Captain's Opinion on Mates using BRM to Question Decisions

Ok, I’ve been reading the comments on the NTSB’s decisions on the El Faro and the “proper” use of BRM to question and or use certain wording to stress their opinions, of which I agree with the one member that did not vote to include that wording.

So, here’s a question and I hope to get honest answers.

How would you as a Master or a CE react to a Junior Deck
Officer or a Engineer questioning your decision? I’m talking about a situation such as the El Faro where it was obvious that something was going on with the Captains decision making procedures / processes. I’m really hoping to get a decent amount of replies so we can get a consensus of how this might be treated in real life.

Some of the Captains that I sailed with “might” have at least listened but most of them would have shut you down as soon as the first word came out of the mouth. I have no doubt that you would most likely would be looking for a new job, if they had anything to say about it. As for me as a CE, I could go either way.

If some of you would rather maybe @john would be willing to post your answers if you would rather others not know your true

This is a very touchy topic but it’s one that I feel, is important to discuss and I hope we can have an honest discussion without and B.S. As we all know there is a fine line that should never be crossed when dealing with either a Captain as a Mate or a A/E dealing with the Chief.


So, I’ll go first.

During my 25+ years of sailing as CE there have been times where my judgement has been questioned by either the Captain, Mates or A/E’s. Some of the time I did not take it right . This might have been because of the way it was put to me or the situation that I was dealing with at the time. This happened more in my younger years and I’m not sure if I mellowed or got smarter.

There were times when an A/E would look at a job and say, Chief why don’t you do it this way. Sometimes, I did not take the time to explain that I had tried that way in the past and it didn’t work and it could have been taken as I did not care what they said. Other times, their suggestion was a good one and we did it their way. I guess with me it was what was going on and my mood at the time.

As for a Captain voicing his opinion on how he thought it should be done, the same applies but I tried to be a little more P/C in my reply.
All in all, I will admit that I did not like to be second guessed but at time it was necessary!


I going in to Piraeus Greece for the first time and port control tells me to stop 2 miles from the yellow buoy. Where the hell is the yellow buoy? I need the mate to help me, I’m nice.

I’m going into Shuaiba, Kuwait, the mate on watch tells me he can’t find the mid-channel buoy. I’ve been to Shuaiba a million times, that buoy has been missing forever. I’m annoyed and snap at him.

Constant calling into new ports and planning voyages for the first time makes me more amendable to BRM but it still takes some effort.


As suggestions pour in you have to filter the good from the bad. Lots are useless but some are important. Similar with the VHF radio. Most is chatter, some is critical. Sometimes people are cranky or short on sleep. Sometimes they are self absorbed and arrogant. Try to be polite, silent, or explain it without sounding like a dick. It’s frequently being recorded in one way or another, anyway.

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I think it has a lot to do with what the situation is and how the junior officer addresses it. I always try to get the junior officers to tell me their thought process to tackling traffic situations and I don’t personally have a problem telling them mine if they ask. It can only help to get everyone on the same page. I focus heavily on logic and logical conclusions so if someone has another logical thought as to how we can approach something I’ll certainly hear them out. There is always more than one way to skin a cat.


I think that is the right approach.

I can’t think of the right term but I think of it a the “surface area” of the decision making process. The more in the open this process is done the more likely someone will catch an error.

Consider for example the pilot gets on and doesn’t say much compared to if they hand you something like this.

With this if the pilot was off track you could see and say something. It’s falsifiable.


Excellent question.

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I have been a licensed Master more than 20 years. In that time I have been questioned many times, I have also been the guy questioning many times as well. The thing with questioning is, there needs to be tact involved. If you come up to me privately and ask, I will be more than happy to listen or explain. But if you try to question me in front of someone else, I will embarrass you.

Today, if I have a junior officer or even a deck hand ask me a question of why like this instead of why like that, I take the time to listen and I say because of ABC or XYZ.

Lots of times they can bring up valid points. Just because I have been doing it a certain way for twenty years does not mean its the only correct way, but it is the way that is correct for me.

I welcome the questions, that gives me the opportunity to either, teach someone the correct way, which in turn makes my job easier now that they have honed a new skillset or way to look at something, or it gives me the opportunity to learn something new. I love learning new things. After all, once you know everything, that’s when you become dangerous.


Ship’s officers, senior officers in particular should at least be educated in the underlying principles of BRM.

