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Fairplay Look Out

26th February 2014

How ships move

What made Michael Schumacher so good was not his ability to guide a Formula 1 car around a circuit at astonishing speed, it was the role he played in a team of technicians with different, yet complementary skills.

Schumacher was a team player whose success was mostly the result of his team doing what they had practised over and over again. His expertise enabled him to diagnose a problem and describe it so concisely that it could be swiftly resolved. Sadly, he now needs a different team to keep him alive, a team of medics who have that same focus on each individual doing what they were trained to do. Being able to relate to the other members of the team is not always easy. In part it means doing the tasks, and taking the responsibilities, of each of the other team members.

That offers insight into the bigger picture and context for your own role. It’s likely that using the results from a survey, someone can show that successful teams are able to put their role into context, while those of us who work in unconnected silos fail to grasp the consequences of our actions.

Last week I asked a naval architect if he had ever been to sea. Apparently he hadn’t, other than a few months on purse seiners, longliners and other fishing vessels out of Norwegian west coast villages. Nevertheless, Sigmund Borgundvåg, the mind behind the UT designs for offshore vessels that have become the industry’s standard, has been able to combine his own experience of a small vessel in often-treacherous seas with feedback from the captains of the offshore ships he designed.

"The feedback gained by operations and technical teams ashore from an experienced team of senior officers should be invaluable"

He told me he learnt "how the sea moves"; his designs reflect that feedback just as surely as Ferrari and Mercedes designs reflected Schumacher’s feedback of how the car moved in the wet, or on a tight corner.

The discussion about whether ships’ engine room and bridge teams will be partially, or even wholly, replaced by technology repeatedly touches on the human element.

Many of the routine tasks could – and arguably should – be done remotely, but several former seafarers I have spoken to insist that there is no replacement for good seamanship.

While it might take a while to learn how a particular ship ‘moves’ in heavy seas, the feedback gained by operations and technical teams ashore from an experienced team of senior officers should be invaluable.

For this reason, it is imperative that shore and ship work together, drawing on their own expertise, making use of what each has been trained to do, understanding the bigger picture, and recognising the limits of their own role.

Like both Schumacher and Borgundvåg, a ship’s captain needs modern technology to aid – rather than replace – his own decision-making. He also needs those around him to exhibit the professional skills they have been trained to use.

Commenting in a recent editorial inSeaways, the journal of The Nautical Institute, chief executive Philip Wake pointed to a fresh perspective in the long-running discussion of the master/ pilot relationship: providing "excellent advice to masters and pilots alike on co-operation and communication to achieve a safe and successful passage".

The contribution, from a pilot in this case, illustrates "the individual responsibilities without losing sight of the need for bridge teamwork" in what is generally the most hazardous stage of the voyage. It is unhelpful and impractical for individuals to refuse to work with other team members; and it is just as nonsensical for data scientists to operate ships without the input of anyone who understands how ships ‘move’.

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