January 28, 2008

ISPSo Facto

(ipso facto: Latin for "by the very act", i.e. ‘automatically’)

Soon after the ISPS code was introduced (shoved would be a better word), we used to receive many emails from the CSO, usually forwarded. Wonderful thing, forwarding. Two clicks and the job is done.
One of them, when printed, was about eight pages long and was headlined “President Bush declares Code Orange- all ships to take appropriate measures”.
This was very interesting but useless, as we were on the SE Asia run and nowhere near the US, didn’t know what Code Orange was, didn’t have that code in the ISPS manual, didn’t know what appropriate measures to take, and, to be honest, didn’t much care.
There is no rest for the wicked. So we were told, in a subsequent email, that this involved more stringent checks on visitors, stevedores and stores without raising the Security Level. And no vehicles within 100 metres of the ship.

At which point I gave up, because we were a container ship with trailers and stackers coming alongside in all ports within a few metres of the shipside. However, I did think, briefly and just for fun, of enforcing the no-vehicle rule in Japan and stopping cargo operations as indirectly instructed. Better sense prevailed, as I didn’t feel like packing my bags just yet. Man does not live by ISPS alone.

But quite a few years have passed since then, surely we must have got our act together by now?

Well, consider this:

Ship Security Assessments are still being conducted hastily, at least when a ship is taken over second hand. I have seen these being conducted by one person sitting with a general arrangement plan and a laptop, modifying another vessel’s SSA as applicable.
Since this was an old ship, modifications were missed out, and since the vessel had not yet been taken over, input from crew was unavailable or unreliable.
The SSA was finished, nonetheless, in about three hours, approved, and the ship taken over. The new crew kept on finding new doors and access points to designated Unauthorised areas and others for a few days thereafter. The Ship Security Plan, based on this SSA, was quite useless, though it had a good lineage of required approvals. Nevertheless, it stayed in place awaiting embarrassing revisions during the remainder of my contract.

The Ship Security Plan is often generic, impractical and ill thought out. It almost never takes into account

· Peculiarities of the ship. On one ship, the navigating bridge doubled as a de-facto (de-facto is close to ipso facto, but more later!) ship’s office in port; it was the only place big enough to seat a dozen port officials at a time, besides the messroom, which was four flights down from the main deck. It did not help that the bridge was an unauthorised area, as it well should be. Another example... a ro-ro had shipchandlers driving up the ramp to a convenient point inside the ship for offloading stores. I authorised this in contravention of the ISPS procedures, which required all stores to be checked and tallied ashore. I did this because I did not have sufficient crew to lug provisions up six flights and across cargo compartments a hundred metres away from the accommodation- and since the provision crane was knackered, awaiting spares at a ‘convenient’ (read cheap) port.
· Other duties, planned and unplanned, of the crew in port.
· The number of crew available to monitor and enforce the Plan.
· The fact that some members of the crew may actually want to go ashore, reducing the numbers available on board.
· That different cargo ship’s have different levels of crew involvement in cargo. Companies put pressure on crew to lash and unlash cargo. A car carrier may require larger numbers of crew required for cargo operations versus a bulk carrier; a ro-ro with side and stern ramps and gangway all down has, suddenly, three access points with monitoring required at each. If somebody has to be escorted all the way up to the accommodation, you require six crew just to cover this. Often the suitability of the ship to the procedures being put in place is ignored. A gangway watch keeper cannot escort officials to the Master (as mandated by the Security Plan) and leave the gangway unattended. Do we then put two people per access point? Is there manpower for this?
· The number of stevedores which may be repeatedly boarding the vessel, in large numbers... as in a car carrier .. with drivers who return many times in each shift. (And the cargo superintendent requests gangway access for them, too, because for some reason turnaround is faster)
· The fact that cargo operations these days are often around the clock, with attendant pressures on short manned crews.
· STCW mandated rest periods. The Master, Officers and crew may be not rested before they even make the port. They certainly and often contravene the STCW regulations while departing most ports. (Ah, but it is the Master’s responsibility. He must stop the ship!)
· Commercial pressures. I have had pressure to remove cargo lashings while the ship is in the locks or in the river, or during the stevedore meal breaks. My refusal to handle lashings thereafter, on the grounds that the crew was being pushed so hard it was impacting safety (this, after I found helmsmen nodding at the wheel in congested waters), was not taken too well by all concerned, including the crew, who were making some pocket money. However, ISPS is not optional, but is similarly contributing to unrested Officers and crew navigating ships.
· Scheduled Surveys. With short port stays, a couple of scheduled statutory and non statutory surveys, inspections and the like can involve an entire crew just for these. With the explosion in regulations and their administration, it is common to see something scheduled here almost every port. The inspectors, surveyors et al get their rest at the end of the ship’s stay in port. The crew sail out – less than safely - unrested.
· The Ship Security Officer. I have seen Master’s or Chief Engineers or Chief Officer’s handling the SSO’s job. It doesn’t work. Too many other responsibilities in port.

