"Distraction" by Rick Belden - click for his site
Distraction - it's the enemy of an officer on watch; it wreaks havoc on connected thought and orderly progress. Along with manning, fatigue, and safety culture it's a buzzword at industry conferences. 

Distraction has been my special companion for the last several months. First there was the holiday season; then in January several time-consuming extracurricular activities kicked in. It's been five weeks since I've posted on this blog, for instance, and I can't tell you where the time has gone. 

Many of you may know that although I spent my life at sea and on tugs, about eight years ago, at the age of 59, I swallowed the anchor and came ashore to a job in the office. A lifetime of living one particular way can get under a man's skin - it becomes part of his view of the world. So coming ashore full time, later in life as I did, was a serious adjustment. It's one I'm still making.

Early in the transition, I began to think of working life ashore as "life through the windshield" - another name for the constant distraction. Shore folk spend a lot of time in their cars, and most of it's not quality time, either. While driving you worry about the day's issues, take calls (in defiance of the law), and intermittently mumble curses at other drivers. When you arrive at your destination, focus is similarly difficult to achieve; your omnipresent smartphone peppers you with emails and messages, along with the occasional phone call. 

Now, at your office, when outside influences invade to interrupt your chain of thought, that's to be expected. The disconcerting thing about shore life is that you never escape from that. Work pursues you home, phones ring at night, and email must be responded to at all hours, or you risk being judged careless. Don't drop the ball!

And even worthy "spare time" and charitable activities exert their own stress, though they certainly deliver rewards, too.

This isn't a litany of complaint - I'm richly blessed, and very grateful. I guess it's just a description of my less-than-complete adjustment to shore life here in the United States, where life is a little crazy and distracted anyhow. I do sometimes miss the orderliness of being at sea. (And maybe I also miss my youth - but not much can be done about that.) 

But is life at sea today still the cloistered, orderly existence I remember?

When I would report aboard a ship back in the '70s and '80s, I used to put my mind in a work groove, and zero in on that - I'd write letters home of course, and call home when I had a chance, but my main focus was my job. When on watch, I did my job - period. No other activity was supposed to interfere with watchkeeping on the bridge in my day - we were even prohibited from sitting down. When I wasn't on watch I ate, slept, exercised, studied and read. In that monkish life, my world ended at the horizon. 

The horizon expanded sometimes at night, via sessions on the shortwave (do seamen still do that?) My radio would range the night sky searching for scratchy news of the unending human scrum, and the things they talked about seemed very far away indeed from our bubble of racket and light, our little human island in the immensity of the sea. 

I read things I could never muster the time or discipline to read ashore; the only Tolstoy and Dostoevsky I ever read were at sea. I lived in those books - I regretted each book's end. I read, and when I got done had to sit down and write about what I'd read. Letters to friends, or to girls - foolish things, but keenly felt.

Tugs were different. I was older and married by then, and separations were shorter. When I first joined, "20 and 10" - 20 days on, 10 days off - was the norm. We worked in the harbor mainly, so we got to the phone on the pier quite a lot (no cell phones then), and once in a while I even made a quick trip home for a few hours. But the fundamental work time vs. home time division still held sway; on the boat, work was serious and took most of my attention. 

Nowadays I read a lot about distraction invading shipboard life. Distraction, fatigue, and the paperwork overload have been mentioned as factors in many accidents and groundings - including instances where the mate on watch, probably overworked and short of rest, simply fell asleep.  Crews are smaller, too. In the 30,000-some GT tankers I sailed in, a typical crew was 32 persons; today, I hear of crews for much larger ships numbering half that.

A Master is now expected to be a "manager" - and that distinction also seems to involve an erosion of his authority, as the office takes advantage of 24/7 connectivity to intrude more than ever into the Master's affairs. On the modern ship, does a day go by without colloquy with the office - how different is the Master's job from mine ashore, today?

Well, there's one big difference between distraction ashore and distraction at sea, certainly: ashore, distraction may be irritating, or result in my failing to return a phone call. But at sea, a tired or distracted watch officer can be the cause of accidents or even deaths. Distraction - like many other things in our seagoing environment - carries more serious consequences at sea than it might in other settings. Do the folks who create these demands - many of whom don't work in our environment - understand that?

