Co-founder of OnlyCaptains Brendan O’Shannassy talks of his own experience of mentorship and how this experience awakened the need for this service in yachting.

In my early yachting career I often felt the ‘imposter’ as I stepped onto the bridge ready to manoeuvre. As my experience increased this feeling reduced but there was still something missing. There is a good chance that, like many of my peers, I may have even managed a career without knowing what the ‘secret sauce’ to achieving true technical competence in shiphandling was. This same observation could be extended to decision making, counselling and the many daily challenges of yacht command – I had the ticket, but did I have the knowledge?

I had received great support by yacht captains through my career but there had been no structured mentoring and learning plan in place. And, often it seemed, that the issue of a Master’s CoC was viewed as the end game, and not the beginning of the Captaincy journey.

Taking a break from yachting to train and work as a marine pilot, I entered a formal training / mentoring programme. New entry pilots are assigned a mentor, a more senior pilot that inducts, trains and supports them in their struggle to move from former captain and nervous shiphandler to competent pilot. A competent pilot who is expected to; step onboard any ship, at any hour, in any weather, take command and bring that ship safely to the port. Whilst my mentoring was focussed on ship handling, I found the learning extended far beyond the bridge; weaving the lessons into my wider Captaincy responsibilities also improved my performance, enjoyment and efficiency.

Returning to shiphandling, I finally understood the importance of defining and communicating the metrics of a manoeuvre. Everything fell into place. What speed? when and why? These need to be known at all times and this must be shared with all on the bridge. It is so important because at all times the entire bridge team must be able to assess every action of the manoeuvring Captain / Pilot against an earlier briefed and agreed plan. The Captain must then be able to communicate any deviation and why.

By communicating this it does not limit the Captain, it allows the Captain to vary the plan in response to the conditions and circumstances at the time. It also allows a challenge from other members of the bridge team if the deviation is not validated, – this is the philosophy of ‘challenge and response’ that is the bedrock of effective bridge teams.

During my first days of induction as a pilot I observed several senior pilots prior to being assigned my mentor. I was intrigued that the more experienced pilots exercised greater diligence with their pilotage briefings than those more junior. Their sketches of the ship’s planned manoeuvre into port were precise, their briefing books had photographs of landmarks relative to the pilotage and during execution they communicated to the entire bridge team what they were doing and why.

I had never seen this or, thought to do this myself, on yachts. Up to this point I would take control at some point on the approach and, whilst I would seek port information from the pilot, I really set my own approach speeds, headings and approach angles based on my best judgement at the time. Often I was monitoring my speed on the simple ‘ten-through-one’ method of checking speed reductions against the last ten cables. Although an effective approach, it is crude, not tailored to wind and tide, and a little too cautious with modern yachts. Through all the training and sea service to Yacht Captain, I had not learnt to communicate my intentions to the bridge team and I may as well have been there on my own – almost without saying, this extended to all leadership decisions.

After induction I was assigned a mentor pilot that was more than I could have hoped for. Ian had emigrated from the United Kingdom to Australia and with nineteen years as a Thames Pilot he had learnt from some of the best in the World and had experienced all the conditions that UK waters could offer – this made Ian a compelling mentor.

The North Queensland commercial port was a very different environment to my yachting experience. It had large tides, strong currents, steady wind and then strong gusts form the opposite direction. It was as unforgiving as I could imagine. The ships were also very different; replacing my delightfully over-powered and easy to manoeuvre yachts, were single screw bulk carriers that were also not as reliable as their Captains would have you believe.

All of this Ian took in his stride, in fact more than that, he actually expected everything to go wrong on every pilotage. He planned for it and whilst I would never be as bold as to call him out, I think he was at times disappointed when yet another of his ship moves went seamlessly. During one memorable departure of a fully loaded Cape Size (a Cape Size ship is 280 metres long, 52 metres wide and when loaded 18 metres deep) Ian turned to me and said, “see that?” I didn’t. My body language was enough to confirm this and asked I remind him after the departure.

Ian took the ship to the port limits safely, we both departed by helicopter and walking back from the helipad after the four-minute flight I asked him what I missed. He recalled that when he had asked the question, the bow of the ship was being pushed back by the water resistance as the ship ‘cut’ across the berth pocket.

This might need some explaining. The berth pocket was deeper than the departure channel and departing the berth needed the ship to move from 5.0m under keel clearance (UKC) to 0.9 metre (UKC). This required a wall of water 280m long and 18m high to be relocated through a very small gap – the water did not appreciate being forced through the gap and pushed against the ship.

