“The first time you step aboard a tugboat to work is the moment you begin training to become a Tug Captain” – Captain Marty Golden
I’ve been party to many conversations with my peers discussing the finer points of training a deckhand, mate, etc. These conversations sometimes devolve from complaints about the lack of compensation from an ungrateful employer expecting more than they are paying for to the stated belief that we the trainers get nothing but grayer from the experience. In deciding if I will commit to training someone for the wheelhouse, compensation is never my concern. When I was training for the wheelhouse, I never heard a mate or captain ever take exception to my asking them to train me. When I began my apprenticeship the men that brought me along were patient, generous, and willing to guide me until I was ready to be on my own. When I was finally standing my own watches I expressed my gratitude to the guys that helped me along and asked if there was something I could do to show my appreciation. One of these men took me aside and told me that I owed him nothing except to do the same for someone else as he had done for me.
Since that day my belief is that this is just as it should be. So in this post I’m going to relate my thinking about training and what I believe should be expected of an Apprentice Mate. I first determine if a candidate “gets it”. There are those who think that “getting it” may have many meanings, but I’ve never believed this to be so. I believe it can be described as having an awareness of how tugs and barges actually behave when wind, current, and mass interact under the hand of a skilled boat handler. Only after being on deck and working the job can this awareness be acquired.
No simulator will provide all the necessary stimuli. There is no reset button to save a bad scenario.
There are precious few people who have learned to steer a tug proficiently without “decking” one, as in single digit few. How do you teach and supervise what needs to be done if you have not done it yourself? Realistically speaking, you just would not “get it”. For those of us who have been in this industry for a few years, it’s easy to recognize when someone “gets it” and, of course, when they do not. If the trainee “gets it” they show they understand that, along with the skill sets they’ve learned on deck, the burden of acquiring the skill sets for the wheelhouse lies squarely in their lap. Read: I will not drag you by the hand, you’ve got to want it.
The lessons an apprentice mate must learn are easily and directly related to what the candidate has already experienced on deck, the glaring difference now being his new and sobering perspective from the pilothouse. If he hadn’t already been aware, it is then that he actually realizes he is now responsible for way more than just getting a line out. It doesn’t take a lot of guts to start steering, but it certainly takes a lot to continue. Intestinal fortitude will serve a candidate well. The saying goes “you will die a thousand deaths in your first year steering”. It’s true enough, the days-of-boredom-punctuated-by-moments-of-sheer-terror thing again.
My experience breaking in new Mates has been positive since those who were trained “got it”. They were expert deckhands, demonstrated their maturity, and showed they knew how to think on their feet while on deck, thus making my job much easier. The time off watch they dedicated to the goal was substantial and exhausting, but well worth it. Although training mate candidates has been satisfying it has also been a bit stressful at times. In my opinion, stress is a necessary element to the learning process. It’s the fixing agent that cements the lessons in our minds.
The best lesson is oft-times a mistake remembered. Perhaps a better way to phrase it being “a mistake never forgotten”, the kind sea stories are made of. How to allow someone to make a mistake, but not too big a mistake, is incredibly difficult to quantify. It goes to the mentor’s comfort level but must include a nod to federal law, company policy, intestinal fortitude, and good common sense. Demonstrating maneuvers, sharing local knowledge, trying to allow the guy a bit of room to make a mistake but not let it get out of hand. Yeah, just a little stress.
In “Tugboat 101”, anyone can learn how to approach a dock, stem current, or drop an anchor. Most apprentices can master these maneuvers fairly early in their training. It is widely held that the focus of the training should be on mindset as opposed to the mechanics of a particular maneuver. As a trainer, the thing I want to see is how the trainee deals with changing conditions and/or failing equipment.The challenging part is learning how to respond when an unwelcome issue or event screws up your “perfect approach” to a standstill; a line that parts at the worst moment, or the deckhand drops the radio in the river when you are 5 feet from the dock. Fog, high wind, small boats, the list goes on.
There is no magic pill or book that will teach a candidate how to deal with these issues, only practice and experience will prevail in that moment of decision. And since no one does anything new and brilliant in an emergency, they must instead rely on practiced responses to the situations that can be encountered. “Practiced” being the key word. The answer lies in the amount of time aboard and how many times they have watched or participated with the experienced crews dealing with these scenarios. Every “new guy” that has stepped aboard has followed the same path as all those who came before. If you watch a new deckhand practicing his line handling on the fantail, he is doing exactly what every new deckhand has done since tugboats were invented. It’s timeless. I did it, my brother, my Dad, my Grandfather before him and countless others have submitted to this humbling experience as baptism into the industry. “Start right, finish right” still rings in my ears. It’s not likely to change.
The path for a tugboat wheelhouse position is largely unchanged when it comes to boat handling. The time involved is the same as it was when I broke in. The boats are bigger and more powerful, but it’s all the same. There’s a slightly greater learning curve regarding electronic tools that assist in day to day operations, but boat-handling skills can’t be learned from an instruction manual, it is strictly hands on. You can talk about it all day but the real challenges will make your heart beat faster, your palms will sweat, and you will wish there were two more inches of travel on the throttles. Mate apprentices today are facing many obstacles. They have a mountain of paperwork to acquire, money to expend for school, and a couple of years of “off watch” practice to get in before they complete their T.O.A.R., and less room for error.
These challenges are surmountable with time and effort, and any of us who have taken the time to mentor an apprentice know that it’s a relationship based on respect and honest effort from both parties that pays a huge benefit. It perpetuates an industry standard of excellence. It guarantees another generation of mariners that can safely serve the needs of the community in all situations. My peers and I are demanding, and during the training process we will set the bar high. We would be remiss if we did not push each candidate to the limit. In order for their abilities to mature and be equipped for a safe and productive future, we can do no less.
When it comes to training the next generation of wheelhouse talent, I subscribe to this strict principle: I owe it to those who taught me to teach those who follow. It’s as simple as that.
Capt. Bill Brucato
Master of Towing Vessels
U.S. Coast Guard-certified Designated Examiner