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Big Changes With Small Thinking

Rod Hatch9

Part 2: Perspectives on Safety in Yachting

SOLAS, STCW, MARPOL ISM and ISPS were all drafted and implemented with the intent to curtail large-scale maritime disasters, and/or to preserve the safety of individual persons on board ships. More recently MLC, 2006 has enshrined every seafarer’s “right to a safe and secure workplace that complies with safety standards.” (MLC Article IV.1).

None of the above statutes prevented the sinking of M/Y Yogi in February 2012, or the fatal accidents to crew on M/Y Faith in April 2013, or on M/Y Kibo in May 2015, or on M/Y Ocean Victory in March 2016, or on S/Y Germania Nova in March 2017. These incidents were interspersed with fires on smaller yachts, one of which caused three deaths in Marina di Loano in December 2016. Each incident received media attention at the time, but public interest rapidly faded.

What can the yachting industry learn from the incidents? Very little, because we don’t know much about exactly what happened, or why it happened. It seems that a culture of safety is supplanted by a culture of silence whenever things go badly wrong.

The lack of openness is explicable: crew may have signed confidentiality clauses in their contracts; lawyers may impose a gagging order; insurers may hint at non-disclosure as a condition of payout on a claim. What we are left with is perhaps a one-line coroner’s verdict or a years-long wait for the flag state’s investigation report, which may never appear anyway. Is this another case of yachting being somehow “special”? Compared to accident investigations in the worlds of merchant shipping and aviation (both private and commercial), we don’t measure up as being very special at all.

When Things go Wrong

What we do know is that in each of the cited cases there was a combination of mechanical and human factors.

On Yogi, foundering commenced when a compartment flooded, how we don’t know. Nor do we know anything about crew procedural compliance to deal with the emergency, or exactly when the situation became uncontrollable. On Faith a crewman went overboard in port, at night, in circumstances unknown and unknowable. On Kibo a fender hook slipped when being improperly used. On Ocean Victory a windlass brake failed, and the operator did not react in time to the danger of a runaway anchor chain (not part of SOP?). On Germania Nova a bosun’s chair failed or became unattached at the top of a mast, with no independent secondary safety line securing the crew member working aloft.

yogi2M/Y Yogi, image courtesy of Hellenic Coast Guard

Things, dumb inanimate objects, broke in four out these five accidents. On the human side, were all the safety checks and procedures and monitoring methods complied with? We don’t have all the information, so we cannot derive conclusions, and certainly have no right to rush to judgement. Trial by social media, which followed these incidents, was uninformed, unjust and unfair. Yet by being fair, we may derive some useful conclusions.

First, we should acknowledge that the yachts concerned did not have repetitive accidents, injuries and fatalities. So if there was a slip-up in safety procedures, it was not necessarily because it was the way they did things on those yachts. It was the way they did things on that day. This is the crux of the matter. How can a normally well-ordered yacht protect itself against the one day when a small slip-up or oversight becomes a life-or-death matter?

Second, perhaps we tend always to think too big when it comes to safety. An ISM compliant yacht, or one that follows a mini-ISM, will have a Safety Management System which is pages long, with tables, diagrams, and sample reporting forms. There will be at least one copy of the MCA Code of Safe Working Practices on board. There will be safety posters and notices and lists on notice boards in the crew mess and anywhere else that there is space to post something to read. Altogether, it is a huge chunk of mandates, guidance and recommendations, to study and digest, and is unmanageable when we have other work to do.

Old Rules, New Habits

The early protests about the administrative burden of ISM are no longer valid. Nobody has to reinvent the wheel. SOP templates are available free online (e.g. from Superyacht Operating Systems), and easily adaptable to become vessel-specific. So we can already make progress by thinking smaller, applying what has already been tried and tested.

But there is still something missing. ISM is mostly about big thinking, and it leads to big responses. Even with monthly fire and abandon ship drills and a safety committee meeting every three months, this customary way of doing things still fails to prevent “that day” from coming. Thinking even smaller may help plug the gap.

