Captain's Opinion on Mates using BRM to Question Decisions

There is a lot of good experience and a lot of information on this forum. But at the same time in situations like this there are sound reasons to be skeptical of what is posted here.

Personally, at the first drill heading out into open ocean I will brief the crew on the weather forecast and what is expected for the first few days. If heavy weather is expected I put a written order outside the galley to make ready their living and work spaces. I make a point to talk to each watch about the weather and discuss the forecasts and weather maps we are receiving. This has served me well over the years.

As for the engineers having an interest in weather. I have one Chief who could care less and another who adamantly wants me to forward him the weather everyday. I’m not a closed book so whatever anyone wants to know, they’re welcome to it.

On the subject of questioning the old man. I remember being a third mate with a couple years under my keel leaving out of the English Channel headed westbound for the states in January. The captain decided to take a great circle, keeping us to the north for several days and there were two fairly substantial lows tracking across the North Atlantic but at a fairly mid latitude. I was not enthused looking at our route for the soon to be ass whooping we were going to take on our forward house container ship. I voiced my concern to the second mate who had a lot more Sea time than me and he made the point for the old mans decision. Stay on top of the low in the lower sea state and following winds. When I looked closer it made sense. I just didn’t know any better at the time but that is what more Sea time gets you. Experience. We still got beat up for a few days, but nowhere near what it could have been.


An example of changing the decision making process to be more falsifiable.

A captain I once sailed with was a one man show. I was C/M. The ship would be approaching the pilot station in heavy cross traffic and the captain would have his head buried in the APRA.

The main engine is slowed down from sea speed gradually by the “load down” program, the required slowdown point can be calculated. Takes about 7 miles from full sea speed to “harbor full”.

I’d be watching the distance to go and when it was time to start the slowdown I’d ask the captain if he wanted to slow down. He’d always say no, then wait 30 seconds or so and then give the order to slow down.

I side-step this problem by marking the slow-down point on the chart and/or ECDIS.

That way when the mate tells the captain that the ship has crossed the line the message from the mate is irrefutable,

I think all of us have been there at one point in our careers.

I was Chief mate for a captain who would continuously forget to stow the pilot accommodation ladder on the inboard side to the berth in a timely manner. At low tide the accom could be crushed against the dock. If I wasn’t on the bridge to remind him, I’d find myself and the deck gang scrambling to get it safely stowed while approaching the berth as he’d be screaming through the radio to make the tug fast.

This was easily remedied by letting the bosun know two hours in advance, while we leisurely made our way up river, to stow the accommodation ladder. I started writing my own little notes/night orders to the other mates to kindly remind him this needed to be done. It helped a bit but was always a source of stress for me and I was happy when I moved elsewhere.

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This is what I’'m talking about. But we can now solve this problem direct, not sailing mate so work-arounds are not needed.

I have a list on the bridge of what needs to be done for arrival, but importantly, the times when it has to be done. And it is things that the mate can actually do, unlike the company checklists.

For example when to call out the bos’n, which the watch can do, as opposed to “clear the anchors” or “rig the pilot ladder”, things the watch cannot do.


Really good read. For me the best sections was the Session 1 paper by a Mr. Lee Bolman and the workshop summary by Dr. Charles Billings.

Taking a look at where it all started so to speak is enlightening when you think it went from this to the formal airline version and then to the maritime version for Bridge and finally to the engine room version. There are some simple lessons in this early starting point that seemed to have gotten overwhelmed by scope creep, minutia, or just plain poor curriculum or presentation in the early ER versions.

In the Bolman paper he proposes a “theory of the situation” (TOS) vs a “theory of practice” (TOP) concept which seems to me to be a valuable insight. Paraphrasing, mariners TOP would change little over the course of a voyage but the TOS changes continuously.

The paper is rich in simple concepts for example “espoused theory” vs “theory-in-use”. Former is the crews own explanation of their behavior if they are trying to predict what they would do. Whereas the latter is a valid theory that predicts and guides the actual actions of a crew member. I’m thinking this is where Tversky and Kahneman’s work on the biases that are at work inside our minds and allow the in-use theory to diverge from the espoused theory.

Apparently Mr. Bolman went on to bigger and better things for when googled it returns a book he co-authored called Reframing Organizations now in 6th edition. If the summaries I’ve read are reflective that would have been a good reference for ERM course.

The summary by Billings pretty accurately points out issues to watch out for in developing a resource management program - in 1979 even before people went off and developed mature programs - and amazingly some of the pitfalls were not addressed - at least not for the maritime version.

For example he addresses the instructors for such courses - they should NOT have been taken through a cookbook kind of course on how to teach resource management BUT should understand what they are talking about and that there is more than one way pf dealing with a situation.

