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The worst that can possibly happen

The worst that can possibly happen

Do we expect too much from shipmasters when the worst thing they can possibly imagine occurs? It is possibly a dangerous time to be asking such a question as the world looks with horror at the terrible events with the ferry Sewol in the Yellow Sea, but it is really quite relevant.

What sort of preparation does any senior officer have for the operationally unthinkable, which might make him or her more resilient and able to cope with such a calamity? And not just coping, but exercising firm, decisive leadership, analysing the incident and drawing the necessary conclusions providing a strategy, which, if it doesn’t save the day, will save everyone’s life?

The truth is that even a master with decades at sea is unlikely to have any real experience to draw upon when real disaster strikes. Somebody who has served in big cruise ships and worked for well-organised ferry companies will have spent time in simulators where the instructors throw the unexpected at them, put them under stress and generally try and test their competence and decision-making abilities.

The very best passenger ship operators will ensure that their senior officers are practiced at damage control and able to react appropriately to collision, fire, flooding and other grim possibilities. Aboard the best, there will be drills and exercises at regular intervals to keep the knowledge “topped up”, ranging from desk top drills to more realistic “events” involving the whole command structure. There is a growing body of learning from previous accidents, with lessons spread around by those agencies which undertake investigations properly.

But what goes through anyone’s mind as they suddenly find a routine passage suddenly interrupted by an apparently inexplicable event that sees a weathertight, waterproof, fully functioning ferry, transformed into a potential death trap? What on earth has happened? Just establishing this apparently simple fact may not have been anything like as easy for the wretched master of the ferry Sewol, as he rushed onto his bridge to find a steep port list and terrifying noises of cargo shifting.

Who knows what was going through his mind as he tried to establish the extent of the damage, and whether he grossly misread the situation, and concluded that the ship was still recoverable? He was, it must be remembered, the leader of a team of officers and crew and ought to have been provided with reports of damage, flooding, the state of the passengers in their public rooms. Did any of these reports reach him? Or was there general confusion?

There is such a mental state which afflicts us all from time to time, in a very human failure to confront the reality of an awful situation, hoping against hope that something will happen to make it better. It might be argued that somebody in command should be more positive and able to keep such fears at bay, the wisdom of hindsight quick to condemn as inadequate the master’s reaction to this fast-developing calamity.

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