And so on.

The ISPS Code was, as we all know, hastily brought out in an era of ‘if you are not with us, you are against us’ kind of thinking. The mandarins in various international bodies must have been worried about being marginalised and made redundant by fast moving events; Crews and Owners undoubtedly groaned, training institutes, classification societies, managers and such undoubtedly rubbed their hands in glee at another opportunity, another revenue stream.
But that does not mean that we cannot amend the Code to make it workable now. Or is it too much to ask?

In addition to all this, the crew are often unsuitable and ill trained to conduct ISPS checks and procedures. They are multitasking to an astonishing degree.. handling, simultaneously, stores, bunkers (where a large component of the engine and deck crew and officers are automatically involved these days), ballast, cargo, crew change, fresh water, garbage, surveyors, port officials, (where all Deck Officer’s tend to be involved), Managers and the like.. all of whom want everything now and show scant regard for the seaman as a human being... so, then, to add an onerous and time consuming responsibility like the vessel’s security to the list seems ridiculous.

On one ship, a 5% check of all visitors by metal detectors at access points was mandated. On another, a photograph had to be taken and clipped to a visitor’s ‘permit’ at the gangway. It was interesting to watch this in the rain, when a couple of shipchandlers, surveyors and such arrived at the same time, and the gangway amidships.

It is akin to asking the pilot of an aircraft to handle the aircrafts security on the ground , or a stewardess to frisk 5% of the passengers at the entrance to the aircraft. Much as some of us would love that idea, it is, simply, impractical, farcical and unworkable. And yet we ask the crew to do this, albeit with smaller numbers, all the time. It is laughable to the point of hysteria.

The industry needs to decide. Whether, (a) Ship security should remain the farce it often is. In which case nothing needs to change, and the only thing that has to be managed is the increasing pressure on crews. If we want to manage that at all, of course.

Or (b) Ship Security is a serious business. In which case amend the Code, make the Ship Security Plan with extreme care and with an eye on it’s practicality. Be prepared to have to outsource elements of this to shore personnel if required, or increase manning. Budget for this. Examine the possibility of passing on these special costs to customers... a run specific ISPS levy, similar to the surcharges airlines are so fond of?

Maybe, given the fractured nature of Shipping, we are not in a position to do that. Maybe the IMO or somebody will have to mandate that the logistics of the vessel’s security should be handled by suitably trained shore personnel, and not be loaded onto already overworked crews. (That’s a huge maybe).

In any event, and in my opinion, the ship’s crew are ill manned, ill equipped, ill trained and too busy to do a halfway decent job on Security.

And so and ergo and maybe, the ISPS Code as practiced, is, ipso facto, unworkable in it’s present form.

Maybe that is a possibility, too.

first published in http://www.marexbulletin.com/

The Unidimensional Sailor

Usual conversation between two Indian sailors at sea seems to cover, besides work, such usual subjects as foreign exchange and bank rates, cost of property, investments, comparison of salaries in different companies, ships and sometimes family troubles, and not much else. At or around a port , these conversations may extend to the cost of phone cards or shopping or entertainment. And of course, regularly criticising present employers and Superintendents seems universal and perennial.

Usual conversation between the same gentlemen when they are between ships and ashore covers more of the same. At a revalidation course, for example, the only time I sensed animation in the classroom or during breaks was when mutual funds, property and stocks were brought up, sometimes with the trainers equally involved. Or when people were berating shipping companies in general and their own companies in particular.
The acme of this conversation was one guy asking another.. “how many crores? (have you made)”, and giving him his own investment figures asap thereafter.

These are the usual time-fillers, of who bought what for how much and how much it has ‘become’, and the usual questions- what is a good ‘business’ to be getting into, how much are you earning, which year scales, how are the ships, superintendents and food in your company- the usual shippy talk.

Rarely do I hear a conversation at professional gatherings which promotes, for example, best practices at work or which discusses, maturely, solutions to common work related problems or proposes any alternatives. Rarely do I hear current affairs being discussed, besides politics. Rarely do I hear a nuance of pride in the profession; it seems like sailing is something to be undergone, and, of course, the measure of success is how much money you make or the rank you hold, not how you do your job, or even how happy you are doing it.

It is taken for granted that job satisfaction is divorced from a sailor’s life, once you take the rank and the money away. It is taken for granted that what you earn and the rank you hold is the only measure of you as a person. It is assumed that a group of sailors can have no mature conversation on other subjects; or if they can, it is assumed that they have no other common interests.

By the way, all of this is self imposed. The dumbing down of the sailor is largely no one’s fault but his own. And the fact that the topics of conversation have not really changed in decades speaks volumes for itself.