The most common argument I hear against using BRM strategies is that the whole thing is nothing but a bunch of new-age nonsense designed to avoid offending delicate little snowflakes.

One example to the contrary is the Wehrmacht , the armed forces of Nazi Germany. After defeat in WWI the Wehrmacht was rebuilt using

a military culture in which junior officers could oppose, in print and repeatedly, the firm convictions of their elders and yet not suffer retaliation

The above is from a review of The Roots of Blitzkrieg: Hans von Seeckt and German Military Reform by James Cobum

More in the maritime realm For God and Glory: Lord Nelson and His Way of War

Nelson continuously built the capabilities of his subordinates.


I think it’s very odd that people take their only BRM course before they ever work as an officer and don’t have to take a refresher or preferably an advanced course before Master. I guess if done right Leadership and Managerial Skills could be the advanced BRM I’m dreaming of but I doubt many of those courses are worth fuck-all. There’s definitely no real leadership and management training involved.


I will admit I had to look up BRM never having heard it before. before replying I would state that I am always suspicious of shoreside terms and solutions to marine shipboard problems as unless they have served at sea for a considerable time, they have no understanding of the situation of shipboard relationships. Landlubbers think in a different way to seamen as I quickly found out when I came ashore after 50 years at sea especially when it came to discipline and command, some not even liking the words or totally misunderstanding command from a ship board viewpoint.
To command there has to be respect for the rank even if not for the man otherwise the command chain is broken.Many times I sailed with Captains who I did not respect and one time as Chief Officer, I had to assume command at sea during a hurricane situation when taste repeated warnings which were ignored, I had the Captain confined to his cabin until the situation had been resolved. Let me give you my take on questioning decisions. First in normal situations, it is the job of the two head of departments, the Chief Officer or mate if you prefer, and the Chief Engineer to question any decision affecting the well being or efficiency of the ship and those on board. That is why they are there to assist he Captain. Coming down to more junior ranks, then by all means they should be encouraged to ask why a decision is made in order that it can be explained to them and given the reasons. This is how they learn and training them is part of our job. In my standing orders, I wrote that on the bridge if there is any doubt in anyones mind as to why i ws taking a certain action, I was to be immediately questioned. Tactfully would be appreciated but otherwise go ahead. How the question was made could be sorted out later but I would hate to have my ship put into danger because of tact!
Emergency situations is different. In these no officer can have his orders questioned as there is no time for debate or hesitation which could cause the emergency going out of control.
With regard to the Le Faro, I have no sympathy withe the Captain. bad seamanship was demonstrated and it cost the lives of his crew. No commercial pressure would force any proper Captain to put his ship into a hurricane. The shore management might try as now modern management ashore actually think they can but a firm reply that you are in command not them and putting the phone down usually deals with that, if not them stronger language may have to be used. I also question as to what the Chief Officer was doing? It was his job to voice his objections to the course the ship was taking and I suggest he also failed.
Hard words maybe, but it is a hard job.Command is lonely especially of a ship. You have no friends on board, only acquaintances, which is why you can call your senior officers by their christian names but never the same back. You are the Captain, that’s it. This however should not interfere with your responsibility to listen to them, and if they are correct then changing your mind is not a criticism of your ability, it is a reflection of your suitability for command. I know damn well that if any Captain of mine were to take our ship into a hurricane when there was a good alternative route, i would voice my opinion and then if not heard, then make this an objection. I did it!

Captain Michael Lloyd


At least get the name of the ship right. Did you read the VDR transcript?

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It’s been a few years since my last BRM training, but I do recall the topic of subordinate officers speaking up, or not speaking up, and also related studies on power distance index for different nationalities. Prime examples were different air crashes where pilots failed to speak up. Perhaps this was part of the problem on the El Faro, however some of the officers did speak up but their voices fell on deaf ears. Unfortunately these officers didn’t take it to the next level and bang on the Captains door, or collaborate more broadly against the Captains poor actions. I know a lot of us consider what we would have done had we been there. My honest answer is I’m not 100% sure how far I would have gone to force a different plan. I know it is sometimes necessary to get in peoples face in order to force a proper outcome, but every situation is a little different and sometimes you have to choose your battles. Hindsight is 20/20 so let’s be honest. I am wondering if there should be more analysis on the “deaf ears” of the Captain. Any of us who have been around know that many individuals that are in command can be extremely hard headed. This is also true for different nationalities. An example from my experience, I’ve noticed it’s better to ask a request than to tell a hard headed individual what to do. Keeping in mind that this has more application than just Captain/subordinate, (could be ship to shore, Captain to Chief, ship to ship, military, pilot to air traffic control) I wonder if there hasn’t been more studies on this specific issue? For lack of a more eloquent term, the “deaf ears/hard head” element of human nature?


