I Need Support not 'Management'!

Posted: 18th September 2015 | Written by: Stuart Biesel, MTSI

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Would you travel on an airplane if you knew the airline had no schedule for maintenance, oversight, crew training, or safety procedures in place? As a passenger boarding a plane, I would like to think there is a system of procedures for: pilot certifications, crew training, emergency preparedness, systematic maintenance and oversight of every aspect of the aircraft’s operation.

It’s quite unsettling to imagine boarding a flight believing any one of those components might be lacking. Similarly, as the owner of a yacht, or simply as a passenger, I would like to know there is an equivalent system at work for everyone’s benefit and protection.

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Many parallels can be drawn between the various transportation industries and the yachting industry. In the yachting industry there are similar requirements for such a system of procedures, training and maintenance, commonly referred using the confusing and limited title of “Safety Management Systems”.

At present only commercially registered yachts and ships over 500 gross tons are required to have a safety management system meeting these standards. 

There is however, no requirement for vessels under 500 gross tons or privately registered vessels of any tonnage to implement a safety management system with shore based oversight equal to commercially registered vessels. 

I look back to when I surveyed vessels measuring just below the 500 tonnage criteria, or those privately registered and wanting to obtain commercial certification. There was often a noticeable difference in the overall quality and maintenance of these yachts and the level of awareness of safe working procedures.

The vessels were frequently operating without any real or defined guidelines or procedures. In some cases, the yacht itself suffered due to simple naïve errors and omissions. Maintenance tasks were not performed simply due to lack of awareness of their necessity. 

No owner likes to see their yacht degrade or unnecessary expenditures arise as a consequence of matters that could have been avoided through prevention. 

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Similarly, the crew and owner were observed to be at greater risk with some operations taking place without an understanding of the need for safe working practices.

Unfortunately, in recent months and years, there have been several incidents and accidents which have resulted in severe injury, and even death, as a result of not having a system and requirements for training and safe working procedures on board.

Operating and managing any yacht efficiently and safely requires a tremendous amount of skill, knowledge and experience. Regrettably, there is little in the way of formal education and training available to provide Captains this much-needed and desired knowledge of what best practices should be followed. 

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I remember in my earlier days as a captain making the step up from the smaller vessels, there was no training on how to run a larger, more complex yacht or how to deal with a greater number of crew. I was left to my own devices to fumble through, asking my friends and colleagues in the industry for advice and guidance along the way. I was able to do it, but I am sure it was not the prettiest, safest or most efficient operation until I was able to gain my own hands-on experience and develop procedures along the way.

I remember we nearly voided the warranty of the yacht’s main engines due to not having all of the required maintenance tasks and frequencies correctly implemented in our own maintenance procedures.

Additionally, prior to the creation of pre-departure procedures, I cannot tell you how many times I started to steer the yacht from the navigation wing station, only to realize I had forgotten to activate the steering stations outside. Luckily these two mistakes were quickly identified and corrected before serious ramifications resulted. 

With the ever-increasing complexity and size of yachts today, the need for having established procedures and systems is ever greater. Had we employed the services of an established, experienced safety management company, I am certain it would have been a much better and safer experience for the yacht, the owner, and all persons on board. 

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For many reasons today, we see yacht owners choosing not to register their vessels commercially. Rather they are choosing to enjoy their yachts privately and, subsequently, are not obligated to operate under the standards set for commercially registered vessels, including implementing a safety management system.

There are distinct advantages to operating a vessel under private registration.

Yacht owners are significantly less restricted in the manner in which they can utilize their own yacht coupled with fewer financial obligations by way of manning, certification, surveys, administration, etc. On the other hand, commercially registered vessels have the ability to generate income and defer taxation on business expenses off-setting annual operating costs.

The title, “Safety Management System”, as it is commonly referred to in the industry, does not accurately describe all the components that should be considered and included in the creation of a system of operations and best practices to be implemented and followed on board any yacht.

Knowing what those best practices, procedures and preventative measures are is half the battle. Modern yachts, whether private or commercial, require a multitude of certifications, inspections and services on an ongoing basis.

The scheduling, organization and management of these can be daunting for any one person. Safety management systems and services come in many different styles and flavours. Having a safety management system is one thing. Having one that is practical, and can be implemented without being overly burdensome, is essential. 

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If a system is too complex and administrative in nature, it will fail and become ineffectual. Running a modern yacht, maintaining all of the complex systems, managing crew schedules, meeting owners’ needs and schedules and safely operating and navigating a yacht can be extremely challenging for even the most talented captain.

Having a system or company that adds complexity or additional stresses to this already significant workload will only serve to cause resentment and dissatisfaction. The key is to provide a system that is simple, practical, establishes safe working practices and provides support rather than burden.

Many crew complain that management companies do not provide safety management systems that assist them in their roles on board. Instead, they are frequently seen as excessively administrative and punitive in nature.

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Management has become a dirty word, instilling sighs of exasperation rather then positive reactions. I feel it is crucial to assist and support the Captains, officers and crew on board the yachts in their roles, rather than to merely provide a set of additional procedures they must comply with.

Having walked many a day in their shoes, I realised and remember how grateful I would have been to have someone actually help me by supplying and teaching me a solid, safe way to run my boat. In addition, it would have been a great support and relief to have someone I could call to get advice and, further, keep a supportive, watchful eye on us in the way of maintenance due, certification expirations, survey requirements and advise on destinations we had never been to.

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Luckily, there are companies who do provide these practical systems and support for Captains in managing today’s complex yachts. The trend we are seeing today is that more and more Captains and owners are choosing voluntarily to maintain a safety management system on board privately registered yachts as they are becoming aware of the value of operating with these best practices.   

I believe adopting these practices benefits all us, and the industry as a whole. And…it makes me a whole lot more comfortable knowing that my chosen method of travel is neither going to fall from the sky or sink along the way! 

*Image credits: Flickr/Wikimedia/MTSI

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