A toolbox talk

As part of my last job I was a coxswain of small boats. Not an instinctive driver of such boats, nor even a particularly brilliant one, but nevertheless a perfectly competent one. Small boat driving was the one area of my job that has given me the most satisfaction, though it wear me out from a purely physical viewpoint. This story is not really about driving small boats as such, but is the tale of an incident in a small boat that involved me. It has stuck in my mind for a number of reasons, not the least the gorgeous weather at the time.

On a time four of us were out in our Norpower 25’, a sturdy dory or work boat with a big diesel engine and huge propeller; it was a calm and sunny day in Tropical waters, in late afternoon. Our task was nearly done – I shall not attempt to describe that task in detail, save to say it involved the boat being physically attached front and back to a long cable towed through the sea. Our task was to replace a section of that cable, a piece some 100m long. We brought with us a new section, wound on a reel, and we would take home the damaged one we would be removing.

The time came to free ourselves from the cable, which being many kilometres long and towed from a large ship – our primary work place and home away from home – was under perhaps a ton of tension. Hydraulic pumps and winches were to be used for this task. We went to do this task, and nothing happened when we moved the control levers. This was a worrying moment, but we gathered our wits about us, as we had been trained to do, and soon enough after a brief search, we found a leak in the hydraulic control equipment. This meant that it was no longer possible to free ourselves from the long cable using machinery. The time was around 4.45p.m, and we found ourselves in a potentially quite hazardous situation. We were in a small boat on the open sea, attached to a cable without the obvious means to free ourselves, unable to navigate or control our boat, and to make matters worse, about an hour’s journey from the mother vessel, with perhaps ninety minutes of daylight remaining.

It so happened that on that occasion I was a workman – I was not the Coxswain. It also happened that I was far and away the most experienced and senior person in the boat. What did we do? It is instructive. We paused to discuss the problem. This is a technique we use regularly in our industry, a technique proven to reduce accidents and injuries in the work place – the concept of the “toolbox meeting”. Then, the coxswain, a young woman, call her K, yielded the helm to me as the more experienced person. We had to get the cable free of the back of the boat. Since we were towed from a rope attached much further forwards, we contrived to let out that rope manually, by letting the brake on the winch slip. This enabled us to free ourselves from the cable at the back of the boat, though not without some difficulty, and the task took fifteen minutes. As the sun sank to the horizon we were conscious of impending darkness, ever aware that the run back to our mother ship, would take most of an hour.

Nextly, as Coxswain I caused the boat to move forward, such that the rope on which we were towing became slack, and the boat was under way independently. This was a delicate task involving some concentration. Slowly then I ran the boat forwards up this winch rope, and my colleagues looped the slack into the bows of the work boat, since the winch, being hydraulic, would not work. It was a 200m long rope and by the time the task was done, there was a blazing sunset, a picture of glory, the sky painted red and gold and pink and orange. The final task was to remove the clamp that held the rope to the cable. This, though a delicate manouvre, is one we were all well familiar with, and in moments we were free of the cable and clear to go home. A potentially disastrous situation had been averted, through teamwork, clear communications, strong leadership, and familiarity with emergency procedures.

It remained only for us to motor the 4 miles back to our home away from home, this task taking getting on for a full hour since the ship herself was making 4 knots away from us, and the work boat could only make 10 knots. It was nearly dark when we arrived back, and we were well ready for our dinner after such an exciting adventure and – truth be known – such a narrow escape.

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