The Art of Dredging

Dredging and shipping

Mental Emergency Preparedness


The I.S.M. code has a paragraph on "Emergency preparedness".

Part A: Section 8 – Emergency Preparedness

8.1: The company should identify potential emergency shipboard situations, and establish procedures to respond to them.
8.2: The Company should establish programs for drills and exercises to prepare for emergency actions.

I like the concept of "Emergency Preparedness", ...  the I.S.M. code is an open end regulation, the interpretation of this concept will evolve with time.

However, in my opinion, "emergency preparedness" is not only a paper exercise, it is a state of mind.

I make my point:

Imagine: you are officer of the watch, dredging in the Tianjin access channel, the year is 2007, and your dredger has just been hit broadside by a large containership.  It doesn't look good. This is the view from your window. (*)

What will you do ? Will your actions be logical, appropriate, and decisive ?

Are you mentally ready for this ?

Clearly you have to take some actions, check watertight doors, ... general call, .... do some other stuff, that may save the vessel, and foremost the crew.... You have to take some action, because  the vessel may sink, for lack of action...

Are you stressed already ?

Same would apply to engineers on duty: a fuelpipe sprang a leak, and you see fuel spraying over a motor. What will you do ? Like, right now ?


The problem is: you don't know if you are mentally ready and prepared for an emergency, unless you have been in this kind of situation before.

People cannot grasp this new reality.

Onboard my vessel, I sometimes ignite smoke bombs down at the galley stairs. After a few minutes I go up to the galley, by now engulfed in smoke, and confront them "Hey, this is a drill."  Galley crew noticed thick smoke, but did not jump to the logical conclusions.

In emergencies, some guys stay cool, and behave very dependable. Other guys flip, block, panic, stiffen up... People prone to panic cannot be sifted out beforehand, and you would be surprised who starts to act great in emergencies, and who panics. Experience is not an indicator.

Panic is a sudden sensation of fear which is so strong as to dominate or prevent reason and logical thinking, replacing it with overwhelming feelings of acute anxiety consistent with an animalistic fight-or-flight reaction. Do not underestimate panic; it is very powerful, it has deep roots in our genetic material, panic had a function, back then, in the old days, when people lived in caves.

People do not function the same way as computers. People function analog, not digital. With people it is not "1" or "0".

Panic, or fear is always "fear of the unknown. We fear what we do not know. We fear because we don't know what to do.


Nothing in our seafarer's training has prepared us for that feeling of panic, that engulfs us , that shocks us, during emergency situations. There is a real need for training in the field of stress resistance, panic control, etc...

When an officer on duty gets into big trouble, he may call the captain. But the captain will take minutes to reach the bridge, ... maybe he is called up from his sleep at night, ..... so the officer has to take positive action, during a few minutes, and maybe bend the emergency situation from a total-loss of ship and lives, into a small "touch-and-go" collision. If he keeps thinking logical, he can go from "avoiding collision"-mode to "minimising damage"-mode, and still make a lot of difference.

And, when the captain hits the bridge, will he know the answers ? Or will he be the next victim of panic ? With the careers at sea so short, fat chance the captain has never experienced a real emergency before. Then what ? His behavior will largely influence the crew. (**)

The difference between a minor mishap and a serious ship disaster lays in the hands of the officer on duty, during his first minutes into a developing emergency.

That is the real importance here.

There is no real remedy.

Emergencies are not simulated in training. Anyway, we all behave the same in simulators: we know there is a reset-button outside the room. A simulator is not real life.

Some of this emergency stuff is -hardly- touched upon in Bridge Resource Management training.

Panic with seafarers is not studied by psychologists (unlike panic with scuba divers, airline pilots, soldiers, etc....).

Previous experience is little or none at all. We don't run into emergencies every week, no ?

Anyone truly serious about emergency preparedness need to constantly ask the question; am I ready mentally an emergency ?  Regular self assessment is key in being prepared for almost any situation. Simply assuming you can handle the stresses of an emergency or a more serious situation is a mistake.


Marc Van de Velde

March 2015



(*) The problem with dredgers is: they run into problems fairly easily. Most of their operations are in busy ports, narrow shipping channels, congested area's.  A fairly normal situation can go wrong in a matter of seconds, any hour of the day.

(**) From my own experience I can say that, I arrive on the bridge, mostly, when the deeds are done; the damage is there and the risk is gone. The officer of the watch can be anywhere from blacked out to completely lucid. Arriving in a still-developing-emergency is a completely different cup of tea.

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