One would think that travel would broaden a seafarers mind. Sadly, I see little evidence of it. Though it may be true that the pressures of sailing today do not always provide as many opportunities of experiencing different cultures and countries, I do believe that there is more to this than just that.
I believe that a sailor today subconsciously looks at his tenure on board as a jail term- a paid jail term, perhaps but a jail term nonetheless - and jail terms do not promote personal growth or mature exchanges between adults. The older and senior guys are planning to ‘do their time and retire’, the younger guys are planning to ‘do their time and switch to something else’. .. meanwhile, we are in jail, we do not pass Go, we do not collect 200, and we put our brains in limbo. We are just waiting for the ‘Get out of Jail Free’ card. We are living in the future; the present has to be undergone, not made interesting. We exist, we don’t live.

It is, also and very probably, the nature of the beast which tends to make seafarers insular. Out of touch with family, friends, current affairs and normalcy, there are always excuses for being poorly informed. However, there is a limit to these excuses, and we serve ourselves ill by continuing down this road.

We also serve our profession poorly. Many of us work lethargically and automatically, with our eye on the end of contract dates. We do not give our best, or not for long enough. And in this lethargy, in this acceptance of mediocrity, we are more likely to make mistakes. Frankly, if I was a ship-owner, I would be a little worried about a bunch of people operating my ship who were not in a frame of mind to give me their best.

Additional issues... on board entertainment and get togethers are much fewer and far between, multicultural and multilingual crews, books and magazines sporadic, time limited, all can be overcome to whatever extent possible. The habit has to be broken first. This is a long standing habit, many of us have started working at a very young age and had no time for serious outside interests.

To assist this, we at sea need to graduate to some of the following:

Seafarers need to stop cribbing. Whether it is the Company, the Superintendents or the ship, they need to realise that they chose to be there. In so choosing, they implied that they would perform their duties with decent effort. So do what you agreed to and are being paid to do.
Realise that like with Masters, Officers and crew, all of us have dealt with excellent Superintendents and also poor ones. I know I have. Do not make an antagonistic relationship with the office ashore a self fulfilling prophecy. Those are for lemmings.

An unrestricted email policy. It is odd that even in companies which promote this, Master’s sometimes try to restrict actual access. This is absurd, a happy crewmember works better. Companies and Master’s both need to realise this.
And on one ship, even after talking to the crew and putting up fliers detailing how to send email, I found few seafarers interested, barring a few senior officers. Odd.

Companies should consider expanding the news services (by email that they often subscribe to) to include a wider range of subjects and entertainment.

The old practice of meeting in the smoke room in the evening is dying out. Alcohol policy notwithstanding, officers should try, wherever possible, to resurrect this.

While on alcohol policies, the industry needs to decide how long it is going to continue to treat its Officers and crew like adolescents. Almost all these policies are ill thought, and are a knee jerk reaction to fear of penalties in countries like the US. Do airlines have similar rules? No, and they are a far more regulated industry in many ways. They just treat their employees like adults.

Senior officers should promote get togethers, even in small groups, where there will be no mention of work.

Individuals need to join ships prepared. I carry a good short wave radio. Another may carry a pile of books, or material for a hobby, or learning material to start something, learn a language, play a musical instrument, study. One can ask family, periodically, to send additional material. Plan a bit, it is possible.

Individuals also need to reexamine their off periods. Are they happy doing what they are doing there? Is the off period long enough? Financial pressures or not, in today’s shipping they need to take whatever time they require, or they will burn out that much faster.

Give paperwork lower priority. It is not unusual to see Officers and Petty Officers immersed in paper in their ‘free’ time. Some paper cannot wait, port papers and such have strict deadlines. Others, including inventories, reports, MIS sheets, can. Much of this is not read in Offices anyway, and you should not be judged by how quickly you generate paper. (Aside, when I referred to one report in one Company, I was told, ‘Cap, we never read those reports’- which was an eye opener). Take it easy. Paper can often wait.

Stop measuring everything in terms of money, including your own worth. Realise, as many have done before you, that you may be rich but unhappy or dissatisfied. Basking in bank balances whose sole purpose seems to be old age security, or in well appointed homes which you rarely enjoy seems a little strange to me.

Not possible in port but at sea, designate time to yourself, or to group activity. On one ship almost a third of the crew played table tennis regularly. People used to love to get groups together, different nationalities and cultures notwithstanding. It was a great stress buster for all of us.

Prioritise. Your teenager at home in a critical educational period or your sick parent has a greater priority than another couple of months wages this year. Your own needs too, on leave, should not be ignored. Realise that your profession gives you some flexibility, which you choose to throw away by extending or working almost back to back contracts. In doing so, realise that cumulative stress can kill you. Realise that you are choosing the rat race, and it will have a price. And that an emotional price is usually much higher than a financial one.

And, finally, realise that, on his deathbed, nobody says “I wish I had spent more time in the office.”

Or to quote Thoreau, ‘The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it”.


January 15, 2008

The Sins of the Fathers

About three years ago, my son decided on a choice for a career, and, sadly and thankfully, sailing was not an option he considered at all.
Maybe he saw, since he had sailed enough with me, that the price that had to be paid for making a living that way was too high. Maybe he saw too much.

