How (not) to Deal With Crew Problems or Did you ever Sail with a guy name of Johnny McGurk

Was he named Johnny McGurk?


On the commercial side we had a bos’n they called Houdini, because he would always disappear. I was the C/M and I could always find him because he was so lazy he wouldn’t dog the water tight doors when he went to hide. I’d just follow the trail of doors swinging with the roll and there he’d be.


Brooms or tools outside rooms in the focsle is another give away. Apparently they took the tool with them as they headed off the deck, because if you’re carrying a tool (the bigger the better) you obviously have stuff to do and aren’t sneaking off for a nap. But then they don’t bother to bring it inside their room.

I worked for the same company for 9 years, it was interesting how the sailorsa never bothered to hide their tricks from the new, young, stupid 3rd Mate without anticipating that the 3rd might one day be the chief mate.


Well, I got a little too smart for my own good one time.

One thing Houdini used to do was leave the safety chains down after securing the pilot ladder. I’d go out to the gangway and they’d be this big gap with no rail. I’d worry an engineer or someone with a bag of tools in their hand would go overboard.

His act was getting a little old so I was bullshitting with my watch AB one time and I told him that I was going to send Houdini down to secure the pilot ladder and I’d follow behind him. While he was pulling the ladder up I give him a kick in the ass and send him over. Problem solved.

A week or two later I did send him down to secure the pilot ladder and he never returned. I went down to the pilot ladder and there’s the safety chains just hanging there with a gap in the hand rail. I thought he must have went over the side. I thought shit, how many people did I tell I was going to push him over?

I still hadn’t seen him at 1600 hrs, I told my AB what happened he said, “Don’t worry mate, I won’t say anything”.

He turn up in time for dinner. We fired him next port.


What did Don Corleone say to Sonny? Something like ‘Don’t ever tell someone outside the family what you’re thinking.’ I’ve given atta boys that have blown back in my face for favoritism. Now a days I’m like an old grizzled mobster with my poker face and lack of candor with the crew.


Yes, it’s a bad idea to tell someone you want to push a crew member overboard, especially a guy called Houdini because he always disappears.

The longer story behind Houdini is he was a dayman fired /not fired by the previous captain by request of the C/M. But not fired, instead the old tell everyone you fired him but in fact he quit under pressure… then he came back a month later, as bos’n no less. Big problem for the C/M

But the root cause was the next captain who refused to take action no matter how poorly the bos’n preformed.

So what happens if the chief mate (or any crew member) wants to do the job properly but doesn’t get support from his supervisors?. The choices are either ignore problems, or try to enforce discipline by some form of jawboning or similar extrajudicial-type methods.

That’s why it’s better for the captain deal with problems officially and in a timely way. Otherwise the crew is likely to take action on their own, and it may not be action the captain necessarily likes.


It’s really hard to hide on a 224’ research ship. But boy, people do try.

(usually, they are in the room)

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Guys hiding in their room is not necessarily something to worry about, depends on what’s happening in general. If the crew has been getting hammered for a couple days I’d expect the bos’n to use his judgment on how much to crack down on it.

This on the other hand:

is something that needs to be dealt with asap.

Many years ago we had a less than enthusiastic oil sent to us. The other oilers and 3rds were complaining to me as 1st about this guy. I spoke with him and asked him to pick up the pace and do his job. He was very pleasant as most like him are and promised to do so but nothing changed. I explained the situation to the Dutch chief who of course knew everything already. He told me,“Mr First call him to my office and I will explain to him. You sit there with us and learn to do your job.”
Oiler came and the chief said," You are not doing your job. Start today. I have contacted the union and we will go thru the process of removing you from ship if your performance does not change but that takes time. However, the rest of the crew is up to their ass in taking up the slack. I have discouraged them from taking things into their own hands. That discouragement ends now. I cannot control what goes on when you crew goes to shore and neither can I see there. You can decide what your future will be either it will be long or short and painful, your decision. Now go."


I don’t get it…

The implication, whether true or not, was he’d told the crew “If he doesn’t straighten up and fly right don’t beat the crap out of him – on board.”

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Rofl. I thought so too, but you did say you didn’t understand. I guess I missed the sarcasm tag.

Things worked out well for that oiler. He started working hard and transferred. Reports were he ended up being a decent oiler, eventually became an engineer. I ran into him many years later and he said thanks, He was 2nd engineer last I saw and doing a good job from what I was told, We laughed about the close call he had but he said it was good for him.Things work out if one is honest with crew.

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That requires that the crew is capable of making a coordinated effort to achive a goal. Outside of routine day-to-day tasks how many crews are capable of doing that? I’d say maybe 1 in 5 at best, maybe more like 1 in 10.

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Even harder on an ocean tug or ATB where the crew size is small. . . .

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When I was on the ATB, the office would send down a lot of engineers that were not capable, or very hard workers. I mistakenly assumed that new engineers would take it upon themselves to at least learn the plant during watch. . . had one assistant that was the friend (bartender) for my relief. He had been onboard for a couple of hitches, and we were down below during maneuvering one day. I just thought that it would be a good time to ask a few questions to see how well he knew the plant. Well, he didn’t. Got everyone of them wrong. Looking back now, I guess I could have set up a program for new engineers, but hell, I was just a kid in my 20s. . . I let the guy go. I come back to work the next hitch and he is back. . . ended up being my best engineer. Last I saw him was some time later when I was with ABS. He was sailing second with Overseas on a bulker, had his unlimited 1st. . . Last I heard he had his CE unlimited. Sometimes folks just need a bit of a push.

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Found a “wiper’s nest” on a MARAD RO/RO -one of the Cape I. ships - Was a nice set-up: some spare wood planks with a pillow/bed roll all nice & comfy down in the bilge area. Couldn’t be seen normally but I got some penalty hours and B I N G O ! ROFL!

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