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From the Bridge: Know-it-alls? Maybe, but captains ask when answers elude

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From the Bridge: by Dorie Cox

Individual comments are not attributed to encourage candid discussion; attending captains are identified in the accompanying photograph.

What do yacht captains do when they don’t know something? Some might argue that they act as if they do. Throughout history, captains have sometimes been portrayed as all-knowing, unbendable, only disposed of by mutiny. Although there might be a few of those on the high seas, a group of yacht captains said that overall, captains are willing to – and usually do – ask for help when they don’t know the answers.

The Triton’s monthly From the Bridge discussion gathers captains for a closed-door conversation to allow anonymity and an opportunity to speak honestly. Maybe these vessel masters do not want others to know they don’t have all the answers? Because, by definition, a captain has official recognition that he or she has amassed a sufficient level of knowledge and experience to be the leader with the facts. Is there an implication of weakness to admit a lack of knowledge?

Attendees of The Triton’s From the Bridge discussion are, from left, Capt. Bruce Brooks of M/Y Pipe Dream; Capt. Andrew Preston of M/Y Probability and S/F Bits and Bites; Capt. Paul Kalapodas of M/Y Lady Arlene and Capt. Kostas Andreou of M/Y Global. Photo by Dorie Cox

“I won’t volunteer it, but if you ask me I will tell you,” a captain said.

“There’s no reason to mention it, but I will divulge if it is pertinent,” another captain said. “I believe it shows respect.”

Hiring time is an example of the fine line of if, or when, a gap in knowledge needs to be brought up.

“The owner asks, ‘Are you hands-on?’ I’ll say yes, I am, but I can’t rebuild an engine,” a captain said.

“I don’t know, but I’m looking into it” is what another captain typically answers to the owner.

Similarly, how such questions are handled can come down to semantics – in other words, “how you spin it,” one captain said. “You can say, ‘No, I don’t have weaknesses, only things I could be better at.”

As it turns out, this conversation showed an importance for more than just the captain on board. How questions are handled sets the course for how the yacht’s crew will act. If crew see that the captain never admits to not knowing things, they may act in the same manner. And that can lead to mistakes and accidents, a captain said.

“I do want the crew to say if they don’t know something,” he said.

“I am a role model to say I don’t know something,” another captain said.

Several in the group said they spend time with crew who are learning, and they realize the importance of creating a process to get questions answered. 

“I want you to think, and to learn to think independently,” a captain said of dealing with his crew. “I will teach you the process – how to look at, assess and estimate how to handle or learn something. I don’t say, ‘Look, I’m right.’ ”

Now, none of this means that any of this group will ever throw up his hands and give up in the face of a question.

“The owner’s looking down and the crew are looking up to us,” a captain said. “Everyone is watching.”

“And I’m still the last word,” another captain said.

So we dove in a bit deeper to see how egos hold up in the face of ignorance. And it turned out that many captains are realistic.

“How could I possibly know everything?” a veteran captain said. “I’m not afraid to ask for help, even to a deckhand – ‘What would you do here?’ ”

The more years at sea, the more one captain said he realized how much more there is to know.

“I know what I don’t know,” he said.

“It’s often been said, ‘You have to know where to get the information, but you don’t have to necessarily know all of it yourself,’ ” another captain replied.

A few reasons these captains are realistic about properly handling a question have to do with safety, money and their careers. To many yacht owners, money comes first, one captain said. Money is important, but this captain focuses more on the possibility of what happens if something is damaged or someone is injured. 

“It’s our career. I could be charged,” he said.

When captains do look for answers to new questions, their resources are diverse. With the veterans, contact lists of experts in different areas are highly valued.

An upcoming trip to a remote destination had one captain flipping through all of his tools.

“I call captains with local knowledge,” he said. Next, calls to the port agent and harbormaster.

Throughout their careers, each of these captains has stockpiled names of colleagues and industry professionals. To manage these lists, they use a few tricks.

“You have to have key words for a search in your contacts,” a captain said, as he scrolled through his phone to illustrate. “How often do you do your teak? I forgot his name, but the key word worked. Most people I remember by their boat.”

One captain remembers people by their abilities and skill sets.

“I remember his experience includes a lot of commercial, that means his engineering skills are above mine,” a captain said of another captain.

Redundancy is important for several in the group.

“I keep a log book, an electronic version in my phone, and paper lists,” one said.

“At the end of the day, I brush up my notes,” said a captain who keeps files on information such as bridge clearance lists.

Most everyone uses search engines on the internet, including Google and YouTube, but they are cautious of the sources and integrity of what they find there. There are potential issues with using incorrect information. None of this group admitted to following bad advice, but avoidance requires vigilance, a captain said. A recent electric wiring job found him online sifting through video tutorials. Instead of choosing the most popular, he made sure he wasn’t reading an advertisement and searched for a reliable link. 

“You have to use all the information. I watch two or three to see if the advice matched,” he said of the online videos.

“You have an idea, but it helps to have a few different opinions.”

Although most everyone said they monitor online posts, groups and forums, no one admitted to posting one of his own questions on social media.

“No, on Facebook I see more idiots and not always good answers,” a captain said.

“You also set yourself up for ridicule,” another captain said.

When a crew member was stung by a “strange fish,” a captain checked online briefly to find the creature, then made a phone call for professional help.

“We took a picture and sent it to our medical service,” he said, noting that there was no lab or doctor at the yacht’s remote location.

And researching these answers takes time out of most everyone’s day, said a captain. In looking to replace a part for the rigid-inflatable boat, first he had to find a photo to cross reference on Google, then search for the serial number that was nearly inaccessible, and then call the manufacturer.

“From start to finish, that took an hour to do, to check it off the to-do list,” he said.

After years of classes, training and time at sea, it appears that these captains have brains full of answers. And they do. But there will always be questions, a captain said, “Maybe three or four times a day, I have questions.”

Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome below.

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About Dorie Cox

Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton.

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