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The Making of an Expert

Special Reports

An interview with Captain Peter J McArthur, Master Mariner, Pilot and Expert Witness. Asking Peter how he became recognised as one of the foremost expert witnesses in the Maritime field, he began by correcting me. “I need to make one thing absolutely clear” he says “At no time have I ever given myself the title or the accolade of ‘expert’.

That was something attributed to me by others, but which, I soon learned, was a necessary prerequisite to be taken seriously by the courts and by clients who appointed me. The simple fact is, I have something of an issue with the title ‘expert’. That said, I do accept a degree of specialisation in certain maritime fields”.

Apparently, part of the issue arises from incidents where Peter recalls having seen ‘good men - who have given a lifetime’s work in a field which they know intimately - have their lives completely destroyed by so-called ‘experts’ who, when one delves not too far beneath the surface, turned out to be academics capable of setting out a good case on paper, yet when their actual experience was queried retrospectively, hadn’t the faintest idea about field practicalities. Experience, he continues, is at the very core of what makes as expert, but that is only the beginning and theoretical knowledge alone is never enough.

Peter is passionate that only those with a comprehensive knowledge underpinned by a lifetime of practical experience should be capable of calling themselves experts. Further, he argues “a good expert should never rest on their laurels, but should continually seek to improve their knowledge and refresh their experience at every opportunity”. He relates how, over the last few years, upon analysing some very plausible documents presented in evidence to explain the
causal factors behind high value shipping collisions, he has been both amused and horrified upon realising that those who had been engaged to both discredit his client’s case - and his own specialist research and maritime background - had never set foot on a ship in their life and were relying purely on evidence derived from models. He recalls “When enquiring about the tell-tale signs of interaction that might be expected prior to one particular incident, the ‘expert’ had no idea what I was talking about. After that, it became a simple matter to knock down the other side’s case - so saving the reputation and livelihood of my clients employees, not to mention the very considerable damages that were being claimed as a result of the collision”.

His opinion of ‘expert evidence’ based on models and mathematics, unsubstantiated by practical experience, becomes clearer as he continues “I’m afraid, no matter how academically competent or convincing some documents may appear, if someone purporting to be an expert presents evidence that has the potential to destroy lives and livelihoods, then they should be able to demonstrate personal, hands-on, experience to substantiate the documentary evidence that they
present to the court”.

I asked Peter to explain the sequence of events that led him to developing the specialisations that his clients have come to value and to rely upon. Peter smiles as he paints a picture of his remaining few months in nautical College, having just been introduced to the field of marine hydrodynamics and the topic of interaction, knowledge (as was explained) that was absolutely critical for safely manoeuvring and handling ships operating in close proximity to one another.

“We have to teach the fundamentals of these theories” explained the lecturer, “you have to know about them so that when faced with them you at least have some idea of what you are looking at. But our advice to you is ... never ever attempt these manoeuvres with your own ship … leave it to the experts! “ Peter raised his hand and asked “and who are the experts?’ Without hesitation the reply shot back “the Manchester Ship Canal pilots, they wrote the book.” Peter’s plan crystallised in that moment, “that’s what I want to do” he says, “I didn’t just want to be good, I wanted to be the best there was.”

The whole subject of hydrodynamics, interaction, pressure fields, ship generated waves and the forces between ships - although he had no idea what they were at the time - were topics that had always fascinated him. He explains some early childhood memories when he would watch the intricate wave patterns created by his little plastic boat as it sailed on the puddles and later, his fascination of the waves made by the great oceangoing ships that plied the nearby River Clyde. Later, as a professional mariner, formally trained in this field, as a pilot and an accomplished ship-handler, Peter outlines how his childhood passions and professional competencies began to combine logically and make sense.

Recognising that from his earliest years Peter demonstrated a latent talent, I asked him to outline the life-path that led him to becoming a Captain, a pilot and a general maritime specialist? His first nautical experiences were gained during school summer holidays when, he explains, he was fortunate enough to get a job washing dishes on a paddle steamer. There then followed three summer seasons when he worked his way through the entire catering department - holding every job from pantry man, to cook, to Steward, and, at one time, ran the catering department - despite his young age – clearly displaying a management capability that would serve him well later in his career. Peter explains that where he came from, expectations were low. One either joined the army or, if you had any sense, you went to sea. Through a rather strange set of circumstances – which involves a broken cotter pin on his motorbike – found himself at sea where, right from the outset, his decision to go into the Marine Department rather than engineering side was questioned as it quickly became apparent that he had a talent for
fixing things, an aptitude which, he says, “was to prove both the boon and the bane of his life for many years”.

