Moggy’s Tunaboat Helicopter Manual Ch. 5-3 "Keeping your Captain happy"

Posted on April 16, 2010

Moggy’s Tunaboat Helicopter Manual

Section 5.    Trying to keep everybody happy

5-3   Relations on the Bridge – keeping your Captain happy

         The Captain, or ‘Fish Master’ as the Taiwanese call him, is the ultimate representative of the customer. Just to totally confuse everybody, the Taiwanese ‘captain’ is actually the #2 man on the ship. Sometimes also called "the Navigator". Since the rest of the world addresses the Big Boss on the ship as "Captain", the Taiwanese "Fish Master" is happy to be called "Captain" by the rest of the world, whilst being the "Fish Master" to the initiated. Since I find calling the Captain the "Fish Master" conjures up a mental picture of some bespectacled dude teaching little fishes how to swim, hell, I’m gonna call the "Fish Master" the "Captain". So there.
   
On very rare occasions, in port somewhere, you may get introduced to the actual vessel owner. If you’re in the good books, he will take you out for a very good meal, and offer you a vacation in Taiwan, and as many pretty girls as you like. Believe me, he will be serious. I know pilots who took them up on that offer. The hospitality was apparently outstanding. I politely declined, but it was an interesting offer. It adds flavor to the great Tuna Flying Adventure. That’s as regards the ship owner. But the captain… him you will encounter every day.
         Relationships between helicopter crews and their respective captains have varied from one extreme to the other. From ‘amicable’, ‘friendly’, ‘no hassle’, ‘no worries’, all the way across the spectrum to the other extreme: ‘pure hostility’, ‘poisonous’, ‘mutual contempt’, and ‘open warfare’. Very occasionally… there has been a legendary punch up!
          There have been many cases where captains have specifically asked the helicopter company at the start of a new two year contract to send out the same old pilot and mechanic.  They were well liked, and got on famously with the crew… and the captain wanted them back! Please!  There have been cases where contract renewal has been conditional on a named pilot and/or mechanic (or a dual rated pilot/mechanic) being available.
         Almost certainly your resume will have been faxed to the captain before you even set foot on the ship.
The relationship that really matters, over and above your relationship with ‘Numero Uno Observer’, is you and the Captain…

         I suspect an awful lot of friction is the direct result of misunderstanding, poor communication, language difficulties, and fundamental failure on the part of some crews to appreciate the massive pressure a purse seiner captain works under. Sure, occasionally, fairly rarely, you will meet such an animal as a downright anti-social captain, who really ought to be shot, and simply put out of his (and everybody else’s) misery. I have no idea what makes some people such certifiable plonkers.  I’m not a psychologist. I have a pet theory or two, of course. I’m ah-thinking perhaps they were denied a hot, steamy nipple as a baby, and the good stuff. Instead they got fobbed off with a cold plastic tit, and pasteurized cow’s milk at the wrong temperature. They bawled their heads off in outraged protest then, and they ain’t forgiven humanity ever since!  No, Sir!
Heck, I don’t know. The odd few are just miserable to work with. Luckily I never drew the short straw, and I never ended up with Captain Bligh. (of Mutiny on the Bounty fame)

         Most captains, the vast majority…. they want it to work, believe me. Think of them as being in the same league as the General Manager of a medium sized factory. It is by no means a low tech factory! One look around the engine room, or a wander around all the sophisticated radar and sonar devices on the bridge will convince you of that!  I like to make disrespectful references to "that old tub" when I’m  talking about my old ships. That is just a figure of speech. Don’t let it mislead you. These are not little old rickety barges, with some wooden little platform tacked onto the back somewhere, where the helicopter sits! You are talking about a 1000 to 1,500 gross ton, 100 meter plus purse seiner, which can cost anywhere between eight million dollars and eighteen million! With that sort of capital invested, you can rest assured that somewhere a ship owner, or a board of directors, is shadowing the captain like a hawk! Every day’s fishing, successful or otherwise, is monitored, analyzed, compared, scrutinied, and criticized!

