Deckhands: Check egos at the door — Part I

I have a few boat driving gigs these days. I drive a 40’ Grandy around Washington state’s San Juan Islands, and in Seattle I captain a 26’ Liberty Launch mini-ferry and a 1926 63’ Gulf coast oyster schooner. The latter is both a charter boat and a volunteer-supported sail-training vessel for the local community.

On the Grandy I’m more the necessary paper ticket who ends up playing deckhand for a salty old skipper who never bothered to get a license. I do some of the driving but this guy has a hell of a lot more experience than I do. So unless I know he’s in the wrong, I defer to him. But he’s never been wrong. He’s a little gimpy these days from a recent fall, so I take care to make sure he doesn’t have to needlessly climb the steep companionway, nor clean the boat or do a lot of heavy lifting. He’s not much of a command-giver, so after docking and undocking a few times, I developed a feel for when he wanted mooring lines cast off or made fast. But I only did that after several expectant looks from him, as if to ask me, “Why are you waiting?” As his only crew, I first wait for commands, then ask for them. If I receive none, I watch him and the situation carefully, making my best guess and acting on it while letting him know exactly what I’m about to do.

The president of the first boat company I ever worked for drilled this cheesy saying into my brain: “To assume makes an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me.’ ”

On the Liberty Launch I’m all by myself, and it’s the easiest job in the world. No crew. On the sail-training vessel it’s a completely different story. I always have all-volunteer crews, some with maritime experience, many without.

I believe a total greenhorn is better than a crewmember who doesn’t realize just how limited their experience is. 

Some deckhands do whatever they are told, some cross the line only when they believe someone’s life is in imminent danger, and then some think they know the best way to do something, regardless of the orders. The latter is the worst.

The reality of the situation is this: If I tell you to do something, you do it and everything goes to hell, I am the one to blame. I will accept that. But if I tell you to do something and then you do something else and everything goes to hell, I’m still the one to blame but you better believe I’m going to talk to you when it’s all over. Even if everything doesn’t go to hell this time, you and I are still going to talk because I need clarification that my orders/communication are being clearly understood. If you are deliberately making what you think are “better” choices, I cannot yet trust you as my deckhand.

In next week’s blog you can read about challenging direct orders and other deckhand behavior.



About the author

Kim Carver

A third generation Seattleite, Kim watched her city go from a lumber and fishing town to a technology mecca. Her passions include documenting maritime culture and helping promote community among all mariners. Kim has 15 years of experience on workboats and tour boats and currently works as a captain for a Gulf Coast shrimping schooner that tours around Seattle and an inter-island transport/research vessel in the San Juan Islands.

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