Germann: It’s time for maritime academies to ‘think small’

Matt Germann

Back in the ‘60s, for those of you who are old enough to remember, the Volkswagen Beetle was “the” small car. Japanese compacts were a distant second, and many brands we know today did not even import into the U.S. until years later. Along with having the most popular small car, VW’s ad campaign was brilliant — “Think Small.” Their idea was simple; basic transportation need not be expensive.

So, you ask, what has the iconic VW Beetle to do with maritime training? The car, probably not much. The concept, probably more than you think.

I’ll venture that few readers will argue that the maritime industry has changed substantially since the ‘60s when the VW Beetle was the small car of choice. STCW regulations have forced changes on the maritime academies in the past decade along with the fallout from the 9/11 attacks. My last very unscientific survey indicates that there are now more than 200 assessments required for the cadets to graduate with their credentials. Fifty years ago, assessments didn’t exist and the sharp students were duelys.

Alumni that I speak to reflect the fact that today’s graduates scatter into all corners of the industry. They work for operations that are large and small, inland and offshore, shoreside and underway. We have added classes in logistics and ships business and, as a result of some new STCW regulations, leadership. Yet our underway training has not expanded to meet the changing needs of our graduates. There are lots of opportunities in this industry, especially on vessels of limited tonnage to which graduates are gravitating, but the focus of the underway training has changed little in the last 50 years.

In my view, what is lacking is a comprehensive small-boat training program that encompasses vessels of varying sizes that broaden the students’ hands-on experience. Spread over four years, it gives a cadet the opportunity to develop small-boat skills and learn concepts that are just plain easier to teach on a small platform.

Do some schools already do this? Although I am not familiar with every program, as far as I am aware some of the maritime schools have small boats and use them in varying capacities for training. I am not referring to the sailing or crew clubs here, but other small boats — both power and sail — tugs, and other platforms that give students the chance to develop good small-boat skills. That’s a start.

What I think is lacking is a uniform program integrated into the curriculum, where each cadet will get a certain amount of structured time on a variety of different size platforms. This ensures at least to some degree that the cadets will experience the opportunity to run a small boat and do a number of evolutions that will help them solidify basic boat-handling skills. These experiences are not lost when the student moves to a larger platform.

How easy is it to demonstrate the use of a spring line when docking a large ship? How about transverse force? Give me an old 41-foot ex-Coast Guard utility boat and I can have every student in a two-hour lab session demonstrate those maneuvers individually. We require a variety of liberal arts classes to “round out” the cadet’s academic experience. Why not a variety of underway experiences to “round out” the underway training?

By no means am I advocating getting rid of the experience of sailing on unlimited tonnage vessels, but rather augmenting the early years at school with an organized small-boat program that becomes an integrated part of their training. Their cruises on the school’s training ship remains the underway training for their license.

A good small-boat program doesn’t replace the unlimited tonnage experience but rather enhances it. A cadet gets to learn how to use a spring line, or experiences exactly what transverse force will do when docking, which directly translates to larger platforms. As the student progresses, he/she will build up an understanding of forces that influence ship movement. It also builds confidence.

There is no substitute for time underway, but that time comes at a substantial expense when you are talking about unlimited tonnage ships. Lots can be accomplished with smaller platforms, especially with a well-thought-out program. Besides, our objective here is to prepare them broadly since they move into such a wide variety of employment situations.

I am not surprised that so many of the new academy hires at one ferry I worked at didn’t even want to try any close-quarters handling. “I can’t do that” or “I don’t have enough experience yet” were lines I heard more than once. Docking something 100 feet long is intimidating for a new graduate when you have zero experience. It doesn’t matter what the tonnage on your ticket says. A small-boat program can polish a multitude of practical skills that lay the foundation for being at sea, in whatever capacity the graduate finds him or herself.

Incoming or fourth-class cadets could spend their first couple of semesters on small single-screw inboards — great platforms for learning the differences between right- and left-hand screws, transverse force, stopping distances and turning characteristics. These first experiences need not be on anything “big.” Twenty-five- to 30-foot launches are ideal. Learning how to use dock lines, understand pivot points and such are just plain easier on a smaller vessel, not to mention safer.

A smaller platform is also more forgiving.  Wind and currents can get hold of a smaller boat the same way it would a larger ship. You just have a bigger margin of error on something 25 feet long that runs at 6 knots.

Because leadership training is now required as a result of the new STCW regulations, why not start that early and in the context of the environment most will work in? Learning good communication skills and command presence seems to me to be relevant, and commanding a small boat is a great way to begin to develop them.