So, that same evening, I sat myself down with a drink and thought about what I would have said if he had wanted to go out to sea, and if he had asked my opinion. The answers to his unasked questions gave me an insight which was invaluable. Invaluable to me, that is, not to him.
Because my gut reaction was, no.

Honestly, what would I have told him?

Son, you will, after your pre-sea training, be (at least substantially) a glorified clerk at sea, filling forms and pushing paper which everybody else on board is too busy, or too fed up to do. If you are on a hectic run, that may even be largely what you will be doing at sea, filling or collecting papers for the next port, filling checklists for the Chief Officer and the Company, with duplicates for the little boy down the lane.
You will have, probably, a Company controlled training plan, with too much stress on academics and too little on practicality. You will be expected to become a seaman without decent seamanship training. You will be doing, effectively, a correspondence course at sea where the biggest teacher- the ship and the sea itself- will be increasingly seen from within the accommodation.
Other work will involve professional knowledge and training, sure, but getting a senior officer who is willing to teach or even pass on his experience to you will be a rarity. Again they may be too busy, or may just not care.
What you learn may be in spite of these guys, not because of them. And then they will insinuate that the caliber of guys coming out to sea is substandard. After they make a water clerk out of you, they will scoff at what you are becoming.

As a junior officer, (yes, you will get a ticket, almost everybody gets one) your salary may be a balm for awhile. Forget about seeing much of the world, though. In port, you will be rushed, sleepy, tired.. and the ship will be sailing next morning. You will also be doing part of the work a purser and a Chief Steward used to do when I was your age, and, to add insult to injury, will be probably busy falsifying your rest-period figures. Your ship will be short manned for sure- if you are unlucky with Owners or the run, to almost slavery levels- and if you do manage to get ashore, a couple of drinks may cause you to lose your job, or worse. That is, if you still have the energy left to have a drink.

Remember when our family sailed together? When we got the time, once in a while, to go ashore together? Well, if some unfortunate girl does agree to marry you, you will have to effectively forget that now. Even if you want to take the trouble to be armed with close to a half dozen visas and pay heavy airfares and insurance for a few weeks of travel, even if you are willing to tolerate the comment which you will hear from somebody real soon—“Family carriage (and email) is a privilege, not a right”- even if you want to subject your family to relative discomfort, poorer food and boredom and a few short opportunities to go ashore, even if you find the time to step ashore more than a couple of times in your entire contract… you will find that both you and your wife feel it is not really worth the headache and the cost, and call off these plans with relief.
If your wife is working or gets badly seasick, it is a plus, because that will solve this problem.

The money you make will be good, maybe even better than what you would make on land. But if you were any good to begin with, and if you were qualified and working ashore, this difference would not last long. Your friends ashore could be making more than you by the time you are 30 or even earlier. With pensions and benefits maybe, with a better standard of living surely, with fewer pressures certainly, with more fun absolutely. And they will have a career which will go ten years longer. You will be daily hired help, subject to the vagaries of supply and demand. The industry will display manic behaviour- courting you when the demand is high and treating you like something the cat brought in when it is not.

And, if you end up in a foreign owned company, do remember that the dollar ain’t what it used to be, and is dropping. In an Indian Company, look up the tax rates; as a sailor you have little leeway there for deductibles.
And do remember that in many cases when you don’t work at sea, you don’t really get paid, creative practices and rejoining bonuses notwithstanding.
And do remember that in many cases you have no insurance ashore of any kind, and, in the event of a mishap on ‘leave’, will be written off by most employers as a contractual employee they have no liability for- even after a decade or more-and they will be legally, if not morally, right.

If you survive to a Senior Officer’s level at sea, you will probably be already disillusioned, or on the verge of it, but may bask in the rank for awhile.
Things will change, though. You will find that the industry and it’s regulators slowly and invidiously continuing to reduce your authority without correspondingly decreasing your responsibility- and in some cases even increasing it. Bad enough in an office, but can be interesting at sea. You may find you are a criminal in a foreign country- without any illegal intent or even fault of your own. And alone; your own organisation may effectively disown you, or stop at lip service. And you will not have the emotional or physical resources to fight a loaded battle.

Some countries will trust you to bring huge ships into their ports, and then treat you with suspicion when you want to go ashore. You will be presumed guilty in many other ways.

Your biggest trials will be with your peers , not the elements. You will see, at every stage, people from within the industry and without trying to pressurise you and override you- all the while reminding you all the time of your overriding authority … and that the buck stops with you. Or, more appropriately- it’s your neck.

You will have to get used to people with a quarter of your experience and qualifications and a tenth of your responsibility trying to tell you what to do. Your seniority will not really matter, your Certificate of Competency is what has really been employed- you just happen to be attached to it.