Peter’s apprenticeship was worldwide and involved getting to know oil and product tankers, bulkers, chemical and molten sulphur ships, He also touched on container ships as their use was growing quite significantly. Peter outlines his career as a young officer, “I seemed destined to spend my life on VLCC’s and ULCC’s, that was until I found myself in a dry-dock where my talent for fixing things came to the fore. Although a relatively inexperienced officer at the time, I would negotiate repairs and offer improvement suggestions which seemed nothing more than common sense to me, thinking nothing more of it. I’d obviously
impressed somebody because, within a matter of months, I was appointed to another dry-dock bound ship - then another and so on. Taking the negative perspective, I was sure I’d upset someone and this was punishment. I didn’t like the way things were going as I was spending more time under ships and crawling around in their innards than I was at sea, on the deck, or on the bridge.

That realisation, plus a desire to gain quality sea-time so that I might rise through the ranks and get my own command, resulted in my leaving deep sea and taking up a position with a middle trade company. The smaller ships had numerous problems and my capacity for working out what was wrong and fixing it soon bubbled to the surface again. That wasn’t a bad thing as, still being only in my early 20’s, I found myself the youngest Chief Officer in the British Merchant Navy - a situation which lasted for about three years.

Whilst I did build quality sea time that included the navigation experience and some of the ship handling practice that I desperately wanted, during the last 18 months with that particular company I ended up in nine drydocks! Bemoaning my lot, one shrewd old Captain gave me it straight ‘You will never get a long-term command laddie, every skipper in the fleet wants you on board for dry-dock. Your reputation precedes you and you’re known for getting ships fixed properly, on time, and on budget. You’d best face it; you’re destinedto be a superintendent.’ That wasn’t what I wanted to hear”.

In the early 1980’s the shipping industry underwent a significant downturn - coinciding with Peter’s need to spend time with his young family - so he worked as a Marine Technical surveyor in the United States, followed by two years as a Berthing Master and part-time Hydrographic Surveyor in Humber ports. His earlier work in the USA turned out to be the foundation for a further four years working as an Oil Surveyor, Marine Technical Consultant and P&I appointee based in the Middle East.

With his extensive background in vessel problem solving, ship repairs, project and personnel management, and with a lot of uncertainty surrounding the state of the marine industry in general, a move into the North Sea oil and gas industry seemed quite a logical progression for Peter.

His venture into the offshore industry coincided with a period when, following a lot of serious accidents and near disasters, the industry was becoming more heavily regulated as the UK sector tightened up on virtually every aspect of working procedure and safety monitoring. Personnel with higher-level maritime qualifications backed with significant experience were at a premium and it wasn’t long before Peter was appointed to manage oil rig upgrade projects or was tasked with moving them from work yards in North-East Scotland out into the exploration fields of the North Sea. Peter reflects that “some of his most challenging, therefore enjoyable, projects involved overseeing rig moves across the Atlantic, then remaining with them while they upgraded in preparation for
winter working on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.

“Exploration in extreme Arctic conditions -with the ever present threat of icebergs - is quite an experience and one which one never forgets” he says. “What started out as a simple rig move, if there is such a thing, turned into over a year’s contract in the most extreme environments that the Earth has to offer. Simply being in charge of isn’t enough! At the back of one’s mind is the everpresent knowledge that any decision has the potential to affect the lives of hundreds of men. It’s difficult to explain, it’s something one accepts and gets on with, but the sense of responsibility and the weight of command never leaves, not even when
on vacation”. Eventually, the project was successfully handed over to the Canadian nationals, as was always intended, and he found himself back in the North Sea working for agencies on a contract basis - moving rigs and carrying out field repairs.

By the early 1990’s Peter was employed as the ‘Mr Fixit’ for one of the biggest oil exploration companies in the world - regularly acting as Barge-Master during installation wet docking, scheduling overseeing and upgrading semi-submersibles or performing the demanding role of Rig Tow- Master when circumstances required.

In the mid-1990s, offshore working in the North Sea went into a steady decline as the major oil finds became ever deeper, more inaccessible and more expensive to exploit. It wasn’t long before Peter elected to return to sea - in command of coastal tankers and ro-ro vessels and plying the busy European, Baltic and Mediterranean routes with the companies he was working for only too willing to make use of his experience in repairing ships. This move coincided with Peter’s conscious decision to return to nautical college and upgrade his command endorsement to full Master Mariner certification. No sooner had he gained his Master Mariner certification than he was invited back into the offshore industry to move oil rigs - a service that he then regularly provided - as an independent
consultant during seagoing leave periods.

