How did you learn your trade? Was it through your close application to textbooks – or these days – through a computer in the interactive teaching sessions that are all the rage? Did you become the expert you are in a simulator, with exciting electronics and amazing graphics imprinting knowledge upon your brain?
Or perhaps you learned “on the job”; doing the work of running a ship, with experienced and knowledgeable mentors looking over your shoulder and keeping you on the straight and narrow? These are serious inquiries that deserve an answer, because within this interrogation might lie some of the clues as to why too many accidents happen at sea.
In my working lifetime in the shipping industry, there have been so many changes, in such quick succession, that we have, it seems, insufficient time to draw breath before we are on to the next one. Whether the next change is beneficial or not, is almost incidental. It’s going to happen, anyway
In an experience-based profession, where expertise is gained by hands-on work, the role of the mentor is absolutely vital. And while theoretical knowledge is important and an essential backdrop, it should not surely be at the expense of that “on the job” experience.
It is interesting to see a number of professions which have arguably been over-intellectualised by replacing hands-on experience with academic work. Nursing, so my wife (who was a traditionally-trained ward sister) likes to tell me, is a classic example of a job which has lost its way through such an overlay of academia.
Might maritime training have gone down the same road? Captain Andre le Goubin, who is the Associate Director Marine of London Offshore Consultants and sees a lot of casualties in his job, believes that something has been lost with a lack of proper mentoring today. He sees the results of bad practice caused at least partly because there was nobody picking up on those bad habits before it became too late.
Speaking at a seminar to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Plymouth Nautical Degree Association, Captain le Goubin spoke of the value of mentoring in “transferring knowledge” from one generation to the next. For those of us of a certain age, this was precisely how we learned, from our officers, our masters and even from the bosuns and petty officers we worked with during an apprenticeship spent pretty well entirely aboard ship.
We learned the “company way” of doing things, because we were brought up to believe that it was the best, in an era where shipping companies retained an extraordinary degree of loyalty, from people who could look forward to a whole career under the same house flag.
And an important part of the system was the responsibility of the officers to train the apprentices and cadets, who would come along after them, and in turn, train the next generation. There was never any sense that officers were “too busy” to spend an hour working with the apprentices teaching them and checking their work.
And on the bridge or engine room, the watchkeeping officers would make very sure that the youngsters were properly trained to do their jobs. There was no option, either to teach, or to learn!
Somehow, argued Captain le Goubin, whose words will strike a lot of sympathetic notes around the world, we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. And it is not difficult to determine why this progression of knowledge from one generation to another has been so sadly interrupted.
He suggests that there is, in the frenetic lives led by the handful of people who operate ships, a shortage of time and opportunity to teach and mentor. People who are burdened with mostly meaningless bureaucracy and paperwork, which is identified as a priority, have little time to teach anyone. Then, while he didn’t say so, the demolition of the old company structure has clearly not helped.
The growth of casual labour at every level, the unlikely event that any cadets will be subsequently employed as junior officers, the growth of the manning agent – these are all changes that seem to be inimical to the continuity of expertise.
There is more time in classrooms, and less time at sea in which the experience can be handed on. There is more theoretical knowledge to be taken aboard, in the regulatory explosion that has changed shipboard life forever.
And then there is the problem of multinational and multicultural crews and above all, the issue of language. It is years since I made up a fictional incident in which the master called out for the starboard anchor to be dropped and two minutes later was presented with a prawn sandwich. Then came a letter from the master of an anchor handler in the Gulf who said that exactly the same had happened to him – only the filling in the sandwich was different.
We don’t seem to realise, even today, how important the link is between adequate mentoring and the passing down of experience and common language and comprehension. “We all panic in our own language” may be a familiar enough saying, but if the cadets and junior officers only understand half of what the master is telling them, the message is somewhat lost. It is a measure, perhaps, of the sheer stupidity that has resulted from our attempts to operate shipping on the cheap, as we have ignored, for the sake of convenience, the importance of a common language in the transmission of knowledge.