I have known many captains during my career at sea. Hollywood
has portrayed them in an idealistic light. John Wayne and Gregory Peck are among my favorites. Joseph Conrad also wrote in
depth about the characters of the captains in his stories. My favorite portrayals of captains come from history. I really
admire Columbus, Magellan, Cook, Bligh, Jones, and Shackleton who have made a mark on history. Because of men like these,
the profession is held in high esteem. Passengers always seek out the captain for advice, seldom the chief engineer or chief
mate. It seems that the promotion to captain somehow empowers a person with some sort of aura of invincibility or infallibility.
Captains are human, just like the rest of us. We have our personality quirks, sometimes made worse with the "swelled
head" that comes when you become a captain. Nobody is likely to say "captain, you really screwed up that time!".
You are praised for your successes, and seldom criticized. I believe that is one of the dangerous things about a command.
We all have to know our limitations, and when to seek advice. In recent years the concept of a "Bridge Management Team"
has evolved. When I was sailing, a captain could give a command that would put the ship in jeopardy, and the order would be
followed without question. I don't think ships can be run as a democracy, where captains are elected by popular vote. We need
to have someone whose authority is supreme. Committees can't get things done in the short time we have to make decisions.
For that reason I do not think that we should change the system radically, even though it has its problems.
One time, when approaching Southwest Pass to pick up a Mississippi
River pilot, I realized how quickly things can go wrong, and how little time we have to respond. The pilot station had called
me and told me to maintain course and slow to 8 knots for the pilot. Another ship had just departed the jetty, and turned
toward the East to drop his pilot. He was over on our starboard bow about a mile away, when, after dropping off his pilot
he turned back across our bow, instead of our stern. I had to do something quickly. He was a Korean tanker, and told all ships
in the vicinity in broken English to "keep out of my way!" It is hard to maneuver and change course at low speed
and in restricted waters. Yachtsmen often criticize merchant ships as being kamikazes, intent on running down pleasure craft.
It just isn't true. We have few people on the bridge to keep a lookout, and need a lot of room to maneuver. It takes at least
half a mile to make much of a change of course or speed. In the seconds I had I rang an emergency full astern bell, and told
the Korean to turn hard to starboard. It was the only way I could see that we might avoid a collision. When the engineers
seemed a bit slow to respond, I phoned them and told them to give it all they had! They then responded with a good kick astern,
and we got most of our headway off, narrowly avoiding hitting the tanker amidships, and making the six-o'clock news. I must
credit the Southwest Pass pilot who boarded us while all this was going on. I would have taken the pilot boat and cleared
the area. He rushed to the bridge in time to grab the VHF radio and cuss out the other ship for his stupidity, but I just
felt happy to have avoided a collision. If I would have had to consult with others on whether to alter course to starboard
or to back the ship, we would have probably had a different outcome. Once the engine is going astern, you lose effective rudder
control and steerageway.
We all copy traits in
other people we meet, and I have copied many things that I like about captains I have sailed with. I always believed in not
taking myself too seriously, to look for humor in situations, to remain calm when in situations like the one above. Yelling
and cussing only make those around you more nervous. Be honest and open with people, but be careful what you say. If you speculate
about something that might happen, it will soon be quoted as a fact by the "galley wireless" or "scuttlebutt"
as we call rumors at sea. Be kind to people, but not overly friendly or personal. A captain must remain aloof from others
to some degree, as must all who bear the burden of command.
I think I mentioned this before, that captains are in a position similar to surgeons and judges. They have jobs that
give them a lot of power over others, where they seldom receive criticism for their errors, and after many years in the job
can become convinced of their infallibility. I think that is the most dangerous consequence of the job. We must all be aware
of our limitations, and be willing to admit to our errors and look for ways to prevent them from happening again.