Posted by: towmasters | June 9, 2010

Hawsepipers: Why They’re Needed Now More Than Ever

There is a powerful belief these days that you absolutely must have an advanced higher (formal) education to be of any real value in the workplace, unless you are functionally serving only as a draft animal doing the “unskilled” grunt work that no one else wants to do. The justification for this is usually made along the lines of “today’s complex work environment demands more technical training and skills, blah, blah, blah.” To be sure, virtually all of our systems appear to be caught up in the death-grip of ever-increasing complexity that just keeps feeding off itself: we struggle to solve problems caused by today’s over-complexity by, you guessed it, adding even more of it tomorrow, ad infinitum. Even worse, the pace of this continual transformation steadily increases as well and we’re expected to regularly “upgrade” our knowledge and skills in a vain attempt to keep up. We’re perpetually behind that curve, always outrun by the increasing rate of change, and there are human limits to our ability to keep up that aren’t being acknowledged, let alone allowed for.

In the U.S. Merchant Marine, and elsewhere, this has had serious ramifications. The powers-that-be at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) have continuously ramped up the training and education requirements for virtually all licenses to impractical levels, apparently without much if any regard for the practical, economic and social impacts that come with it. Manning standards, in contrast, remain flat or are reduced to make the bean counters happy. This has made the traditional hawsepiper an endangered species on a long skid towards extinction. It has become extremely difficult, if not impossible, to pursue a career as an officer by your own efforts and resources alone. This, along with a long-standing disregard for the quality of life of working mariners, has caused serious shortages of younger seafarers. While there have been some  uneven improvements in living and working conditions in recent years it still has not checked the decline. Inertia can be very tough to overcome…..

But this isn’t really about fairness and equal opportunity, because it’s clear that no one cares much about that. It’s about the cold, hard fact that the Merchant Marine is greatly diminished without a large percentage of hawsepipers in the ranks to ensure that the educated technicians from the academies, who possess little practical experience upon graduation, are not left to their own devices and wind up having to learn everything the hard way. Translation: increased damage, injury and accident rates. In support of my argument I offer the wise words of none other than an academy-graduate deck officer (read: non-hawsepiper) who actually sails for a living and has avoided drinking the Kool-Aid. He clearly sees the value in having hawsepipers around in more than token numbers.

I am continually impressed by the younger mates I have worked with that began sailing as apprentice seaman and took the initiative to study and test for a third mate’s license. Their education at sea brings a set of skills unattainable at maritime academies into the workplace. Any lacking knowledge in the theory of nautical sciences is amply made up for by a zeal to learn that theory while being able to run circles around academy grads on deck.

I couldn’t agree more, and I would also say that this applies doubly so when it comes to towing vessels. The paragraph above was excerpted from the post Human Resources on the Deep Water Writing blog. Clear vision like this is uncommon amongst academy graduates and I hope that it spreads and sinks in.

Can you hear this, IMO? Are you paying attention, U.S. Coast Guard? Are you capable of understanding the great damage you’re doing while continuing on the current course? It’s long past the time to alter that course substantially to avoid a collision with reality. The 2010 STCW International Diplomatic Conference is being held this month in Manila, and they’ll be deciding where we go from here. While the U.S. Coast Guard has temporarily backed off from implementing the latest round of changes to fully implement STCW ’95, largely due to industry and possibly even mariner’s objections, it is unknown if they truly get it yet and are willing and able to advise Congress that maybe this international treaty we signed wasn’t such a great idea after all. So we’re still very concerned about what may come out of STCW ’10. Stay tuned…..

Coincidentally, the afore-mentioned blogging seafarer also just commented on my last post about Transocean’s moronic no-knife rule:

When I was in college everyone on campus in a marine licensing program carried a knife. I remember thinking to myself “This must be one of the only schools that doesn’t prohibit students from carrying blades”. That wasn’t just tradition, it was a safety measure when half of the school week was on, in or near the water.

I’m not sure if that policy has changed with all the new security measures in place around collge campuses but if I am ever restricted from carrying my Spyderco at sea I’ll start sending my resume to Starbucks.

Half a dozen of my friends work for Transocean and are entrusted with operating multi-million dollar exploratory drill ships but are not allowed to carry knives? That is absolutely asinine.

I think a lot of good things could come out of the intense scrutiny the O&G industry in the GOM will undergo in the next few months. I pray that one result will be the realization that when you try and take all the risk out of seafaring with robust and voluminous safety managment systems you may actually end up endangering those that have to live with the system.

Writing, delgating, enforcing and auditing SMS policies has created a lot of jobs ashore but let us not forget who pays the price when the system becomes unreasonable in the name of risk reduction.

I repeat, the various authorities need to pay much more attention to what the knowledgeable grunts in the field are trying desperately to alert them to.

