A recent post on the Gcaptain forum prosed the question, “What is Seamanship?”. The person asking the question is a moderator and a much better known blogger than myself; Kennebec Captain. His blog is a maritime one, that focuses on the many things that encompasses “Seamanship”. He has many a good read over there and I highly recommend you check out what he has to say.
So what is Seamanship? What skill set or sets does it encompasses? How can you identify it? Before I even started to write what I thought seamanship is, I took a poll of co-workers, former classmates, and even a former professor or two. The responses I got were as varied as ships and sailors, and opened some trains of thought I hadn’t yet explored.
One of the first replies I received is from a former classmate and co-worker working in the offshore oil and gas industry. She said that one of the most overlooked aspects of seamanship is being a good shipmate. Closing doors quietly, doing your part to keep the living areas clean, treating people with respect, and showing up for watch on time. All of those things can go a long way when it comes to crew relations, and if being a good shipmate isn’t part of good seamanship, I don’t know what is.
Another former co-worker further reinforced the idea of being good shipmate being a large part of seamanship. He said “Deckhands. A quality educated, Proficient one is hard to find but when that one is there. The whole vessel runs with more fluidity and moral of crew takes on a more pro-active role.” This even goes to show that practicing good seamanship can improve the moral of the crew as a whole. Knowing that the other members of the crew are good seaman and willing to do their part makes it all that much easier for any one person to practice their best seamanship as well.
What of the proficiency that he talks about though? What exactly is a good seaman proficient in? The starting point should always be Marlinspike seamanship, the true bread and butter of a professional seaman. Marlinspike seamanship encompasses ability to stow cargo and supplies neatly and securely. Take an active role in their environment and act with foresight instead of under direction. Skill sets like throwing a line on a bitt, splicing, rigging, and working lines under strain. If seamanship as a whole is the ship, then its marlinspike portion makes up the rigging that hold the whole show together.
So if seamanship comes in more than one form, and marlinspike seamanship is the base from which you build your maritime portfolio from, where does one go from there? For mariner’s in different sectors of the industry the next step of seamanship to master can be as varied as the jobs. For many the next crucial aspect of seamanship is ship or boat handling. The ability to work with or against the environment and as an old salt told me “not muck the paint up”. It is often said about ship handling that people either have “it” or they don’t. That special stuff that fighter pilots talk about, an ability to integrate into the vessel and operate the controls on a subconscious level. This aspect of seamanship takes not only a grasp of physics, and a solid understanding of forces. It also takes what some call a “seaman’s eye”, in order to judge where some of those forces are coming from. When approaching a berth or slip, a mate or master must take in to account their vessels handling characteristics. The current, the wind, the skill of the deckhand calling distances, pick what line to put out first, and in some instances give orders to an assisting tugboat. All of that can be called multi tasking, or the world’s greatest juggling act; I prefer good seamanship.
There are perhaps few images more iconic of the old salt than a captain standing by the helm, stoic and projecting a pure calm command presence. A former professor of mine, Capt. J summed it up quiet well. “Seamanship: The art and science of creating the perception that everything is normal, you are in command of the situation, and everything is unfolding exactly as you planned. This perception is created regardless of how high your blood pressure maybe, how hard you’re praying, and much you’d give at that moment to be sitting in a flat parking lot.”
It’s this command presence, the sense of order and calm that is the type of seamanship that is most often seen in the seasoned vessel master. For a lack of a better term, you can call it management seamanship. This skill set encompasses a broad range of skills and a level of awareness that is totally subconscious. A good example starts with the image of a captain of modern-day, sitting at the ship’s computer in his cabin or office. Crew change is coming and he is completely the paperwork we have all become a slave to. One of these is the station bill for the oncoming crew, while completing this thought is given to the skill level and physical aspects of the crew assigned to each emergency position. Does their level of seamanship correspond with a given task? At the same time there is a subtle change in the vessels motion, maybe the even the sound of the engines. Like a hunting dog an ear perks up and at once all the sounds, smells and vessel motions are being processed. Is the cold front I saw on the weather report here early? Are we changing course or speed to avoid collision? It’s this level of almost hyper awareness that comes from years on the water and practicing the art of seamanship.
Seamanship is a funny topic to write about. You can break it down into multiple types, and situational specific skills sets. It goes by different names, like sea-sense and a seaman’s eye. In a practical sense it is very difficult to nail down to one specific thing. That’s because it isn’t any one skill set, really its all of the skills sets displayed by sailors. A former classmate put it most eloquently, when asked what seamanship is he said “An infinite collection of best practices that promote success in a marine environment.”
So what do I think seaman ship is? It’s situational awareness, coupled with an understanding of your vessel, crew and the environment. These things working in tandem with knowledge of the maritime trades combined to accomplish the vessel’s mission with a certain level of ease and grace.