It was a beautiful morning back in 2008 when I was due to interview a second mate who was requesting to be promoted to chief mate. He had the required time in rank as per our policy as well as pretty good appraisals from his senior officers.
He came on time, dressed appropriately and sat in front of me. After a brief introduction, I asked him if he felt ready to take over the duties of a chief mate on board one of our tankers. His reply was “Yes, of course I am. I know everything”. I do not know why, but I felt uneasy with his statement and also a bit irritated by his clearly visible cocky attitude.
I opened our Safety Management System (SMS) and questioned him on what his duties would be if he was promoted to chief mate. He recognised about 50% of the duties that he would be expected to perform. Nevertheless, I thought that it would be worth digging deeper since he apparently had performed well enough on board to obtain positive promotion appraisals.
The following is a script of the conversation that passed.
George Pitaoulis: Being a chief mate, you are the safety officer on board. You are responsible for the training of the crew and are required to have comprehensive knowledge of our SMS in regards to safety on board the ship. Could you please enumerate the key words as per our SMS?
On that question, he managed to remember only six out of the ten key words.
GP: Could you please let me know the definition of what is an enclosed space?
Second Mate: It is a closed area where there is only one door.
At that point I stood up, asked him to follow me and took him all the way to our toilet; a perfect illustration of his answer, a closed area with one door. I was hoping that he would realise his mistake.
GP: This is a closed area with one door only. Would you consider this being an enclosed space?
He looked puzzled as he realised that his previous definition of an enclosed space was not as accurate as he would have wished.
SM: Emmmmm….. No, this is not an enclosed space.
We went back to my office and continued our discussion.
GP: From what I see, you have quite a fair amount of experience on board vessels. Have you ever been inside a ballast tank?
SM: Of course I have been inside.
GP: Is the ballast tank an enclosed space?
SM: Of course it is.
GP: But to the best of my knowledge, ballast tanks have in excess of one entry point. They usually have two or more in case of bigger sized vessels. Is that correct?
SM: Yes, this is correct.
GP: But then according to your initial definition of an enclosed space, you said that the main characteristic is that they have only one entry point.
SM: No, no… I was mistaken. They could have more than one entry point.
GP: Maybe you would like to rethink the definition and tell me again what an enclosed space is?
SM: An enclosed space is an area which is closed for a long time, creating problems with oxygen.
GP: Do you have a car?
SM: Of course I have.
GP: Do you consider your car as an enclosed space?
SM: No, why?
GP: Because it is closed for a long time and this would create a problem with oxygen, as per your last definition.
Again as with the example of the toilet in the office, I was hoping to help him realise that his definition was very weak. There were many elements still missing for it to be complete and therefore prove him able to prevent any accidents on board. By allowing him to appreciate that he was wrong and that the gaps in his knowledge could prove fatal on board, without me actually saying the words, I hoped that he would understand the importance of proper training and see that he should also invest in his theoretical knowledge.
Silence again and this time the second mate started to recognise that he had gaps in his knowledge and he may actually not be worthy of promotion after all.
SM: But I will find out and learn all of these things when I am on board.
The above statement rang alarm bells. I have heard it numerous times from a plethora of ambitious officers who are desperately trying to convince me that they are going to perform their duties as expected once promoted.
GP: It would be too late then, since you should already be aware of basic safety items. But just to help you understand what you are asking me for, listen to the following example;
You are due to fly from your home airport to join the vessel in Cape Town. Boarding the airplane you meet the pilot on the gangway. He welcomes you on board with the following statement; “I am a certified pilot but have never flown a plane by myself. Not to worry though, once we close the doors we will taxi on to the runway and take off. Thereafter I will learn how to fly and all going well, we will reach our destination in one piece.”
Would you still board the airplane?
SM: Of course not, I do not want to die!
GP: Exactly my point. None of your colleagues on board have a similar death wish. Therefore I am unable to agree with your promotion request.
Our conversation did not stop there of course. He was given material that he had to read and we arranged for a follow up meeting after a few weeks so that any improvement could be noted.
We all know the cost of under skilled seafarers; at the best case they are measured in hundreds or thousands of dollars and in worst case they cost lives.
Sometimes we may be embarrassed to ask junior (or even senior) officers basic and (what should be) simple questions. But trust me, you will be surprised by some of the answers you will get.
When discussing training and competence, the best approach to use is that of the glass being half full. We should be trying to convince our seafarers that they ought to continue investing in their education and knowledge. After all, the opposite of ‘good’ is not ‘bad’, but ‘better’.
Although my experience may cause you to smile, I would suggest that you too take the time to ask similar questions during future interviews with a candidate. The worst thing that can happen is that you will have a similar experience to share, rather than ending up with an inept chief mate responsible for the safety of the crew.
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