You will have to get used to living life in fits and starts; maintaining friendships and relationships with friends will get difficult. You will be a nomad; nomads have oases instead of friends.

Son, my generation went out to sea because of a combination of factors; there were not enough suitable opportunities on land, or there was more money than we could legally earn ashore, or we wanted to see the world or seek adventure- or a combination of all these.

Today the experience of adventure is much diminished. Not destroyed, though, maybe that will happen in the next few years.
Today opportunities and money are greater ashore. Moreover, Shipping is one industry which not really progressed in the last few decades; in fact, for the sailor, it has become considerably more oppressive. Hushed offices and clicking computers can’t hide that fact, or pretend otherwise.

The only real hope you would have if you signed up was to leave sailing after a few years, get another qualification or an MBA (much as I poke fun at that career path), move ashore – and be the hunter, not the prey.

Maybe things will change in the next twenty years. Maybe regulation, procedures and the management of shipping will become more streamlined and sane, less pointless or duplicitous, less short sighted, less oppressive. Maybe we will feel like professionals and respect for the industry will then grow from within. Maybe we will stop fighting each other.

Maybe we will even take off our blinkers and see the light.

If things do change, you can then have a different conversation with your son than I am having with mine. Don’t hold your breath, though.

But for now and in a sentence, son, don’t go out to sea because the earlier advantages don’t exist anymore and the newer disadvantages are close to overwhelming.

First published in http://www.marexbulletin.com/

Too many words spoil the brothel

I recently read a quote attributed to a very senior functionary from a very well known international shipmanagement company, one which employs a large number of Indian officers and crew, and, indeed personnel from all over the world. This gentleman made some interesting remarks at a conference abroad, the most startling of which was one where he reportedly said that “if seafarers act like mercenaries and prostitutes, that is how they themselves would be treated”.

Startling, not because many of us have never heard such sentiment before, but because this came from a high up guy from a big company at a prestigious conference – and I assume a gentleman who presumably thought a bit before he opened his mouth and put his foot in it.

It would be simplistic to dismiss these remarks as that of a person frustrated at finding suitable manpower for his ships. It would also be naive to assume that he does not know what he is saying.
Most of what he reveals is about himself and his attitude, though. And the fact that he knows he can get away with it.

To me, this seems to be a response from a person who has not, despite probably great experience, understood the imperatives which drive seafarers, and, more importantly, imperatives which drive present day seafarers. Put bluntly, he needs a reality check. Because, sir, the times, they are a-changing.

I am constantly entertained by the fact that we are in an industry which behaves as it is divorced from the rest of society and economy. It is all the more surprising because our industry is truly multicultural and international in most ways, and it should therefore understand these nuances faster and more easily. It doesn’t.

Compared to seafarers of a generation ago, a twenty five year old today questions things much more. He negotiates much better, and beyond just wages. His priorities are different, and he is not willing to discard them easily. He is not so much in awe of age or authority. He can earn decent money ashore at lesser personal cost. He wants to have some fun too, fun which is denied to him at sea today.
It is the ‘I want it all’ generation, and like it or not, it is a fact of life. Look at the teenager nearest to you if you don’t believe me. He is your potential employee.

We as an industry need to understand this. We also need to understand that we have been boring enough to use wages as almost the only tool in our armoury to attract employees; then we quickly cry prostitute and mercenary when the tables are turned on us.

With regards to manning, what the industry seems to want, in the deepest, darkest corner of it’s heart, is the situation that prevailed during the 1980’s recession. It really wants seafarers to accept whatever it decides is their lot. The wages. The working and living conditions. The duration of contracts. The join when mangement wants, sign off when management wants. The ignoring of personal or family needs. The acceptance of being treated badly. The poorly maintained cheapest-way-to-run ships. The people queing up with hangdog faces looking for jobs two ranks below their certification or experience levels.

It would love to be in that dominant position again, except that it forgets the main thing, which is that the purpose of any business is to make a profit, not to play games with it’s people, whether ashore or afloat. And we sure weren’t making too much profit in the recession.

In that last recession, many companies treated their employees appallingly. I do not talk of wages, I talk of disdain and dismissiveness; I talk of clerks’ expecting experienced officer’s to kowtow to them, and of companies in India asking seafareres to come back after a few years, and severe economic hardship to people who had been earlier told that they had permanent jobs.

I do not need to go on and on about this, I am sure. Neither is it my intention to imply that because of that unreasonable behaviour, unreasonable behaviour today by seafarers is acceptable. It isn’t.

But what the industry taught many is that is was unreliable and untrustworthy, that there was no job security, and worst of all, it didn’t care for its people. So, unsurprisingly, it made merceneries of it’s seagoing staff.

Incidentally, it is not a chicken or egg first scenario. Shipping management has always been more powerful than the seafarers, the first step therefore had to be made by them. It was upto them to show common courtesy to their employees, even those whom they could no longer employ. By not doing even that, the maritime industry shot itself in it’s long term foot.

