Transas boss calls for radical rethink on the role of the master

Frank Coles, the new boss at bridge and navigation systems specialist Transas, has called for a radical rethink on the role of the master in today’s shipping environment.

Speaking to more than 300 people at an event organised by his company in Singapore, Coles said: “The interaction between ship and shore has to change,” Coles urged. “The responsibility management needs to be adjusted.”

Captains today are essentially chief executives, Coles said, but minus the management team to share the load of the business plan.

“The traditional hierarchy and ship roles are outdated,” Coles said. “There is simply too much regulation, data, responsibility, tasks for it to be practicable,” he added.

“The level of burden upon the ship officer is at an all time high,” Coles reckoned, “yet,” he continued, “nothing has truly changed in terms of the alleviation of the burden, or the level of responsibility or the style of management.”

Along with all the growing regulation there is the advent of technological big data, something that Coles suggested is creating “an overload on the single point of failure, the master”.

“Accountability should really follow empowerment and a change in attitude to responsibility is maybe overdue,” the UK national said.

Coles took up the reins at Transas four months ago. Previous work including heading up sat comms giant Inmarsat Maritime. His maritime career stretches back 39 years when he started out as a seafarer.

To make changes, laws will need to be amended and mindsets refocused, Coles said.

“If we are to have a successful transition to the new reality, we should consider how to train the new team, the fleet resource team, and empower the master but also provide training on working together,” he said.

“Attitudes need to change, and the legal liability needs to more fittingly adjust to the operational reality. The law should not control the management of the ship, but fit with the everyday practice in operations,” he added.

Day to day fleet resource training should replace some of the bridge resource training, Coles suggested while more administrative tasks should be done ashore.

During his keynote speech, Coles introduced THESIS, the Transas Harmonised Eco System of Integrated Solutions, which he described as “a flexible data resource, a scaleable platform”.


Grant Rowles

Grant spent nine years at Informa Group based in London, Sydney, Hong Kong and Singapore. He gained strong management experience in publishing, conferences and awards schemes in the shipping and legal areas, working on a number of titles including Lloyd's List. In 2009 Grant joined Seatrade responsible for the commercial development of Seatrade’s Asia products. In 2012, with Sam Chambers, he co-founded Asia Shipping Media.


  1. Yes, I entirely agree with Frank that a radical thinking is required, but not only of the Master, but of the whole Ship Management Team. I would not go so far and say that the Master is analogue to a CEO. The differences are too many to address here. I find this analogy to be somewhat over the top. Rather, he is like the General Manager of a “satellite-office” and where his right man is his Chief Engineer, which can be thought of as the Technical Manager for the entire ship. These two are the most important persons onboard a ship. Currently, it seems to be a believe that the Captain is the master-magician that knows and can handle everything, having all types of management skills, and know how to strategically carry out everything on the same level as a CEO with his C-level team or Managing Director ashore in the land based industry, despite that the eduction, specialization and availability of intelligent support is completely different. How can that be?

    A typical Ship Management team consists of the Captain as the chairman, Chief Engineer, Chief Officer, 2 Engineers, and Chief Electro Engineer. On cruise ships you include other central department heads.

    Master, yes, is the sole responsible (as a GM), but his priority is to bring the ship, cargo and crew/ passengers safely from one port to the other, whereas, it is the Chief Engineer’s responsibility to ensure that the Master “can” “technically and safely” sail from one to the next. These two ranks are very dependent of each other. It’s a team effort. New thinking should be focusing on both of these two ranks despite that it is the Captain who has the overall responsibility. Together, they are strong. Ignoring the chief engineers’ importance and impact results in mediocracy.

    Many Masters today look at the Chief Engineer as responsible “only” for the Engine Room and fail to acknowledge and comprehend that the Chief Engineer, actually, has responsible for all technical matters from the bow to astern, from the keel to the mast and everything between. This view and respect is totally contradictory to how a safe ship should be operated technically and economically. Only by recognizing and including Chief Engineer together with the Captain will you be able to enhance the operational aspects of the ships.

    1. Svein, you make some good points. In fact my thrust was really about evaluation of the complete eco system and how a ship reacts with the shore office. Its not about how the Master and Chief work together, but I agree that is also critical.

      You mention them as a team, and I can make the same point about Chief also sometimes does not respect the Masters role. However all of this points to attitude.

      I would venture to suggest, that if the Chief makes a severe error, the Master can and does end up in jail, but if the Masters makes one, the Chief will never end up in jail. This ultimate responsibility and single point of failure is not in line with a “team” nor is it in line with the influence of the office upon critical decisions. Further, the loading up of responsibility on to the Master while still expecting him to take the ultimate responsibility is not realistic.

      As an ex mariner I am fully aware of the complete crew, but they do not have ultimate responsibility, and like any company, the crew are organised. As you say, everyone expects the master to be a super mariner, and even worse when he comes ashore, he is supposed to be a super manager.

      Attitude, training and the overall environment needs to change, especially on the general fleet. Cruise ships are able to load up with crew and have a different outlook for the most part.

  2. “Accountability should really follow empowerment and a change in attitude to responsibility is maybe overdue”

    This is very pertinent when we start to look ahead to a future involving fully automated unmanned ships and where responsibility is entirely ashore. I don’t believe that this will happen in a single step-change, but rather as a gradual process over time, so consideration of where the buck stops has to keep pace.

    I also think that it is neither practical nor sustainable to continue relying on a case law basis, where we have to wait until an accident occurs before we start doing something about it. Hopefully a wider debate can be opened up now.

Back to top button