Officer class

Dodging disaster at every turn, Julian Peter finds out if he has what it takes

“Launch the lifeboat!”

We are onboard Kapitan Poinc, a 53-metre purpose-built Polish search and rescue (SAR) vessel. It is a freezing February morning in Gdynia, northern Poland, and although we huddle together like penguins behind the superstructure for warmth, the wind off the Baltic Sea bites into our bones.

The initial plan had been to board a different SAR ship further down the harbour and go past the breakwater out into the bay, but the port is locked up by ice, so we stay where we are and the crew decides on a demonstration of the “abandon ship!” drill.

The lifeboat is lowered, but not without difficulties. The boat is hooked to the davit and cannot be released. One of the crew loses his helmet to the wind and the hatch closes on his unprotected head with a thud. Eventually the little orange boat is free and making circles in the port’s turning basin.

The operation takes more than 20 minutes and I wonder about the potential ramifications in a real emergency, but before I can elaborate on my thoughts, we are whisked back to the Osrodek Szkolenia Zawodowego Gospodarki Morskiej, one of Gdynia’s many maritime training centres.

There we sit in on a first-aid lecture. Footage of a doctor sewing an open cut is shown on the TV screen. One of the students is overcome by the sight of blood. He faints, crashing to the floor. However, he is soon revived and everybody shares a laugh.

According to one Polish captain, there are only three types of people in this world: those on land, the dead and those who go out to sea. Yet although it is the dream of many a young boy, becoming a seafarer today is not at all easy, definitely not as easy as it was 10 or 20 years ago. Standards of training are ever higher; safety is understandably the number one priority.

I spent all of February 2014 in Gdynia, with 11 fellow students — 10 other Slovaks and a Czech, all aged between 23 and 29. Our goal: to complete the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers courses necessary for our journey to becoming the next generation of deck officers.

Why Poland? Partly economic — as well as being probably the closest maritime hub to Slovakia, Gdynia is much cheaper than, say, Germany or the UK. Partly linguistic — although Polish is quite different from Slovak, they belong to the same Slavic family of languages. The courses are all conducted in Polish. It is hard to understand at first, but most of us pick it up pretty quickly. If something is unclear, an English explanation is offered, or one classmate, who is more proficient in Polish, translates.

 

“Set your safety margin to 2Nm, time of observation is 6min.”

With the first part of our courses done, we move north across the harbour, to finish training at Gdynia’s Akademia Marynarki Wojennej — the Polish Naval Academy.

We hunch over our radar “situation”: an echo appears at a range of nine nautical miles, its bearing not changing as it gets closer. That can mean only one thing: collision course!

Acting fast, using only a paper plotting sheet, two nautical squares, compass and pencil, and by applying basic vector functions learned in previous lectures, we are able to determine the time of the imminent collision and take appropriate action, such as altering course or changing speed to ensure the oncoming vessel passes well clear. All the while adhering to International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea.

This is how they used to do it before the introduction of onboard computers. Today’s more precise radars, coupled with ARPA (Automatic Radar Plotting Aid) and AIS (Automatic Identification System), project information straight onto the ship’s electronic chart. Yet these devices have their limitations and seafarers need to understand how they work to operate them. This is the duty of every officer of the watch.

 

“Mayday Mayday Mayday, this is MV Prus, call sign...”

I pick up the telephone and call for help on VHF channel 16, an international distress frequency. My vessel is on fire and I require immediate assistance.

The training room is abuzz with similar sounds of beeping alarms and distress calls. The goal is to become familiar with every emergency communications device available today: VHF radios, MF/HF radiotelephony, satellite phone, even the ancient telex (the only means of long-distance commercial communication in polar regions).

The Global Maritime Distress and Safety System course is intensive, from 8am to 5pm, often later, Saturday and Sunday included. We have only one week to cram in two weeks’ worth of knowledge, and our heads are spinning with different wave characteristics, frequencies and signal modulations: sawtooth profile, 2187.5kHz, J3E...

I am amazed at how complex the communications network is. Nowadays a ship in distress can activate its battery-powered Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon from the middle of the Pacific Ocean, sending out a 406MHz signal 36,000km up to a satellite, which then bounces it back to a rescue co-ordination centre on Earth containing the vessel’s name, call sign and position — all within minutes. That is truly astonishing.

 

“Rudder hard to port, engines dead slow ahead, bow thruster half to starboard!”

Sweat rolling down his brow and his concentration fully on the manoeuvre, the captain pilots his ship through the narrow channel and alongside to the berth. His young helmsman carries out the orders, reciting them back for confirmation. Once safely berthed, their roles reverse.

The state-of-the-art nautical bridge simulator at the academy allows us fully immersive training in ship manoeuvring and bridge resource management. The instructors are able to simulate various seas of the world, each with its own specific colour, salinity and wave profiles, as well as weather conditions, different ship types and navigational areas.

And so our training takes place in a virtual panorama of Gdynia port, created from more than 3,000 stitched images to give the simulation a heightened sense of realism.

Exercising our leadership abilities, we solidify our confidence in giving orders. Today’s officers need not only technical knowledge, but also the “soft” skills required for communication and delegation involving the different nationalities and cultures found onboard.

 

I leave Poland, certificates still warm from lamination in hand, one step closer to my third mate’s licence. As I board the bus for the 16-hour journey home to Bratislava, I cannot stop thinking about the state of the modern shipping industry and its demands on crews.

The maritime freight business is a high-speed, high-risk working environment. Ships are getting bigger, port stays are getting shorter and individual workloads are getting larger as crews are downsized.

To increase safety, we see a trend of similarly increased certification. I believe this is positive, although at times it can seem excessive and restrictive. Who knows, perhaps in time crew will need a certificate showing they can tie their shoelaces before being allowed on board.

Yet despite the growing bureaucratic weight on seafarers, the real question lies with the quality of the training. Our courses at the Polish Naval Academy were exceptional. Nevertheless, there are training centres around the world that fall short on quality, spewing out seafarers with sufficient certificates but insufficient knowledge.

I believe that the increased call for certification should instead be met by greater investment in training the next generation. The proper and practical education of seafarers is essential to progress, to the safety of crew, ships and cargo, and to the sea itself. And shouldn’t that be a priority of every shipowner?

I wish you all smooth sailing. This is MV Prus, over and out.

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