In the departure we had shared, Ian had observed the ship being pushed back by this wall of water and the bow was moving 0.2 knots in the wrong direction, a speed almost imperceptible to the eye, however Ian was using both the pilot’s precise navigation unit and his highly-tuned sense from so many manoeuvres.

Ian increased the power on the ship astern to move the pivot point to his advantage and also the forward tug was increased to lifting off (pulling) at three quarter power to recover the bow. The entire event was observed, acted upon and rectified within two minutes. Ian’s point was, if it had not have been acted upon at that point it would have been very dangerous, and with a smirk he asked, “Do you know the fastest thing in the World?” I returned the smile and let the story play out…

“Brendan, the fastest thing in the World is a fully laden Cape Size bulk carrier moving half a knot in the wrong direction!”

It was a great lesson and, as the months progressed, and I moved from observer to the pilot executing the pilotage, the lessons still flowed. I never accepted anything Ian shared without chasing him with follow-up questions. He warmed to this and my shiphandling education accelerated at a rate where I began to surprise myself with my ability to anticipate and react to seemingly unlinked events. When I was a solo pilot and there was a complex move I would speak with Ian before boarding the ship to communicate my plan and build my confidence. My first call on completion would be to Ian to debrief; he was so good, he could picture the move from the call.

Ian had given me tools to use and these were centred around two aspects; the plan and the team available as a resource.

The planning began well before arriving to the ship. We would do the simple things of checking the radio battery was fully charged but, went further, and put a spare battery in our pockets ‘just in case’. The portable pilotage unit never failed, but nevertheless we turned it on and calibrated it ashore, every time. We would visit the control tower to look at their weather information; sure, we could look to reliable weather forecasting from our mobile phones but the control tower had real data from wind sensors on the docks and we could also look to an array of cameras that would also show detail as small as the wavelets on the water. The actual ship movement plan included; speed reference points, headings, abort points and of course final docking plan. This did not vary from the training I had received and, had perhaps previously belittled; it was just my mentor pilot had sewn it all together.

Ian had coached me to communicate each of these references in real time during the pilotage and the manoeuvring. If at 5 cables to the berth the plan was to be at 5 knots and the ship was at 6 knots, I would now say “the ship is above our agreed plan and I am comfortable with this but will reduce speed and report again as we pass 4 knots.” This narrative continued across all aspects of the plan and the ship’s Captain and Bridge team. Ian had trained me to make sure the dialogue was both ways, as the crew’s opinions were sought to the point of being demanded. It changed everything. I was no longer ‘alone’ on the bridge, everyone was working with me, as Ian commented:

“You have multiplied your safety by the number of people now engaged”.

Transferring this to yachts, it is possible to gain benefit from any crew member, even when numbers are thin. The discipline of verbalising ship movements to anyone creates confidence and accountability – If you can’t communicate what you are doing, are you really in charge?

I was appointed a great mentor with a structured training plan, but this might not always be the case. I knew that moving forward if there was no, assigned mentor, I would identify the person I wanted to learn from, approach them and let them know I wanted to learn, an important factor as the mentee’s desire and commitment to learn is as crucial as the mentor’s role in supporting their development.

I find many of these great ship handling lessons can also be applied to life; Ian, taught me to:-

  1. test and verify equipment (or ideas),
  2. develop a plan,
  3. communicate the plan,
  4. amend the plan in sympathy to the changing conditions, and
  5. engage others to support and challenge the plan.

The same sense of ‘going it alone’ that I felt on the bridge before Ian’s tutelage may well have spoken to my previous leadership endeavours as a Yacht Captain. My ability to communicate and embrace the support of a team to safely bring a large ship into port gave me a new framework with which to lead a team on returning to Europe where a new Yacht Command beckoned. I would not say it was a silver bullet to success, but it certainly helped – and I still have not stopped learning.

Back on the yacht I missed my mentor and sought to replace this support and extend it to all aspects of my command. Unfortunately, there was no knowledgeable Captain to air my professional challenges in confidence and, although I worked well with management, none had held seagoing command, so they could not provide effective counsel.

Often, Captains, are just expected to ‘get on and do the job’ we have the ‘ticket’ after all, shouldn’t that be enough? However, the reality is that whatever the perceived experience level, we cannot know everything and, it is a dangerous Captain who thinks he does. We are learning all the time and regularly encounter situations never faced before, where the decision making could benefit from confidential counsel with someone who has ‘lived’ experience and can add value to the decision making process and personal development.

OnlyCaptains commitment to our mentoring role was created in response to my experience and that of my fellow Captains who, when I spoke of my journey, asked ‘”how do we access a mentor?” We provide an answer by making sure command is not a solo affair by providing our Captains with support and mentoring that can help them grow and develop their skills as Captains and leaders.