Learning by direct participation, by doing, is typically viewed as the “best” way. Learning by experience certainly has many pluses and is absolutely necessary in my view, but it’s not always the best way. 

How about learning from the experiences of others?

It so happens that the late Capt. Richard Cahill saw great value in learning from the actions and experiences of others. Why learn everything the hard way if you don't have to? So he wrote two seminal books on the subject. Collisions and Their Causes (1983) and its companion volume Strandings and Their Causes (1985) are among the very best of their kind. I was extremely fortunate to have been exposed to these books back in the early 1990s. The books are a good way to learn from the failures of others. 

This brings me to one of my all-time favorites from Strandings, the curious case of the Royal Majesty. The large, state-of-the-art cruise ship was equipped with all the navigational safety bells and whistles of her day when it grounded on Rose and Crown Shoal near Nantucket Island in 1995, over 17 miles off course. The Royal Majesty had departed from St. George, Bermuda. The watch officers had no clue where they were. It turned out that the antenna connection to the GPS receiver went bad about one hour after leaving port. This went undetected by the entire deck officer corps (every one of them, including the master) for days, right up until the moment of grounding. Oh, and the depth sounder that could have saved them was also turned off. The elevated level of negligence was truly impressive.

In Capt. Cahill’s own immortal words, “Although the master and his watch officers had ample seafaring background, it appears that none had gained much benefit from their experience.” Remember that the next time someone brags about how experienced they are.