When all the manuals have been read, procedures are signed off, check lists are completed, and the toolbox talk wraps up, the last two lines of defence involve thinking at the smallest level: self-checking and buddy-checking. Every day each department head should specifically address the safety aspects of the day’s tasks, and remind their team to self-check and buddy-check before, during and after each job. Make it a habit, self-check, buddy-check.

MY Ocean VictoryM/Y Ocean Victory

This is a survival mantra for Special Forces; a case of do it, or die. It is not a mantra in yachting but we see it practiced when crew go scuba-diving in pairs and in fire-fighting drills. Whoever is wearing the BA sets checks themselves, and their dressers check them too. It’s part of the drill, it becomes a habit, and the BA teams do not move off until they are comfortable with their gear, times are noted, hose-handlers are ready to assist and make sure they are not going to fall over their own feet.

When the captain says “Go”, and one of the BA team says “Stop, my safety line is snagged”, then everything stops. If it’s not right it’s not right. When it’s put right, the action continues.

If we were to transfer this simple habit to every onboard operation, then nobody would go aloft or over side again without being properly secured and wearing the right gear, nobody would get bits of galvanizing in their eye from a running anchor chain because of not wearing goggles, nobody would swing a tender around at the end of its boom without wearing a hard hat to pass underneath it. Even if you’re not involved in a given operation, if you see something that doesn’t look right, be a good buddy and say so.

Thinking small puts control of our safety back into our own hands and this extends to those mandated drills which still need to be held even during a busy cruising schedule. For instance, fire drills do not have to involve the entire crew each time. Hoses do not always have to be dragged around. BA sets don’t always have to be worn into the depths of the interior. Each full-scale drill (fire, MOB, abandon ship etc.) can be broken down into small elements, involving just a few crew at times which cause the least interference with their regular duties or rest periods.

The big thinking of the IMO, ILO, the MCA and all other legislative bodies, does not provide adequate protection for seafarers, but a new layer of legislation would not help and undoing current legislation is unthinkable.

So how can we apply the current legislation more effectively to enhance safety in yachting? 

Safety Lessons from Cruise Ships & Aviation 

We might start with STCW and the Manila Amendments. The big thinking here was to establish a system where STCW-compliant certificates guarantee competence. It’s a wonderful principle, suggesting people must be safe on the job if they know what they are doing. But then how does a cruise ship like Costa Concordia, loaded with STCW certificated crew at all levels, end up on charted rocks, with subsequent loss of lives during a disorganized abandonment?

safety series costa concordiaThe cruise ship Costa Concordia

The owning company soon came to realize the IMO's intention to deliver STCW certificates with a lifetime warranty was flawed because skill fade is a reality. Carnival Cruises now only trusts the STCW warranty for 12 months at a time, then they retest. They built a special training centre with state-of-the-art simulators to provide annual refresher training and assessment, mandatory for employees in all departments, including how to think small and how to buddy-check, which may include challenging the chain of command.

Many commercial shipping companies also adopted more advanced forms of internal auditing such as Navigational Assessment as the value of objective, dispassionate observations became clear.

And there are lessons to be learned from aviation. Aviation thinks really big about training, testing and certification for both cockpit and cabin crew and after qualifying there are frequent inspections, testing, and re-certifications. Small thinking is also in evidence as a first line of defence against skill fade. The validity of a day old certificate is not taken for granted and newly qualified pilots and cabin crew must still participate in pre-flight safety briefings.

In yachting we don't have the resources to match what Carnival is doing, but it can be copied on a smaller scale. It is now common, especially for charter yachts, to bring a trainer on board to give crew a pre-season refresher course in First Aid, safety awareness and safety drills. At the same time, small thinking might involve delegating crew members to give instruction on certain operations or to organize a drill scenario. In each case they would need to study and understand the subject before being able to teach it so it’s a cheap and effective way to combat skill fade. 

