On maritime ineptitude

I dare say most of us know that the concept of ‘CRM’ – cockpit, or crew, resource management – is applied in three fields – aviation (where it developed), ship operations, and medicine. Please excuse a brief foray into medicine.

In last year’s Reith Lectures in the UK, on the future direction of medicine, Professor Atul Gawande, of Harvard, discusses the concept of human fallibility developed by Samuel Gorovitz and Alastair Macintyre in 1976. They identified two main causes of failure – ignorance – what we actually don’t know – and ineptitude – failure to apply what we, as a species, actually do know. To these, they added ‘necessary fallibility’ – we cannot hope to know everything. An example of necessary fallibility is a tropical revolving storm – we can predict its behaviour roughly, through the Laws of Storms, but we cannot hope to know precisely what it will do. It is simply too complicated.

Now, you will, I am sure, agree with me that ignorance – having only a limited understanding of all of the relevant physical laws and conditions that apply to any given problem or circumstance, as Dr Gawande defines it, very seldom applies in vessel operations these days. Compared to the Victorians, who were guessing wildly for half the time, we know just about everything that people need to know about ships and their mechanical and electrical systems.

Centuries of practice, good charts, and modern meteorology have pretty much allowed us to work our way safely around necessary fallibility in the forms of weather and uncharted reefs.

Our problem is ineptitude. We know enough to ensure that accidents can be eliminated. Yet they continue to happen, because that knowledge is not available at the time and place where the accident is about to be caused – I did not write “about to happen” because ‘Act of God’ is necessary fallibility and we know our way round that. We know that accidents always have causes. And we know that the cause is human error.

Now, the biggest single ineptitude is found onshore, in shipmanagers’ and shipowners’ offices, because it is the people ashore who are responsible for not getting the available knowledge to the place where it is wanted, onboard.

There are wonderful resources available for getting that knowledge to where it is needed, but if, gentle reader, you are one of those people who don’t find it necessary to provide your ships with broadband — and that is most of you – because “What would they need it for?” – the fault for the ineptitude that will cause your next accident is yours. You are not applying the knowledge available to you to getting the knowledge available to your people afloat.

You have a smartphone – of course you do – doesn’t everybody? And you use it constantly – doesn’t everybody?

Well, you know who doesn’t. Your own colleagues afloat don’t. You think it is perfectly fine for them to be cut off for weeks at a time. Yet there really isn’t the slightest doubt about what it is that seamen – almost all of them – want most. They want the internet, just like everyone else does.

To take one example of the sort of free resource, which goes a long way to reducing ineptitude, by providing the knowledge to the seaman at the point where he needs it, consider Bob Couttie’s excellent Maritime Accident Casebook. A long series of modern case studies, each of them short, sharp and to the point. It is actually aimed at the seafarer using the internet. One accident prevented pays for your broadband for the year.

Who is being inept, here?

Andrew Craig-Bennett

Andrew Craig-Bennett works for a well known Asian shipowner. Previous employers include Wallem, China Navigation, Charles Taylor Consulting and Swire Pacific Offshore. Andrew was also a columnist for Lloyd's List for a decade.
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