Murphy: Mariners need more hands-on Rules of the Road training


I would like to share a common problem that keeps showing up again and again in the “sim,” as we call it. We all are supposed to know all the Rules of the Road all the time. Or at least 90 percent of them, as that is what’s required to pass as a deck officer. But how many of those rules actually apply to our lives?

I find that, to many mariners, the rules are overwhelming in the extreme. What are the lights for a submarine going backwards in the Great Lakes again? Yes, there are plenty of “special” rules that the average mariners most likely will never come across in their entire career. But that makes them no less important. You just might need to know them some day.

So the average mariner cannot possibly remember every single rule by heart. But there are a handful of them that you had best put into play every day you are out there on the water. The most common rules violation I see again and again in the simulator is “who has the right of way?”

Yes, plain old crossing, meeting and overtaking situations. Nothing fancy at all. You know the old saying: “Right is right” and “left is left out.” Or another one I like: “Turn to port…Go to court.” And one of my favorites: “If you turn to the right, then you’re right. If you turn to the left, you damn well better be right!”

And there is a world of difference between the “legality” and “reality” with the rules. How many times do you pass starboard-to-starboard in your everyday boating? Now, what do the rules specifically say? They say you shall pass port to port. And making passing arrangements by radio does not relieve you of the responsibility of following the rules.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, passing starboard-to-starboard works fine. But that one time you scrape paint with another vessel, your court proceeding will not go well for you if you went starboard-to-starboard. 

Yes, time and time again I see mariners run right into a vessel that has the right of way — or they sound the danger signal at a vessel that clearly has the right of way. So where does this problem come from? I have a theory on that.

When I was young, (long, long ago) we had to actually navigate from place to place. Not just watch a video screen and follow the colored line. We had to draw out our courses with distances and possible arrival times. Heaven forbid we actually used dead reckoning at times. Many of the students I have been working with lately haven’t a clue what dead reckoning is.  

In many of the academic settings today, in my opinion, the classes are “compartmented” to the point that few new mariners understand the “big picture” — like how all the different machines work towards a common goal. Or worse, what if all the power goes out on the bridge. The students take a class, they check off the box, then they move along to the next class never putting it all together.

They are not getting enough “why.” Why do you need Bridge Resource Management? Why do you need a “proper lookout?” Why do you need to actually make a fix on the chart even though you have a perfectly good chartplotter? Why do you need to know how to tune the radar for different situations?

Or why do you need to actually follow and understand the rules, rather than just memorize them to pass the test? I believe a more holistic approach to preparing mariners for “real world” situations would work better than our current system. Allow me to toss an idea out for you.

I propose a different approach to learning the fine art of seamanship. I suggest a class is given, and then add some sea time. That could be actually out on a real boat, or in the sim. This sea-time period is for the purpose of really using the skill they just learned. And I am talking about days or even weeks getting some “real” practice.

You know — real live hands-on experiences. Punch the buttons, turn the knobs and make the decisions needed to set these new skills in their minds. I find that schools just do not seem to teach these students to make decisions in real time. And, yes, I believe making decisions is a learned skill.

After this bit of sea time, then send the students back for another class and specifically show them how the first class relates to the next one. Make it more like a continuation of the first class, but with new stuff added in. Once again, give the students a few days or weeks of classroom training.

And then after the class it would be back on a boat or back into the sim for an extended period of time where the students would be required to integrate the new skills with the previous skills to a point of understanding the “how and why” of the interface. And yes, I do understand how fundamentally different this system would be to what is already in place. And most probably, it would be more expensive.

As for the question that this style of learning would be more expensive, all I can say is how expensive is one little incident in real life? What does it end up costing to put a gallon of petroleum product in the water? How about 10,000 gallons of product? Or how about 10,000 barrels of product?

How much would it cost to just bump one little bridge support. You might ask how much it cost the tug company that bumped the swing bridge and caused the Amtrak train to take a nosedive into the water a few years ago. That was a bad day for our industry.

The fact is that our industry is very fragile. If we continue to have incidents, there will only be more regulations and more restrictions on doing what we must do to make a living. Which will of course only cost us more money. It might be way cheaper and easier in the long run to put a bit of effort and expense into training now, rather than a possible big expense later.

Capt. Dennis Murphy, of Olympia, Wash., is a longtime ship master and is an instructor at Pacific Maritime Institute, where he splits his time between teaching classes and working in the simulation department. He also teaches at Fremont Maritime. 

By Professional Mariner Staff