Crewing is the linchpin of the maritime industry. An error by a navigator can impale a billion-dollar cruise ship on the rocks or leak oil into a pristine marine reserve. The mistake of an engineer can immobilize an engine for weeks, or in case of oily-water-separator bypass violations, damage the company’s reputation. Crew injuries and illnesses, some fatal, are among the highest sources of P&I claims.

These acts seldom occur randomly. The seeds for such incidents occur thousands of miles away in the offices of the shipping companies. How the seeds will take root depends on the corporate policies and culture. And one of the most important is how crewing matters are followed up.

My experience heading the crewing and training department for a fleet of over 180 ships and a crew pool of over 8000 seafarers has taught me a few valuable lessons. I’d like to summarize them as 3-E: Enable. Empower. Empathize.

The maritime industry is unique in the way it recruits and retains manpower. Larger organizations have their own pool and have the luxury and budget to choose their model of crewing. Smaller companies, not so much. It’s mainly a question of not what you have but what you do with what you have. And in an industry where there is little to differentiate between shipping companies, one can make a difference by how we work with people. So, the principal focus of ship owners and managers is this: Motivate seafarers with 3-E. Maximise their potential. This leads to Excellent crew and Excellent ships!

To do this is everyone’s responsibility. While crewing departments do a valuable job in the logistics of recruitment, onboarding and rotation, the three E’s should be ideally practised by every person in a shipping office.

1.Enable: Provide necessary logistic support for the crew to perform their job with resources- manpower, time, material, and information. Keep lines of feedback open so that the office knows what the seafarer wants and by when. Crew relief, information about their relief, adequate provisions, supply of stores and spares, sending wages on time are all expectations of seafarers which must be met. These are ‘hygiene factors’, i.e. lack of such support can severely degrade motivation on board. If there’s no motivation on board, there’s no telling what will happen on the ship, in some far-off port or at sea.

2.Empower: Empowerment is a great motivator. Provide sufficient guidance, support and encouragement so that the seafarers on the front line can take decisions for the safety and efficiency of the ship. Help create an atmosphere where mariners can take decisions with courage and without fear of bureaucratic backlash. Of course, for this, seafarers will need sufficient time for familiarization, have access to training, and performance-feedback to empower the seafarer to confidently carry out his job.

3.Empathize: A crew member’s wife is sick. The ship is in the middle of the Atlantic. Until the time the ship reaches port, the seafarer is preoccupied with thoughts. Yes, mariners, like all other professionals are supposed to do their job perfectly keeping their emotions under control. But the groundings by emotionally affected navigators of the Torrey Canyon, Ovit and the Norfolk Express are just some examples that it’s easier said than done. It takes a couple of phone calls, one to his home, and one to the seafarer to let each other know that his company is with them to support in the hour of need. That’s one way how the crewing department can make a difference to the safety of the ship.

It makes a tangible difference. With a concerted effort from all teams, we saw significant improvements in crew performance, retention, and return on investment.

Yes, strategies on manpower sourcing, officer matrices, relief planning, budgets, variance reports are all important but are often influenced by factors outside our control. But what is in our hands, and what can keep a personnel department as a linchpin to both maritime business and its seafarers is the human touch.

By Capt. VS Parani, Author / Marine Safety Assurance / Maritime HR & Training

Above article has been initially published in Capt. VS Parani’s personal blog and is reproduced here with author’s kind permission.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of SAFETY4SEA and are for information sharing and discussion  purposes only.

About Captain VS Parani

Captain VS Parani is an executive with a multinational shipping company. In his various corporate roles, he has helped improve the fleet safety record, and achieve very high personnel performance. He is also a Fellow of the Nautical Institute, a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers and a Member of the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science & Technology. Originally from the Andaman Islands, he now lives with his family in Cyprus. He writes in industry journals and maritime websites about lessons learnt from the sea.