SEA CAPTAINS

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.