I can only hope that by the next time there is a recession, and there will be, it would have recognised it’s mistakes. I fear, though, that there will be a ‘now it’s our turn’ glee at that time, and we will shoot ourselves in the collective foot. In the words of Yogi Berra, it will be deja vu all over again.

What is unacceptable to me, and I hope to all of us, is a continuing failure to understand employee motivation and imperatives, and the failure to adapt to a new generation of employees in a new and fast changing environment. We still seem to rely on the ‘wages last revised on....” part of our advertising to attract staff, which to me means we have no new ideas. Mercenary?

There is always friction, in any industry, between’Operations’ and ‘Management’. Griping about one not understanding the other is par for the course. Calling employees prostitutes, or employees pimps, is not.

Some other things it would be good for the “mercenary and prostitute” brigade to remember”

· Management is a support function, not a control one. If no operations, there would be no management. The Office is therefore dependant on the ship, and not the other way round. Often on a ship, everybody coming from ashore, including sometimes a low level agency boarding officer, thinks and behaves as if he is the boss. He is perhaps more dispensible than the lowest rating on board, or if not dispensible, more easily replacable.

· Administration is not the raison de'etre for either the vessel’s existence, the Master’s, or the crew’s

· Management structures should be flat. Balooning departments and hierarchies occupying expensive real estate often justify their existence by interfering with ship’s operations and generating useless paper. Keeping ships shortmanned and administrative offices overmanned is a poorly thought out concept.

· Empowering people at sea is a sound economic practice. Trying to control them is a bad one. And pushing people around or keeping them down pushes them out.

· People do not switch jobs mainly for a little more money, though they may for a large wage difference. There are always other factors, which is why you have exit interviews, an almost unknown concept in shipping.. Perhaps this is because there may be views there nobody wants to hear.

· It is always cheaper to retain an employee than to employ a new one. There are hidden business losses in high attrition which goes beyond wages and hiring cost. People take time to acclimitise, during which they are not performing optimally. Time and money has to be spent making them familiar with the organisation. This is more important at sea, because an officer often performs tasks, including administrative ones, independently and with no oversight.

· Everybody answers to somebody. The Owner answers to the bottom line. Playing power games and massaging egos, which unfortunately many of us love to do, is therefore counterproductive.

· Lets face it, calling employees prostitutes is not going to make you the preferred employer of the month. And manning is your big problem of today; employees are in a position to boycott you and go elsewhere. In their place, I would.

Before we find new solutions, some of which I have suggested in previous articles, we must recognise that there is a problem. I am afraid that comments like the one quoted at the start are part of the problem and do not encourage much hope. They also contribute to my despair at the continuing ‘us vs them’ scenario which has done the maritime industry no good.

Would somebody dare to make this kind of comment in a shore establishment of repute in India? The IT industry has similar attrition issues. What if a honcho from Infosys or TCS made a similar statement?

I can see the headlines and the soundbytes on television. (Including news channels asking us to send in SMS’s in agreement or disagreement!).
More seriously, there would be an uproar within that industry. Regulatory bodies, professional associations, political parties and industry watchdogs would step in. Employees would protest, maybe even strike work. These public remarks would go far from unchallenged. A public apology would be very likely.

So what makes some of us think we can publicly slander and belittle seafarers with crude impunity?

Is it anger, frustration, despair or arrogance? Is it stupidity?
Perhaps it is just habit. A feudalistic control oriented one, but a habit nevertheless.

I can only say, in closing and as they say on the other side of the world, folks, get real.

Wake up and smell the coffee.

Or, in this case, the sea breeze.

First published in http://www.marexbulletin.com/

Runaway Train

The following incident is, sadly, true, though names, places and other details have not been mentioned to protect the guilty.

A ship docks in a port just off one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.
For twenty-four hours prior arrival, watches were doubled due to fog and zero visibility. I dozed on the bridge in a chair next to the radar when I could.
It’s a specialised kind of ship, deck crew planned to be in shifts to perform port related work/supervise cargo operations. 3 on, 3 off.
Twenty one crew. Expected port stay six hours.
Bunkers expected, two grades. Associated meetings and checklists. Chief Engineer hopes they have enough time given the short port stay, and is pushing for bunkers on arrival.
Major stores and spares expected. Paints expected. Provisions expected. To be checked itemwise on the quay as per ship’s ISPS procedures.
Garbage and sludge to be landed. More checklists.
Crew change approximately 10 percent of Officers and crew. Familiarisation requirement prior sailing.
One guy going for medical treatment.
Pre departure tests, checks, checklists and anti stowaway search to be conducted and logged. The poor cadet is checklist incharge.

Soon after we dock and while immigration is still on board, my walkie talkie crackles.
It is the AB at the gangway- “Cap? Errrrr, Capt. xxx is here to see you”
“Please ask him if he has come to relieve me”, I enquire.

Longish silence.