The Role of Yacht Management Companies

ISM came about in order to assign responsibility for safe maritime operations all the way up to the owner and the yacht's management but the responsibility for crew safety can still end up in the wrong hands. For example, if an owner is motivated to reduce costs, they might opt for an in-house solution, often referred to as “the family office”. Very often these are run by people who are totally unfamiliar with yacht operations, who have never even attended the “ISM Shipboard Safety Officer” course to glean a basic understanding of what's involved onboard.

Kibo via FlikrM/Y Kibo

All too often a similarly unqualified person is nominated as DPA (Designated Person Ashore), with no idea of their potential civil and criminal liability exposure. They may get away with a slack safety regime which leads to somebody being killed, but are probably unaware that in the event of a heavy pollution incident, especially in US waters, there is no hiding place for a DPA anywhere in the developed world. (Note the priorities in the last sentence).

Merchant shipping companies which employ an old-fashioned Marine Superintendent with disciplinary powers at least have an experienced mariner as a cushion between commercial management and the fleet’s onboard operators. A sharp letter of reprimand to the Master of a vessel which docked on time during a period when the Marine Superintendent knew that the coast was shrouded in dense fog, meaning the vessel had not slowed down to a safe speed, might result next time in the company paying a penalty for late delivery. But the company would not face the disastrous consequences of a full-speed collision in restricted visibility.

We rarely see that kind of involved management in yachting. The major yacht management companies, which manage under contract to owners, inevitably have a primary interest in their own commercial well-being and have no real skin in the game. They don’t own the yachts they manage; they don’t employ the crew (except perhaps at arm’s length through an asset-hollow offshore cell); they risk losing a client’s business if they press too hard for any non-mandatory expenditure on safety training for crew: and they are vulnerable to a conflict of interest if they have an in-house sales brokerage section which depends on selling dreams rather than realities.

Their SMSs (Safety Management Systems) can be written with so many hedges that they try to absolve themselves of all responsibility for any incident during any standard operation. For instance, don’t wash down aloft or over side when (i) in port if there are other vessels alongside, danger of crushing; (ii) if alongside a quay; danger of falling; (iii) while at anchor, danger of being upset by swell from passing traffic.

Deckie at FLIBS

For the most part the managers don’t have a clue about the persons they are managing. Copies of CVs, annual assessment reports, and an annual visit onboard before Flag audit provide no useful means to judge the efficacy or otherwise of the company SMS in creating and sustaining a vibrant crew safety culture. The geographical spread of the units in their fleet does not excuse the absence of intimate awareness of each yacht’s safety culture, it is a challenge to be overcome.

Monthly visits to meet the crew would be ideal, but impractical and expensive. So again, thinking small would go some way towards a closer understanding between crew and management. For instance, a DPA could sit in on safety meetings via Skype, Facetime or similar. Such interaction would indicate the real level of crew participation, leadership and onboard culture around safety. The safety culture of each individual yacht should be scrutinized far more closely than is the current practice.

Large yachts and large fleets have given the largest management companies brand recognition and stellar reputations, a status which is seriously undermined when injury or fatality befalls a crew member on a managed yacht. So what improvements could they make in safety management without hurting their bottom lines? 

Issues in Crew Recruitment

A start could be made at the recruitment stage. How many recruiters get hold of copies of old exam papers, or draw up their own lists of appropriate questions, or ask candidates about ColRegs, or buoyage systems, or safe working practices on electrical equipment, or food hygiene, or how to test PPE before use? It takes minutes, costs nothing, and flags up potential weaknesses.

The object of these screening exercises is not necessarily to pass or fail a candidate, but rather to understand the particular areas which may call for coaching and reinforcement in order to settle a new joiner into the yacht’s safety regime. 

Social Devices 2

Screening should also extend to drug testing and cost is no excuse. Candidates for USCG licences, or for positions in US vessels, have long been required to pay for their own testing. In the absence of all this, the manager should take over these responsibilities (which will cost time and money), or they should work exclusively with a professional agency.