Sometimes it’s worthwhile (or at least interesting) to go back to the original documents and see what what the guys who cooked this idea up had on their minds. A copy of the proceedings of the original NASA workshop can be found here:





It’s easy to make the assumption that the right move was obvious.

I’ve asked new cadets to solve a time/speed/distance problem for me and sometimes they will give me an answer out to four decimal places. What the new cadet doesn’t understand is the level of precision of the answer can’t be more then level of precision than the inputs.

In this case we don’t know how precise the information is that we are using to analyze this. One huge factor is how much to discount the information we have but the crew at the time didn’t, that the ship would sink. From reading the transcript apparently they knew they were headed for rough weather but did they expect more than about 50 kts?

We don’ t know. We are trying to answer the question “what would we do” but we have very little idea how much error there is in our understanding. What assumptions are we making to fill in the gaps?

If someone can confidently say what they would do then they are making the same mistake the cadet makes. The precision of answer has to match the precision of the information used to solve the problem.

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Dear Captain Kennebec,

Many thanks for your email. I am sure you also have typos and I hope you will forgive this. I did not read the full 500 pages but read the summaries. I note that you also are a very experienced mariner. I have sailed the ocean for 50 years with 35 years in command and devoted myself to the study of seamanship and safety at sea. I have learnt to have a very healthy respect for hurricanes and their like and for the ships that I commanded. Some good and some poor, the vagaries of seagoing. One point I learnt, was that when taking avoiding action, it should be prompt and broad, in other words course alterations of 90 degrees should not be uncommon.
As in the recent case of the Anthem of the seas where we see yet another failure to appreciate the power of such storms,I believe that the very real danger that this ship was approaching was not appreciated before it was too late.
Now sometimes I would admit that when dealing with Pacific and Atlantic lows which are thousands of miles diameter, it is not always easy to avoid the weather, but in this case the hurricane was not huge in diameter and could have been avoided by either stopping the ship and awaiting the passing or the possible change of direction and then proceeding or taking early and a large alteration of course, even reversing course if required. I have given a considerable section to Hurricanes/Typhoons/Cyclones in my book 21st Century seamanship.
Out of interest, I also publicly rebutted the Costa Concordia inquiry which was a disgrace. Many important items were not put before the court and witnesses were deliberately not called. very few seamen joined in any protest at the Kangaroo court that masqueraded as a true and proper marine inquiry as so many inquiries are today. Incidentally, the US coast guard said that hey were going to have an inquiry into the Anthem of the seas and to this day nothing, I have asked three times for their findings with no reply. We are also still awaiting the flag state which will probably find that the hurricane got in the way of the ship.

Best regards,


I didn’t send you an email.

I believe he’s talking about your comment, rather than an email.

Yes, I agree, that said…

Because of research into the science of human factors, the view of how ship’s officers and crew should interact has changed in the last few decades. This view has been backed up by the successes of CRM the airlines use.

Basically what mariners trained without the benefits of human factors research are saying is; the old, outdated model of crew interactions would have worked in the case of the El Faro if only it had been used “properly”. Therefore the crew was in error.

Everything else being equal, the odds of the El Faro making a successful voyage would have increased had they taken advantage of what we now know about how crews interact with each other and the environment.

In the post Will the El Faro Cause a Rethink of BRM/MRM* Training?
the point I was trying to make is that the instructors in BRM/MRM type classes that are trying to impose outdated ideas on mariners they are training are part of the problem.

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As a non mariner. BRM should not only engage the Bridge personnel and Mates, but all officers and members of the ships watchstandars. I would think that situational awareness of the ENTIRE ship is part of BRM.
The SS El Faro’s VDR only captured the conversations on the bridge. If the Captain and the CE discussed the next operational period in the Captains cabin, it was not captured on the ships SVDR. Davidson was not aware of the Hurricane. The Engineers were preparing for the last source of wheather from the Captain.
I’m depending on knowledgeable mariners to fill in the blanks for my ignorance of the lack of situational awareness for the plant when the Mates understood their proximity to the hurricane.