Ships: A Risky Business - Captain George Livingstone

Another interesting article by Capt. Livingstone. Ships: A Risky Business

The main point of the article is that if risk is mitigated by avoiding difficult situations then mariners will never gain good skill that they would if they have to dodge disaster.

The problem with that approach is that it ignores the consequences of something going wrong.

For example say there is a tug and barge alongside a pier on the river due to sail. It’s night time, winds are brisk and the current is unfavourable.

More than a little skill will be needed, the question is should the vessel sail?

The answer is it depends on the consequences of failure. If it’s an oil barge and the river hazards are rock ledges, than some mitigation is called for.

On the other hand if it’s a empty gravel barge an the river banks and bottom are mud it might be OK to sail.

If the river is mud and it’s a gravel barge the person piloting the tug is going to get just as good experience successfully getting the tug and barge out to sea but with out the risk of an oil spill.

Risk management requires we consider the consequences of failure.


“Smooth seas never made a skilled sailor.”
- Capt. Steve Zissou
R/V Belafonte

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The subject of this thread is an important one and of great interest.

I would liken encountering heavy weather to an emergency. Hopefully we do not require experiencing a major shipboard fire to learn fire-fighting lessons. What we would like to do instead is learn lessons from the experience of others and by conducting effective drills.

A second point is the matter of feedback. If you find yourself handling a vessel in heavy weather the feedback is, for the most part, immediate. If you make a mistake you’'ll be rewarded right away (pounding, rolling, sea on board etc). By contrast the feedback from time spent studying upper air charts is more difficult to appreciate short term.

Also, while in heavy weather it’s too late to learn the principles. Better to learn heavy weather tactics and applicable stability theory before encountering heavy weather. It will greatly speed up the learning process once you’re in it.

I spent most of the first 25 years of my career sailing in Alaska, I’m no stranger to bad weather.

My first trip as Master I encountered weather north of Bermuda that was worse than anything I’d seen all the years working my way up the ranks. I think one of the Horizon vessels was caught in the same blow and had to medivac their chief mate off when he got hurt. I was fortunate that no one on my ship got hurt but we were hove to for the better part of 36 hours. There was cargo damage from poorly lashed break bulk cargo.

You are correct that you find out really quickly what works and what does not. I’d read about and discussed heavy weather handling with various captains I’d sailed with, but the first time its you calling the heading and RPM’s is a whole different can of worms. I didn’t leave the bridge for the first twelve hours.

I think the subject of heavy weather shiphandling could fill a week long class at any of the schools and would be beneficial to anyone wanting to sail as Master.


Yeah, that’s a class I’d take.

I had a little chat with Jesus (I’m an agnostic in seas less than 10 meters) in 2008 crossing the Bay of Biscay.

When I worked on a small twin-screw ship in Alaska as mate I used to enjoy working helm and throttle to pick my way around the big stuff. When you’re in 15 meter seas on a RO/RO with a mix of military and commercial high/heavy load along with high end new cars it ain’t so fun.


I spent ten years working on a supply boat in the North Sea, which was actually pretty easy stuff. You’ve just got to keep the doors closed and make sure you’re always holding on, but as a young man I spent time in the North Atlantic, and have written about it - to which I provide a link because I think it would be a help for the people who don’t know anything about bad weather.


Another disagreement I have with the article is the assumption that “risk management” is something new. It’s not, mariners have been doing risk management since man first went to sea.

Using the more general term “risk management” and calling heavy seas and fog “risk factors” does not change the simple good seamanship of recognizing risk and doing something about it. The only thing that changed is the use of more generic language to describe what is happening.

This is from the article.

There is some discussion that suggests overall risk can be managed, almost entirely, by changing the philosophy of how work is accomplished. ‘Management’ is the key word in this argument for reducing risk in marine transportation. The focus moves away from professional skill and toward overall managing risk through strict control. The basic concept is to simplify actual maneuvers and keep from doing work that has higher risk, thus reducing risk.

Following along this line, individual evolutions are canceled if elevated risk (wind, fog, etc.) is determined to exist. Upon initial reflection this seems to have merit, if the situation is more closely controlled through management, it would seem to follow there would be a reduction in risk. This has appeal and there is no shortage of proponents for it.

Calling off boat operations when the swell works up or putting out extra anchor chain when the wind increases, taking more frequent fixes in restricted waters are all examples of risk management. Nobody believes that taking standard precautions somehow eliminates risk.

Experienced mariners need to be able to communicate how they think about risk. It is helpful to have the language and terms such as “risk management”, “risk factors” and “mitigation” to communicate to less experienced mariners and shore-side staff how risk affects shipboard operations.


