“You’ve got to know when to hold’em,
Know when to fold’em,
Know when to walk away
And know when to run.”
-Kenny Rogers, The Gambler
Much like the gambler in a poker game, the master on a merchant vessel is sometimes put in that position of making a hard (and fast) call. While the other players are holding their cards close to their chests, it’s up to the gambler to assess the game, read the “tells” from his opponents and make a calculation as to which one of the above choices he might take. It’s not that much different at sea….
No, there’s no cards involved, but the players are much more powerful. On one side of the table sits Mother Nature – all powerful, able to create devastating hurricanes, mountainous seas and screaming wind. On another side sits Neptune, the Roman God of freshwater and the sea – the same God that merchant mariners might slip a small offering when crossing the equator. And the fourth player? The shipping company.
The master of the vessel has been given a trump card, however, in the form of the International Safety Management (ISM) Code. This internationally recognized code specifically stating that the company should establish in its safety management system that, “….the master has the overriding authority and the responsibility to make decisions with respect to safety…” Taken alone, this trump card could shift the onus of the game’s outcome solely on the shoulders of the master. Luckily, one of the very next lines in the ISM Code states that, “The Company should ensure that the master is….given the necessary support so that the master’s duties can be safely performed.” Not only does the master have a trump card then, but the shipping company must also stake him enough chips that he can safely play the game.
As the cards are dealt, the master has to assess the look on Mother Nature’s face – is she bluffing, does she really have a poor hand or is she holding a Royal Flush? If he’s doubtful, perhaps he’ll walk away from the table. Likewise, if King Neptune is looking too confident or a little treacherous, perhaps the master will fold. And then there are the times that the look on King Neptune’s face grows darker and darker and Mother Nature is non-committal. Perhaps, that is the time to run!
And where is that fourth player, the shipping company, through all this? Well, they certainly play a roll, as they have chips on the table in front of them, as well as the ones they have provided to the vessel master. With a larger stake in each hand, they will prefer that neither Mother Nature nor Neptune walk away holding the pot. They are, however, limited by that trump card provided by the ISM Code that the master holds and the fact that sometimes the stakes are larger than they appear.
Playing that trump card – the overriding authority to say where the ship can go and what it can do safely – is not without its potential repercussions. If the vessel master folds or walks away, allowing Mother Nature or King Neptune to take the hand with a pair of 2s, the shipping company might not want to stake him the chips again. It is here where his experience and knowledge come into play – knowing if or when to play that trump card. The knowledge that the shipping company will stake him in the next hand and support his decisions – understanding that Mother Nature and Neptune sometimes play erratically – is all important in allowing the vessel master to err on the side of caution.
In reality, this is not so much a competition, but a balancing act – ensuring that all players are satisfied and that the master walks away with all his chips – crew, ship and cargo. At the end of the day, Mother Nature and King Neptune will continue doing whatever mythical deities do. The shipping company and vessel master, however, will walk together to the next table to deal the cards yet again. Or they may not. The other possibilities include the shipping company staking a different vessel master in the next hand or, on a very bad day, King Neptune sweeping away all the chips – crew, ship and cargo – down to the watery depths.