On Course: Role more important than title in bridge ops

May 8, 2017 by Capt. Brian Luke

On Course: by Capt. Brian Luke

Last month, I wrote about the idea that to facilitate safer yacht operations, it may be important for the captain to become more of a bridge manager. I also introduced the idea of bridge officers becoming more “role based” in each of their positions. My supposition was that this is accomplished through continuing professional development.

I am reminded of an old adage that states “a superior captain uses superior knowledge to avoid situations that require the use of superior skills”. In essence, role-based positions and continuing professional development help captains and crew develop superior knowledge and skills required to operate in the new high-stakes, highly complex regulatory maritime community.

As mentioned in a previous column, Carnival Cruise Lines has developed the CSMART Training Center in Almere, Netherlands. Role-based functions is the new tool it uses to handle new technology and the ever-increasing complexity of its ships. The organization of the bridges is based on functions rather than rank.

The basic purpose of the function-based bridge is to create a control system with built-in organizational redundancy. This system helps absorb disturbances before they lead to negative consequences.

Here is how it works: The captain assigns bridge officers to particular functions (or positions) based on the officer’s level of competence. This makes for an adaptable system and allows the bridge team to be flexible during all phases of operations. This system of role-based functions builds on the concept that was first introduced by the airline industry more than 30 years ago.

The airline industry uses a Pilot Flying and a Pilot Monitoring. Contrary to popular belief, the captain does not always fly the airplane. Modern airplanes have two qualified pilots on the flight deck. One is the captain and the other the first officer.

During each leg of flying, they switch roles. One leg the captain is flying and the first officer is the pilot monitoring. They use exacting verbiage and communicate each action, which is then verified by the other pilot prior to execution.

The next leg they switch roles and the first officer is “pilot flying” and the captain is “pilot monitoring”. It’s important to note that these functions have nothing to do with who is in command; that is always the captain. The captain always has final say and all authority over the aircraft.

The maritime version of this system introduces the concept of navigator and co-navigator functions with clear task requirements. The navigator is like the “pilot flying”. He/she is conning the ship and is required to communicate all intentions to the co-navigator. The co-navigator is like the “pilot monitoring” and acknowledges/agrees with the intentions of the navigator. This basically means that when the navigator intends to make a course or speed change, the co-navigator is required to acknowledge. The navigator must not proceed with the alteration until receiving direct confirmation or acknowledgement from the co-navigator. These new systems require two bridge officers on watchkeeping duties whenever the ship is under way.

The cruise ship bridges of Carnival Cruise Lines are large and carry a large complement of bridge crew. There are four other positions on the bridge during critical phases of navigation: operations director, administrator, lookout and, possibly, a helmsman. I won’t go into what each of these functions provide as it is not relevant to our smaller yacht operations.

Some may think that this operational procedure won’t work in the superyacht industry. While I do not suggest we implement this exact procedure on the bridge of superyachts, I do think we have much to learn by studying the bridge operational procedures of various other industry professionals.

A confident captain is not afraid to explore new ideas and implement new procedures relevant to the new technology emerging within the maritime and superyacht industries. I encourage captains to embrace an operational system for their high-tech yacht that makes them more of a leader/manager while their team/crew undertakes more of a role in the direct operation of the vessel.

Yes, that means allowing other officers on the bridge to manipulate the controls during close-quarters operations. A competent captain needs to embrace the idea that the crew are better trained and prepared to take on greater roles with more confidence than ever before.

I am reminded of one more old adage; “a captain with little confidence in his crew usually has little confidence in himself.”

When crew get what they need to be successful, the captain usually finds that he, too, will get what he needs to be successful.

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


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