         Once I was sitting in the captain’s cabin, and in the background a scanner was monitoring a bunch of frequencies. Next thing the captain jumped to his feet, ran over to the radios, and turned up the volume! A look of devilish delight spread all over his face, and he started to fill me in. A rival ship owner was bawling out his captain for not producing results. It sounded ferocious. Like a whole bunch of razor sharp teeth going at it. Probably a bit like Hillary, in private, when she first heard about the cigar. From Bill. About Monica.

         Every so often you could hear a little voice piping up sadly, interrupted by the loud voice, yelling!  
Next thing I heard our ship’s name mentioned. My captain just started sniggering like a school boy, and poured us both a double brandy! Remy Martin, if I remember.  What had happened was that we had just offloaded seven hundred ton of fish that had only taken us a week to catch. The rival ship owner was rubbing that under his captain’s nose. The latter’s disgruntled reply:
         "Yes, well, but they’ve got a helicopter!"
My turn to snigger! I enjoyed that brandy!    
    
             Any General Manager has a list of current headaches and worries. His job for one! If he’s not catching fish, that could be a big worry. Occasionally a captain, sometimes along with the entire crew, will get the boot! From that worry on down, he could have engine problems, hydraulics glitches, electrical snafus, weak areas in his net that keep ripping, a wife that keeps wanting him home, and an eldest daughter who has just discovered cigar smoking boys! It follows that he has enough worries.  

          I would postulate the following ‘theorem’:

"The lower down the list of the captain’s worries the helo crew can slide, inversely proportionate there to are the chances of a relaxed, pleasant stay, being asked back, and the chances of being forgiven the odd spectacular faux-pas!"

The day you accidentally hover right over a hundred ton foamer perhaps, (the one he’s spent five days searching for), driving the fish down and out of the set, or the day you take a decent size chunk out of his one and only satellite dish, or the day you feel sea sick and decide to heave up all over his new color echo sounder…
         Believe me, it’s all happened to guys!
In one night’s noisy beer drinking session, with the assembled ship’s officers, I managed to send our captain’s drink flying, right into his lap. I was illustrating a story with rather a lot of arm waving.
           Oops….!
There was a visiting captain there, and he thought it was absolutely great. He offered me a job on his boat, right there and then. My captain took his tattered dignity, and his beer soaked private area well, but he did retire for a few minutes to change his attire. About half an hour later, I was in the middle of another dramatic story. For some reason it featured firing a catapult. It was a real good story, and I’ve damn well forgotten it. The radio operator seemed to be having a problem with understanding a catapult. Helpfully, I decided to perform a demonstration. I drew back with gusto on the imaginary elastic…
Smack! Bull’s eye…
        And the visiting captain got my elbow full in his eye.
         Double Oops….!
I remember he really yelped, everybody gasped, I gulped in horror, and my captain, quite unruffled…  
poured me another drink!
       I guess he reckoned that evened up the score…

          Some things, when you think about it, are fairly obvious.  
If your water pressure fails on the helideck, you don’t bother the captain… you go check with the second or third engineer. If the air conditioning fails, you don’t bother the captain… you check downstairs first and see if they are working on it already. If your ship is circling a foamer, that’s not the time to amble up to the captain and start telling him this outrageously funny story about this actress and the bishop. If he’s staring out broodingly over the sea…
I wouldn’t say anything
Sometimes you really don’t know what’s going on, and then it’s best to wait until spoken to. If he’s in a happy, chatty mood…. great!
Now’s the time maybe to tell him the one about the actress.
          The chances are, if he’s got worries… they are big worries.

        Some things… are not that obvious.
I realized one day I needed to make a quiet exit stage right. I was up on the bridge, enjoying the sensation of sailing across the ocean, with the bow of the ship lifting up, falling down, lifting up…
There’s a steady, peaceful rhythm there, a purposeful movement, and Life is interesting. Maybe not always good, but always interesting. You often wonder what’s around the next corner, or over that next rogue wave…
I was in a world of my own, a nice place if I remember, and the next thing, beside me, the captain started bawling out the engineer. I mean, bawling. Real blood and guts. Surprised, although it was not aimed at me, I stood there. Innocently enough, I’m looking at the captain…
                Yep! he’s definitely really mad…
Then I’d look at the engineer…
                Yep! He’s getting it in the neck!
Then I’d look back at the captain…
                 Boy! He’s going puce!
Then I’d look at the engineer…
                 Oh dear! He’s getting pissed now…

And then something finally registers…  I’m ‘rubber necking’.
Francis, exercise some diplomacy, and  kindly but out of there, you clot!