Maybe as third-class cadets they move up to something in the 40- to 50-foot range with twin screws. Once again, a lot of very basic concepts can be taught over two semesters with regular access to a platform of that size. The increase in size demonstrates that actions have to be thought out well ahead of execution of a given maneuver to make things work. That concept is much easier to work up to, as opposed to having it dropped in your lap on a large ship.

Then there could be a graduation to something in the 65- to 75-foot range for a second classman. That’s small enough to be able to get underway with one instructor for day trips, yet capable of being used to stand a bridge watch on a smaller scale. A day out can provide a variety of traffic encounters with commercial vessels and other pleasure boats. There are lots of opportunities to talk on the radio, understand aids to navigation, plan routes and polish ship-handling skills. How useful would it be if the vessel had a DP system onboard?

Underway time is the glue for the whole academic experience. Having students look out the window, see another boat and have to decide what to do in real time is unparalleled from a training standpoint. Allowing them to make the decision on how to handle the situation brings everything they learn in class directly into the wheelhouse, which is exactly what we want. Of course this happens on the cruises with the school’s training ship, but why not start it early on smaller vessels? Can a cadet have too much time at the conn?

These smaller vessels are fabulous platforms. Having used a former Navy YP (108 feet long) at one school demonstrated that it is large enough to get that big-ship feel yet not overwhelm someone who has spent very little time on the bridge. Its handling characteristics are almost textbook, and it’s a fabulous vessel to use for a ship-handling class. It’s no surprise why the Navy uses them to train its people.

Since the graduates go into every corner of the industry, preparing them more broadly makes sense. The days when most graduates went deep-sea are over. It seems pretty obvious that many graduates will find their way into segments of the industry that have not been traditional venues. That is just today’s reality.

Cost? Yes, this will require an investment in both boats and infrastructure to handle them, as well as people that know how to use them in a training environment. Make no mistake it will be challenging to find dock space and expand waterfront facilities at some schools to accommodate an enlarged program, but the payoff is huge.

There are ways around some of the expense, too. Government agencies that dispose of surplus assets are readily accessed thorough specific websites. There are many opportunities to pick up surplus boats at these sites for little or no cost. Donations are another venue.

Think of the cost of the last simulator that was installed at your school. Expensive? Probably. In terms of payoff, what did that do for the quality of the Radar/ARPA or BRM classes? My guess is probably a lot. When you look at bang for the buck, small boats are a no-brainer.

Besides, we are not talking huge numbers here. Eight or 10 platforms of various sizes can provide a very solid foundation if the program is organized and run properly. Most likely a full-time individual to look after the maintenance will be necessary, and instructors that possess the necessary skills (some of whom may already be part of your staff).

You can read about transverse force in a text, or draw it out on the whiteboard, but nothing compares to allowing a student the opportunity to experience it when actually docking. When the stern of that launch walks up to the dock with a little reverse thrust, the light actually does turn on for the student. The size of the platform is secondary.

This type of program isn’t just for deck cadets either. It can include the engineers for preventive maintenance, repairs and other activities. Not every engine a graduate will see is going to be a slow-turning two-stroke diesel as big as a house. Operators of small boat fleets, private yachts, ferries and water taxis all present possible employment opportunities. Even large ships have smaller diesel engines on board for various reasons. Exposing the engineering students to them is unlikely to do them any harm. Other ship systems can be just as valuable a teaching tool.

Some schools have boat clubs; these are great ways to teach responsibility and develop skills. But this is not a realistic substitute for making it part of the core curriculum. Adding it to the core requirements allows it to be structured with learning objectives and goals. The cadets just know they are underway doing things they all want to do, the learning part comes along at no cost.

By ignoring the simple fact that things have changed in the industry, we are overlooking a tremendous opportunity to better prepare our students. A well-rounded graduate is better able to enter any aspect of the industry. Overlooking the small-boat and small-fleet opportunities that will present themselves to our graduates is doing them a disservice. The cost need not be extravagant. The payoff is.

Ten years ago, one academy I worked at resisted the idea of sending their graduates into the tug industry. Will anyone reading this claim the tug industry does not provide good opportunity for graduates now? That school fought the idea long and hard, and now in its boat basin sits a training tug. No surprise there.

Volkswagen’s motto was “Think Small.” I would like to add a little to that: “Think small for big opportunities.”

Matt Germann is an instructional support specialist at SUNY Maritime College. He teaches Advanced Firefighting and Survival Craft Crewman courses and multiple topics during the Summer Sea Term on the training ship Empire State. Contact him at

By Professional Mariner Staff