Peter McArthur Profile

Published: 10 Feb 2017

It was a stormy day in Glasgow, 1974. Young distillery worker Peter McArthur had been to collect his motorbike from the repair shop, but with the bike not ready, he faced a 21 mile walk home. Wet, shivering and cold, he stepped into a warm shop doorway for a moment’s shelter – where some advertising posters for cruises caught his eye.

Peter McArthur Someone inside saw him looking at the pictures and invited him in.  He explained that he was in no position to buy a cruise holiday, but the man laughed and said ‘step this way, sir,’ with an offer of sandwiches and coffee.  ‘Well, it was the first time anyone had ever called me sir, so I couldn’t refuse,’ Peter smiles.

The doorway turned out to be the entrance to the British Shipping Federation office.  Grateful for the chance to get warm, Peter readily answered the mysterious man’s questions about his education. He gradually realised he was being invited to find out more about a profession in which he already had some experience, having spent a few boyhood summers working onboard the Loch Lomond paddle-steamer Maid of the Loch. By the end of that auspicious day, he had joined the Merchant Navy.

Peter won a cadetship with Denholm’s of Glasgow, and was kept on by the company as a third mate after qualifying as an officer of the watch in 1978. A year later he signed as a second mate with Everard’s, where he quickly built a reputation for ‘fixing things’. Recognising this ability, in 1980 Everard’s promoted Peter to chief officer, making him, at 23 years old, the youngest person of that rank in the British Merchant Navy – a record he held for two years. 

In this latest post, he was in great demand for drydocks – working on nine of these in 18 months and seeing relatively little sea service during this period. A highlight of his time with the company was becoming involved in the development of the pioneering Ability class tankers and trialling them at sea. ‘Everard’s provided some fantastic opportunities,’ he reflects. ‘They were very accommodating of new ideas.’

For his next move, the young officer accepted a chance offer to become a marine surveyor in the US, returning after six months to a berthing master’s position in the UK port of Immingham, as his wife was from the area and they now had small children to consider.

Peter’s new line of work on the Humber revived a childhood fascination with wave patterns.  ‘I remember taking a small cruiser out on Loch Lomond with my father and being fascinated by the wake we created, wondering why the water moved as it did,’ he says. ‘This curiosity manifested again as I worked on the Humber and was tasked with analysing why some berths silted up while others didn’t.  I started to study water more closely, making many observations to gain an understanding of current and tidal flow at different depths.’

It was an understanding that was to influence the rest of his career. Later in the 1980s his knowledge of water dynamics informed his work as a marine technical consultant in the Middle East, where he advised on pollution control operations while recovering war-damaged vessels.  He then moved into freelancing in the North Sea oil and gas sector, where his aptitude for problem-solving again came to the fore. He eventually rose to become a semi-submersible barge master, only returning to mainstream seafaring as the offshore industry took a downturn in the early 1990s. 

Holding a command endorsement limited his promotion prospects, so in the mid-1990s he elected to study for his unlimited master’s qualification, enabling him to assume a deepsea command with UECC. Peter enjoyed being back at college, but was never going to take everything he was taught without question, and part of him was always wondering how to find out more and do things better.  ‘While we were studying ship hydrodynamics,’ he recalls, ‘the module concluded with the warning “Never attempt these manoeuvres with your own ship – leave it to the experts.” So I casually asked “Who are the experts?”   Without hesitation, the reply came, “The Manchester Ship Canal pilots – they wrote the book on this stuff”.’ 

His future was set.  On 2 January 1998, leaving his UECC command and all his other interests behind, Peter commenced pilot training on the Manchester Ship canal so he could become one of the world’s foremost ship-handlers and pursue the research he had started as a berthing master on the Humber. 

Plotting Ship‘By 2002, as a qualified pilot, I had repeatedly attempted to reconcile taught theory with my ship-handling practice,’ he continues, ‘but was becoming increasingly frustrated and instinctively understood there was an issue with the way hydrodynamic principles failed to describe the complex manoeuvres of large vessels.  I could see common elements, but the theory I was taught at college was flawed and unreliable.’

