A career at sea involves unique problems in a challenging environment. When possible, operators assess seafarers based on their knowledge, skills, and abilities. Although not so easily measured, a seafarer’s ability to cope with pressure is no less critical to their success. Isolation, long hours, and stressful situations can all contribute to a high level of pressure. Minimum manning and complex mechanical systems allow little space for mistakes, further complicating the matter. A professional seafarer must develop skills and routines to deal with pressure healthily.
The pressure is not an inherently negative factor. While it can cause an exponential increase in stress, it can also drive the will to excel. Leveraging pressure towards success can help cope with the added stress it represents – succeeding in a difficult task brings an immense sense of satisfaction and an accompanying boost in confidence. While a seafarer’s coping strategy will be personally tailored, they must first learn the skills for developing such a strategy.
The Importance of Coping Under Pressure as a Seafarer
The maritime environment is dynamic, rarely offering the same tasks day-after-day. Heavy weather, high traffic and unusual operations can impact any class of ship – and different cargos bring new challenges. Repetition and practice help alleviate stress and pressure, but in an ever-changing job, that level of familiarity can take years to develop. As such, seafarers benefit greatly from learning to cope under pressure – regardless of the cause of such pressure.
Fostering strong working relationships is a key component of any coping strategy. No single seafarer can keep a ship running on their own. Further, attempting to do so creates an overwhelming amount of pressure. Instead, officers and sailors alike must learn to trust their shipmates and delegate as appropriate.
Occasionally, it is not possible to mitigate pressure. This is where coping skills become critical. Something as simple as taking a deep breath can allow for a clearer mind and an appropriate response. For more complex situations, a psychological technique known as ‘chunking’ can help. In this technique, larger tasks are mentally subdivided into smaller, more manageable actions. Focusing on the immediate necessities prevents an operation from becoming overwhelming.
Another suggestion is related to the soft skills involved in coping with or safeguarding from stress. Psychometric assessments used in selecting and promoting seafarers can act as a preventative strategy for dealing with challenging situations onboard. Seafarers who cannot perform effectively under pressure may improve their skills with tailored training courses to increase their coping flexibility and enhance their confidence.
For seafarers, pressure can build over time. Unlike a normal job, they cannot take a step back at the end of the day. They must remain onboard, outside of sporadic port stays. Due to this, each sailor must maintain interests outside of their work. In an ideal situation, they will be able to communicate readily with their friends and family ashore. Failing that, maintaining a hobby can help take their mind off sailing – however briefly.
Practical Examples of Coping Under Pressure
High Traffic Navigation
A sailor that properly copes under pressure can identify pertinent information while dismissing overwhelming data. In high traffic areas, they will remain calm and collected while manoeuvring around other vessels in compliance with navigation rules.
While transiting the Gulf of Mexico traffic scheme, the officer on watch identifies targets through a combination of visual and radar information. Coping under the added pressure of high traffic, they successfully identify the smaller offshore supply vessels transiting between oil rigs – while maintaining a proper distance from large ship traffic in the lanes.
Supervisor and Management Expectations
Pressure is a natural consequence of expectations. Some degree of pressure is beneficial, as it drives the seafarer to succeed and improve. Issues arise when pressure fails to match the criticality of the operation. A seafarer that copes well under pressure will determine the correct course without second-guessing.
An experienced second mate prepares a passage plan for a well-known route. Their newly assigned captain assigns an unrealistic amount of additional work outside of the company’s SMS scope. The second mate clarifies the information requested, reviews the current passage plan with the new master, and determines a course of action that can be completed within the time available while satisfying all parties.
Failure of crucial equipment can create an intense amount of pressure – for both the seafarer tasked with fixing the equipment and those that must mitigate problems created by its unavailability. Yet, most ships possess redundancies and contingency practices. Solutions are available if everyone remains calm.
While an oil tanker prepares for discharge operations, the chief mate discovers that the remote pump controls for a set of tanks are not functioning. He begins the discharge using a different set of tanks and delegates the mate on watch to monitor the cargo operation. Upon investigation, he discovers that the fault lay in the remote system – and arranges for the use of local control, as necessary.
Coping under pressure is a skill unto itself, but one that works closely with experience and knowledge. A new seafarer will naturally lack confidence, which may create additional, unwarranted pressure. Learning to remain calm, identify problems as they arise and plan for known eventualities reduces pressure. When pressure is inevitable, coping can be the difference between success and disaster.