How to empower a Ship’s Officer in just 2 minutes

Sep 06 2012

I was recently given a copy of a book called ‘It’s Your Ship:  Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy’ by Michael Abrashoff. 

The book is an account of how Captain Abrashoff completely shook up the ‘USS Benfold’ during his first post as Captain and it inevitably got me thinking about the lessons in leadership that I witnessed in 13 years at sea.


In 1992, at the age of 21, I completed 4 months on the 78,000m3 LPG Carrier ‘Staffordshire’, owned and operated by Bibby Line of Liverpool, in my first trip as 2nd Officer.


As I approached the end of that trip, what I didn’t realise was that I was about to receive what became the most empowering 2 minutes of my seagoing career, and one that would beat the experience of any bridge team management course or related development training that I was ever likely to take.


Our ship was at anchor about 10’ off the port of Fujairah (UAE), just south of the Strait of Hormuz.  We had just arrived from Brazil and were taking on bunkers prior to loading our next cargo of propane in Ras Tanura.


Our short stay in Fujairah would see the current Captain sign-off and his replacement arrive.  I arrived on the bridge shortly after 11.50am, closely followed by the new man, Captain Reeves.


He asked the 3rd Officer two questions, to which he undoubtedly already knew the answers; “When will bunkering finish?” and “What time will the E/R go manned again after lunch?


The 3rd Officer replied that bunkers had finished a short time ago, that the hoses were already disconnected and that the E/R would go to manned status again at 13.00.


At this point, the Captain looking at the 3rd Officer said “OK – get your lunch and head forward with the Bosun at one o’clock to lift the anchor.”  Turning to me he said “OK young man, if you can bring the engines to stand-by at one o’clock and, once the anchor is lifted, take us out of the anchorage”.  Noticing the combination of stunned smile/quizzical look on my face, he added “I’ll be around sending telexes and will pop in at some point”.


Come one o’clock, engines were brought to standby, steering gear tested, my helmsman was on the bridge and then I, a 21 year old 1st trip 2nd Mate, gave the instruction to start heaving the anchor.  For those who haven’t spent time off Fujairah, it is a deep anchorage about 90 metres deep and while it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as busy as it is today, there were still probably 40 ships at anchor.


After about 10 or 12 minutes I received word that the anchor was aweigh but, with the sea as smooth as glass, I was happy to hold on for another few minutes to await the radio message that would tell me that the anchor was sighted and clear.  Once that message came and I pushed the telegraph slow-ahead and ordered hard –a-starboard, I felt like a million dollars.

The ship shuddered into life and I was shortly up to half-ahead.  Not long after this Captain Reeves  stuck his head (and only his head) around the door to ask how we were doing and what time would full away be?


Currently on half ahead, shortly moving up to full ahead and, ermm, 14:00 for full away” was my response.


We went full away at 14:00 and I don’t recall seeing the Captain again for the remaining 2 hours as we made our way up towards the Strait of Hormuz. As I handed over watch at 4 o’clock to the mate, he asked how the new captain was and I gave him an account of our departure from Fujairah anchorage.


I left the bridge that afternoon walking about 2 feet taller and feeling very pleased with myself.


My 12-4 watch in the morning was pretty uneventful and I left the bridge at 04:00 with the Ras Tanura entry buoy now in sight.


I recall that it was shortly after 08:00 that I was called by the mate to come to the bridge and relieve him as the 3rd Mate was already at mooring stations.


As he quickly handed over, the mate said he’d called the Captain for end of passage and had a very similar experience to the one I’d had the previous day. He had taken the ship down the entry channel and brought it to position at the pilot station with the Captain popping his head round the door from time to time.


We sailed from Ras Tanura and went to Lavera, France via Suez where I was never ever so disappointed to leave a ship!!


The confidence of a capable leader to empower those around him and have his bridge officers kept alert to take over at absolutely any time, created the most competent and capable bridge team that I have ever seen.


With regard to 'It’s Your Ship', Captain Abrashoff was 36 when he took over ‘USS Benfold’ and the guts he appears to have displayed in shaking up the navy’s conventional way of doing things is astonishing. What it also shows is how far ahead best practice in the merchant navy is compared to the biggest navy in the world!.


It is an excellent book for any young Captain that needs a leadership jab in the arm, and it puts quite a spin on use of land based management techniques.

“It’s Your Ship:  Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy”
by Michael Abrashoff was published in the US in 2000 and will be released in the UK on 29 Nov 2012.