An excellent op/ed on experience from MarEx!

hear, hear to the author!

[B]Don’t Leave Port Without One[/B]

How do you capture and pass on the accumulated wisdom of seasoned mariners before they retire? There are ways.

June 05, 2014

By Jeff Slesinger

The captain of the 5,000-HP tug sighted the lights of Skagway, Alaska about two miles ahead. It was a typical winter day for Skagway – dark, cold, wind from the SE at about 30 knots, and a three-to-four-foot sea running up Taiya Inlet. Skagway was the northernmost port of call for the 360-foot container barge being towed by the tug. Nine ports in three days—each with its own set of challenges and each demonstrating the importance of experience.

It is well-documented that the maritime industry faces a critical shortage of qualified, competent mariners. Companies are struggling to replace an experienced but aging workforce that is departing due to retirement or health reasons. In addition, as the economy continues to recover, the business of shipping expands, requiring both replacement mariners and new hires. In the process, the true value of experience is sometimes underappreciated or lost.

Experience Matters

Take our captain shortening his tow wire and taking the barge alongside to maneuver into the dock in Skagway. Completing this and subsequent maneuvers in a timely, efficient and accident-free fashion is good for business. Yet this everyday maneuver is fraught with peril, providing ample opportunity for serious damage to equipment and personnel.

When our tug captain turns on the tug’s deck and flood lights to illuminate the deck, he both creates a safe workplace on deck and opens the drawer of his mental “experience” file. This is the memory database he has acquired over time and can rapidly search for the applicable skill set or tactic to make the job go smoothly and without incident.

On this particular day he first evaluates the wind. It is behind him, pushing the barge along at seven-plus knots. He recalls the first time he attempted to take the barge alongside going downwind. The barge caught up to him, almost ran him over, and took a sheer off to one side that caused him to yank on the tow wire, make a hard landing, and end up on the windward side of the barge struggling to catch up to it.

Two dents, a kinked tow wire and an hour later he had finally gotten a crewman up on the barge and made up to it alongside. The cost? $30,000-$50,000 to fix the barge dents at the next ABS inspection, a $45,000 tow wire with shortened life, and pay for the longshoremen to stand around the dock for an extra hour or two.

That was then. Now, because of that experience, he turns the tug and barge around to head up into the wind to complete the maneuver. But this only begins the process. He will make numerous other subtle adjustments – a touch of throttle at the right moment, shifting the tug a few feet one way or the other in relation to the barge, and other on-the-spot decisions that draw on his vast storehouse of knowledge.

To the longshoremen on the dock it looks like a simple maneuver: The tug swings around into the wind, shortens the tow, and then gently comes alongside the barge. But behind that seemingly simple maneuver are multiple decisions in which the smallest misjudgment can have big consequences.

Preserving the Legacy

Experienced mariners are making these kinds of decisions every day, combing through their mental files, drawing on lessons learned and thus adding to the efficiency and profit of their companies. It is in the business interest of companies to find methods to capture and institutionalize that knowledge before their best employees retire.

There are multiple effective ways to transfer that knowledge, utilizing person-to-person contact as well as company documentation and communications infrastructure. Investments in in-house mentor/apprentice programs and documentation and communication links can pay long-term dividends.

As one seasoned captain told his apprentice: “There’s no need for you to repeat all my mistakes. You’ll make plenty on your own.” The same principle holds true for companies. It makes good business sense to invest in the means to capture the knowledge of their experienced mariners today rather than pay the price of reacquiring it tomorrow. – MarEx

[I]Captain Jeff Slesinger has been a tugboat captain for 35 years and is the author of two books, “Shiphandling with Tugs” and “Thrust and Azimuth, Learning to Drive a Z-drive”. He is also the founder of Delphi Maritime, LLC, a training and vessel-management company.[/I]

Oh how true this all is! I have done those cargo barges in SE with containers stacked 6 high and they are a nightmare when the wind is blowing snot! No question at all that it takes skill which comes from many years of experience to get those barges to a dock without damage or injury.