In 1997 Peter was invited to become a Manchester Ship Canal pilot, an offer he accepted instantly as this was something he had always wanted to do. He explains with passion, “Pilotage isn’t simply about moving ships from one place to another. It requires a considerable range of skills including: vessel management; ship-handling competence; good project and personnel management; interpersonal skills; technical know-how; health
and safety awareness, plus an intimate knowledge of your district supplemented by an acute appreciation of the waterway hydrology, topography, commercial infrastructure and, of course, the local bylaws”. He amplifies, “It’s no accident that pilot training can take over six years and is often likened to the leap in competence required by a doctor who trains to become a neurosurgeon”

As a pilot, Peter availed himself of the unique opportunity that arose from having the control and conduct of several different ships each day. He took the opportunity to apply and test those theories he’d been taught about marine hydrodynamics and applied himself to studying, at first-hand, the interaction forces that exist between ships. It didn’t take long before he realised that something ‘wasn’t quite right’ and that vessels were not performing or reacting as he might anticipate. ‘That’s just the way it is’ he was told ‘we eventually learn what does and doesn’t work and then deal with it’ his colleagues counselled. Peter explains that “he was unhappy with the discrepancies between his theoretical knowledge and what he actually observed during acts of pilotage”.

There was one further apparent deficiency that concerned Peter. No sooner had he begun to understand the deeper technical aspects of ship generated pressure fields - so that he was able to anticipate what a ship would do in a given situation – than he realised that there was a lack of technical research information that might explain to mariners (in an easy to remember, non-technical manner) both the extreme nature of interaction phenomena he encountered and why these effects might vary from one moment to the next when the technical hydrodynamic parameters of the vessel did not change correspondingly.

He theorised that if one could anticipate with a high degree of accuracy what was likely to happen under a given set of circumstances, then there had to be a logical explanation that could be distilled into some fairly simple rules that would allow him to explain to ship Captains - who often queried what he was doing with their ship, and why he was doing what he was doing.

The problem was, as Peter explains, “he had never seen these rules explained or written down”. On further investigation, it emerged that whilst some basic guidelines did exist (as had been taught to him) there were no explanations that addressed his own queries. Peter assumed “this is surely an oversight on the part of previous researchers?”

The truth, he realised, was two-fold. Firstly, no one had actually spent long enough carrying out the detailed research on full-size ships to enable them to explain with sufficient clarity what was actually going on with the ships, the water and the pressure fields. Secondly, and a far more difficult problem to tackle, the field of hydrodynamics was governed by academics, whom, it seemed, viewed mariners and ship-handlers as a problem, rather than a source of knowledge. In their opinion, models gave them all the data they needed to both ‘understand’ the nature of ship hydrodynamics and to undertake the role of marine hydrodynamics ‘expert’ for the courts.

Peter’s research work was, for the most part carried out on his own. As his findings became more widely known, they attracted the attention of colleagues from other pilotage districts who acknowledged the value and practical application of his early theories. It took a further eight years of testing, experimenting, refining and retesting until he had developed a satisfactory set of pressure field diagrams that corresponded with the reality of what he encountered on a daily basis and which, he felt, were reliable enough to pass along to others, especially the officers on the bridge.

As a Mariner and non-academic working on his own - in a field that was essentially the preserve of universities, research institutes, specialist hydrodynamicists and research physicists, Peter acknowledges that he faced numerous difficulties in having his work widely recognised - despite its proven practical application. Unsupported, but always aware that his findings were of significant importance to maritime safety, he corresponded with many of the UK nautical colleges and visited them to explain his findings. Trying to get colleges to recognise that there were flaws in what they were teaching was perhaps one of the most frustrating things he ever attempted. Peter says “it felt like a completely thankless task and must have sounded like I was threatening the status quo”.

Research and piloting ships did not take up all of his time. As a committed lifetime learner Peter applied himself to his other interests, one of which was law and, in 2007 he qualified as a lawyer through the Open University. Following a consultation with the College of Law, whom Peter speaks of with respect and great admiration, they suggested that “he was far too specialised to be an ordinary solicitor” and that he should consider taking an MBA and going down the consultancy route – which he subsequently did!

