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Through the Captain's window
Stories on Maritime Leadership
'All accidents are, at some level of the other, failures of leadership at sea'
-Golden Stripes - Leadership on the High Seas
My heartfelt condolences to the families of the 33 men and women who lost their lives on the El Faro on 1st October 2015.
This article to share the last lessons we can gather from this tragedy, and in doing so honour their memory. No one is perfect, though we can aim to be a better version of ourselves- for the sake of our own safety, and of those who depend on us. We all make mistakes, and each mistake is an opportunity to learn. Unfortunately, many of these lessons come at a cost- lives in this case.
The El Faro was on a voyage from Jacksonville to San Juan with the hurricane Joaquin in its path. The Captain had a choice of alternate routes to avoid the storm. The 2nd Mate who had signed off the ship some days ago, had the extraordinary presence of mind to alert the Captain of the developing storm, and sent another text message to remind him of the alternate routes through the Old Bahama Channel. The Captain however, made a unilateral decision to continue his normal, shortest route to San Juan. It was a failure of decision making- though the Master had earlier undergone the STCW Leadership and Management Course just six months earlier, decision-making being one of the topics.
The DPA was on vacation and the deputy was not asked to step in his shoes. Thus, there was no oversight on the ship's operational safety matters, particularly in regard to voyage planning. This was a failure in planning for continuity of operations.
The ship's Safety Management System did not have a heavy weather procedure, plan or checklist- which is a failure in safety leadership and in risk management. This was probably one of the reasons the main engine lube oil sump was not topped up, contrary to usual marine engineering practice. When the ship listed to port and trimmed by the head, the lube oil pump lost suction- tripping the main engine at a critical time. This was a deadly blow to the ship which was already close to the eye of the hurricane and it lost control in the face of wind speeds exceeding 100 knots.
The El Faro is one of the latest in a long line of maritime accidents, unfortunately involving fatalities. There are lessons in leadership to prevent future accidents.
There were other safety leadership failures as well -
In an unrelated incident on the El Faro months earlier, the previous Chief Mate was found sleeping on watch on numerous occasions- but the Masters did not alert the DPA about it. It was finally when another crew member brought it to the attention of the shore management, the issue was dealt with. Perhaps this points to the lack of reinforcement of discipline and procedures which also flowed into other areas of operation, such as the ventilators for the car-decks were not bolted shut- these ultimately gave way, leading to progressive flooding of the cargo spaces. A failure to ensure this critical procedure, especially when expecting heavy weather was a failure of team leadership.
The other watchkeepers raised their concern about the direct route to San Juan but the Captain did not review his decision. The sad part is that this is not the first such accident. I wrote about the Green Lily foundering in heavy weather in Golden Stripes, which was before the El Faro incident. The various failures of leadership remain the same as I describe throughout the book- only the names of ships and people change. When are we going to learn?
There are more lessons about failures on organizational levels from the US Coast Guard's detailed investigation report, which I will share in another article. But I wonder if there were more reasons why the Captain chose a route dangerously close to the eye of the storm. The SVDR transcript reveals the Master and few of his officers were concerned about not getting a position on ships that were being built to potentially replace the El Faro. The Captain had to leave his previous company because he had ordered extra tugs for a port manoeuvre. Probably it was an attempt to prove his performance as a Master and secure his re-employment. Or was it just a rash decision the Captain made without consulting his team? Either way, it was a failure of leadership.
This tragedy was a failure of leadership on various levels.
In closing, I ask you to think about the following questions:
How are we enabling those who we lead, for them to lead better, and make better decisions?
How are we encouraging a culture of effective, practical leadership?
The answers will determine how safe the ships and the mariners are, in a ruthless environment as the sea.
#GoldenStripesLeadership #CaptainParani #LessonsFromSea #ElFaro
Link to the USCG report: https://media.defense.gov/2017/Oct/01/2001820187/-1/-1/0/FINAL%20PDF%20ROI%2024%20SEP%2017.PDF
Link to my earlier article on decision making: http://www.parani.org/Blog/port-or-starboard-decision-making-on-the-high-seas
'We've been merging with tools since the beginning of human evolution, and arguably, that's one of the things that makes us human beings.'
Taking care of our health is a must for any leader. This will always be true, though there are new ways to track how well we are doing it. After all, you cannot improve what you cannot measure.
