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Heuristics in shipboard decision-making

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A news reporter interviews an elderly shipping magnate:
‘Sir, what is the secret of your success?’
He says, ‘Two words’
‘and, Sir, what are they?’
‘Right decisions’
‘But how do you make right decisions?’
‘One word’
‘and that is?’
‘so how did you get your experience?’
‘Two words’
‘Interesting. What are they?’
‘Bad decisions’


From the time you and I were around ten years old, up until this moment, our life has been about decisions. All our learning, our values, our capabilities and the value we bring to our jobs – is defined by the decisions that we make.

Research shows that the average person makes over 35,000 decisions in just one day. Some of the decisions are small, and some are big. Many of these decisions will be made subconsciously but some will be deliberate conscious decisions. Since there are so many decisions to make, not acting is also a decision- which usually does not end well- because we simply delay the inevitable. Ignoring a situation does not make it go away but it leaves us with very few options at a later time.

Seafarers too make several high-stakes decisions every day. Plus, they do this in an environment that is constantly changing and unpredictable, thousands of miles away from land. With new technology and faster turnaround of ships, seafarers have not only to be fast and furious but also accurate in making decisions. Of course, we know that not all the decisions made on the high seas end well. there are on average 100 total losses of ships and over 1000 fatalities each year- most of them attributed to human error. This article looks at ways in which we can enable and empower our seafarers, our colleagues and perhaps even ourselves to make better decisions.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed with information required to make a decision, or wait for further information and this can sometimes lead to paralysis by analysis. Both paralysis and analysis are Greek words, and the solution- is also a Greek word. 

Heuristics or evretika is a Greek word made famous when Archimedes ran naked around the streets of Syracuse shouting ‘Eureka, Eureka’ or ‘I got it’, ‘I got it’, after he had discovered why objects sink or float. Even today, we explain the flotation of ships through Archimedes principles of buoyancy.

Heuristics today means the distilling of the issue and finding the solution in its most simple and elegant form- which comes about from experience and deep insight. Heuristics are also referred to as rules-of-thumb. Heuristics has been widely researched and recommended in various fields such as aviation and medicine. There is certainly a wide scope for its application in the maritime industry.

decision at sea

                                                                       Seafarers have to make several high-stakes decisions every day. Not all decisions end well.

Let’s start with some simple heuristics for anchoring:

Do not anchor in more than Beaufort Force 6 or above.

Do not anchor in depths of over 80 metres.

Do not let go the anchor from the brakes in depths of over 25 metres.

There are several instances of ships which have either dragged or lost their anchors in heavy weather and then grounded on the lee shore with dramatic consequences. There have also been cases where anchor with chain was completely lost after letting go from brake in deep waters.

Good heuristics are not just random numbers but based on science and observation. For example, the IACS rules contain various formulae and statements to specify the operational capabilities of anchors. However, all this information is not readily accessible to navigators on the dark wheelhouse of a vessel at 3’o clock in the morning in rough seas. For decision-making, it’s much easier to remember a rule of thumb which says ‘Don’t anchor in Beaufort Force 6 or above’.

Not all problems, even complex problems need complex solutions. around 80% of all the situations we face are routine and we can build heuristics to enable decision making. Heuristics also help clear up some ambiguity around traditional shipping rules. The collision regulations for instance, talk about things like good lookout, ample time, and good seamanship. Your definition of ample time and safe passing distance could differ from mine; that’s why I recommend that companies should establish heuristics such as:

Alter course/ speed when at 5 nautical mile range/ 15 minute TCPA.

Aim for final passing distance as 2 miles in open sea/ 1 mile in coastal waters / 0.5 nm in traffic separation scheme but with escalated watch level.

It’s also quite important to have heuristics for passage planning. Heavy weather is the number one reason for all total losses at sea, for example, the El Faro, the and the Green Lily. Heuristics such as ‘do not enter in wave-heights more than 7 metres’, or ‘do not manoeuvre in ports (unassisted) with wind speeds exceeding 25 knots’, could help mariners make rapid decisions, or at least consult with their offices when the operating environment is outside the normal envelope.