         Respect is a funny old thing. I’ve often felt people sense much more than you might think. If you secretly look down on people, try as you might to hide it, they will pick up on it.
Some pilots and mechanics really do think the Taiwanese and the Koreans are -basically- stupid.
          Far from it…
I’ve winced many a time, when an ugly American, a sarcastic Canadian, an impatient Aussie, or a frustrated Kiwi, has clearly conveyed lack of respect when dealing with Asians.
Watch for the shouter. The haughty expat who is speaking English to an Asian. Who just raises his voice. And says the same thing, impatiently, at ever increasing decibel levels. I’ve found myself obliged to intervene a few times. On the side of the Asian, I might add.
          Dude! There’s no point in shouting! It’s not a matter of decibels, for crying out loud. It’s a matter of understanding. That Taiwanese is attempting to communicate with you in your first language, but his second language. The fact that he doesn’t understand you, doesn’t mean he’s stupid. How about you try HIS first language, and learn Chinese…!!
   
          Sadly, I’ve witnessed plenty of arrogant, insensitive shouters. Superior Westerners, dealing with low-life, silly, stupid little yellow men. And I’ve seen some magnificent patience and self control on the part of Asian crew, in the face of quite outrageous condescension.  If I’d been one of those crew, I’d have kicked your ass. I describe several particular examples of this attitude elsewhere…

        On my very first trip, although I was a qualified A+P mechanic, my boss, wisely, sent another mechanic along with me. He figured I would have enough on my plate just getting the hang of the flying. He was perfectly right. I was lucky to have an experienced "Wrench Tunahead" with me, and he was really fine gentleman. I would have been all at sea sometimes without him. Every time I would accidentally make waves, this grand humanitarian would come along and pour oil on troubled waters.    

            Thus, as an example, there came the morning that I heard a loud knock on the cabin door:
                                                       "FLY!"
Okay, I thought, as I rolled over. "This is it!" I was spending my fifth day on a tuna boat. I had not flown yet, as we had been in transit to the fishing grounds.  My mechanic disappeared out the door, and I wearily looked at my watch. Seven o’clock. Boy, it was early. I slowly got up, stretched, and went and had a shower. Washed, shaved, cleaned my teeth…   Hummed a sea ditty… stretched a few more times… After that, in a spirit of self sacrifice, just in case they were maybe waiting for me, I nobly forewent my breakfast. In stead, I made a cup of coffee, and staggered out onto the bridge to take orders.
           "Good morning!", I said brightly and cheerfully. Slurping my coffee.
There was no answering reply.
In fact, after a little while… I started to get the vague impression I was not ‘the flavor of the day’.
That vagueness was unsettling, and I finished my coffee quickly, wondering what was going on.

           It was my mechanic who filled me in. My teacher. Sometimes, my saviour. He sat me down, and, patiently, in words of not more than two syllables (mechanics have learned to never assume literacy on the part of pilots), he explained to me the way things were…

***     The captain had probably been at work since four a.m.
***     The crew had probably been at work since five a.m.
        (excluding those on watch, and in the engine room)
***     Fifty minutes earlier, two large flocks of birds had been
       spotted on radar. One to the West of the ship,and one to the East
***     The captain had needed information from the helicopter,
        quickly, in order to make a rapid decision which one to head for.
***     By the time my disgustingly cheerful "Good Morning!’ had
           resonated around the bridge, the birds were long gone, the
           fish had disappeared, the mechanic on the helideck had gotten
           tired of waiting, and the captain…  well, he was somewhat peeved!

          Oh.… I thought, mouth agape, the wonders of this new world vaguely impressing themselves on my few remaining functioning brain cells. I see…!

