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Business: Bunglers Need Not Apply

2 minute read

More than two-thirds of all tanker mishaps are caused by mistakes made by the men who run them. What is the answer to the human hazard? Many experts think it rests with the proliferation of the supertankers—including the behemoths known as very large crude carriers (VLCCs) that will be hauling increasing percentages of U.S. oil imports as deep-water port facilities are built. While these ungainly and oddly delicate ships—seaborne “steel balloons,” Supership Author Noël Mostert calls them—are by no means immune to trouble, they are primarily run by big operators, including oil companies, that set high standards for captains and crews. Says Klaus Meurs, senior instructor at a school for tanker officers in The Netherlands: “The problem of badly managed ships handled by second-rate crews will remove itself. Supertankers can only be handled by responsible shipowners who put the very best people in charge.”

One of the first things that owners look at in choosing supertanker skippers is family background. Explains Meurs: “The men to run the top ships must come from super-tidy, disciplined families who teach their sons to live by the book—no sloppiness, no boozing, a solid family life.” Many captains are trained, for tuition costs starting at $3,000 a week, at one of three supertanker schools in Holland and France. At Meurs’ school, the Dutch Institute for Navigational Training, nearly 100 students a year go through a seamanship course run by a 17-member staff that is headed by, of all professionals, a psychologist. “Stress is becoming a very important factor as the world of shipping becomes more complicated and increases the need for men who can make cool, fast decisions,” says Meurs. At the school, part of the training involves running scale-model tankers. The students learn to deal with a variety of hazards, including violent storms (generated by wave makers) and near-collisions with other ships. Says an instructor at one school: “Once a supertanker gets up to speed, it is like a train on rails, very difficult to turn. That is where the danger lies, and other captains seldom realize it.”

Meurs cites another lesson for seamen that will—or should—become obvious as the bigger, newer ships replace smaller, overage clunkers: “The market for bunglers is dwindling.”

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