You can have heuristics in the engine room as well - when the oil mist detector sounds, stop the engine. There have been cases where the Chief Engineers have rather opted to change the circuit board, or clean the lenses of the oil mist detector. Surely enough, a crankcase explosion followed, disabling the ship at sea.

Decision making is an important part of our daily activity, both ashore and on the high seas. It’s not always easy as one must often choose between a good option and a better one and with incomplete information. But at the same time, 80% of these decisions are usually routine, or foreseeable and we can plan for them. This is where heuristics help.

In closing, I’d like to recommend two words for you: Heuristics Inventory

Figure out with your colleagues, the various rules of thumbs you can use for your daily operations. Debate them and later formalize the heuristics within your organization- both on board and ashore. Build a heuristics inventory.

Enjoy the eureka moments along the way.


This article was also published on the Safety4Sea website (link)

The Golden Stripes Podcast on the topic can be found here

This was also the presentation topic of Capt. VS Parani at the Safety4Sea Conference at Limassol on 20th February 2019 ((link)

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Emergency Response - We've had a Collision; What Next?

This is my article which appeared in the October 2017 edition of the newsletter of Navigate Response


The complete newsletter is available at Navigate Response Newsletter (October 2017)

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The Cost of Piracy

Sharing my article which appeared on International Maritime and Port Security journal (Jan/Feb 2018)

piracy article

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A leader with a backbone

back bags1



My first experience with back-pain started when I was a Second Officer on a break-bulk ship. We had loaded refined wheat flour in bags from Italy to Yemen.

At Aden, with a tenth of the cargo remaining to be discharged, we found bags with mold in them. The affected bags had become green on the outside and hard to touch. The consignees would not accept the cargo and the stevedores stopped working.

To reduce the quantity of damaged cargo, the Captain ordered us to segregate the cargo- good from bad, so that the still intact ones could be discharged by the stevedores. So, our crew, me included had to manually remove the damaged bags. I was in my early twenties so I was working away furiously with the team. Even when others would take a break, I would continue- kind of ‘showing-off’ my youthful strength. Little did I know that this would instead be a mistake which would cause me troubles for many years to come.

At night, I got up from my sleep to get a glass of water. Just as I reached for the glass by my bedside, a searing pain shot up from my lower back. It was so intense that I believe I passed out. In the morning, I woke up on the floor and my back hurt like hell. I could not even make it to the dining salon. It took me two days of complete rest and multiple doses of painkillers for me to keep watch. Not only was I off the cargo removal duty, fearing that other crew would also end up with back pain, the Captain had engaged trained stevedores to finish the rest of the job.

For several years after that, even as Chief Officer and Master, the pain surfaced every now and then, though thankfully not to that extent. It would appear after I had inspected a few double-bottom tanks with my back bent for several hours. I soon started wearing a back-support strap when I expected to go up and down cargo tank in the drydock.

Surprisingly, in my first few years working in the shore office, I still had episodes when the back pain was too much and I worked from home instead. But these were different. I’m right handed so the stiffness usually was on the right side of my torso. Besides the physical pain, back pain can make us irritable, and we’re not at our best as a leader.

Over the last few years, I’ve researched the condition in depth and have taken preventive steps. It has worked and I will share these with you. I haven’t taken a day off over the last five years because of back pain, even though I still perform weighted deadlifts, squats and back-rows in the gym.

Back Pain Parani

First, a few facts:

1. Worldwide, back pain is the single leading cause of disability and one of the most common reasons for missed work; it is estimated that two work days are lost per year for every full-time worker.
2. Experts estimate that up to 80% of the population will experience back pain at some time in their lives.
3. Back injuries (disc herniation and lumbosacral strain) are the number one reason for permanent disability claims among seafarers in the Philippines.
4. Low-back pain costs Americans at least $50 billion in health care costs each year; add in lost wages and decreased productivity and that figure easily rises to more than $100 billion.
5. Back pain is the third most common reason for visits to the doctor’s office, behind skin disorders and osteoarthritis/joint disorders.
But back pain need not be dangerous:
6. Most cases of back pain are mechanical or non-organic—meaning they are not caused by serious conditions, such as inflammatory arthritis, infection, fracture or cancer.
7. Most people with low back pain recover, however reoccurrence is common and for small percentage of people the condition will become chronic and disabling.

