On the nature of command

The Lionel Plante prepares to offload her cargo, which included two 75,000 lb. cement mixers. Photo by Jack Farrell

“Put on all sail!” shouted the captain as the ship sailed toward the island. As we neared the island I heard a cannon fire. A scream came from the mizzen mast, and then I saw three men fall, and following them was the top half of the mast. I suddenly heard a pistol fire, and there was a body on the deck. I looked over, and to my horror saw that it was the captain. I felt his pulse. There was nothing. He was dead. “That means I’m the new captain,” I thought to myself. I quickly started giving orders. I ordered all guns on the port side to be loaded. I started to like being the captain . . . .

My elder son wrote that passage in the fourth grade, part of a story called “Pirates in Hawaii.” He has since sailed the Caribbean on a tall ship, become a licensed captain, hauled and rigged boats for 10 years, and started his own excavating business. He is a confident and commanding presence, and always one of my first choices when I need to get something done. He still likes being in charge, and I learn something from him every time I work with him.

Last week we brought out two loaded cement mixers and a piece of heavy equipment to Star Island on the Lionel Plante out of Peaks Island. It was a real pleasure to be part of a maritime operation so full of things that could go wrong in a big hurry that went so smoothly. The night before, Capt. Coley Mulkern and his crew steamed down to Rye Harbor in a near gale, and slipped the big landing craft into the very tight harbor as though they did it every day. They rolled a car off the bow ramps, casually tied up to the empty dock pilings for the night, and drove home to Casco Bay.

The next morning, we got the trucks and the loader aboard, a fairly easy task on the gentle slope of the ramp at Rye Harbor, and headed out to the Shoals across a calm and sparkling sea. Coley swung smoothly into Gosport Harbor, nosed the boat up against the steep shingle beach alongside the stone wharf, dropped the ramps, and motioned for the first truck to move out. The big transit mixer, weighing in at over 75,000 lbs., backed slowly down the steep ramp, its rear wheels splashing into the shallow water. With the back end of the mixer on the upslope of the beach, and its weight shifting off the boat, the bow of the Plante and the front wheels of the truck began to rise. This caused the truck’s rear bumper to abruptly dig into the ground, preventing further motion. The assembled crew on the beach began to imagine the worst: a stranded landing craft as the tide went down, concrete beginning to harden inside the trucks, one truck dangling off the bow, neither landed, nor aboard.

But Coley knew what to do. Without hesitating, he motioned for the second truck to move ahead toward the Plante’s bow. As it did, the bow dropped toward the beach and the back end of the stuck mixer lifted smartly out of the dirt. When it was time to offload the second truck, the remaining big loader and a smaller tractor on the Plante provided the necessary ballast to drop the bow again, and that truck rolled off and up the beach with ease. Lots of people out there have a ticket, but that guy’s a real captain.

I watch guys like Coley and try to learn all I can in pursuit of my own competence. The right blend of guts and good judgment are among their common traits. Most great captains exude a calm confidence that makes it look easy. But I know that perceived ease comes from good planning, long experience, and some good teachers along the way. And I’m pretty sure all good operators have at least a few stories to tell about tough lessons learned.

If you don’t come to command naturally, like my son, you need to learn fast how to adapt. One lesson I think I have finally learned is about command communication. It must be simple and complete. It has no room for ambivalence. It has no room for assumptions. It has to be convincing. It has to sound like a clear order, not a mere suggestion. When personal and vessel safety are at stake, you can’t worry about hurting someone’s feelings. Many offers of assistance are better refused.

A story from my early days as a captain at Star Island illustrates many of these lessons well. I was preparing to leave the dock alone in the old Perseverance, something that happened all the time. The breeze was blowing off the dock, and, as was usual in this condition, the boat was in forward gear and pulling ahead on the aft spring line to keep her alongside the float while I took in the other lines. The final step would have been to take her out of gear and leisurely take in the last line.

Just then, a long-time employee jumped down to the float and asked if he should let the stern line go for me. This was a very capable guy who had been on the boat hundreds of times. I told him that would be helpful, and I jumped off the boat to take in the bow. With my head down untying the line, I saw the Perseverance begin to move ahead along the dock. My helpful friend had decided to also release the after spring, and the 48-foot, 37-ton boat was now heading east with no one aboard. In a panic I chased the boat down the floats and launched myself over the rail in time to stop her before she ran aground at five knots in front of the hotel.

“Sorry, man,” said my helpful friend. “I thought there was a lot of tension on that line when I let it go.” I had assumed he had paid attention to this process on his countless trips off the island. I had assumed he knew about the loaded spring line. I had assumed he would ask me if it was time to do anything beyond letting the stern go. Instead, I should have stuck to my solo plan or have been explicit about all the steps in the process. It could have been a disaster, and it would have been entirely my fault.

Jack is a USCG 100-ton master and the facilities director at Star Island at the Isles of Shoals, where Aloft, his Ted Hood-designed wooden sloop, lives most of the summer. Formerly island manager, Jack now focuses on running freight boats and tours during the summer season and managing the waterfront.

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