“I think he mebbe coming from the Office”- the Office could be anything from the Owner’s office to the Met Office, but I let that pass.
“In that case, please escort him to my cabin. I will be there shortly”, this, after checking with immigration who confirmed it was fine.

The gentleman in question informs me that he is from the Manager’s office, was attending another ship in the same port, and he has been sent here (I don’t know why they sent me, he says, I have no experience of this kind of ship) to conduct training in Bridge team management and some others (which, for the life of me, I can’t recall) . While the ship is in port, he will not be gracing us with his company at sea.

So, in between cargo operations, counting money out for the shipchandler, stores and spares, bunkers and crewchange, the taxi driver calling me repeatedly for the sick guy- and for the next four and a half hours, we watch a presentation on the trainers laptop, (the 3rd Officer goes ashore, halfway, to make a phone call home- incidentally he is the only soul who goes ashore in port, besides the sick crewmember), and so we are sufficiently trained to sail out, more tired and more sleepy, with another half a day of congested waters and poor visibility ahead of us.
Luckily the next port is two days away.
Luckily we can fudge the rest period figures for STCW.

I had only three questions. Why wasn’t I informed earlier, why couldn’t he just leave the CD behind so we could watch it at leisure, whenever that happened - and lastly, since the only reason for his visit was the Manager’s obvious desire to bill two Owner’s for the same Superintendent, why should we take his presentation seriously?
These questions remained unasked. I may be naive, but I am not too stupid, I hope.

My point here is that training of seafarers is often a bad joke. It is usually substandard, conducted under circumstances (whether afloat or ashore) which are absolutely inappropriate, is not taken seriously by anybody too often, and is sometimes conducted in circumstances which make many trainees resentful. Hardly a good combination for a healthy outcome.

While between ships or as a pre-requisite to getting our Certificates of Competency, we have all sat through courses which were poor in planning and execution. Worse, they were boring and of limited practical use. In fact, on the few occasions that these were acceptable or even (gasp!) good, the relief and interest in the classroom was palpable, and the trainer’s effort appreciated by many attendees. Despite grumbling about having to do these courses when we could be spending time home, many have, with the attitude of lying back and enjoying the inevitable ‘it’, appreciated good training. Unfortunately, this has been usually the exception rather than the rule.

Similarly with Company sponsored training. Usually familiarisation with manuals and ‘training’ in administration and the software for administration. Not only does the industry want to pass on clerical work at no extra cost to the ship, they want sailing staff to have the privilege of spending time out of their unpaid leave to get ‘trained’ to do so. Amazing.

On board training has its own problems; part of this is often passed on, quite correctly, to the senior officers on board. This is usually focused more towards professional training, which is good and appropriate. However, motivation issues, and more importantly, English language skills are deficient in many Officers and crew, particularly from certain countries which also happen to supply a fair amount of manpower. Trying to explain manuals or written procedures is often difficult here; as long as the training is mainly practical there is a much better outcome.

From the days when there was a periodic “Boat and fire drill”, the number of monthly drills today often goes into the double digits. On a busy run, there are sometimes not enough days at sea to conduct these drills! Quite apart from the practical difficulty of executing a Williamson’s turn when the ship is always in European waters in busy seperation schemes, or difficulties on a fixed run where ports will not allow you to lower your lifeboats and manoeuvre in the water every 3 months.

And, depending on the run, you will often have additional drills for ISPS, emergency response, stowaway search every port, specialised requirements often Statewise in the USA and European countries... I may have missed out some, my memory is going with age.

And the paperwork for each drill is a subject in itself. In one shipping company, just the chart of the drills to be conducted monthly and periodically used to be a complex piece of paperwork and jugglery.

It is clear to me that an overhaul of the training and ‘drill’ proccess is urgently called for. There are so many that we are diluting the exercise; too many of us at sea are conducting training and drills just to tick them off our lists. And too many ashore are mandating training without much of an idea what it means on the ground, and in the absence of any feedback, or conducting training as a marketing ploy or revenue stream alone.
We can still play the game, but we could improve the standard of the sport, I think. The intention should be to minimise drills and training or at least reduce them substantially, while maximising the quality and effectiveness of the drill.

We could start with

Vetting all training and non-statutory drills through a body of sailing seafarers, even informally within the same Company. Their purpose would be the give feedback on the usefulness and practicability of each training or drill.
Drills or training mandated by international bodies like the IMO should have similar practical review.

Classification societies approving the ISM should be involved in formulating drill and training plans. Once again, the intention should be to minimise drills or at least reduce them, while maximising the quality of the drill.

Training mandated as a pre-requisite to an Officer’s certification should have a strong Ministry of Shipping Overview, including the quality of the end product, not just the subjects covered and the number of sessions devoted to each.

Raise the standard of training, and see it more than just a business, or a chore to be lived with. Make it practical and stop the charade. As this is being done, more people will take training more seriously- in fact, this should be demanded of particularly sailing staff.

