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On Course: Developing a culture of challenge on superyachts

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On Course: by Capt. Brian Luke

The maritime community is roughly 7,000 years old, yet from a professional standpoint it falls woefully behind the only 100-year-old aviation industry.

Many cruise ship companies are taking notice and altering course as required to make their operations safer and more efficient, based upon an aviation model. Over the next two months, I will discuss how the maritime industry, including superyachts, has lessons to learn from the airline industry when it comes to operating and managing today’s highly complex vessels.

When it comes to superyacht bridge crew operations, there is really little difference from a modern cruise ship or commercial airliner. All are generally organized with a strong hierarchal structure. On a yacht, the captain is in command, and during the departure and arrival phases of most passages is almost always physically conning the vessel.

Unfortunately, all important decisions and actions at critical moments are often based on a plan that may be known only to the captain. Within this hierarchy, the other bridge officers and crew are often passive bystanders. What should be a team effort is all too often a solo enterprise. The industry has historically experienced a high number of incidents where this scenario is found to be one of the major contributors in the chain of events leading up to an accident.

During the early 1990s, the maritime industry was introduced to Bridge Resource Management (BRM) as a potential solution toward reducing the number of accidents caused by this type of single-point failure. Notably, this was roughly 10 years behind BRM introduction in the commercial aviation industry.

BRM courses focus on, among other skills, developing assertiveness and encouraging officers and crew to speak up when a senior officer deviates from a plan known to the bridge team. It is easy to discuss assertiveness in a classroom, and train in a simulator environment, but very hard to implement in real life. Of course, if the captain proactively implements a working environment where speaking up is encouraged, BRM contributes to some level of safety success.

Assuming that a good operational environment where the culture of challenge is well established, and that the captain shares his or her plan with the entire team, another challenge to optimally managing bridge resources is effectively managing information.

For example, the captain must establish the operational limitations to the plan such that a junior officer will know when the operational limits of a passage or berthing plan have been exceeded. An agreed-upon passage plan from berth to berth, with navigational and other limitations displayed and highlighted during briefings and throughout the execution, is one important aspect of this information management. Not sharing the detailed information and operational expectations makes it difficult to effectively challenge the execution of the plan.

The captain must always remain in command and be the sole individual with the overall responsibility for the implementation and execution of this passage plan. He or she must also be effectively supported, and effectively challenged, by the rest of the team, when necessary. The demands of operating a superyacht on the high seas and in confined quarters must not be dependent upon the skills and talent of a single individual, no matter how experienced that individual. Any changes to the plan require officers and crew to work as an informed and coordinated team.

Hence, BRM theory alone is not the only solution required on the bridge to improve safety to the level required. The captain may have to move from an active conning to a monitoring and leadership role.

This is similar to the airline industry. Most airlines now divide duties on the flight deck into the “flying pilot” and the “non-flying pilot”. The captain is still in overall command but the actual flying and monitoring of the aircraft are duties specific to the current role of the two pilots. The flying pilot, whether junior or senior to the other, is always monitored by the non-flying pilot and any deviations from the flight plan are immediately challenged.

This new approach is showing the way forward for the maritime industry and is a positive component of the industry’s evolution. The superyacht community can learn much from the way the airline and now the cruise ship industries are approaching crew training and procedures.

I’m not suggesting that green crew tell the captain how to run his or her ship, but when was the last time a lower-ranking crew member challenged a yacht captain? It happens often in the airline world and is quickly gaining favor in the cruise ship industry. Maybe it’s about time we started to rethink our bridge management in the superyacht sector as well.

Capt. Brian Luke is president of Bluewater Crew Training USA (formerly ICT) in Ft. Lauderdale.

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