Leadership and the Maritime Academies

My background is non-academy, 40 years from enlisted Coast Guard to unlimited master. I’m far less impressed with the “leadership” of academy trained merchant officers than they are of themselves.

Four years in the military I never saw or heard of an officer loosing his cool and screaming at anyone. It would have been considered unprofessional. Yet on the MM side I’ve witnesses it numerous times, captains, chief mates and Chief Engineers, verbal abuse of cadets and junior officers seems like a hobby for some senior officers.

Learning teamwork? Is that a joke? On how many deep-sea ships does the captain and chief hate each other? The deck and engine department in a low level war with each other? Or the senior officers of one crew constant talking shit about the other crew?

I recall on one container ship the C/E sitting with his arms crossed over his confederate flag T-shirt staring daggers at everyone that entered the mess, everyone ate and left as quickly as possible including the captain.

I don’t know if those officers lacked the skills required to improve the situation or didn’t understand why it’s a problem.


It happens. Maybe you had a smooth enlistment, but it sure as hell happens out there. Where no union exists the abuses of power definitely happen and every card in the deck is stacked against you, especially as an enlisted man.

10 years at sea and I have not seen this once. It’s not a reflection of their education if it does, just egos clashing.

That’s a pretty broad brush you swipe with there. Hawsepipers are not immune to their share of the types of people you speak of. And based on what I hear from some of the veterans in these schools and in the fleet, you get exactly what you speak of happening on the ships you have been on aboard naval vessels, from USNA grads no less. Captain Holly Graf, anyone? Bueller? Bueller?


I am of the opinion that merchant officers with attitude problems didn’t learn those behaviors at the academy. To me it’s wholly dependent on the caliber of person attracted to leadership positions in the merchant marine. Unfortunately, I’ve always suspected the merchant marine attracts people who can’t handle leadership or simply aren’t leaders at all, but who still have dreams of being a petty tyrant or Napoleon type. After their dreams are crushed ashore, they seek our life at sea because books they’ve read and shows they’ve watched tell them they can “be in charge” and “take command” at sea. Our industry attracts wannabe dictators like no other and with no shoreside oversight once at sea they fulfill their own stereotypes heartily. Again, not an academy thing. A personnel thing.


I may kid around about engine v deck conflicts, but I can say that there are only one or two captains that I sailed with that I had any real issues with. Oddly enough, neither were Academy grads. One did have some serious mental issues, and was a screamer, manic depressive pathological liar. . . but when he wasn’t screaming, we got along pretty well, because we had to. Most of my time at sea was on tugs and an ATB. Smaller crews especially won’t work well if there is any antagonism between departments. To be honest, I don’t think that I have ever screamed or put down any of my assistants, or anyone in the deck department, regardless of how badly they may have deserved it. . .


The argument that “hawsepipers do it too” does not show that the academies provide good leadership training.

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I understand the positive experience you and Condor may have had, but that is of a bygone age. Everything I see at the academies is for show, look sharp for the parents/alumni/visitors etc. Some of the kids get it and make an effort to really learn and understand (I have no doubt those few will be fine once they leave). The others however I wouldn’t trust to wash my car. A great deal of it is simply apathy, “C’s get degree’s” and “Good enough” two of the most common utterances I hear (it’s one thing to say it and another to actually live by it).

In regards to the Regimental staff, the inability to take constructive feedback or acknowledge potential areas of change is detrimental. It’s all a business and the response that myself and others have gotten regarding issues is what you would expect from a business that already has your money.

PS - I never would have imagined that I would experience a greater degree of reciprocity in the service than in a private institution of higher learning.

PPS - Also to clarify I don’t by any means think I am perfect, I simply think people can always do better, I think I can always do better.

My working theory is that the training at the schools is based not on the military but on the perception of what the military is like. Perhaps from watching movies with marine corps drill sergeants.

The thing about military ships is that the hierarchy is respected. In general an E-2 working on deck doesn’t have to worry about every crew member with a higher rank, just the E-5 or 6 running the deck unless it’s the formal discipline system.

By contrast going on board a merchant ship as a deck officer if there is trouble with, say the bos’n or other crew you better watch your step until you figure out which way the wind is blowing. Any crewmember might be buddies with the captain, or the C/E might come along and decide he’s running the deck.


This 100%, which is odd sometimes given that we have staff that are prior service (albeit non-enlisted).


