The Ace Up Your Sleeve

John GattiBy John Gatti31 May 202212 Minutes

The studying phase, in preparation of the acquisition of the skills necessary to make us qualified and able to perform a certain task, determines – to a large extent – the boundaries within which our ability will range.

It would perhaps be correct to say that: 

“The mental openness with which we approach the study establishes the limits of the breadth of our knowledge”.

It happens because our brain tries to simplify everything as much as possible and, more often than not, it achieves its purpose by acting by exclusion:

Our brain eliminates, for reasons of efficiency, what it deems ‘superfluous’.

It just so happens, therefore, that we tend to forget what the brain considers – at its sole discretion – useless or, even worse, alters memories by adapting them to the assumptions already stored in our memory, according to the principle that: it is less expensive, in energy terms, to consolidate already acquired convictions, even if they are wrong, rather than overwriting already recorded information.

Thinking about what I wrote above, the image of an aspiring pilot materializes in my mind who comes to the exam full of notions, formulas, definitions and simulations. 

Once they have won the contest, I see the students begin their learning year with a full bag on one side and an empty bag on the other. 

From the first days, the full one begins to empty:

part of the content is lost because it is useless in practice. At the same time, a modest quantity passes into the other bag containing the theory necessary to support the experience.

The reasoning is neither beautiful nor linear.

The brain does its job: it eliminates what it catalogues as superfluous and retains what it deems valuable.

 I could argue at length about the advantages and disadvantages of the brain’s way of operating as applied to ship handling, but the result is more or less this:

the experienced pilot has a personal style that confines their knowledge. Within these limits is their knowledge, made up of experienced, minimal calculations and effective solutions; infinite repetitions, automatisms and physical/temporal spaces between the moment “x” and the point of no return.

It’s true. The end is what matters. 

Knowing how to perfectly manage the necessary number of options allows you to act promptly, safely and effectively. 

The rest is nothing but smoke.

Well, that’s not quite the case. However, let’s look at things from a practical point of view. A pilot who operates in Genoa has little experience and interest in deepening the manoeuvre in the fog, ice or rivers because they become, over time, an expert in the management of the ship in the presence of wind and confined spaces.

A realistic concept, however, has its limits.

Knowing how to manage the ordinary is evident and essential. An excellent pilot emerges in an emergency when the ordinary borders on the extraordinary—forcing him to pull the ‘ace out of his sleeve’.

It is why two “bags” are not enough, and we cannot afford to give up carrying, among our luggage, even a backpack.

Change manoeuvre to take advantage of too strong a wind or current; always have an escape route or plan “B” in case of breakage of the tugboat line or a ship’s failure. Decide when it’s time to turn around and start the manoeuvre again. Knowing when and how to use anchors, ropes, mooring boats or a makeshift shelter, and so on for the countless situation that may arise.

Our backpack must contain robust solutions for difficult situations.

I was aboard a chemical tanker 100 meters long, unloaded and moored with the starboard side on the quay. 

A question might arise: 

“Why, in the examples, do we often speak of modest-sized ships?” 

Because large ships, more often than not, have powerful engines and thrusters and use tugs. It does not mean that large vessels are easier to manoeuvre or that problems are less frequent. Instead, the pilot’s intervention, when the elements under control are limited, is more easily understood by the reader.

Right hand fixed pitch propeller, 300 horsepower bow thruster.

When it moor two days earlier, the weather conditions were excellent, with an expectation of a few hours’ stop. Therefore, upon arrival, relying on the right-handed effect of the propeller and the bow thruster, the pilot decided not to drop the port anchor. 

A delay in departure due to commercial problems caused the situation to change radically: 20 knots of sirocco wind crushed the small ship on the quay, and the lack of an anchor on the portside to widen the bow and a thruster from the insufficient power, made the unmooring manoeuvre somewhat delicate.

With me was a trainee pilot with about six months of experience, practically in the middle of his training. 

An excellent opportunity to discover the level of preparation he reaches.

Drawn by M. Garipoli

He left two springs forward and, with the rudder all the way to starboard, run the engine dead slow ahead. Soon the stern began to widen from the dock, while the bow leaned against an excellent fender. 

The trainee pilot continued to widen the stern – correctly – up to an exaggerated angle: the rather well-founded fear was that, once the engine was put astern, the wind would cause the stern to fall on the sharp edge of the nearby quay.

He had set the manoeuvre right, but his idea was that, once the crew released the springs, the right-handed propeller effect would keep the stern and that the thruster would be able to push the bow back into the wind. 

In reality, with the ship so unloaded, he should have imagined a further dynamic development and set a strategy for the next steps.

But let’s go in order.

The bow constantly swept a couple of meters along the quay without a hint of widening.

The stern, despite the effect of the propeller, fell with a steady slowness, and the probability of hitting the edge was relatively high.

The trainee pilot increased the engine full astern and put the rudder hard over to port to take advantage of this component as well. 

The stern stabilized, but the bow began to lose something.

When we got a fair bit back and the stern was free from the edge, it was evident that the bow would not go through unscathed.

I intervened by stopping the engine, keeping the rudder hard to port, and starting the slow ahead for a few seconds. 

The ship kept the sternway, albeit slowed down, and the bow – benefiting from that help – widened just enough to get her over the edge.

Immediately afterwards, the situation was as follows: stern to wind and bow opposite to the exit. 

The trainee pilot put the engine astern to increase the sternway. Then he moved slow ahead with the rudder hard to starboard, trying to turn, but as soon as the ship was across the wind, there was no longer any way to raise the bow, and meanwhile, the hull was drifting towards another quay.

He should have used more engine power to hope of getting something! To have a good turning effect – you need immediate and powerful propulsive thrust and a lot of rudder angle. Otherwise, you’ll go ahead and turn a little.

I waited a few more minutes, then, to avoid falling too far toward the quay at the “point of no return”, I intervened by dropping a length to the starboard anchor and stopping everything.

In a matter of minutes, the ship turned to face the wind with its bow bound by the chain. 

We hauled up the anchor and proceeded to the exit.

PH: Parisi F.

From this example it is evident that, in certain circumstances, exploiting the anchor to turn is the simplest and most effective choice.

Use the anchor with a small amount of chain, and the presence of light wind or current allows you to rotate almost on yourself.

Slacking as few lengths as possible allows us to operate in a small space and heave up quickly once in the desired direction.

You have to get used to using the anchor.

Deciding to drop an anchor is not so spontaneous as to act on the thrusters or use the spring to widen the stern. 

The emotional feedback that emerges from deciding to open the winch brake is – in the absence of familiarity with the action – the cognitive uncertainty of the act itself and its consequences:

  • Did I drop in the right place?
  • Did I slack enough chain?
  • Will I be able to dredge her or stop the ship in time?
  • And so on.

In practice, the operating margins are not so tight: in case of error, I can slack more chains, dredge the anchor to move its position, increase or decrease the engine and, if things do not go as they should, heave up and repeat the operation.

The more we use the tools in the backpack, the more comfortable, precise and expert we become.

The more skills you learn, the higher the chance you’ll have in your time of need.