The Art of Dredging

Dredging and shipping

Captain's overriding authority

CA ship captain's "overriding authority" is a cornerstone of the I.S.M.-code; an IMO-imposed quality-management tool onboard seagoing ships.


"The Company should establish in the safety management system that the master has the overriding authority and the responsibility to make decisions with respect to safety and pollution prevention and to request the Company's assistance as may be necessary." 

(Complete text of the ISM-code can be found here)



1913, ss. Titanic sank, hitting an iceberg at full speed. 

Suppose captain Smith took the decision to sail slow ahead  through the icefield ?  Did White Star Line suggested him to continue full speed through the ice, to set a new Transatlantic speed record on the ship's maiden voyage ?

Or was it an error of judgement from his side alone ?

After 100 years, this particluar case remains unsolved,  but clearly shows the field where the "captain's overriding authority" plays.


However: the concept of overriding authority has some headaches:


1. You could call the office for advice ?

"Overriding authority" is a concept from long gone days, where ships where navigating the edges of the known world. Captain James Cook could not make a call to British Admiralty, couldn't he ?

Captain Cook was always authoritive, without the "overriding" part, because he was the only authority onboard his ship.

Things have changed, and managers are simply a phone-call away. They can be consulted on important matters, and their opinions heard. This is actually a good thing, provided both parties (ship and shore) know their game.

It's inevitable that the office protrudes into life onboard, but decisions on matters of safety should remain with the master.

Whom is responsible, should decide. The two cannot be separated.

On very few occasions I hear the guy on the other side of the phone crossing that line, and I slammed down the phone and did things my way. I don't like trespassing in that area.

 MSC Joanna hits W.D. Fairway


2. You are overriding the authority of  your employer ... ?

This is one heck of a hurdle to take: you -as a captain- may figure out that -in the interest of safety and crew etc...etc... - it is unacceptable to take a risk so and so. Better get your homework done...

Next thing is to communicate this worry to your company, who may have an entirely different view, probably slightly more narrowing on financial issues. 

Companies, however, mature in these matters, and when they are in shipping for a few decades, finally get to understand that their captains may have a point, from time to time. It's a learning proces for all involved.

Although: this potential conflict leaves the captain with only theoretical protection. He may well loose his job, or perceives the relation as such, which is enough to influence his thinking. It's a relation between unequals.

In a captain's mind, it's hard to sort out what matters most: the opinion of your employer, loyalty towards him, risk for crew and ship, responsibility, company policy, regulations,... . This can all mix up to a haze in which decision making may take a wrong turn.

Risk is a concept which can hardly be translated in numbers, but it's often up to the master to translate it in a black-or-white decision.

There is a real need here for empowerment of freshly appointed captains.

Containership flexing in heavy weather


3. Skills and competence

Using overriding authority assumes risk assesment, assumes a set of skills, intelligence, experience and in-depth understanding of the risks to crew and ship.

This includes the captain's skill to make up an objective risk assesment, free from anyirrelevant feelings (like fear of getting fired for his decision). Sounds easier than it is...

Overriding authority should never be made to excuse or hide own lack of competence.

It would clearly degrade the whole concept and would defame the captain's job in the long run. A certain amount of calculated risk is inevitable in shipping, and can largely be overcome with knowledge and experience.

In our days, however, careers at sea are short, ten years or less, and transfer of experience from one generation to the next is a huge problem. A decade is simply too short to build experience, and pass it on to a younger generation.

The myriads of rules, checklists, ISM-manuals, in use onboard are a very poor substitute for experienced crew.
M.V. Prestige breaking up

4. Miscommunication, misunderstandings, ....

Managers in the main office may be biased in their perception of situations... They don't have the detailed picture on the spot, but the master has.

It's up to the master to communicate -in full detail- the circumstances which leads him to a certain decision. Despite all the communication systems between ship and shore, there is still plenty of room for misunderstandings here... The fine shades of arguments get lost very easily.

In an ideal world, the captain onboard may be challenged by management to reconsider his thinking in view of a broader perspective or better arguments.

Challenged, but not overruled, not intimidated, not misguided. It's a thin line to walk for both parties.


M.V. Artemis on high ground


5. Then, how ?

Master's overriding authority is an ace up the sleeve, you may throw one on the table every five years or so.

Trying to use it more will degrade the credibility of the master.

But using overriding authority is -at times- a tool that has to be used, by every captain who is serious about his responsibilities, and regardless of any irrelevant feelings on the matter.

Marc Van de Velde



 Read also:


An extreme consequence of not using overriding authority can be found in the capsizing of M/V "Princess of the Stars", a ferry that sailed straight into the track of a typhoon, 2008 season, with subsequent loss of 800 lives.



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