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The training racket and the seafarer

The training racket and the seafarer
Andrew Craig-Bennett November 16, 2023

Andrew Craig-Bennett bemoans our industry’s misguided approach to training.

There is a dangerous idea – common amongst those who speak of human resources – that training can solve all sorts of problems with the manning of ships. Indeed, more training is a standard recommendation for almost anything.

Calling for more training is easy – and useless. Delivering that training in a useful way is immensely complicated and is so badly rewarded that pretty much every trainer in the industry who is any good has chosen to go into CBT – computer-based training – because that unlike face-to-face training is scaleable, as the IT people say.

I once worked at a training centre in Subic Bay in the Philippines. I have a little experience in the practical training business – not a lot, but more than some people who like to talk about it.

First, let us be clear what training is. It is not the same as education. Poking about in dictionaries one finds that training may mean: “The activity of learning or teaching the skills and knowledge needed for a particular job or activity”.

What? All of them? I think that we need to draw some lines, here. Nobody is going to suggest that training can impart wisdom, yet surely most of us expect a senior officer to be well supplied with wisdom. Nor can we expect training to impart the sort of knowledge that comes with education.

Training as an idea seems to come to us from the military; for several thousand years soldiers have trained and been trained to be able to fight as part of a unit. Drill is the word often used by the military, be they army or navy or air force, for the part of training which implants automatic skills, and implants them so reliably that the drilled person will continue to carry out the drill no matter how terrifying his or her personal situation may become. In merchant shipping we speak of fire drills and that is precisely what we mean – we aim for a military level of automatic, unthinking, disciplined response, in shipboard firefighting because, let’s face it, fire at sea is terrifying.

I knew a man who, in his youth, had been an engineer officer aboard a product tanker. His ship was discharging a low flash point cargo and he was in the lower part of the engine room when he smelled smoke. The next thing that he could remember was re-entering the engine room in a fire suit and breathing apparatus. He had no memory at all of the time between smelling smoke and going back into the engine room, suited up, with the fire party. As you will perhaps have guessed, he had done everything right; he had carried out all the procedures that had been drilled into him although he was in a terrifying situation.

There are other shipboard situations that call for drilled responses and we do indeed speak of lifeboat drill. Like the military, we practice our drills, in our case, weekly. The importance of these drills is that they should, at any rate, become automatic. People get used to the equipment, use it confidently, and do not, ideally, panic when confronted with a situation of immediate danger.

But there are situations where a drilled response would be correct, but we do not drill for it.

Consider one of the commonest causes of death in merchant shipping – entry into an enclosed space. Here we have something that training ought to be able to solve – we agree, I hope – its very similar to lifeboat and fire drills – and yet, for the whole of my career, people have been dying in enclosed spaces on board ships. Indeed, people usually die in threes. This is a complete and utter failure on our part, as an industry, to train people sufficiently – and yet there are people who call for more training to deal with far more complicated circumstances than someone stepping through a door or down a hatch and collapsing.

A drilled response to someone stepping into a space and collapsing would inhibit the automatic human response – the response which, as regularly as night follows day, kills the second and the third person – the instinct to go and help them. As an industry, we have failed here, and yet we have trained for this one for 50 years and more. We haven’t got it right.