Editor’s Note: this seafarer’s writing just keeps getting better and better, and I’ve had him on our blogroll almost from the beginning of this blog. I encourage any mariner who has something to say to consider starting their own blog and share their ideas with a wider audience. Our Working Mariners blogroll, located in the 4th section down on the right-hand bar, has grown to include international coverage from a variety of sectors of the marine transportation industry. I’ll be happy to add to it, all you have to do is write.


  1. Brilliant! BZ!

  2. Ok I own a USCG approved school but I also still sail on tugs. It takes between 2 and 3 years to train a academy graduate to the point where I don’t have to go to the bridge a lot. A hawsepiper generally takes less time because of the knowledge he gained on deck. Also I have noted a hawsepiper is more likely to question if something is being done right. I understand that academy graduates have the theory but they need to learn they still must learn the practical.

  3. Great article, I spent seven years climbing from steward to Unlicensed Chief Engineer sailing on multiple vessels. After seven years I went to the coast guard to try and get a license. The perpetual run around I got was pathetic. I needed a license to continue to progress and even though I tried three different offices, I got no where. It eventually drove me out of the industry.

  4. As an Academy Grad that just came ashore after 23 years of sailing, I agree with the above. Industry just needs to look in the mirror. How many Academy Grads of the sum total stick with it and actually sail for more than a few years, or even are in the industry after 10 years. Although mostly a function of a declining industry, most cadets do the obligatory trip or two, if they can find it, maybe an upgrade of a license, then the realities of life, like a wife and kids, Sunday at home etc and they jump ship for the best their license and the BS degree can get them ashore. Then all the effort, training and experience are minimized, especially if they leave our industry. I don’t fault the system of Academies per se as they do a good job at what THEY do. What I do fault is the broken USCG system that effectively blocks our traditional up from the focsile path ways. Personnel that bring a level of drive, commitment and EXPERTISE to the industry that only comes from YEARS of sailing.
    In my graduating class very few stuck with it and yes the brightest that did sail are in management now which is a good Darwinian thing, but what we are talking about is a viable Merchant Marine ready, trained, licensed and WILLING to work. My bet in hiring a crew would be personnel that will be there for the long term in a sailing capacity and that would have the interests of fellow crew, vessel (environment) and company over their own.
    There is a very prominent West Coast operation that I recently took note of and the vast majority of their management are hawse pipers and I strongly suspect that is why they are so successful. We need to re-open the traditional paths from BR to Master. I know of a few dinosaurs that made it, one still sailing and he would tell you that there is almost no way physically or economically he could achieve that today and that is an American tragedy.

  5. […] Click to continue reading over at Tomasters: the Master of Towing Vessels Assoc. Forum […]

  6. Excellent post!

  7. […] Hawsepipers are needed now more than ever.…ore-than-ever/ Reply With Quote   Share with Facebook […]

  8. Excellent Post !!

    It is almost like there is a concerted effort to kill the hawsepipe. Having gone to the Manning and Training Conference in the Phillipines I have some understanding of why this is, and I am not hopeful that things will change. The answer may be the ‘hybrid’ solution. Something like what the Workboat Academy is doing.

    The question is: Does one year of structured on-board training while working on deck equate to 2 years of on-deck time that is not structured? The structured classroom and sea-time that the Workboat Academy cadets get allows for an additional one year of sea-time credit.

    Please note that this commenter believes that the best option would be a hawesepiper with many years of sea-time (not just 2 years as per below), however as we all know, when the market turns companies will move people up as quickly as possible per existing regulations.

    Which Option?

    Option A. New hire on tug receives two years of sea-time over a period of four years. Upon receiving their sea-time, they take the required 18 weeks of courseware (all at once) to get their Mate 500 License (with STCW). During this sea-phase there is limited ‘structured training’ and/or assessments (other than the TOAR).

    Option B. New hire on tug receives one year of sea-time while going through a structured classroom and on-board training regime.

    Option C. Forget above options and hire a Maritime Academy Graduate that has approximately 6 months of sea-time on a training vessel. Note (Kings Point provides one year of sea-service on commercial vessels)

    Thoughts / Opinions ?

  9. Hawsepiper vs Academy

    hawsepiper is = esperiencia y saben lo que hacen,
    conocen el trabajo,por que para ganar esa experiencias fuero largas horas y dias de trabajo para poder ganar la experieci adquirida.

    Academy= mucha tehoria y le falta mucho camino pro recorer,en otras palabras le falta lo mas inportante, lo que tienen todos los hawsepiper,la Sr.experiencia. Regularmente cada ves que ocure un asidente implementan una ley o regulacion nueva a causa de el incidente, pregutemonos una cosa o hagamos un estudio, que % de hawsepiper se han vistos involucrados en acidentes y que % de graduade de academias se han visto envuelto en todo loque hay que hacer y veran que los gandes acidetes han sido ocacionados por graduados de academisa y no hawsepiper.

  10. The working mariners links are great. Funny though, I thought gCaptain was written by working mariners too. Maybe its just the impression they give?

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