Quoting a quote within your quote if that makes any sense. This sums up everything wrong with the current state of the industry in my opinion. Our professional skills as mariners are being swept aside so “managers” ashore can dictate how the vessel is going to be operated. The majority of these managers have never spent a day at sea in the capacity of a senior officer.

I’m just getting tired of the business school jargon and tactics that people seem to think translates into the marine operations environment. It is a unique business with risk management that sometimes comes down to the difference between life and death. (not trying to be melodramatic here). You can’t sit in an office with pie charts on the wall “mitigating risk” in day to day operations onboard a ship at sea. That is what they pay us the medium bucks to do and that is where decades of experience doing the job kick in.

You know. What shipping companies used to value in the mariners they hired. Autonomy and the ability to get the job done.


I’m with you on that. I have to say listening to some know-nothing yapping on about “risk management” grates on my nerves big time.

But, if you can’t beat em join em. If the office weenies start beating me with a bat called “risk management” I’'ll reframe my “good seamanship” as "risk management. I can swing a bat harder and with more accuracy in any case. I like turning their bullshit around and using it on them.


In my experience, the majority of individuals who espouse “risk management” do so because being risk averse interferes with their business plan.




I took a 1/2 day class in risk assessment / management a few years back, I’ve found that on an informal basis the basic concepts and terms have been helpful to think through operation plans in a methodical way and using the terminology is useful to explain to crew a “good seamanship” approach.

I’ve never experienced a full on official version of risk management like what the Coast Guard uses (used?). COMDTINST 3500.3. I’m sceptical that it’s much more than a pencil whipping exercise but I don’t know.

I have been involved in risk management for many years, and if addressed properly it is just one of the tools available to us to keep people safe but in terms of this discussion you might like the following which was part of the conclusions by the Danish MAIB about the sinking of the Maersk S Class ships under tow: “This means that the risk management system does not help its user to manage risk, and that the assessment of the risk reduction is highly sensitive to one or more individuals’ subjective risk perception, which will be strongly influenced by the desire to make the operation possible. Thereby, the risk management system will rarely limit activities prone to risk. In fact, the risk management system instead tends to facilitate the carrying out of risk prone operations.”


So, are they saying “risk management” is not a good thing; may even make the likelihood of failure greater?

It isn’t really simple, but the technique used by Maersk involved a table with columns. In one column they would identify the risk, for instance, the possibility of the ships damaging each other. Then they would give it a number - frequency and consequence. The number might be high enough to make the operation unacceptable, in this case we would think something only a loony would contemplate. But then they mitigated the problem by putting yokohamas between the ships, and then give it another number which - amazingly - makes the risk acceptable. None of it has anything to do with assessing risk, it has to do with validating what is a dangerous activity. Hence instead of reducing the risk, the risk assessment process increases it.


This is a financial site, not operations, but interesting: 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover

The point of risk management is not to prevent failure, for that is impossible. The point is to have a plan ready to manage and control failure when it inevitably comes.

In my experience for operations and navigation it’s important to have plan. When things start to not go according to plan the question that must be asked is what’s happening that we didn’t anticipate?

Classic example of what Richard Feynman called “Cargo Cult Science:”



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Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. There is a very great distinction because when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: the very definition of “emergency” is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning.

So, the first thing you do is to take all the plans off the top shelf and throw them out the window and start once more. But if you haven’t been planning you can’t start to work, intelligently at least.

– Dwight Eisenhower. The whole lecture is worth reading:



…only for the man who, knowing with precision what he should expect, is able to recognize that something has gone wrong.”
― Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

“Truth emerges more readily from error than from confusion.”
― Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

He should make fun of MY religion. I’ve been a true believer in the Cargo Cult since my days In the South Pacific.
As a deliverer of cargo to the island we were treated as prophets of the God Cargo, who was President Lyndon B Johnson.

One storey was told about a bright young man from one of the islands in the Bismarck Archipelago that was sent to a mission school in Kavieng to learn about the world, which he did very well. When he returned to his home island he convinced the Elders to dig up their savings of coins, which was meant to be used to buy “one fella Johnson” (Outboard motor) and he would go to America to buy President Johnson.

Being a bright and educated fella he went back to Kavieng and lived the good life with his “onetok” for a few months, until he was broke. When he returned he told the Elders that the money wasn’t enough to buy President Johnson, so they just had to build another air strip and hope that Cargo would come.

That sounds like the system the Navy uses on the LCS ships. Look at how much verbiage was given to performing the “Makin Island Circulation Procedure” on the USS Freedom rather than knowing what they were doing and why.