Causes of back pain:
Back pain can be caused by disease of the internal organs, such as kidney stones, kidney infections, blood clots, or bone loss. However, the most common back pains are sprained muscle (like I did) or the serious slipped disc- due to accidents and sports injuries. In addition, poor posture, obesity, and psychological stress can cause or complicate back pain.

What can you do about it?
I’m not going to give medical advice as this is for you to consult your physician and chiropractor. Do it without delay.
I can however suggest some preventive actions to avoid work related injury like I did.
1. I should not have lifted those bags by bending my back. Instead I should have lifted by exerting my legs. It would have helped if I had kept the bag close to my body and had I not twisted my torso to throw the bag. Better still, I should have taken on a partner for lifting those bags. In my later years, I would repeat this caution every morning during our tool box meetings.
2. Warm up and stretch before you start your work- whether on ship, or in an office.
3. Maintain proper posture. Like my mother used to say “don’t slouch”.
4. Whether you’re standing during the navigational watch for hours, or sitting in front of the computer, or working in an uncomfortable position. Take a break every hour. Breathe deeply and stretch to minimise back fatigue.
5. Sleep on a mattress of medium firmness to minimize any curve in your spine. If you’re a ship operator, keep this in mind when ordering mattresses for your ships.
6. Smoking impairs blood flow, resulting in oxygen and nutrient deprivation to spinal tissues.
7. Wear comfortable, low-heeled shoes.

Be a leader with a backbone. A strong backbone.


Many thanks to Dr.Rajesh Botchu for his expert medical inputs for this article. He is a Consultant Musculoskeletal Radiologist and Orthopaedic Surgeon. More about what he does at and


  • An educational video on safe lifting for the maritime industry
  • A video on simple back flexibility exercises. In yoga, they say that “you’re only as old as your spine”
  • Hoy D, March L, Brooks P, et al The global burden of low back pain: estimates from the Global Burden of Disease 2010 study Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases Published Online First: 24 March 2014. doi: 10.1136/annrheumdis-2013-204428
  • Vallfors B. Acute, Subacute and Chronic Low Back Pain: Clinical Symptoms, Absenteeism and Working Environment. Scan J Rehab Med Suppl1985; 11: 1-98.
  • Rubin Dl. Epidemiology and Risk Factors for Spine Pain. Neurol Clin. 2007; May;25(2):353-71.
  • Hartvigsen J et al. Low Back Pain Series: What Low Back Pain Is and Why We Need to Pay Attention. Lancet, June 2018; Volume 391, Issue 10137; p2356-2367.
  • Gard P&I Club, A crew claims statistical analysis, 2004.
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How Leaders Manoeuvre Conflict

“Peace is not absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.”
-Ronald Reagan

conflict small


"There’s a fly in my soup, Captain". The Chief Engineer said, visibly upset.

"And I blame it on you" continued the Chief Engineer.

Everyone in the dining room stopped to look over where the Chief Engineer and Captain were seated. Some even looked back into their own soup to check for flies. Not me. I was a young Cadet, only few months into my career and this was the first major conflict I had seen on the ship which otherwise was about giving orders and following them- no questions asked.

The Captain squinted his eyes in confusion "Come again?"

"I know you told the Cook to put a fly in my soup" the Chief Engineer’s voice was raised and agitated.

Long story short, some very unpleasant words were exchanged and it ended in everyone finishing their dinner early. The Chief Engineer was replaced in the next port.

