CHIRP Maritime presents a near-miss approaching port situation case, to highlight that many seafarers find it challenging to speak up about an issue to someone senior. This is called the ‘authority gradient’ – the real or perceived difference in rank, experience, or social or cultural hierarchy. Pointing out an error is especially difficult in front of an ‘audience’, particularly if they are also perceived as ‘senior’ to ourselves.
pecifically, in this case, the crewmate was jolted awake by his second officer, who had just anchored and completed his watch. He had the last navigation watch for arrival around 2 a.m., so the captain arrived early and took over while the second officer and lookout went to drop the anchor. A guest and a bodyguard arrived on the bridge shortly after the captain. The captain was distracted during the handover because the guest stood at the helm.
The captain had no idea they were so close to the bay. The second officer noticed that the boat was entering the bay too quickly, but he didn’t want to bother the captain, who was talking to the guest. He eventually warned him as the boat sped into the bay at 14 knots, narrowly missing several anchored sailing boats, and ran aground.
Communication: The actual or perceived ‘gap’ between the reporter and the captain could have led to a severe incident – collisions at 14 knots are likely to result in serious personal injury and significant hull, equipment or pollution damage.
Distractions: The master should make it clear to guests that during any port approaches or high-risk navigational areas, no guests should be on the bridge to maintain focus on safe navigation. This is in everyone’s interest.
Culture: The second officer distress suggests that the safety culture on board needed improvement. The master should set an example and highlight this incident as a start to change the safety culture on board and in the company. The company needs to be proactive here and support the master.
Lesson learned: No matter how confident they might ordinarily be, many seafarers can find it challenging to speak up about an issue to someone senior. This is called the ‘authority gradient’ – the real or perceived difference in rank, experience, or social or cultural hierarchy. Pointing out an error is especially difficult in front of an ‘audience’, particularly if they are also perceived as ‘senior’ to ourselves.
Masters and senior officers can reduce the authority gradient by encouraging and rewarding their team members for speaking up, even if their concerns are unfounded.
CHIRP also commented that the 2/O’s distress suggests that the captain and the company had not fostered a culture of challenge and response on board.
Developing a ‘constructive challenge’ mindset within the team has additional benefits, too: crew members become more confident, teams work more cohesively, problems identified earlier, and solutions are developed more creatively.
In that regard, CHIRP and the advisory board members recommend that when guests board the vessel, they are informed during their safety briefing and familiarisation tour that during high-risk navigational phases of any passage, they should refrain from coming to the bridge or engine room. The master, who had arrived on the bridge with a guest, was distracted and not engaged with the navigation, including traffic and other hazards.
Furthermore, CHIRP highlights the following regarding this case:
- Clear communications are required concerning taking over the conn, and this was not evident. This indecision left nobody taking responsibility for the vessel’s navigation, which fortuitously narrowly avoided collision and grounding.
- For the 2nd officer to be asked to leave the bridge to prepare the anchor long before it was required was bad practice.
- Another crew member could assist the lookout in preparing the anchor, and the officer attends to the anchor when the vessel has reached the anchorage position.
- A very effective navigation risk control measure which would have reduced the vessels speed as the vessel approaches the entrance to a port, anchorage, berth or rendezvous point, is to annotate the passage plan with desired speeds so that the speed of the vessel is commensurate to the risks and allows the vessel to be stopped in a controlled manner.