Archive for April, 2009

Rounding Corlears Hook 2/25/09

Rounding Corlears Hook 2/25/09 by Dan Russell

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I’m sure it’s every Personnel office’s dream that they could send any man to any vessel and have him become an equal member of that team on arrival.  If each man in the talent pool carries the same qualifications and experience from a broad range of vessels, it should be no problem at all, in theory.

I’ve been victim and witness to the practice employed that requires personnel to (necessarily) serve on many different vessels during the course of a year usually in respect to replacing an ill  and/or absent crew member.  So many different vessels that the lack of familiarity adds to the confusion suffered while the general alarm is ringing and our wondering (half asleep) which vessel we’re really on.

On top of that, many resist the idea of regular drills thinking its too burdensome or unnecessary.  The drills are required by law, but logic tells us that the drills are for us, not the authorities, the authorities are  generally a long way off when the shit hits the fan.

In 1982 I was serving as Mate on a small coastal self-propelled barge.  I mentioned to the Captain that we hadn’t had a drill in a while. He acknowledged my observation by ringing the general alarm that evening just as I was sitting down to my dinner.  Of course, the drill wasn’t a complete disaster but it could have been much better.  After the Master critiqued our admittedly pitiful performance I answered, “I thought that’s what the drills are for Cap, to point out what we need to improve, right?”  It is why we perform drills, and perform them until we know how and what we’re doing.

When I worked for the East Coast Branch of Exxon Shipping Company Inland Division (I know it’s a mouthful), it was not at all unusual to be told to “take gear” prior to departing the vessel on crew change day so you will have all your stuff when reporting next hitch to a possibly different vessel, it was referred to as a Shanghai.  On reporting for the next hitch one could have been assigned to any of 10 very different vessels.  They were all properly equipped, but they were all configured differently. Different enough that you really had to investigate and fix in your mind where everything was once you got aboard.

It was maddening, almost no time to get acclimated was allowed and the confusion that ensued during the initial drills made it obvious we weren’t safe.  It was advisable to keep crib notes in your pocket so you had a quick reminder of where you were.

The truth of the matter is, for a while and even if fully crewed, any boat is going to be shorthanded (operationally) until each new crew member gets it clear which boat they’re on.  The fog of confusion that greets a general alarm when it wakes you from a deep sleep lasts long enough that precious time can be lost as one gets their act together and responds in the correct way to the correct place, never mind doing it in the dark.  It’s a situation many of us deal with every hitch or so, there’s a new guy on board that will need some extra attention until he settles in.

It’s easy to understand the need for drills in the first 24 hours after crew change.  We need to get familiar in a hurry, an emergency isn’t going to wait while we work on being an effective team.  Professionals know and acknowledge the many hurdles we face when we get underway, our preparedness is not negotiable.  The way things work and how we muster to respond is fairly standard, we recogize the equipment and can adapt to slightly different configurations quickly but the longer we have served and drilled on a specific vessel the better we can respond to an emergency on that vessel.  It’s just natural, as one becomes more attuned to their environment the quicker an issue can be addressed.

Spend a certain amount of time with a specific vessel and crew and you learn to work as a team and are aware of the strengths as well as the weaknesses in the team.  Only after a period of time do we cultivate a solid team mentality and the ability to address serious issues effectively.  It comes as no surprise that the new guy is going to be a bit lost during the first few drill rotations, but with repetition and familiarity and practicing with his crew, he becomes integral and dependable.

The main thing I ask any new crew member to do when they’re coming aboard the first time is to locate every piece of safety gear on-board.  It requires him to climb throughout the entire boat and list each and every thing he can find that is safety related.   The ISM code and company policy require he be given an orientation to acquaint him with all aspects he will be responsible for and then some.  As prudent and practical as that seems it’s only a small part of what he’ll need to get up to speed when responding to an emergency.

He needs to bond with the crew and get familiar with the boat.  I found Joel Milton’s article “Know your boat” to be quite appropriate in this case, since it touches on a disaster that showed what can happen with a crew that isn’t intimately aware of their vessels limitations and capabilities.  So many stories revolve around the crew’s lack of knowledge regarding their stability (the Valour), or the limitations of nav gear.  The thing about it though, is that it doesn’t have to be that way.  More often these issues are being treated with at least an acknowledgment that moving crew members too often can have a deleterious effect on vessel and crew safety.

The tug Valour was a fatal example of not knowing your vessel.  It was also a wake-up call for us all regarding proper communication and procedures.  Understanding the limitations and abilities of the entire crew is part of the definition of being “sea-worthy”, and keeping a proper lookout.  In case you haven’t seen it, here’s the time-line and final report on a subject that is worth revisiting time and again.

Crews will continue to be assigned rotations to different vessels as necessary to fully crew a company’s boats.  It is incumbent on the crews themselves to get familiar as quickly as possible to deal with emergencies as they arise, and they will.


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