Deckhands: Check egos at the door — Part II

Last week I talked about my role as a captain/deckhand and also how some greenhorns think that they know more than they do. Let me dive a little deeper into the latter.

Deckhands rarely disobey direct orders. Sometimes, however, they enjoy challenging them.

Over the years I have observed greenhorns adopt the misguided notion that once someone with less experience than them joins the crew, that they are now top dog on deck. Their still-limited experience can create false confidence, even making them feel it’s necessary to give unwarranted commands to new crew, or add their two cents to the captain. However, no captain wants a deckhand’s opinion on how to dock the boat while they are docking. And if a captain states a preference or boat rule with perfect clarity, I guarantee you that there is no wiggle room on this and arguing what may even be a legitimate point is unwelcome.

Workboat hierarchy is similar to the military. If a senior person wants your opinion, they will ask for it. If you feel you must discuss what you think is improper boat handling, bring it up later over beers, posing it as a question rather than a statement. “So could you tell me why you prefer to always use the stern line to stop the boat instead of a spring?” 

I would answer, “nobody’s arms fit around the starboard-side pilings that we tie up to at our regular dock, and I don’t like people having to jump off the boat in order for us to tie up anyway. We don’t have time to grab and lead a fixed dock line all the way forward. If we came in harder than usual, the stern would swing out and pivot the bowsprit right into the gangway, and I couldn’t back down to avoid this because our single-screw walks heavy to port in reverse. By using a boathook to grab the stern line we left on the dock, and throwing that on while idling ahead hard to port [away from the dock], we suck the stern in and hold the boat in place while making it easy for passengers to disembark.”

You are wrong if you think that I have the time to gently explain all of this to a deckhand as we are heading in. This is especially true if a deckhand is in my face asking me why we aren’t using a spring line to dock like he or she did on all three boats the deckhand worked on before. Instead, I will say something like this: “Actually I need you to give the boathook to Laura and go grab a roving fender.”

This is my way of saying that I should not have to explain this to you right now so I’m giving you something that might make you feel as important as you obviously need to feel, even though I know I won’t need a roving fender.

And that is called “being nice.” After all, on my sail-training vessel, you are working for free. I’m not going to be rude. On a paying boat it’s a different story. If there’s a line of people waiting for your job, you are just making it hard on yourself.

On my boat, I’m not going to be terribly rude until you’ve challenged my authority in the same situation a couple of times. Hmm, does that mean I’m not training people properly? Perhaps, but not all of my trainees are seriously pursuing a maritime career, so I try to be sensitive.

When it comes down to it, I always choose the more mild-mannered and eager-to-learn crew to work the paying charters, especially the ones that if they do screw up, don’t act hurt and get defensive when corrected. I’ve been in their position, and could often argue that just because the captain corrected me it doesn’t always technically mean I screwed up. But in their eyes I failed.

As long as she or he isn’t putting my life in danger, I accept that this person is in charge and it was my choice to work on the boat, with the level of obedience that boat work requires. 


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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