Deliberate Calm

In the recent past few years there have been several collisions, groundings, sinking's, as well as continued acts of piracy in areas like the Gulf of Aden involving mariners all over the world. When taken into the context of the entire world, even a 98% safety record will see incidents in any given year. Mariners must be trained and steeled against the possibility of accidents and piracy. This does not take into account the myriad of smaller issues that still present individual masters, chief engineers, mates or pilots' significant daily challenges and risks. Issues involving ISM codes, state/port control, company procedures, guidelines and the (now usual) regulatory responses to any discrepancies found while a ship is in port; all against a backdrop of the criminalization of mariners. The result is the men and women manning the world's merchant fleets endure increasing anxiety and stress in an increasing environment of risk.


There has been much excellent discussion on defensive legal strategies in today's complex marine trade environment but what about the human element? How does the individual master, pilot, engineer, mate cope? Let us not overlook the drastically increased liability on senior shore-side staff under the new ISM regimes as well. Unfortunately many veteran mariners are dealing with it by leaving the industry altogether. But the fact remains that demand for commerce will continue to drive world trade and billets will be filled at sea and shore-side. So the question remains, how does the individual cope with the anxiety and stress in marine transportation today? Increasingly the answer is not very well and one could argue it is close to becoming a crisis. It is our thought that the mental well being of professional mariners who find themselves under duress has been inadvertently displaced. This is not to imply it is premeditated but yet insidious as emphasis has focused on macro solutions in organizations, systems and risk. At present, the individual no longer has enough time to deal with the growing plethora of requirements and responsibilities, never mind the energy to contemplate solutions to personal anxiety and stress.


Ironically there could be an effective solution which, as it turns out, has been an inherent characteristic of command at sea for centuries. One notable example would be Captain Smith on the bridge of the Titanic when finally told by his officers and the principle designer, Mr. Thomas Andrews that the ship was actually going to sink; he calmly passed the word to abandon ship. From which point Captain Smith continued to direct the evacuation of passengers and crew until the decks sank beneath his feet, taking him to the deep along with his ship. This remarkable calm demeanor and professionalism, under extraordinary circumstances, was the norm not the exception. A trained psychologist today would quickly identify that as a learned/practiced ability to remain calm under great emotional duress or a highly developed Differentiation of Self. The term as defined in Wikipedia: "Differentiation of self refers to one's ability to separate one's own intellectual and emotional functioning from that of the group or task." "Thus, despite conflict, criticism and calamity they can stay calm and clear headed enough to distinguish thinking rooted in a careful assessment of the facts from thinking clouded by emotion." "When they act in the best interests of the group, they choose thoughtfully."


The subject of self differentiation has been dealt with in an excellent book, "How We Decide" by Jonah Leher. Leher uses the recent example of remarkable calm and professionalism demonstrated by captain 'Sully' Sullenberger when he successfully landed a US Airways flight under the extraordinary circumstance of complete engine failure in the Hudson River. Mr. Leher describes how the pubic see the actions of those like Captain Sullenberger as heroic and assume that Captain Sully felt no fear. On the contrary, Captain Sully experienced the same emotions of fear that the passengers initially felt. The difference being Capt Sullenberger had been trained in separating personal emotion from decision making in emergency situations. It is on record that he felt the emotion of fear but consciously choose to segregate that it from his decision making process. Captain Sully felt fear but he had been trained not to allow fear to hijack his rational thought process. Airline pilots call this skill "Deliberate Calm". This is a subject that we could write a series of articles on but suffice to say, it is a skill that can be acquired with proper training and practice. Could the same process be used in dealing with exceptional situations in marine transportation? Doubtless this is not a new idea, yet seems worth exploring.


Deliberate Calm has been a centuries long tradition in marine transportation, even if the aviation industry very appropriately identified the skill and coined the phrase. It is our view that training for Deliberate Calm should be incorporated into existing BRM courses as it has proven itself effective for the individual caught in extraordinary situations.


A final thought as regards the individual coping in today's complex marine trade environment - trust in three things; training (own it), skill (effectiveness, flexibility, anticipation)** and experience.


As an end note to the discussion we would like to include an interesting comment from a colleague and maritime executive familiar with casualty investigation reports who wrote to us regarding Deliberate Calm, "ironically, with the reliance by casualty investigators on audio tapes from VDRs, investigators today tend to mistake a calm and professionally reassuring demeanor as a lack of situational awareness. This is particularly the case with written transcripts of audio tapes. Tapes do not convey tone and inflection or the art, developed through training and experience of giving immediate directions in a way that does not create confusion or panic. I've seen it over and over again in casualty investigation reports. Investigative bodies seem to believe that the BRM principle of sharing information means that alarm and anxiety should also be shared. What's devalued in the process, is leadership." This may be particular to the United States but it is worth mentioning as it confirms the need for continuation of dialog and the exchange of ideas, working to improve and educate all associated with marine transportation.


Source: Seaways Magazine, May 2010, Authors: Captains George and Grant Livingstone