Peter’s home life around that time had not been easy either. He acknowledges that his work and study commitments since the 1980s had not been conducive to family life, and his first marriage had broken down by 1999. However, in the 2000s he was to find love again – and support for his work – with his new wife Susan. ‘She encouraged me to trust my instincts, and intensify my own research, often joining me during the countless hours spent taking measurements and making detailed observations,’ he says. ‘As a mature student herself, she also encouraged me to follow my passion for personal learning and self-development.’

Over the rest of the decade – while still conducting hydrodynamic research and working as a pilot – Peter both qualified as a lawyer and completed an MBA through the Open University, achievements that bolstered his academic credibility and placed him in a strong position to take up future consultancy and expert witness work.

‘Some of the nautical colleges were wary of my theories to begin with,’ Peter recounts, ‘but the National Sea Training Centre in Gravesend was first to recognise the value of my work, acknowledging that proof had been obtained both in confined waterways and close-quarter situations.’  Other colleges also came to realise that Peter’s success in applying his theories as a practitioner set his work apart from the purely academic, and he was engaged to provide specialist hydrodynamic ship-handling training. 

By 2009, having endlessly tested his new theories in practical situations, Peter had his first scholarly article published by the Nautical Institute. His theoretical papers have since been published in several other respected journals and presented at forums such as the Second International Conference in Marine Hydrodynamics.  ‘But I always keep the practical application of my work in mind,’ he stresses, ‘and aim to write in a way that can be easily understood by the person on the bridge.’

One of his most important contributions to the field was demonstrating that hydrodynamic pressure fields around vessels can extend much further than anyone had previously thought.  This proof was critical evidence in several collision cases, including a ULCC, the mini-bulker Princess Mary and the cruiseship Costa Classica. Peter’s unique portfolio of ship-handing experience, academic research and legal qualifications means that he is in regular demand by P&I clubs and loss adjusters to explain hydrodynamic contributors in shipping casualties like these.

He is aware that he, like everyone else, doesn’t have all the answers, but he is always ready to return to his research to try to find out more: ‘I could see there were still problems that could not be explained by contemporary hydrodynamic theory – for example, why ships entering a lock can suddenly, and without explanation, surge ahead. Not knowing why frustrated me.  The breakthrough came in 2012, when I read a medical paper on water molecule dynamics within the human body.  I extended the concept into the marine environment and suddenly realised that – pretty much by accident – I had advanced molecular hydrodynamics into the marine sphere, enabling me to address many mysteries of the sea’.

In 2015, Peter wrote a ground-breaking paper on boundary zones in shallow-water which explains why small craft can suddenly become unstable and capsize. ‘I submitted the paper for the Fourth International Hydrodynamics Conference,’ he says, ‘but when colleagues reviewed it, they prompted me to publish immediately, as the information could save lives. I understand that the paper is now in circulation around the world and already having an impact. It is very important to me that the research I undertake benefits mariner safety, and I include practical guidance in my articles as well as theory.’

Buckingham Palace vistHe is also very much on the side of the seafarer in his role as a lawyer and incident analyst. ‘Seafarers’ lives are being destroyed in court cases because so-called expert witnesses are providing the courts with misleading information,’ he stresses.  ‘It upsets me when evidence is based on theories they haven’t put into practice themselves.’  He occasionally provides pro bono expert representation for shipmasters who risk being unjustly convicted. ‘I feel strongly that I have a responsibility to do this because I am a practitioner, not just an academic,’ he says.

Captain Peter McArthur is now a Younger Brother of Trinity House and a Liveryman of the Honourable Company of Master Mariners, and in November 2016, he was awarded the Merchant Navy Medal for his lifetime contribution to maritime safety and education.  In characteristic fashion, though. he has not taken these honours as his cue to slow down towards retirement, and has taken the lead in the industry-wide initiative to develop chartered status for Master Mariners.

He is clearly gifted and very hard-working, but credits the maritime industry with enabling him to have such a varied and accomplished career. ‘I would certainly recommend seafaring to today’s school leavers – notwithstanding my strange start at the Glasgow BSF office,’ he says.

‘It’s true that seafaring is more business than vocation these days, but shipping is still meritocratic,’ he points out. ‘With hard work and self-belief you can go far – it doesn’t matter what your background is.  Just get yourself out there, be willing to try and stick with it.  If you’re prepared to put something into this industry, it has so much to offer in return.’

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