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Openness to Experience: a Soft Skill for a Successful Career at Sea

19 / 03 / 2021

Maritime schools and training programs prepare seafarers to set foot on a ship. By design, they place graduated students in a position of being open to experience. Developing that openness to experience is crucial for succeeding in a career at sea. Learning must be a continuous action, absorbing new information over time to streamline and reinforce good practices.

More so than other skills, the ability to be open to experience can atrophy over time. It requires constant dedication to personal improvement. A seafarer must recognize alternate avenues of experience – including subordinates and new sailors. Prior experience in other industries or on other ships may bring valuable new information. Different methods and alternate approaches aren’t always inherently better, but it’s important to consider the possibility.

Due to the nature of the maritime industry, best practices travel slowly – if at all. Intercommunication between ships requires a motivated central office. Sharing experience between companies and across international lines moves even slower. As such, maintaining an openness to experience ensures that a seafarer properly leverages every new source of information.

Openness to Experience at Sea

As a learned soft skill, openness to experience involves several aspects. Cadets, apprentices, and new seafarers must balance their workload against new experiences. Some unusual operations may take place outside of regular working hours. The leading cause of most maritime mishaps is fatigue, and seafarers must weigh their desire for new experiences against their current level of fatigue.

In contrast, routine breeds different problems. A seafarer caught in a routine may find their job much less stressful – but also less enriching. Remaining open to experience may generate additional work, yet with a payoff in knowledge. Recognizing scenarios that are worth the additional effort is a major component of the ‘skill’ aspect of being

open to experience. For more experienced seafarers, a specific phrase often arises. All too often, a sailor resorts to; ‘This is how we’ve always done it.’ This statement is a double-edged sword – used to prevent new information, but also used as an argument against best practices. If the operation in question is not urgent, and the new method has theoretical merit, it can only be beneficial to attempt. However, there is always the chance that it could cause new problems – or throw off the routine of those only tangentially involved.

Finally, being open to experience requires the ability to learn from abrasive sources. Not all experiences are positive – and often, learning what not to do is the most important form of knowledge. An objectively bad supervisor can show the seafarer what to avoid upon promotion.

Practical Examples of Openness to Experience

Enclosed Space Entry

Depending on the class of vessel, enclosed space entry can be an uncommon to rare occurrence. It also represents one of the best chances to understand the interior structure of the vessel. On tankers, it is also an excellent way to learn the physics behind loading and discharging.

Practical Example
A new third mate is on watch from 8 to 12 in the morning. During that time, the Chief Mate intends to inspect a ballast tank. Recognizing the opportunity to learn more about the ship, the third mate asks the Captain if he can go down on deck to see the tank’s interior. The Captain, impressed with the new mate’s initiative, covers the watch while the third mate goes in the tank.

Infrequent Maintenance

Due to berth congestion and dock maintenance, a vessel expects to be at anchor for an extended period. Seizing the opportunity, the Chief Engineer decides to perform the upcoming annual maintenance on critical equipment. Although it only requires the First Assistant Engineer, their schedule allows both the Second and Third Assistant Engineers to assist and gain valuable experience.

Learning Outside of Work Hours

Ideally, most operations would occur during regular work hours and provide ample opportunity for experience. This is not always the case, and balancing work and rest is a skill unto itself. Learning the regular duties of a higher billet may require dedicating some of a sailor’s off-time.

Practical Example


All students realize they must be open to learning. After graduation, regardless of profession, it is their ability to be open to experience that will dictate their further progression. Taking the opportunity to involve oneself in ongoing operations is not always a matter of delegation from supervisors. Often, a seafarer must seek out these new experiences, demonstrating their initiative in doing so.