Lack of sleep is a big leadership killer. the UK Marine Accident Investigation Branch reported that 'a third of all groundings involved a fatigued officer alone on the bridge at night'. Take for example the grounding of the Lysblink Seaways (MAIB report no. 25/2015). We all know the days we are irritable and moody when we haven’t had enough sleep. We get into an unhelpful state of mind which could cause us to make wrong decisions.
Enter the smart watch. I use one, and I like it. A few of my seafarer friends- some use it, some don’t. And not all of them leverage the smart watch for all its benefits.
One of the the most useful function is the sleep tracker. This is how it interprets my sleep from the previous night. You can see how I have cycled between the REM and non-REM sleep, and overall it looks I’ve been doing Ok for my age. It’s important - during the deep stages of NREM sleep, the body repairs and regrows tissues, builds bone and muscle, and strengthens the immune system. Maritime professionals need also be aware that if the REM sleep is repeatedly interrupted or shortened, then longer REM “rebound sleep” tends to occur at the next opportunity in compensation (instead of slowly moving through the various stages of non-REM sleep first, the sleeper slips quickly into REM sleep, and stays there longer than usual). There are also long-term effects to chronic poor sleep- the risk of gaining weight, and becoming more prone to cardiovascular disease, infections, and certain types of cancer. The sleep tracker can help warn you when you aren’t getting enough sleep so you can prepare for sleep better next time.
The sleep tracker can help us take intentional steps towards improving our sleep quality
There are also other helpful features in the smart watch. You can track your daily calorie burn and cardio activity. Apps like At Work app can be used to record your work hours. Dictate notes when you are doing a tank inspection (in intrinsically safe environments). Set alarms to make sure you wake up in time for your next cargo watch.
Of course, it also tells time.
How else do you think smart watch can help mariners lead smartly?
Here's video link to the HE Alert Video on Fatigue:
#GoldenStripesLeadership #LessonsFromSea #Mariners #CaptainParani #MaritimeLeadership
"The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves."
- Steven Spielberg
These days when I meet people at social events, I try to focus on getting to know others well rather than just focusing on exchanging business cards. When possible, I ask them their stories, and remind myself that there is something I can learn from everyone.
On one such endeavour, I met Mr. Georg Von Oppen. He is currently the Director of TMH Ltd. which serves the shipping industry in providing equipment spares. He narrated a story from the early years of his career:
After school, I didn’t have any particular direction in which to take my career. By chance, I joined TMH through a mutual acquaintance of my family. The manager of the factory asked me to work on the store-floor and learn about all the products. After a few weeks, he saw me on his rounds and stopped to assess my progress:
“How does this pressure gauge work?” He asked in his usual booming voice.
I gave a feeble response “You plug it into the socket and it reads the pressure”
“Yes, but what makes the gauge know what is the pressure in the pipe?”
I shrug my shoulders.
He then proceeded to explain to me about the Bourdon tube and how the radially formed tubes inside operate without any electrical power.
I had not grasped the underlying mechanical principles and I said so, shaking my head.
My boss was thoughtful for a minute, and then declared “You’re going to the gauge factory for two weeks. I will inform your supervisor about the arrangements”.
So, the next day I was off to the factory a hundred miles away. They were one of the world’s leading makers of precision pressure gauges and one could learn whatever there is to know about various gauges. I learnt in detail how these gauges could achieve precision at different pressure ranges, and work in various external environments, and what safety features were installed to ensure the gauges would not burst in front of the observer.
When I returned to TMH, I had a spring in my step. My boss observed this, and to test me, asked a few questions, which I promptly answered with pride. The fire of learning and passion for the job had been stoked within me, and there was no looking back.
It started as a short-term apprenticeship, but encouraged by the environment of mentoring, I stayed on at TMH. I could share my knowledge with clients and help them choose the right products for their industrial needs. This in turn helped my company build deeper relationships with their customers. Some years ago, my boss retired and passed on the reins of the company to me.
His act of mentoring helped me find the right direction for my career. He had challenged, inspired and motivated me. He didn’t spoon-feed me but he helped me find the right resource from which I could learn.
Telemachus and Mentor from Odyssey. In this depiction from the ancient Greek epic, Mentor (actually Athena in disguise) encourages Telemachus to stand up against the suitors for his mother, Penelope and go abroad to find out what happened to his father, Odysseus. Photo courtesy: Wikipedia commons.