That’s some excellent insight. Very accurate in my experience.

My point is good leaders are hard to come by from just about anywhere these days. And enough veterans in the cadet ranks who compare life on the training ship to time on surface combatants leads me to believe the military suffers these days from the same problems. Different ingredients in the same stew.


One day we got 6" of snow. I wore some muckboots to muster. I beat down a path for several other students who were wearing the standard dress shoes. Of course when we got inside I got bitched at for wearing the “incorrect” footwear. Does the regiment at Maine want people to be leaders/thinkers prepared for the industry? No, they just want cookie cutter cadets with polished shoes and belt buckles.

I don’t care if they taught you not to wear a hat during dinner. Is that important? Does that help you pull a pump? Does it help you do valve lash? Navigate a ship?

I didn’t even see a hydraulic jack until I had my license. Sure as shit spent hours and hours and hours standing there at muster though.


I also am non maritime academy trained but I can’t draw any correlation between hawsepipers, ex military or academy grads insofar as leadership is concerned. In retrospect the one common thread I see when I have experienced poor leaders in any department is they lack confidence in their own ability or are afraid of their job. In some cases they are just jealous and wish they had taken a different career path. I lay a lot of the blame on companies keeping poor leaders in a position of leadership. On delivery of a drillship I was warned of the mecurial captain before I went on board. I ignored the warnings as I had been misinformed before. However, in this case the warnings were spot on. The guy, a hawsepiper, would go off for no reason. When it happened with me I called the company office and told them about the affair and I would be departing at the next port. They understood. When I asked them why they kept such a person they said he keeps the client happy. Yes, he has a high crew turnover rate but the client likes him and they pay the bills.


On military ships the behavior of the officers is evidence that they understand how the hierarchy is supposed to work.

In both cases military and commercial everyone understands that this hierarchy restricts the authority of the lower ranked crew. What is better understood on the military side but not so much on the merchant side is the same hierarchy restricts the authority of the superior officers as well.

For example the C/M shouldn’t have to worry about the C/E wanting to run the deck, or the captain supervising the bos’n. The Chief shouldn’t have to worry about the captain interfering in E/R operations.


Sure, Captain Blowhard, know him well, his type at least. It’s a fact that people confuse confidence with competence.

The trick here is to be Captain Blowhard in the office or with certain visitors but not on the ship with the crew. Took me a while to figure it out but it’s not difficult.

In a meeting with the office weenies talk and act confident, amplify body language, talk loudly, interrupt other people when they are talking and don’t worry too much if you know what your talking about or not. I can do it for a full twenty minutes at a time but that’s all it takes in my experience.

On the ship where it matters don’t have to act like that. All the world’s a stage.

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I just paid off a ship with an oldman like that, also he couldn’t stop carrying on about his one glory day


I’ve noticed some captains have a good inventory of sea stories where they are not necessarily the hero but where the crew is a bunch of clowns and the captain somehow always manages to pull it off in spite of bungling by the crew.

Also this from comedian Sarah Cooper. The one that lip syncs Trump


I worked shoreside before coming to sea to get away from meetings. That they have become a “thing” out here now, particularly with the pandemic making everyone in the office eager to show they are doing something from home, is really disheartening. God they are intolerable…

Oh I’m sorry, we were talking about leadership weren’t we.
Carry on.


The interminable meetings for no purpose other than “it’s time for a meeting” are a major waste of time. When the drilling business started having morning conference calls with the senior management onboard I thought it was the stupidest thing I had seen. The conference calls were invariably about safety or operational issues that involved few actual participants but you them away for an hour from their jobs. I agree, most meetings are job justification.
For years in the shipping business we made do quite well with discussing distance made good, fuel burned along with any operational or major personnel issues which required shoreside support at the next port. Usually took less than 5 to 10 minutes maximum. Of course doing that over WOM , KMI etc was expensive so only the important things were discussed which is as it should be.


Meetings can sometimes be useful.

When I was C/M and I sailed with Capt Blowhard we used to have monthly meeting about maintenance.

The ship was a continuous shit show and meeting was good opportunity to point it out. For example the captain would say Job A wasn’t done last month because the tech didn’t show up. I’d no, he showed up but he couldn’t to the job because nobody expected him to show and no one was ready so he left.

And so forth, job not done because material not aboard or this and that. Captain Blowhard hated the meetings and stopped having them.


He should run for president.