Pocket books and mnemonics: more than just nostalgia

Well-thumbed pocket books and mnemonics still strike a chord with today’s experienced marine professionals – but does the same hold true for those learning the ropes now?

Well-thumbed pocket books and mnemonics still strike a chord with today’s experienced marine professionals – but does the same hold true for those learning the ropes now?

LR Seamans Guide Pocket Book credit Ann Pletschke

The Seaman's Guide Pocket Book also known as the ‘little blue book’ covering collision regulations and more. (Credit: Ann Pletschke)

In a digital world, it’s no surprise to find that today’s cadets are just as comfortable with an interactive module as they are in the classroom. Indeed, if there’s one positive thing to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been the acceleration in the deployment and adoption of digital learning tools that mean continuous professional development is now a reality for all, whether at sea or shore-bound.  

Yet even with Zoom tutorials, interactive online materials and state-of-the-art simulators and virtual reality, there’s no getting away from the fact that many old-school lessons still hold sway in the maritime industries. Take rhymes and mnemonics, for example: many of these have the power to stick in our heads even when we can’t remember where we parked the car.  

Indeed, one nonagenarian former merchant navy seaman (in the interests of full disclosure: my 92-year-old-father) recently recited a favoured ditty that had seen him safe while navigating ports around the world on a variety trawlers and tankers. “Green to green, and red to red, perfect safety, go ahead!” he said, recalling that back in his seafaring days his training consisted of pretty much day-to-day survival, whether from the towering seas of the Arctic Circle or the hazing from more seasoned members of the crew.  

Regardless of the short-comings of his formal training, the rhymes he picked up to develop his seamanship have stuck with him through the decades, despite being landlocked in the Midlands. Other favourites include “if to starboard red appear, it is your duty to keep clear” and “green over white, trawler at night”.   

Given the profusion of terms, procedures and rules – particularly the COLREGS (International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea) - that must be memorised in order to stay safe during periods of intense stress in what can be some of the most hazardous conditions on earth, it’s no wonder seafarers have over the years devised and passed on little tricks to aid the memory.  

Why are they so powerful? According to the neuroscience, it’s down to something called "acoustic encoding", which is the processing of sounds and words for memory storage and later retrieval. It seems our brains are primed to learn in this way, which is why nursery rhymes have such cultural longevity. 

It’s not just that these rhymes work, however. They also come imbued with a sense of nostalgia, triggering a fondness for the earliest days learning the ropes at sea and perhaps our younger selves. 

Captain Ann Pletschke, previously of Ocean Infinity, confirms this. “For me, there's also a lot of knowledge that has been lost over time - or in some cases made obsolete through lack of use - tide calculations and terrestrial sailing calculations being classic examples - so I look through my old pocket books, calculation books and study notes with a sense of admiration for the knowledge I once had!”  
A self-confessed “huge advocate” for modern learning solutions such as virtual reality and digital tools and their potential to improve training at all career stages, Pletschke also recognises the power of more analogue techniques.  

“I feel some of the 'older' learning techniques can be blended with technology and there's a place for a wide range of techniques,” she says. “We are all different and we learn differently.”  

The human factor 

Indeed, digital tools only take you so far, with human trainers and mentors wielding huge power to influence learning.  Pletschke recalls being nervous when ship handling when Chief Mate. “I used to dread having to manoeuvre on my watch,” she says. “One day, the Captain told me "you know, we all get a little nervous when the ship is so close to a big structure - it's normal, people just don't speak about it". From that day on, it was like a lightbulb moment and I actually started to enjoy ship handling until it became my favourite part of the job! Sometimes it can be as much about the encouragement and soft-skills as it can the actual learning technique.” 

LR Old Code of Signals book credit Ann Pletschke

The Code of Signals detailing morse and flag fluency and everything else a mariner needs to know about communications (Credit: Ann Pletschke) 

This is something Pletschke is now paying forward, acting as a mentor for a number of young seafarers as they progress their careers. Among them is Marie Vanessa Victoire, who works for Bourbon Offshore. “Ann immediately motivated me,” Victoire told Marine Professional last year, adding that Ann was the first female Captain she’d met, underscoring the importance of representation in the industry. “Onboard my first ship, we would often be in touch via WhatsApp, about gender issues and my cadetship.”  

It's a two-way street, with mentors such as Ann gaining just as much from the experience, by keeping up to date with new methodologies, technologies and perspectives. It’s also a chance to pass on tried and tested techniques and tips that might not make the official textbook but which can prove invaluable in helping seafarers stay safe in a challenging world.    

Indeed, this matters more today than ever. Cadets today have less sea time than they used to, and perhaps less exposure to the different ranks, ages and backgrounds of fellow seafarers, thereby limiting opportunities to pick up this kind of hard-learned insight.  

“Technology gives us an opportunity to somewhat immortalise and spread the tricks and tips that we relied on our forebears to pass down,” says Pletschke, pointing out that it also creates networks via social media or digital platforms to learn from fellow seafarers around the world who may have different traditions and lessons to pass on. 

And, of course, along with the mandatory training and continuous professional development required of a modern seafarer in an age of change, there’s no substitute for hours at sea. Ann Pletschke recalls a highlight of her career when, as a cadet, she entered the pack ice off Greenland for the first time. “The sound of the hull moving through the ice and sending off weather reports with ice classifications was an unexpected learning experience,” she says.  

Indeed, no matter your age, experience or rank, every day, whether on land or onboard, should be a learning experience.  

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Amy McLellan is a journalist and author. She was previously editor of Energy Day.