These days, I make it a point to encourage my younger colleagues to go on similar learning trips and seminars. We share learning experiences from work and enable each other to create their own learning path. Based on my boss’ philosophy, that is how we view mentoring at TMH. I believe this is a great way to help leaders discover their own potential, and enhance their own leadership abilities.
TMH Cyprus website (http://tmh-eastmed.com/)
Captain VS Parani is the author of Golden Stripes- Leadership on the High Seas, Whittles Publishing (http://www.whittlespublishing.com/Golden_Stripes), and on Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/Golden-Stripes-Leadership-High-Seas/dp/1849953147)
"Our greatness has always come from people who expect nothing and take nothing for granted - folks who work hard for what they have, then reach back and help others after them."
- Michelle Obama
I met Professor Jeffrey Blum by chance in Limassol a few weeks ago. Although our meeting was short, I was left with an impression that we had known each other for a long time. He has been in the shipping industry for 45 years, which is from even before I was born! I mentioned this to a friend of mine who had been his student at the World Maritime University. He was full of admiration for Professor Blum and he also let me in on a little-known story of our mutual acquaintance.
We all have goals: We want to matter. We want to be important. We want to have freedom and power to pursue our creative work. We want respect from our peers and recognition for our accomplishments. Not out of vanity or selfishness, but of an earnest desire to fulfil our personal potential. - Ryan Holiday
“Leadership is…the raising of a person’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations.”
-Peter Drucker, my favourite management author.
“Human Resources Isn’t A Thing We Do. It’s The Thing That Runs Our Business.”
When I joined sea as a deck cadet, I was paid a stipend equivalent to 50 US dollars a month. But then, I was 17 years old and fresh out of school. My food and boarding were free on the ship.
At that time, the rumour was that the company was going to close down, and we would not be able to complete our sea-time required for cadetship. So I made a decision to complete it all at one go - almost 37 months onboard, without returning home on leave. That way, I could appear for my third mate's exams and start earn a proper living. I joined my first ship as a boy, and returned home a man.
“So many books, so little time.”
― Frank Zappa
You see hundreds of posts on social media (including this one), covering a wide range of topics- from leadership lessons from…., ‘5’ points to remember….., ‘secrets’ to ……, to videos on a wide range of topics. There is a lot of information passing through our screens every day. Do we still need to read books?
In this self-serving article, I’m going to share ‘3’ reasons why you should read books.
This article appeared in the June 2017 edition of the esteemed Nautical Institute journal Seaways.
The model first appeared in the book Golden Stripes- Leadership on the High Seas by Captain VS Parani.
‘What's called a difficult decision is a difficult decision because either way you go, there are penalties.’ - Elia Kazan
A new concept for understanding and explaining safety
This article appeared in the September 2017 edition of the esteemed Nautical Institute journal Seaways. The model first appeared in the book Golden Stripes- Leadership on the High Seas by Captain VS Parani.
“Concern for man himself and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavors, concern for the great unsolved problems of the organization of labor...Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations.”
- Albert Einstein
In 2014, a fire destroyed the Engine Room of the bulk carrier Marigold. Luckily, other than a couple of seafarers who were hospitalised for smoke inhalation, there were no serious injuries. But the cost of the fire damage would be several hundred thousand US dollars.
“My life is one long curve, full of turning points”
Pierre Trudeau (15th Prime Minister of Canada, and father of the current (23rd) Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau)
Yes, the sequence of events leading to a ship-collision started on the computer on which the ship was designed.
Ships routinely lower their lifeboats to keep them ready for deployment in times of emergency. It was during one such exercise in my second year at sea that I learnt a valuable lesson in teamwork.
Inspections such as by Port State, Flag, Class and Oil Majors are now a fact of shipping. There is no doubt that these inspections have helped improve safety standards in shipping; the number of sub-standard ships has reduced and it is now difficult for rogue operators to endanger life at sea or damage the environment.
Let me tell you a secret and a story; my family calls me ‘Raja’, a shortened name for the great Tamil King Raja Raja Cholan. One of the Tamil idiosyncrasies, is that each uncle and aunt (who in those days were many) assumed the privilege of giving a child in their family their own favourite name. So, my overbearing but warm paternal uncle fondly named me ‘Raja’, proud that our family belongs to the district of Thanjavur, the capital of this king over a thousand years ago.
Most marine officers and naval architects will tell you that the righting-lever curve, GZ is a better measure of the ship’s stability than the metacentric-height (GM) value. I agree, and will narrate a personal experience which illustrates the point beautifully.