We seem to take for granted the learning process when it comes to many things, not the least of which includes our physical motor skills and our cognitive ability to quantify a situation as good or bad. Let’s take walking for example, you learn how to balance and toddle along very young, much to your mother’s delight. Soon after that, the joyful look on Mom’s face becomes terror when you’ve learned how to run, and of course, you run with abandon everywhere. You haven’t learned when it’s okay to run, you just run. But in trying to teach you, Mom and Dad had to let you take a couple of falls. Soon enough you get the idea that running is good some of the time, but not a good idea all of the time. The first time you touch something hot serves a painful lesson, but it’s then we learn that fire is hot and ice is cold. All the skills we acquire as we grow lead us to becoming an adult with the capacity to view our world as a collection of safe/unsafe, fun/scary, dangerous/fun or stupid moves.
When in comes to tugs and tows one could spend all day describing the mind-set needed by a boat handler but in the end it has to be learned. The training wheels come off pretty early and the actual boat handling begins as soon as the ticket is in hand. The hard part isn’t what one might think, it’s not the timing of the throttle or depth perception, it’s situational awareness.
All of the things that come into play while maneuvering a tug and tow for transits, docking, sailings, or re-configuring are subject to being re-evaluated as they progress or deteriorate using every input, hunch, suspicion, or sensation. Recognizing that things have gone bad is not easy. You’d think it would be in your gut, but novice boat handlers don’t have the judgement or experience that exposes the “bad stuff” early in the maneuver. Knowing when to pull the plug is the hard part. Recognizing it too late and then pushing a bad situation in the hopes of saving the day will end badly. So it serves a boatman to understand his limitations well before any operation is undertaken. Proper planning prevents piss poor performance.
The towing industry is a contact sport, shit happens and we’ve all had our share of “bell ringers” and bad days. The key is to learn from them. But, recognizing the threshold of disaster is a difficult matter when it comes to to training someone for it. In order to make that determination, you have to see things go bad and “live it”. That threshold is usually reached well before things go wrong. The chain of failure starts earlier than one might think (these days referred to as the “root cause”). When a novice is training he practices voyage planning, sailings, transits, and dockings. He or she is watched and guided to safely execute the maneuvers, but they need to be allowed to screw it up (to a point). The best lesson is one that has some “pucker factor” at work. The greater the “pucker”, the more unforgettable the lesson.
The mark of a mature boatman is apparent when and how he deals with a bad situation. Any novice who’s had a bit of time behind the wheel can sail and dock a barge when conditions are ideal. The test comes when everything you thought you knew comes up short, then the fact that you won’t do anything new in an emergency becomes evident. How you handle an adverse turn of events comes from learning how to expect the unexpected and being prepared to deal with it.
One of the most important skills is to know is when to start over. It’s “plan B”.
The saying; “Physics is a bitch” couldn’t be more accurate. The behavior of the tow’s mass and inertia can be calculated and parsed to the nth degree. But who really does that? Well actually we do, when we check the current, wind, traffic, and our gut. Quoting a post in the Captain forum from a Captain to a new mate, “Son, never approach a dock faster than you’d want to hit it”. The approach and landing is generally a controlled crash. We’re talking inches per second.
Giving thought to how we should proceed involves planning for as many contingencies as we can think of. Time on deck provides the means to acquire that judgement. But watching someone having a bad day is not as indelible as having the bad day yourself. That crystalline intensity isn’t there.
Every deckhand with some time under his belt utters the same monologue when the pilothouse is having a problem. He knows exactly where the poor bastard went wrong and has the answer to all things “tugboat” until he himself is at the helm envisioning all too late what he should have done. There isn’t a working boatman alive that can claim he has never had a reportable damage. You can’t be in this industry and not have had an incident. It’s the nature of the job. Incidents that don’t get you or anyone else killed or maimed serve as educational opportunities. You (hopefully) never forget the “lesson learned”.
With luck and determination, a good number of candidates for the wheelhouse survive their “baptisms by fire” and turn out to be competent and capable boat-handlers. Most recognize that their careers are ongoing educational seminars at “Tugboat U”. The number of years one is on the job is not insurance against error. Even with 30+ years at the wheel, errors occur. They don’t happen as often, but they happen none the less. Overestimating rudder power and underestimating the wind could turn a simple approach to an “all astern frantic” exercise. With luck it becomes a footnote and lesson learned, catch it too late, disaster.
Allowing for error during training is one of the most difficult lines to walk in this business. Every trainer has a different comfort level and each trainee is unique. Some are granted a bit more leash while others are held a little more tightly until their skills improve and allow for more freedom from intervention. Overall, the aim is to expand the limits of one’s skill level when it comes to error management. The only practical way to do that is to let the situation develop and address it. If you haven’t been allowed to deal with a bad situation, you’ll never be able to defuse one. It sounds like a “Catch 22” but the many factors that have an effect on decision making can’t be listed in a curriculum.
The U.S. Navy has intensive and expensive training for damage-control and fire fighting. They practice air combat maneuvers and test the mettle of their people in relatively controlled environments. The intensity of having water up to your ass while you plug a hole in the hull or flames licking at your heels knocking down an engine room fire, or someone at your six with “missile lock”. It’s about as real as it can get, but it’s still a training exercise. The ship isn’t really sinking or afire and that missile isn’t really heading for your tailpipe.
On tugs, we have to create these training opportunities as we work. We don’t have the luxury of the reset button. The set-up and execution of specific maneuvers are conducted in the real world with little room for dramatic errors. Some elements are frequently encountered during the hitch. We see wind, current and traffic every day. We deal with strange berth assignments that test our close quarter maneuvering skills daily. We utilize assist boats not too differently than docking masters on large ships. When an assist boat is used, the equation now includes another whole set of considerations. Not the least of which would be keeping it in position safely and using it to its greatest advantage. All of these skills are learned on the job, not in school.
It’s been mentioned that simulators would be useful in giving wheelhouse candidates a safer environment to experience their “Kobiyashi Maru Incident”. I can agree to a point, the quality of simulators has improved dramatically in the last ten years but the reset button is still there. It’s an expensive course of limited value in my opinion. I can’t say that I would have a lot of faith in a trainee telling me that he had the high score on the simulator as we are on approach to Hell’s Gate drawing 25′ at max flood, eastbound, meeting a westbound deep draft sailboat in mid-channel. There’s a whole lot more at stake then a grade at that point.