The recruitment process should also consider the overlap between security and safety. This topic will be discussed in depth in a later article in this series, but is mentioned here in relation to candidates’ levels of awareness of cyber security. It takes a few minutes to put a candidate through an online test of their cyber gullibility. Knowledge of each crew member's online operating weaknesses and proclivities is step 1 in effective cyber defence. The hacking of critical systems can put a vessel and its crew in peril.

Another safety-related recruitment issue concerns attitudes to age. Senior crew who have many years of experience and have often invested in CPD (Continuous Professional Development) are often excluded from command positions in favour of younger, more recently qualified candidates. The evidence is anecdotal but it is not a new concern. On one hand there is the notion that younger crew are more energetic, which ignores the fact that captains are not employed to scrub decks. On the other there is the assertion that less mature captains are more susceptible to pressure from owners or managers to bend the rules. The example most commonly quoted is the under-reporting of Hours of Work.

The passing-over of more mature candidates also has an insidious long-term effect on safe manning. Young and insecure captains may feel uncomfortable hiring a more experienced second-in-command, effectively depriving crew of more experienced leadership. An experienced Chief Officer with a Master (Yachts) <3000gt CoC will remain stuck in their position or resignedly move ashore taking valuable knowledge with them.

Safe Manning

The relationship between the yacht’s Minimum Safe Manning Document, and the manning level required to safely operate the yacht is another contentious issue, and current IMO legislation is not being implemented due to flag states’ wilful disregard. This topic will be covered at length in a later article, as it has particular bearing on (i) compliance or otherwise with MLC hours of work and rest, and (ii) crew and passenger safety in emergency situations.

Marine insurance companies could also yield more influence. A yacht which is in Class, is crewed according to at least the minimum on its Safe Manning Document and has all its documents in order, meets the standard for coverage to be issued.

deckhand oasis from PYA2

But the cost of marine insurance tends to be cyclical. After an expensive disaster, insurers tend to increase their premiums, in case it’s their turn next then after a while premiums come down again as companies try to remain competitive. At this stage they are deaf to any requests for further discounts for those yachts which have tightened up their crew selection processes or invested in non-mandatory safety training. 

But that’s their issue. Absence of a financial incentive should not excuse resistance to a tighter crew selection process by all other players. We need to remember that any person responsible for the actions of another person, that is anybody in a supervisory or employer capacity, has a duty of care towards those persons being supervised or employed. 

About the Author

Rod Hatch got bored with the academic world after three years as a Lecturer in Economics at a London Polytechnic, and ran away to sea for a year as deckhand in a 100' motor yacht. His yachting career has now spanned 50 years (including six years in commercial shipping) and he was one of the last few dinosaurs to be certificated in the UK as Master of a Home Trade Passenger Ship. Current special interests: MLC, 2006; and advocacy of CPD opportunities for yacht crew outside of their mandatory training courses.

Related Articles by Captain Rod Hatch
Crisis at Sea Off the Cote d'Azur
Why Yachties Have Never Had it so Good
Hours of Rest - Where Does the Buck Stop?
ISIS v ISPS - The Limitations Ashore
Safe Travel in the Age of Small Terror
Personal Safety Ashore
Migrants & ISIS: Whatever the Risks, Are You Prepared?
Sequel: Migrants & ISIS, Proactive Measures
Migrant Boat Encounter: Procedures for Captains
MLC Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, and You
Cyber Security - Are You on the Radar?
Cyber Security - Are You Protected?
Drone Operations - Aide Memoire for Yacht Crew

*Image credits: Ocean Victory - Balou46 via WikimediaCommons CC BY-SA 4.0; Costa Concordia - Rvongher via CreativeComons CC BY-SA 3.0; Social Checks Device Management - Vinoth25 via CreativeCommons CC BY-SA 4.0

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