I asked Peter how the breakthrough came in having his work and theories recognised?
“Two breakthroughs came almost at the same time”, he says, “the Maritime College in Liverpool acknowledged the validity of his research results and the National Sea training centre in Gravesend conceded that ‘what he had discovered was the theory for what they had been trying to teach for 25 years’. Within weeks the Nautical Institute, based in London, accepted an extract for worldwide publication1
No sooner was that extract published, than Peter was contacted by a specialist insurance assessor who had read how the theories might be practically applied and immediately saw the implications as the likely causal factors for a serious shipping collision that had taken place in the Malacca Straits. The issue for the insurer was that contemporary hydrodynamic theory (based on model research) indicated that the collision could not arise from ship pressure-field interaction and could only be explained as the result of a mechanical steering failure and bad seamanship.

Peter was able to apply not only his theories on hydrodynamics and ship interaction, but his vast experience of ship handling and manoeuvring, an extensive knowledge of ship technical systems - including steering gear operations, his knowledge of maritime law, management theories and shipboard working systems, all of which enabled him to analyse the scenario from the hydrodynamic, technical, navigational, tactical and legal perspectives (a range of competencies that is
entirely unique in any one individual) and to arrive at a conclusion which was not only common sense, but which entirely confounded the academic ‘experts’ who were adamant that their mathematics proved the incident could not be attributed to hydrodynamic interaction.

Following Peter’s engagement, firstly as a technical advisor, then as an expert witness, the matter was quickly resolved and the case never reached court.
Returning to his opening statement, Peter comments “I have no doubts that without the benefit of a lifetime’s experience solving technical problems, years of research as a practical hydrodynamicist, a comprehensive knowledge of the law and an unsurpassed experience of ship-handling and navigation at close proximity, that the wrong conclusion as to causation would have been reached in that incident and innocent men would have had their lives ruined and reputations destroyed”.

“And you don’t still don’t think of yourself as an expert do you”, I ask quizically? “I still have issues with the accolade of expert” responds Peter. “If I am asked what an expert is, or how I would define an expert, I think of would have to direct you to the definition given in the MCA document ‘The Human Element’2 where, to be considered an expert, one has to have actually been doing the job for at least 10 years - but the definition is more comprehensive than that”. Ericsson (2006)4 says “it takes 10 years or around 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert … it has little to do with innate ‘giftedness’ The 10 years of
deliberate practice required for a person to become an expert … involves constantly engaging with tasks just beyond current levels of performance and comfort. It also involves the guidance of teachers and coaches who not only provide trainees with the feedback they need, but who can teach a person how to become their own coach. Experts are not only expert in their technical area, but have also learned how to learn.”

“But”, says Peter, “Ericsson makes an important point about continued practice, a point to which I fully subscribe insofar as

Experience does not [necessarily] equal expertise! Expertise does not follow directly from experience. A lookout cannot acquire a Master’s knowledge and skills simply by spending 10 years on the bridge. Similarly, a Master’s expertise will remain very narrow if they only practise what they know. Deliberate practice is a sustained, structured engagement with scenarios that are not familiar. There are no short-cuts
to this process”

Peter concedes that, in view of these criteria, he believes that the classification ‘expert’ may sometimes be justified, but he quickly qualifies that saying “That doesn’t mean I know everything as some ‘experts’ would have us believe. “No”, he says “I know enough to know that I don’t know everything. I think I probably suffer from the curse of education. That is, the more one knows, the more one realises what they don’t know - if that makes sense. I only have one solution to that deficiency, keep learning, keep practising and keep researching”.

I ask Peter about some of his more recent cases and ask him if he can maybe expand on the fascinating work he is doing in the field of molecular hydrodynamics where he is regarded as the world’s leading practical proponent.

He relates another very high profile case he was invited to comment on, one which interested the world media as it involved a passenger ship collision. “My initial brief was to have a look at the facts -it didn’t look good for the client as they expected very heavy insurance claims.” Peter explains, he was tasked with advising how liability might be reduced. But then, he says, he brought all of his experience to bear on the problem and broke it down into various components navigational, tactical, hydrodynamics, pilotage, ship-handling and numerous other issues. He smiles, “what I was able to prove was that the passenger ship whose interests I was initially invited to consider – wasn’t at fault. But degree of fault is something for the courts to decided, isn’t it? Yet again, the prima-facie evidence, had it been relied upon, would have resulted in a wrong outcome and a miscarriage of justice.

“I remain mindful that the ‘experts’ duty is to the court, not the client, even though they are paying the bills” he acknowledges. “Although the client was quite satisfied, I am very content that the truth came out and justice was properly served”

And what’s going on with your molecular hydrodynamics research – that seems particularly interesting?