             By the time seven o’clock rolls around on a purse seiner, half the day is gone.
It is nothing abnormal for a set to be made at four thirty or five a.m. Before dawn. Two or three hours later, the ship might be steaming again, nets recovered, with an extra fifty or a hundred ton in the hold.
I modified my behavior, and now I’m careful to be up and showered before first light. I’ve had my coffee, demolished my porridge, and if they call me, I’m ready, Eddy. If they don’t, I might… go back to bed. But if the knock comes on the door any time after that, it’s T-shirt and shorts on, drag a comb through my hair, and within one minute a fresh enough pilot bounds out, washed, shaved, fed, rested, bushy-tailed, and pretty damn keen to go fly! That’s the theory anyways…!

              Months later, after I had gotten to know the captain much better, he told me a story about one of his previous pilots. Other crew members independently verified the details. It makes for an interesting story.
Apparently, whatever time of the day you knocked on the pilot’s door, the creature that sleepily emerged, eyes screwed tight up against the light, like a mole with a bad hangover, would make straight for the wind meter on the bridge. He wouldn’t even look out the bridge windows. Say the wind meter read 20 knots…
He would get a bit of paper, and write on it:

                                20 (wind)

Then he would take the speed of the ship. And write that underneath.

                                20 (wind)
                                14 (ship)

Now he would add the two figures together.

                                20 (wind)
                                14 (ship)
                                34
     
34 knots! Too much, captain! NO FLY!
And he’d toddle off back to bed!
Eventually this became too much for the captain, and he blew up. And basically said:
"I know how much 20 and 14 is added together!! How come all the other helicopters are flying!??"
Their relationship deteriorated from then on in…

           You can see how frustrating it must have been to have been up for hours, and to have this sleepy creature
appear for all of thirty seconds, and churn out the same story…
Contrast this with a pilot who has already been up since dawn, and who has truly evaluated the conditions, maybe walked around the helideck a while, and who then says:  
                "Bit rough today, captain!"

         There are two corollaries to this story.
The first is that the captain reckons he switched off the wind meter on a dead calm day, and manually pushed the dial around to ’20’ and wedged it there!  It’s the sort of thing he would do, actually!
And, sure enough, he got the same thing:

                            20 (wind)
                            14 (ship)
                            34
(34 knots! Too much, captain! NO FLY!)
Then he had a field day…                                   

I believe it, because I saw him pull this little trick on a sleepy lookout.  This worthy, was asleep on duty behind the big, fixed binoculars on the foredeck. It looks almost like an artillery piece. He was pretending to be looking, forehead resting up against the eye piece, but he was in fact out for the count. The captain, not to be fooled,  came along, and quietly replaced both the lens covers. Then it was just a case of a loud bark:
                   "Navigator! You see any fish yet!?"
                    "Errr… no captain!… not yet!"  (furiously trying to look through the binoculars)
                    "Well, maybe you could try removing the lens covers!!!"

           The second corollary is that -hopefully- you have spotted something!
Remember, the captain is a ship’s captain, and not a helicopter pilot. So no surprise he should assume the pilot knew what he was talking about!
Did the pilot know what he was talking about? Not really…
(the 20 knot figure is the wind over the helideck… you don’t go and add the ship’s speed to that!)

           So the psychology there was interesting.
It’s really not that hard to get up at, say 04.45 a.m., especially if you know there’s a good chance you can go back for a snooze later. In fact, once you’re awake, you often don’t bother, and now you’ve got a whole long productive day ahead to read, study, write, play computer games, stare at the wall, or whatever takes your fancy.

          I never got yelled at much by any of my captains. A few times! Usually deserved. But it doesn’t do to take it personal. I did at the start once or twice, but now I’ve long since become immune. Herding is a prime example. You know sometimes they have got to blame somebody! Think of the money, and say as little as possible. Don’t feed the fire. The captain’s company is forking out over a thousand dollars a day, and you’re collecting a slice of it. He’s entitled to yell up to a point! The odd thing is that if you don’t yell back, but just look suitably ‘thoughtful’, the chances are they end up laughing! The next thing you know you’re getting cans of fruit or beer handed in your door…

        The Captain, or Fishmaster, is the man to impress.  Mostly, they are good people, who want the relationship to work. If you meet them half way, and look at it from their point of view as well, you stand an excellent chance of building up a good, strong relationship.

Francis Meyrick
       (c)

Last edited by Francis Meyrick on April 19, 2010, 7:09 am


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