The Two Lessons Deck Officers Can Learn on Tugs

That and more are all in this single comment on a Brad Delong post.

Homer’s Odyssey Blogging: “Like Little Birds… They Writhed with Their Feet… But for No Long While…”

That quote refers to when Odysseus returns home and kills his female slaves by hanging.

The first lesson is how tug crew interact which I mentioned a couple time but have never really been able to explain, this is good:

But among that depiction you get what I think of as the essential Drake thing, which is a vehicle crew. They may not like each other much; they may not, in some senses of the word, trust one another. But they are entirely predictable to one another, and reliable. And it’s that obligation of reliability that lets people…

Larger crews by default tend to devolve into smaller groups, each with it’s own goals and priorities.

The second lesson is this:

"theory informs; practice convinces.

On a large ship tasks are divvied up such that no one crew member has to confront how little they understand things beyond their own specialty. Deck officers can get by with only the most superficial understanding of engineering, which seems weird given how mechanical complex modern ships are.

Here is the cure:

If you want people to exhibit empathy for those whose state is not theirs and whose expertise is different, you need to make most of education involve failure; do this material thing at which you are unskilled. Allowing education to be narrow, and to avoid all reminder that the world is wider and that to a first approximation everyone is utterly incompetent, just encourages arrogance. Arrogance is terrible insecurity management; it makes the other monkeys less inclined to help you. (Yes of course we should overtly teach both insecurity management and band forming best practices in simple overt language.)

[0]I do not mean “fight in a war”; I mean “use power tools”, “split wood/use an axe”, “build something to keep the rain off and sleep under it”, “assemble a pontoon bridge”, “portage in haste”, “use a wood-fired oven”, “make jam” (think about the failure modes for a minute), and such like; all of these things can hurt or kill you, and at group scales you can’t possibly take sufficient care of yourself by yourself…

@freighterman1 has mentioned this as well. Learning to navigate using fixes, DRs and tracklines and so forth and then having to navigate the length of the inside passage by eye and no tools except a simple radar was a lesson for me in how little I knew.

Towing was the same thing again.


There is a subtle but important difference between a fighting vehicle crew and a tug crew. The vehicle crew derive their strength from each member having a thorough understanding of their own tasks, established through drill. Thus, each order (in turn defined by a stringent framework) has a singular response. In theory, this ensures that all members of all crews behave exactly alike, so that the vehicle responds with machine like precision to input from the platoon commanders, etc. It also means that crew members can be replaced with a minimum of teething problems.

Where vehicle crew members operate with a narrow and precise understanding of their own tasks, a boat crew derives its strength from a wider understanding of the task at hand. A harmonious crew can perform all kinds of maneuvers without any orders being issued at all, because each member understands the other members’ tasks as well as his own. The deck hand understands what I’m trying to do, so he knows when to set the spring just as well as I do.

This is one of the reasons why I encourage my crew to take the wheel during maneuvers, and push them out of their comfort zone as quickly as it develops. The sooner the deck hand is able to perform maneuvers with some confidence, the sooner we reach the non-verbal stage.


I agree with this and it is the point I was trying to make in general terms.

But I don’t think military/civilian is the right breakdown. Not an organizational thing, it’s a social thing. The more relevant factor is large crew vs small crew. Dynamic with a small crew is different.

I took “vehicle crew” to be any small crew faced with an obvious hazard that has a high dependence upon the other crew members. Could be a tug crew, firefighting crew, mountain climbing group, an aircraft crew and so forth.

I’m not sure why I thought he was referring to armored fighting vehicles. You may very well be right, as I can’t make much sense of his examples.

It is my experience with military training that there is great emphasis on removing independent thought from the decision making loop. While the end result with a highly experienced and integrated crew might be similar, it is a different approach from what works best for me.

Your approach I think is the right one. I wasn’t thinking in terms of military/commercial but large crew/small crew.

I think the large/small dynamic would apply to the military as well but the military also has a requirement to maintain their (obsolete in my view) officer/enlisted caste/class system which tends to obscure the other charerteristics which they have in common with the commercial side.

It arises from the necessity of commanding people to go out and kill – and die – under pain of death if they refuse. I don’t think it’s obsolete.

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I didn’t really want to discuses the military system but I’m not talking about the need for officers, the commercial side has them well and it more or less works.

I was talking about the social class system, petty officers and commissioned officers for example the military uses. The basis is commissioned are a higher social class than the petty officers

You could just think of them as a different class. I once worked with a Senior Chief who then went on to Master Chief. He was a great guy. But his view was that the enlisted were far superior to the officers. He would not have ever though about crossing that line from a real sailor to officer. And in many ways (at least in the military), he has a point.