COLUMN | Creative worry and how to address it [Tug Times]

(Representative photo only)

A wise old bird who was given the unenviable task of teaching me to drive a supply boat told me early in the process that I should never take the boat into any situation unless I could see at least two ways to get out of it again when things went wrong.

It was excellent advice although later, in towage and salvage, I discovered there are cases where you are lucky if you can see just one way out.

As a result, I often found my mind racing as I considered various possibilities and tried to assess whether they were going to be safe. I thought I must be a timid wimp and considered myself fortunate that I managed to keep the panic inside whilst still appearing calm on the outside. As far as I am aware, my team never realised what a cowardly excuse for a leader they had working with them.

Now, when it is too late, I discover there is a name for my condition – creative worry.

“My problem is my inability to see how any of this helps the tug or salvage master when decisions have to be made on the spot.”

Perhaps creative worry can best be described as a process of considering various responses to a given problem and deciding which of these responses is likely to result in the most favourable and safest outcome.

I discovered the term in a recent report by DNV and Lloyd’s List Intelligence produced in response to a sudden deterioration in safety. Apparently, safety was generally improving in the decade before the pandemic, but in 2022, there was a nine per cent increase in unsafe incidents, driven largely by a 12 per cent rise in incidents involving machinery damage or failure.

The report advocates focusing on establishing strong safety cultures in order to navigate the great transformations that are underway in the industry.

“There is clearly a need to better understand the safety risks of technologies and operational methods being adopted to promote greater efficiency and lower emissions,” a DNV spokesperson stated. “Maritime needs to embrace a top-to-bottom safety culture giving equal weight to managing human, organisational, and technological risk in what we call the ‘HOT’ approach. Our report makes it plain that competence is about more than skills and abilities within the traditional maritime disciplines on board. It should also encompass elements assessed in a safety-culture evaluation…..The dimension of creative worry sharpens the eyes and keeps the mind alert to what might happen. This way of thinking can be taught in simulators….”

There is much more in a similar vein, but I expect you get the drift. DNV has a hot new acronym, literally, and will no doubt be prepared to assist owners for a modest fee. My problem is my inability to see how any of this helps the tug or salvage master when decisions have to be made on the spot and there is no time to build a risk matrix or book a course in a simulator.

Traditionally, the people tasked with making these decisions have years of experience and plenty of creative worry to assist them. I would argue that practical experience is the key to making decisions in emergency situations. I spent five years in a salvage company as an understudy before my boss trusted me to do even a simple salvage without supervision and, as a result, I managed to avoid killing anyone.

“During the Second World War, when ships were torpedoed, it was the old sailors who responded best.”

The other problem I have is that the DNV initiative will simply add another layer of courses and instruction to an industry that is already top-heavy with extra things we need to know to be fit for purpose in the modern age. It takes roughly ten years to train a captain or chief engineer, yet at the end of the process, we are not considered to have sufficient safety awareness or the makings of a robust safety culture. The logical conclusion must be that our training is no longer equipping us with the skills we need and, if this is true, then we need to stop tinkering and completely revise the training, to tear the whole thing down and rebuild it so it meets the needs of the modern mariner.

I would start my new training system by learning a lesson from history. During the Second World War, Lawrence Holt, a director of Blue Funnel and nephew of the legendary Alfred, noticed that when his ships were torpedoed, it was the old sailors who responded best. Younger men were more likely to go to pieces, and if the crew had to abandon ship and spend an extended period in the lifeboats, it was the younger men who died first. Holt insisted that faulty training was the cause of many unnecessary deaths.

“I would rather entrust the lowering of a lifeboat in mid-Atlantic to a sail-trained octogenarian than to a young sea technician who is completely trained in the modern way but has never been sprayed by salt water,” Holt said to Kurt Hahn, a German educator who had been forced to flee the Nazis and after arrival in the UK had founded Gordonstoun School.

Hahn thought the problem was less about age and more about having a shared experience of overcoming challenging conditions, so he proposed starting a new kind of school at Aberdovey in Wales to provide a one-month course to foster physical fitness, enterprise, tenacity, and compassion in young people. Holt agreed, and since the courses were aimed at young seafarers about to go to sea for the first time, they agreed to name the school Outward Bound. Nowadays, Outward Bound has schools all over the world but, sadly, young seafarers are no longer sent there.

In my new training system (or even in the present one) I would send all new recruits, from all ranks, on a one-month Outward Bound-type course before they do anything else. They would emerge with more self-confidence, an appreciation of teamwork and creative worry, better fitness, the beginnings of a respect for safety, and a more tolerant and compassionate view of the world.

Of course it will never happen, but it could, and probably should.

Alan Loynd

Alan Loynd is a master mariner with extensive seagoing and shore experience, especially in the areas of salvage and towage. He is the former General Manager of the renowned Hong Kong Salvage and Towage company. He now runs his own marine consultancy and was chairman of the International Tugmasters Association.