Leading up to the ‘fly in the soup’ incident were small warning signs which made sense when I looked back. It started with arguments about the ship’s RPM or the fuel figures, and at times the engine maintenance. Both the Captain and the Chief Engineer had been complaining about each other in their absence. Meetings had become a ‘blame game’ setting. Eventually things came to a ‘either him or me’ standpoint between the Captain and the Chief Engineer.

As I felt then, and as I feel about it now- it was all wrong. There are more such examples- from physical assault on board (fishing vessel Captain Billy Haver), to mutinies (HMS Bounty), these otherwise capable professionals let small conflicts get out of hand.

The 'Drydock' Conflict:

Years later, I was in a similar dining room for the daily-repairs meeting at a Chinese dockyard. This time I was in command of the ship and was concerned about getting the ship back on schedule. Just then, the Fourth Engineer came into the meeting with a worried look. He informed us that a weak spot had been found on the fuel tank boundary when the steel around the tank was being sand-blasted.

The Superintendent, the Chief Engineer and I checked out the weak spot for ourselves. Now we found ourselves in a dilemma; we could go ahead with the repairs, and it would cost us three extra days; or, we could leave it unattended, and risk the weak spot springing a leak during the voyage. We got the technical, operations and the commercial team in the office on a conference call, right there in the dining room.

The Technical Manger fired the first salvo "How the hell did we miss this spot during the pre-docking gauging?"

Me: "They gauged this bulkhead but they must’ve missed it."

Operations Manager: "OK now that we have to deal with it, what’s the plan?"

Superintendent: "We need to repair it."

Commercial Manager: "Are you out of your f**** mind? We’ll have to rearrange the booked cargo for another ship. No way!"

Technical Manager: ‘"And the additional repairs and stay in the yard will make us overshoot the drydock budget!"

Chief Engineer: "Look, you got to take care of these things from the office. I don’t want the fuel leaking into the cargo holds at sea- and then we have to deal with it."

Me: "And the leaked fuel could damage the cargo."

Commercial Manager: (pounding his fist on his table now) "We already had so many delays with this bloody ship…and you always put me in this position where I’ve to say sorry to the shippers!"

Me: "I don’t like the news either but we need a solution. We could delay for now but we may have to stop the ship again for repair few months down the line. My recommendation is we do the repairs. I’ll personally see to it that it gets done as early as possible."

Chief Engineer: "Yeah. About the budget, we’ll discuss here and see if we can shift some of the docking jobs to be done by the crew. No promises but we’ll sit down and discuss."

Technical Manager: “OK I’ll speak with the Director and get back to you within the hour."

During this debate, there were colourful exclamations, raised voices, subtle humour and heated exchanges which I’ll save you the trouble of reading. Finally, we did get the approval to get the additional repair done. Yes, there was a price to pay for the delay, but we were assured of the safety of the cargo during the voyage. Months later when I met the Commercial Manager in the office for a briefing, he let me know that despite the tough discussion that day, he was pleased with the outcome. He also realised this when he had learnt that another ship had sprung a fuel tank leak during the voyage and had to be taken off service for repairs, causing massive disruption and embarrassment to that other company.

To Argue or Not to Argue?

Arguments are inevitable in today’s workplace. Whether they are productive, like the ‘drydock’ one, or destructive like the ‘fly in the soup’ case depends on how leaders steer conflict in the right heading. Firstly, is everything up for discussion? Should every decision be debated upon? Should we remain polite in a conflict, or freely express our emotions? When should you stop arguing? What if you can’t seem to come to an agreement? What if you feel the other person is personally attacking you? What if one can lose their job if they argue too much, or oppose the more powerful person in the conversations? Will I look weak if I give in? The questions that run through our minds during a conflict at work can be quite challenging. The words and tone a person uses might press one of our ‘hot’ buttons.

For most people, conflict means stress, and that in turn triggers a flight, fight or freeze response. Research shows that high conflict relates to low team productivity and work satisfaction. On the other hand, task based debates help teams to understand the topic from all perspectives.