He also remarks its “easy to become captivated by social and interpersonal issues. There’s a little bit of the psychiatrist in all of us. We’ve heard questions here, generally answered in the
negative, about whether you can change personality. Trieve suggested to me this morning that that probably is a moot point, that it probably doesn’t make a lot of difference whether you can change personality. But one thing we do know, and you people know it very well indeed because it’s one of the things you do for a living, you can change behavior. You can change behavior by making it very pleasant to behave one way and very unpleasant to behave in
another way. Incentives, positive and negative incentives.”

He also asks “are we teaching command skills or social/communication skills” which he says would govern when/where in a career you place such training.

There are also some worthwhile comments in the “calculated risk vs blind assumption” attachment by Bruggink of the NTSB.


Having been on both sides of this question for over 30 yrs. the best answer i think is the experience and and reliability in the one questioning a decision. I will give more weight to someone questioning my decision if they have reliable experience and have been in that situation before. Similarly I would question a decision and how vehemently based on my own experience.

The way this is framed, to “question decisions” is very narrow. It depends upon the situation.

For example on deck, in a dynamic, time limited operation, the tug needs a line, the mate points to a line and tell the crew to pass it down to the tug. An AB points out the line is in poor shape and there is a second better one, further away available.

The mate can say good idea, use the other line, say no, need to get this tug fast quickly or he say I’ll call and ask the captain. In any case once the question is asked and answered that should be the end of it.

On the other hand say schedule slack allows the ship to anchor outside the departure port or, depart and anchor instead at the arrival port.

In this case instead of the captain making a decision and then having the C/E and C/M “question” in some circumstances it might be better to make the dept heads aware of the scheduling options before the decision is made so they can consider the various implication so they can provide input.

I have always told my mates that I expect them to question me. That practice allow me to sometimes make a better decision. It’s good training. It builds the competence and confidence of the mates, especially those who aspire to become captains themselves. It makes me a better captain by being willing to listen to mates who might disagree with me for good reasons.

I learned this myself from the excellent mentors that I had coming up. The foundation of this is that I’m not afraid to be wrong. Being a captain should not be a power trip. It must be about the safety of the crew, the vessel, and the cargo. A one-man show almost always has a detrimental impact on safety, and always has a negative impact on crew morale. A one-man show is an indicator of a person who is terrified to reveal that he is as human as everyone else on board.


As in bridge relationship management?.

Having read the entire discussion, I am still none the wiser.

Bridge Resource Management - BRM.

A little reference material :

Some methods of escalating a conversation when you/they have a concern :

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Why are you guys making this so complicated? When I have a new mate sign on, one of the first things I make sure they understand is that they can come to me with any concern or suggestion and I won’t be Captain Bligh when they do. I want to hear problems and concerns!

And if there’s a reason I do something a certain way, I’ll explain it to them, either right then, or take them aside once things calm down and there’s time again if it’s in the middle of something that has to be done a certain way for a reason. If we can train our mates to use stop work authority-esque “hey we need to take a step back and look at this differently,” then we’d have a whole lot less Exxon Valdez’s, Deepwater Horizons, and El Faros. Somewhere in the chain of command in all three of those, there was a breakdown somehow of “I can’t go against my superior” or “I’m the boss, I’m right, you’re wrong.” Neither of those scenarios work to promote the safe operation of a vessel.

So to my fellow Captains, whether on tugs or supertankers, quit being obstinate jackasses and listen to your crews!


Well said.

One other point, don’t be a decision-making black box. Open up the box and show your work. Lay out the plan so everyone can see it.

In the case of the El Faro not “follow these waypoint” but instead lay out explicitly what the plan is, for example to avoid the 35 kt wind field.

That way subordinates don’t have to point out the captain’s decision is wrong. They can work the problem themselves and show the solution has changed.


Exactly. Show your work and you’ll be teaching at the same time. Just because you’re the Captain doesn’t make you infallible or above teaching your mates. They (or you) might learn something new.

How many mates have been through the ringer because the guy above them didn’t show them how to do their job before they were handed the reins in a promotion? raises hand I know I was, and my first trip as Chief Mate was an adventure that put a lot of gray hair on my head (and my poor captain’s too).


Thanks… An observation if I may, … too many words.

I, find this thread fascinating. I am seeing reasonable and successful captains explaining their thinking and how they work. I Lso suspect there are a lot of less reasonable Captains that could learn from it. Methinks those Mates working under an ogre of a Captain need to somehow get the old man to read it. The question if how?

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The “captain” here refers to aviation, this is from Karl Weick; The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster

Issues of authority are handled differently by excellent captains. They shift their behaviors between complete democracy and complete autocracy during the briefing and thereafter, which makes it clear that they are capable of a range of styles.

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