CORVUS J after collision with BALTIC ACE - click for gCaptain story
You hear talk about how to address it, but it always seems to come back to money: perhaps sailors of Nation X, although very well-qualified, have "priced themselves out of the market". Or, training crews properly and thoroughly isn't worth the expense when crew retention is so dismal. Crews have been inundated with growing piles of paperwork, because that's seen by the office as the cheapest way to handle it - even if officers end up having to do some of it while they're on watch. But how cheap is it if a distracted officer fails to see another vessel and a collision results? 

We don't know the cause of the collision caught on video below (or click the link just above), but it would seem likely that inattention - whether caused by distraction or not - might have played a role:

There is even a discussion on LinkedIn now about driverless ships - they've been advanced as a solution to the problems of crew training, crew retention, crew fatigue, and safety incidents. From that point of view, the solution is simple - just get rid of the crew. There is an EC-funded multi-million Euro project in progress now.  See also this link about a conference in February that covered the same subject.

Certainly, people are complicated. But many of those problems are actually caused by distraction and work overload - like having to do paperwork on watch. Surely some of those problems could be mitigated by things like treating crews with respect for their professional skill; providing adequate manpower for the work that needs to be done; and fostering company loyalty with fair treatment. 

And here's one very good use for that 24/7 connectivity - how about moving some of that paperwork burden back to the office

I think most "crew" problems aren't just problems with the crew. Many of them sound more like problems with crew management; they begin at the top, not at the bottom.

How do you view the problems of distraction and fatigue? Are you with a company that has dealt with them successfully - or do you have personal strategies that have helped you to cope? Share your wisdom and experience in the Comments section!
3/4/2013 09:46:44 pm

I hear from friends how much paperwork they have to do, how training a new mate, coming into a port, or anything that is not driving the vessel through the oceans, equals No Sleep.

So, I don't expect phone calls or emails from any of them. Technology has changed and they can keep in touch easily, but I'd rather my friends get some sleep. They're stuck on a boat--where are they going to go? I'll see them when they get off.

I don't expect them to read my blog, even if I put up their darkest secrets (just kidding!)

3/5/2013 01:34:42 am

Dear Christina,

It's part of the ongoing homogenization of life on so many fronts, I guess (I'm sure you know Douglas Adams!): “The trouble with most forms of transport, he thought, is basically that not one of them is worth all the bother. On Earth, the problem had been with cars. The disadvantages involved pulling lots of black sticky slime from out of the ground where it had been safely hidden out of harm’s way, turning it into tar to cover the land with, smoke to fill the air with and pouring the rest into the sea, all seemed to outweigh the advantages of being able to get more quickly from one place to the other - particularly when the place you arrived at had probably become, as a result of this, very similar to the place you had left, i.e., covered with tar, full of smoke, and short of fish.”
― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Trilogy

As a result of blanket communications, the same thing seems to be happening to work and play. Although your playful spirit has been a refuge for me, Christina!

3/7/2013 12:11:16 am

Hi Reid,
I wanted to thank you for using my drawing here with your post. I also wanted to thank you for crediting it to me and providing the link back to the original, which is something many folks fail to do.

Really enjoyed the post, too. Much of what you're saying applies in lots of workplace environments as well as across the culture. Like you, I recall what life was like without constant interruption and overstimulation, and I think we're well on our way to losing some of the essential elements of experience that allow us to mature and deepen as human beings.

Rick Belden

3/10/2013 10:49:15 am

Dear Rick,

Thank you for letting me use it! It perfectly expressed what I was feeling. I looked at a lot of illustrations, but kept coming back to "Distraction".

Finally I said to myself (in addition to suffering from distraction, I talk to myself as well) "this drawing wants to be used,and it's saying so very clearly". So after checking your Creative Commons note, and coincidentally reading some of your poetry, I went ahead.

I'm very grateful for its use, and it made me think about my mental processes, too - which sometimes resemble your drawing a little too much! I think it's very good.

Thanks again,



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