Avoiding or suppressing conflict is not good either. Avoiding debate all together restricts the options available on the table, and often to unsafe or unproductive outcomes. On the Bow Mariner, the Chief Officer ignored the safety concerns of his junior officers during routine tank cleaning operations. A while later, an explosion sank the ship and took the lives of twenty seamen. Unresolved conflicts lead to resentment, and poor work morale- leading to a ‘fly in the soup’ kind of outburst at some point.

Just as each one of us has a unique world view based on our experiences, we are conditioned to conflict in different ways. It starts with childhood - if our parents permitted debate, or was it order and comply, or would they give the silent treatment when in disagreement. We would be further conditioned by the environment in our schools and workplaces. Peers argue differently among themselves than in a subordinate-superior debate. And of course, ‘over-thinking’ introverts argue differently from the more vocal extroverts. Whatever our background, we need skills to be able to handle and manage conflict productively as each situation demands.

Productive Conflicts need a Suitable Environment

First and most important - the leader needs to set up the right environment for constructive, healthy debate, and even allow them to become intense, heated discussions. The right environment for this is where teams have high levels of openness and trust with each other. Leaders should provide team members with psychological safety; leaders should say it in very clear terms (and follow it up) that they will not be side-lined or tagged as a ‘negative person’ for their differing views. Leaders also need to reduce the power-distance effect of a superior-subordinate relationship during a debate to allow the free flow of views. Leaders need to remove the fear and stress of conflict from the workspace.

What leaders must not do is incite fear to suppress conflict and to control their team members. Leaders must neither create conflict for its own sake, or promote a ‘divide and rule’ toxic environment for inducing productivity or competition. Research shows that such high conflict environments are counterproductive to the team’s goals.

Keeping Conflicts under Control

The next task of the leader is to control responses during a conflict- as soon as they become aware of one. They must ensure the conflict stays focused on solving the problem at hand and does not escalate into a personality clash. The leader must ensure that the tension does not escalate; here, the use of humour helps. Appoint ‘a devil’s advocate’ so they have the permission to be creative in bringing up opposing views. I also recommend that the leader gives his final opinion towards the end of the debate; going in early discourages team members from coming up with more options. The below ‘Telegraph Model for Manoeuvring Conflicts in the Right Direction’ is an aide-to-memory for leaders for facilitating healthy debates on board.


 The Telegraph Model for handling Conflicts

Bring more information to the table and list all possible outcomes (not just two diametrically opposite choices). During a closed room debate, I find a whiteboard to be very helpful tool to help keep the team’s focus on the issues to be systematically sorted out. If you’re unable to come up with an agreement at the end of the meeting- narrow down the options and revisit the discussion. Of course, if the issue is time-sensitive, the leader must make the decision based on all the inputs gathered during the debate.

Keep your Conflict Skills ready at all times

Conflict situations can arrive without warning. We were once manoeuvring into a harbour with a Pilot on board. We had completed the Master-Pilot exchange and had established a good rapport with the Pilot soon after his boarding.

Half an hour later, the officer-of-watch announced loudly for everyone on the Wheelhouse to hear: “Our planned speed here is 6 knots. Our current speed is 9 knots”

Pilot: “Never mind. It’s OK”

Me: “We’ll need time to reduce the speed before we approach that turn. Best if we keep the speed as planned.”

Pilot (pauses, checks his watch and then looks up): “OK let’s bring to dead-slow ahead”

I wish I could say that all conflicts can end with such a quick and positive outcome. I’ve also had the experience of workplace conflicts which did not end well, or were left unresolved. Once we’ve learnt from these experiences, it’s time to move on. Playing those moments repeatedly, or criticizing oneself does not help anyone.

Summing up

  • Create the right environment well in advance before conflicts start occurring at your workplace.
  • Manage conflicts constructively using all tools both active and passive, with a fine sense of balance.
  • If you feel the conflict is getting out of hand, seek help from an external mediator.
  • No matter how the conflict ends, move on.





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