Training for the Master’s role - reflections and recommendations


Published: 11 October 2018

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Training to be a ship's Master is no easy feat and it is a pinnacle only a few joining sea as deck officers succeed in reaching. In today's day and age, the title of Master and the responsibility of commanding a vessel greets a newly qualified officer in a shipping environment which is not only legislation and regulation heavy but also where news of criminalisation of seafarers and piracy regularly make headlines in industry media.

Training framework and challenges

A lot of effort has been made over the years to bridge the gap between the shortage of quality crew and officers and those entering the challenging profession of seafaring. During their training over the years, junior officers are exposed to the challenges and tasks which prepares them to successfully take over command of a vessel, a responsibility not to be taken lightly. The requirements are varied and it is crucial that officers are trained not only in the mandatory STCW standards but they also have the necessary experience handling complex scenarios and high-pressure situations.

The absolute minimum standards for an officer to qualify as a Master of a foreign going vessel are set out in STCW convention. The convention lays out the framework of progressive training of officers to gain competence and practical experience as they strive to go up the ranks to eventually take command of a vessel.

ISM Code also provides guidance on training of seafarers by setting out a benchmark and level of competency seafarers are expected to meet when taking command of a vessel and implementing the ISM Code's principles onboard the vessel. After all, the Master is the vessel owner's eyes and ears onboard the ship and will be in a decision-making position, often in high pressure and stressful situations.

Important skills such as ship handling, navigation and cargo documentation are taught extensively and usually practised by aspiring Masters onboard the ship.

However, 'soft' skills such as effective communication with bridge team and with the parties interested in the commercial adventure of a voyage do pose a challenge to a Master when he or she faces them for the first time.

Effective communication with multiple nationalities working on a ship, at sea and ashore, also poses a unique challenge to the Master.

After taking a leaf from aviation industry's approach to team building, much progress has been made in bridge team communications but accidents involving communication breakdown still occur.

Skills and competences

With the challenges a Master of a vessel faces in modern times, it is important that they learn the tools and techniques during their years as junior officers so they are comfortable when taking command of a vessel.

Training academies do strive to train officers in 'soft' skills but there is no better way to learn than actively engaging in these tasks onboard. Companies should therefore encourage 'learning by doing' attitude onboard the vessels and promote flow of knowledge and experience from senior members of team to junior officers.

Where possible, junior officers should be exposed to greater challenges to train them in handling unexpected situations and bring out the leader in them.

To implement and maintain seamless communication onboard the vessel, a no blame culture should be promoted not only on the bridge but in overall ship operations and across all ranks. Master has the overall decision-making authority but should be comfortable to discuss with the team onboard and utilise all resources available to him. This can only be achieved if there is a good team effort. This will benefit not only the officers in training but also improve the vessel's safety record. There is no one size fits all solution and training of officers on how to communicate effectively should be considered with their experience, cultural background and management style in mind.

The route to qualify as a Master has been traditionally from 'deck' department so it's crucial that the Master is not only familiar with but also appreciates engine room operations. Onboard team exercises where exchange of ideas between departments is promoted can assist in achieving this.

Wellbeing of officers is also an important part of their growth and development to effective leaders as a Master of a vessel. The Club has issued various guidance on how this can be achieved and we encourage our members to implement policies which improve seafarer's wellbeing onboard the ship.

Running a smooth ship operation is not an easy task but with Masters who are confident in their decision making in command of ships, this can be a rewarding experience not only for Masters but for everyone involved.