“Molecular hydrodynamics, now there is a fascinating subject if there was ever one”! Peter describes how he has carried out sea trials on various new build ships and countless newly dry-docked vessels and they all have one thing in common - not one of them has ever performed according to their mathematical models or to the results gained from the scale models that are built to try and show how the full-size version will perform in a sea-way under real conditions4
“I don’t know how many naval architects I have spoken to over the years” says Peter “but their experience of scale ship models and mathematically modelled simulations always results in the same outcome. They have never been able to explain the discrepancy between the model and the full-size reality. For years I have been arguing that it doesn’t matter how close to reality the scaled-down model might be, or that the rudders, propellers or thrusters are redesigned so that the model manoeuvres more like the full-size ship. One thing never changes, that is the water itself. You can change everything but molecular hydrodynamic
theory shows that the water itself will behave differently and exhibit different physical qualities if you change any of the initial conditions such as temperature, salinity, atmospheric pressure, or if you fail to take appropriate account of the state of agitation that may arise from any one of a number of factors.

It is almost an impossibility that full-size ship performance and the scale model performance for he same vessel will correspond with one another except in the very loosest terms. Because of this, the courts should be extremely wary of accepting ‘expert’ evidence derived from models or simulations alone and which is not substantively backed up with practical hands-on observations of an experienced mariner acting as a moderator. There is nothing entirely predictable about these events, something Lord Justice Porter recognised as far back as 1949 in the case of the CURACAO when he ruled ‘each [hydrodynamic] event can only be
explained with reference to those factors prevailing at the material time’ 5
The learned judge couldn’t have known the longer term implications of what he said. We’ve come full circle since then and current research stresses that
his ruling on that occasion remains entirely relevant today.

What are the wider implications of your work on molecular hydrodynamics?
The world of pilotage grasped the importance and the implications almost instantly and an extract from my paper on practical implications has been published for all pilots, and anyone else who cares to take it on board.4

The curious thing about molecular hydrodynamic theory is that it predicts that because of the energies involved, it will be very difficult to reproduce the results in a conventional test tank – so I suspect it will be disregarded as a non-starter by pure academics who didn’t discover it. That said, they will have to take account of it if they wish to present themselves as ‘experts’.

Interestingly, molecular hydrodynamic theory has allowed me to examine what are described as some of the mysteries of the sea. I find it difficult sometimes to accept that no one has examined the properties of water in the Marine sphere to the degree that I have been privileged to do so. My work on ship hydrodynamics has underpinned my research in molecular hydrodynamics and indeed prompted many of the questions that I set out to answer. I am accredited with: solving John Scott Russell’s 180-year-old ‘great wave of translation problem’; with working out the dynamic of what causes a wave to break and, amongst other things, working out why tsunami waves are far more destructive than contemporary wave theory would suggest.

There is a lot more to do in this field and it is probably an area of research and development that will continue long after I am gone, but I am both happy and humbled to have brought it to its present state of development

And what does the future hold for you as an ‘expert’?
I’m often asked why I don’t give up pilotage and become a full time consultant, but that would be to walk away from a job that I love and which gives me immense satisfaction plus I would have to abandon my research facility, the Manchester Ship Canal, which is unlike any other in the world. Further, as long as I’m a pilot my credentials as a ship-handler and researcher remain unquestionably current. 

I’m being strongly encouraged by colleagues in the legal sphere to take on the mantle of arbitration and mediation. The arguments being put to me are that my combination of technical competencies, navigational and ship-handling skills, general knowledge, legal and business qualifications and my extensive industry experience are quite unique and would be of benefit to a wide spectrum of disputing parties. I can see the sense in that proposition so it’s something I must give appropriate consideration to.

1, McArthur, P.J (2009). New thinking on Ship Generated Hydrodynamic Pressure fields. Nautical Institute ‘Seaways’ Magazine, August 2009. London. UK.

2, Gregory D, Shanahan P. The Human Element, a guide to human behaviour in the shipping industry. Pp 42 – 43. MCA 2010. The Stationary Office. ISBN 9780115531200

3, Ericsson K.A. The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, (2006) Cambridge University Press

4, McArthur P, Marine Implications of Molecular Hydrodynamics. The Pilot. UKMPA , Spring 2014.

5, Porter, LJJ. (1949). Queen Mary (Curacao) 1949 82 L.R. 303. Commenting on Interaction between Ships.