, they can sometimes overwhelm the working mariner and distract us from the real business at hand: arriving at the dock with everyone and everything in one piece. The poor communications between the boat crews and shore-side support staff that normally results when the barrier becomes well-established will measurably reduce the overall efficiency of the enterprise and make operations with a high safety-factor more difficult to achieve and maintain. Bottom line: we’re all involved in the enterprise to make a living, and we all want to go home intact and at least semi-sane at the end of our hitches.
His four pages , numbers 2-6 in The Art of Towing section (yes, at its highest level of skill and expression towing and ship assist/escort work is most certainly an art form), are required reading for all managers, shore-side support staff, Coast Guard regulators and every captain, mate and pilot too. By all means, avail yourself of Capt. Slesinger’s clear-eyed wisdom. While you’re there, go through the rest of the issue. It’s their finest yet and is loaded with good information from people who are making a serious effort to help the maritime industry’s safety culture change for the better. I personally look forward to reading more excellent writing like this and passing it on to you.
If you would like an e-subscription to Safe Voyage for yourself, or to see the back issues, click here.
While I’m at it, in answer to the many queries I continue to receive from licensed deck officers from the other marine industry sectors that want to go straight to the wheelhouse of a tugboat while skipping the important phase of learning how to deck, I’ll direct you to the Hit The Deck post from back in November. The problems are the same as desribed in Slesinger’s post, only more difficult to quickly overcome: you can’t relearn or relate well to that which you never knew in the first place, so hit the deck without complaint and learn that job thoroughly first before trying to learn how to steer.