Professional Skipper Ė June 96 issue            back to articles menu

"In Praise of the Gentle Deckie"
There's a move afoot to legislate a new requirement for commercial boats to carry a Deckie. For the owner-operator who barely makes a living working the boat alone, this may be the coup-de-grace.

I know thereís a bit of a move afoot to require skippers who are in charge of a vessel with over 50 passengers or running a trip of a duration more than 45 minutes, to carry a qualified person as crew. And I know that to carry such a person is going to adversely affect the Ďbottom lineí. From what Iíve heard, the requirement might be that such a Ďqualified personí would need perhaps a Boatmasterís certificate. While Iím aware of the argument that airline cabin attendants are not required to have a private pilotís licence and be capable of landing a 747, I have often wondered (while sitting in the back of a six-seater with only one pilot) ďIf he has a heart attack and sucks the kumera, am I capable of flying the plane?Ē and on the strength of two hours in a Victor training plane in 1974, after which I ran out of money and nerves, the answer is an honest Ďnoí. Iíll even admit that I fly Ansett because there are two of those noisy things on each wing instead of one, simple arithmetic and the law of averages finishes the argument. Itís not that Iím a coward - Iím perfectly happy out in a gale as long as Iíve got sea-room and a sea-worthy vessel. If the boat sinks, there are life jackets and I can swim. Try as I may, flap my arms as hard as I might, I havenít been able to fly, and Ansett has so far treated my requests for a parachute with some disdain. It always amuses me when they say ď.......and the lifejacket is stowed under your seat.Ē. As we plough into the side of a mountain or a Tokoroa forest at 500 mph, Iíll be sure to put it on.

But the fact remains that there are times in a Skipperís life when you find yourself with a boat-load of passengers, no deckie, and suddenly, urgently, nature calls. Especially in the middle of the harbour after a torrid night of curry, lima beans, pistachio nuts and a bottle of Artillery Port. Iím sure youíve been there, too. Maybe youíve got sphincter muscles made of steel, but I havenít. There are times when the call will not be denied, and you head the vessel to the nearest patch of water where everyone else isnít, take the way off the boat, and ZOOOOOOOOM.

I have heard of one Skipper in Brisbane who solved the front half of the problem by keeping a plastic container in the little cupboard immediately below the wheel. In the darkened wheelhouse, passengers were unaware of his furtive activity. It appears that one such evening, with a bit of a beam sea running, said skipper was mid-stream with a relieved smile when the container moved slightly. Immediately behind the container was the main distribution board, ordinarily not a serious threat at 24 volts, however the freezer decided to clatter into gear, requiring the inverter, which obligingly delivered a healthy 240 volt ac supply to the same board and, via the stream, to the Skipperís bladder. According to the story, passengers were treated to the spectacle of the Master of the vessel, in whom one is supposed to have a degree of faith and respect, leaping around the wheelhouse clutching the offended member (and other parts) while yelling naughty words, before sitting down quietly for five minutes gloomily reflecting on the meaning of Life, the Universe, and everything, while his vessel lay rolling abeam.

If I relate a personal instance, donít be too hard on me - we all make mistakes. On a particularly rough day I decided to take the channel between Motuihe and Crusoe, wind against tide, taking a nasty steep chop right on the nose, when one came along larger than all the rest and the entire foredeck disappeared. Normally not a problem, if youíve prepared properly. Unfortunately I hadnít, and in the eye of a twink 100 metres of anchor warp and 30 metres of chain were swept over the side. The channel is narrow, rocks everywhere, and I had a choice. Stop the shaft while I got it all in, risking broaching or a rock, or continue on, risking a fouled propeller. Stopping the shaft was the only option - and I was lucky - the wheelhouse door was a Ďsliderí, I managed to get a hold of the rope and pulled it all in through the wheelhouse door before her head had paid off too much. If Iíd had a deckie, it would have made a difference - for a start, with two of us itís a fair bet the danger would have been spotted before the incident occurred.

In another instance, coming into Marsden wharf (Auckland) with a boatload of passengers and no deckie, with 45 knots blowing from right aft, blowing so hard that 200 metres after putting her in neutral we were still doing 5 knots - as we closed to about 2 metres off the wharf one of my regular passengers decided to be helpful, and jumped the gap with a rope in his hand. While I applaud the sentiment, had he misjudged the jump, itís for sure I would have squashed him. Passengers donít understand the dynamics of heavy vessels, and are not trained to understand them. Thatís not going to stop them wanting to help and, in the process, getting hurt or killed. And donít you just love it when, on a windy day, twenty or so fizz-boats anchor in your lee and start fishing. When you want to go, and you break the anchor free, youíve still got a hundred metres of warp to get in, on a winch thatís as slow as a wet week, and you have to keep running back to the wheelhouse to give her Ďa tickle aheadí. What happens if - at that point - I slip on a wet deck and break my leg? So much easier - and safer - with a deckie. Never mind the fizz-boats - what if itís a lee shore?

Now to an actual example (no names or identifiers) - it appears that a certain charter operator, suffering from a bout of influenza, dropped his passengers at the wharf, then cleared the wharf so that another vessel could come alongside. He took his vessel out into the Bay, directed the two catering assistants to clean up the boat as is usual, left the boat to drift (itís a big Bay), and feeling somewhat unwell, went below to have a quick nap, directing the catering assistants to keep an eye on things and wake him if they got too close to the rocks. So far, so good. Time went by, and the vessel drifted across the Bay. Unfortunately, the catering assistants had no idea that there was a rather nasty sandspit in the Bay. It seems that at low tide, you can drive over it. After an hour or so, and on a dropping tide, the catering assistants must have thought it funny (while they had a cup of tea) that the vessel wasnít rocking or moving around much. They were directed to watch the rocks. None of them knew anything about charts..... The skipper awoke, much refreshed, to find his vessel aground. Nobody hurt, of course, just a bit of damage to a propeller and the Skipperís reputation. Had the catering assistants been trained in elementary seamanship, and been given more specific instructions, the incident might not have happened. I know the Ďbottom lineí is important. But if every operator was required to provide the same Ďqualified personí, then cost-wise itís a level playing field, isnít it? At the end of the day, itís passenger safety that should be paramount. Just quietly, you might even save your own life too. And just in case you havenít clicked on to my message, try this:

Imagine sitting in your seat on a 747 at 30,000 feet, getting ready to land in Los Angeles or somewhere, and hearing this cabin announcement ď...Um, we have a teeny weeny problem, um, as you know this is a cut-price airline and we can only afford one pilot, er um, well heís actually had a heart attack and is sort of, well, dead, actually, but we donít want you to worry, because the Catering Chef reckons heís a bit of a whizz at computer games, so heís gonna have a go at bringing us in to LA once he finds the keyboard thingy. He really does amazing things with omelettes, so relax and enjoy the rest of your flight with Shoestring Airlines.........Ē

Better grab that life-jacket.

Carpe Diem

Steve Punter ANZIM, Dip Bus (PMER), FHRINZ
Staff Training Associates Ltd, Auckland, New Zealand.
© Steve Punter 2001 All rights reserved by the author.

steve@sta.co.nz                                                                                                                       back to articles menu