The importance of mentoring
The operation of ships, it is universally acknowledged, is an “experience-based” business, whether it is knowing how to handle a ship in heavy weather or what to do when some technical emergency arises. It is important to have the theoretical knowledge, to be properly taught in colleges and simulators, but there is nothing like actual experience to ensure that the proper reactions are ingrained. It is also essential that these best practices, from somebody who has had to handle a ship in heavy weather or coped with that technical emergency, are passed on to a new generation.
This was the basis of a talk by Captain Andre le Goubin last month in London at an event which celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Plymouth Nautical Degree Association, commemorating one of the very first courses which provided seafarers with academically recognised qualifications, other than their certificates of competency.
Captain le Goubin, who works for London Offshore Consultants and has become a specialist in dealing with salvage operations, spoke about the importance of mentoring, the process by which the knowledge and experience of one generation of professionals is passed on to the next. It is a serious matter, this cascading of knowledge, and one, which he believes is under threat because of the way in which manning of ships is presently organised. It is also an even more serious matter that the “unmentored” officers are, because of manpower shortages, being accelerated into more senior ranks without the benefit of the experience of their elders.
Barriers to adequate mentoring were arising as a function of modern manning practices, not least the demolition of the old company structures in which the “company way” was inculcated by seniors as they taught their cadets and apprentices who they knew would eventually become officers in the company.
It was also made difficult by the fact that senior officers were too busy and preoccupied with paperwork to be available to ensure that their juniors were being properly trained in best practice. Captain le Goubin is not the first senior officer to complain of the way in which paperwork was keeping the Master’s nose in a computer in his office when he wanted to be around the ship and ensuring that his watchkeepers were doing their job to his satisfaction.
But, he said, one of the worst possible barriers to adequate mentoring was the problem of language on multinationally manned ships, where the Master found it a trial to provide essential orders that would be comprehended by his crew who might speak several different languages, let alone engage them in lengthy discourse about the best practices.
In his capacity as somebody called in after accidents to represent various interests, Captain le Goubin found plenty of evidence of the lack of experience that is becoming a serious problem. He instanced the case of a ship grounded when an inexperienced Master was trying to anchor it in strong winds and a tide from the opposite direction, an accident which would not have happened had this officer been properly mentored as he was working his way towards senior rank. The failure to “transfer knowledge”, he suggests is a growing problem.