Stories on Maritime Leadership

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Port or Starboard? Decision Making on the High Seas

008 smallThis 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 reefer ship with its cargo of frozen fish is due to leave berth the following morning. The weather forecast predicts 55 knot winds outside the harbour. The ship’s anemometer currently shows about 20 knots. Could the wind speed increase by more than twice during the night? The ship must unberth at daylight if they are to make the scheduled ETA at the next port. On the other hand, the rough seas outside could severely damage this small ship. The Captain is thoughtful as he mulls over what he should do next.

Onboard a container ship in the Mediterranean, a Junior Engineer reports to the Chief Engineer that the fuel tank which was nearly full yesterday is down by two-thirds. The Chief Engineer is busy writing his noon-report. He wonders with a bit of irritation why the sounding has reduced. Has the Junior made an error; it wouldn’t be the first time? Should he investigate, or should he complete the report first?

Somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, the Chief Officer of a chemical tanker gets a call from the Captain asking him when the tanks would be ready for the next loading. If the crew went into the tanks now, the cleaning would complete sooner. But the tanks are not yet fully ventilated. There could still be flammable-hazardous gases inside. He nervously debates sending the crew in, or telling the Captain that cargo operations could be delayed.

The challenge:
Mariners may have to take several such decisions every day. The right decision will take the ship and its crew safely to the next leg of the voyage. The wrong action could lead to disaster!

But why do people make wrong decisions?
What are the strategies mariners can adopt to ensure they have it right, first time and every time?
And how can a company management assist in better decision making onboard ships?

All of us want to make right decisions. But decision making is a complex science, while also being a key leadership skill. And decision making is as much a rational algorithm as an emotionally loaded process. Understanding the mechanics of decision making can help seafarers pick the right methods while steering clear of the dangers. Decision making requires clarity of thought, preparation and practice.

Decision making mindsets
Mariners first need to acknowledge that decision making isn’t easy. Next, it is important to acknowledge that the situation is changing and needs a decision. Hubris impedes our ability to register change, or leads us to conveniently assume that the new information has no significance.

Decision making is an intentional process requiring a person to overcome inertia. It is a stressful process. And we may react either with a flight or freeze response, both unhelpful for the ship. A leader can instead, tap into his innate fight response to enable him to decide. Decision making requires courage, and a leader needs a lot of it to be able to lead his ship day after day.

I recommend the decision-making template- DECIDE (Detect, Evaluate, Choose, Identify, Do & Evaluate Effectiveness). The method has been well tested in aviation and I’ve found it applicable to shipping as well. I’ve also developed a decision-making mnemonic which can help seafarers understand the decision-making process.

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To complete the story
The Captain feels that his ship will be able to handle the heavy seas. As soon as he leaves the breakwater, the small reefer ship is battered by the waves. It soon loses power and runs aground. The ship is abandoned and the crew is rescued, but not before they lose a precious life from the rescue team.

The Chief Engineer chooses to ignore the Junior Engineer’s report. The next day, they found the adjoining cargo hold swamped by leaked fuel oil. The cargo in the hold? Twenty containers of pasta, swimming in fuel oil sauce!

The Chief Officer ignores protests by some of the crew and sends them into the tanks. A spark ignites the flammable atmosphere in the tank. The resulting explosion sinks the chemical tanker, taking the lives of all but a handful of survivors.

Sadly, all these are real-life stories. With better decisions, the outcome could have been different. We are faced with several such situations every day and it is not always a straight forward choice between right and wrong. It is often a choice between a wrong and a lesser wrong or a right and a greater right, often guided by the values held in the organization and on board the ship.

And decision making is a skill that can be learnt and improved with practice.


Golden Stripes- Leadership on the High Seas by Captain VS Parani is available from Whittles Publishing (, and on Amazon (


Praise for Golden Stripes- Leadership on the High Seas

‘As President of the Nautical Institute I believe Leadership and Human Factors will be two of the most important issues in our industry in the coming decade. Golden Stripes comprehensively addresses these issues and provides an easily understandable template for ships officers to develop a personal code of ethics and standards for their careers’.
Captain Robert Mc Cabe, FNI, MSc Mgmt. President, Nautical Institute, London.


‘When I wrote my books on decision making and meeting technique, I was thinking about life on dry land. VS Parani’s remarkable book Golden Stripes takes management into a different dimension and environment. 71% of the earth’s surface is water, and we should all take lessons from shipping more seriously. I am humbled and delighted that Captain Parani found some of my ideas useful in the context of leadership at sea’.
David Wethey, author of DECIDE: Better Ways of Making Better Decisions and MOTE: The Super Meeting.

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