HMNB Portsmouth’s Ben McDermott: a leader on the seas

24 September 2021

Ben McDermott, an admiralty pilot at HMNB Portsmouth, was a captain in the merchant navy at 24 and commanding men as old as his father. Here he talks about his career choices, seeing off CSG21 and why it was important for him to be in a union.

You started in the merchant navy. Did you always want a career on the seas?

No, my aim was to be an armed police officer like my father, who was a tactical firearms officer in Hampshire. I always wanted to be part of SO19.

That was my aspiration but when I did my A-Levels, I didn’t want to go into debt by going to university, so I applied for the police, and they turned me down because I didn’t have enough life experience.

I was quite disheartened, but this officer cadetship came up for the merchant navy. I went into that thinking that I’ll get my ticket and then move into policing, but the career path opened up quite substantially within the merchant navy.

You were the youngest captain in the country at 24. What was it like having that sort of responsibility at such a young age?

It was incredibly challenging. Also, I think I was 22, when I was the second in command as well. I was dealing with people older than my dad and I had to show leadership but, at the same time, also empathy. I remember speaking to my dad about it, ‘how earth do I deal with this?’

In the end the best thing was to stay humble, and to be honest and open with people. That’s how I’ve been able to get through it, but it was incredibly hard.

How did the crew accept your leadership? Was there any awkwardness?

When I was captain, I wanted to be approachable. Rather than being: ‘I’m in charge’ and all that sort of rubbish, I was like, ‘this is what I’m looking to achieve, how are we going to do it?’

For example, I was on the deep-sea tow, and it was actually the cook who came along and said, ‘I think if you did it this way, it would be better.’ Lo and behold, it was.

What are your main responsibilities when you are the captain of a ship? What are the kind of challenges that you’re facing?

Obviously, you have a lot of commercial pressure and we’re trying to meet ETAs, achieve your next port of call and dealing with shoreside, and with people who don’t necessarily understand shipping and the complexities of it.

You get strong seas and bad weather. You can’t necessarily achieve your aspirations, no matter how hard you push, so you have to keep the targets in perspective.

You’re also dealing with the admin, safety management, drills and planned management. You must keep on top of all that.

You have the personnel side, with watchkeeping and seasickness being a big issue. We were in the North Sea when I was second in command and everyone was ill all the time!

Fatigue is also a serious issue because you’re always lean-manned. You’re trying to keep the plates spinning, but safely, and that is a very difficult thing to try and balance.

You’ve progressed through your career, and you are now part of the MOD. Describe your job now?

I’m an admiralty pilot at HMNB Portsmouth. We do what’s known as acts of pilotage, where we take any vessel that goes to a MOD facility and we will take one of the two types of pilotages, a hot move or a cold move.

A hot move is where you’d give advice to the captain. So as a pilot you’re the expert of the waterway as they call it, so you’ll be telling them: this is what the tide’s doing, this is what the wind’s doing and you’ll be helping them to navigate the Solent safely.

Then, a cold move is where you, as an admiralty pilot, take full responsibility onboard, on behalf of the Queen’s Harbour Master. It is obviously a lot of responsibility but it’s certainly the most interesting part of the job.

90% of our work is Royal Navy ships so we will cold move Type 23 frigates or destroyers, mine hunters.

How was seeing off the CSG21 deployment earlier this summer?

At that point in time, I was the chief admiralty pilot and the operations manager of the naval base. I’ve only just stepped down.

We have what’s known as tidal windows, which is a certain sweet spot for when the tide is slack and it’s the best time to move big vessels. Obviously, we have only got a certain amount of tugs, a certain amount of pilots and everybody wants to move at once so there’s a lot of constantly moving parts. It was a big day.

Are you able to enjoy big events like that or is it just focusing on the work?

Yes and no. It wasn’t something that I’d say was particularly amazing for me personally. I’m not a proud creature.

I actually enjoy doing the smaller vessels, like the minehunters because they’re a lot flightier in the wind, and there’s a lot more hands-on ship handling and you can really see how you can help the bridge team. They’re normally quite inexperienced, so you can see them develop and I find that quite interesting, seeing how they improve over every act of pilotage you do with them.

What’s the biggest difference in terms of in terms of the workplace culture between working for the Royal Navy and the merchant navy?

I think the ethos is very different. I would say the Royal Navy have a very challenging aspiration. I think the merchant navy is far more pragmatic and I think their experience speaks for itself.

It can be difficult to get that experience in the Royal Navy because a lot of the time you’re spent ashore. You don’t get the hands-on ship handling and I think, having come from a merchant background, I would say there’s a bit more working together.

Why did you join Prospect?

I joined about seven years ago. It was more of a safeguarding scenario for myself, should there be a problem. I needed a union for my protection on the legal side of things if there was an inquiry if something went wrong.


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