Examine whether any proposed training is really neccessary, or neccessary for the trainee in question. One example, ridiculously basic computer familiarisation or familiarisation with a PMS software is certainly not required for any officer with good computer skills. These guys often know more than the trainers.

Examine the additional impact of each training or drill, on board – however small the change may be, keeping the run of the vessel in mind.
Reduce the frequency of some drills. A helicopter evacuation drill need not be conducted every two months.

Reduce the paperwork involved with each drill. It’s a record, not a seminar.

Decently compensate all concerned who are called for Company sponsored training.

Give Masters leeway to conduct drills. Stop scheduling drills in the ISM far in excess of Statutory requirements.
Merge drills wherever possible.

And, lastly, just use common sense.

More is not always better. Repetition and greater repetitive experience in training is good only when the quality of each session is excellent.

Otherwise we are like the braggart who went around claiming that he had twenty years experience with women, when all he had was one year’s experience twenty times.

First published in www.marexbulletin.com


In two and a half decades of working for foreign Ownership and Management firms, I have often been struck by how we all manage the pulls and pushes of contractual employment.

One casualty in all this is the level of commitment on display by the Master, officers and crew on many ships. I believe commitment levels are not too high to begin with, and show considerable decay as contracts progress; there is a “winding up” period, followed by a plateau, the graph slowly decaying till about a month or so before the end of a contract, where many are just looking at the date or port of relief and not a day beyond that.

The obvious fallout of this low commitment and short-sightedness by all the parties concerned is a given; what is hidden, however, is the cost of this low commitment, which manifests itself in many small but cumulative ways. The higher costs of a lackadaisical attitude of officers and crew- in stores, spares, time and fuel savings, cargo claims and maintenance, to name a few – are difficult to compute, although the true numbers would perhaps startle all of us.

This is compounded by the fact that Masters and Chief Engineers too are guilty of this same attitude; their primary concern, often, is just surviving the contract without any major incidents or problems. There is also not enough time; running the ship and managing the deluge of paper does not leave much time or energy for tweaking the system. That, too, in setups which often do not reward or even seriously recognise any such effort.
The fact is, though, that this does not require a great amount of time or even effort; it does, however, require a culture of professionalism and efficiency throughout a ship. This is, sadly, infrequently seen. Also, work culture comes from within and cannot be mandated by anybody.

Managers are hamstrung by the constraints of distance, crew rotations and the associated discontinuity, and time; Superintendents are sometimes used by many firms as “Super Chief Engineers” for a few ships. Their experience, in addition, does not lend itself to a decent oversight on the Master, and, in fact, their oversight is usually largely over maintenance and not promoting other general efficiencies. They, too, are motivated by budgets and other constraints of limited time and energy. They, too, are in the same system.
The complexities of administration of the ship does not lend itself to a solution. In fact, it detracts from it.The notion that a 10% annual savings in spares and stores alone is easily possible, in my view, has been met with scepticism and lethargy in the past, because to do that one would have to overhaul part of the administrative system, which has often become too large and cumbersome. The system, built to administer and support, has taken a life of its own. The tail is wagging the dog.

But the system, such as it is, is secondary. I would argue that motivation, both at sea and ashore, is the real issue here. Words like co-operation are used, where, instead, I would use words like professionalism- for a Master does his job when he promotes an efficient culture, nothing more and nothing less.

The fact is also that the people on board are the best people to promote any culture by the sole fact that they are there, on the spot, twenty four hours a day, and months on end.

So, partly to make the discussion manageable, I have often asked myself, what would I do if I owned a ship? Just one ship, though the same argument below could be extended to a fleet. How would I manage this challenge?

Well, the following are some of the measures I would take. (By the way, this is not an extensive list, more an indicative one.)

At the outset, at each stage of the following exercise I would do an effective cost-benefit analysis, crunch the numbers, and keep an eagle eye on the bottom line. This proposed system will not work if profitability is seriously and adversely impacted. Increased profitability- which is one goal- is a complex matter; trade offs must be workable.

First, I would take the pool of officers, specially Senior officers, and also senior ratings (the Bosun, Fitter) and see if I could co-opt them into being attached to the same ship, everytime. Offer as many as possible equal time on and off, offer much shorter contracts if the run of the ship allows this without blowing my crewing budget too much.
Tweaking this will be neccessary, different employees have different requirements. But managing these requirements is an essential function of HRD, and I would have taken the first step towards making HRD an essential part of my organisation. Earlier I probably had ticketing and visas, and called it HRD.

I would promise and pay bonuses annually to crew depending on factors such as Safety, Efficiency, higher profitability. I may even provide stock options to all crew.

I would give the ship a high leeway in ordering spares and stores; the budget would effectively be placed on board. The system would be completely transparent, a rating would be encouraged to realise what a spare costs; maintaining it well is therefore cost effective and, in this system, also adds to the crewmembers bottomline.

I would have numbers on profitability of the ship available on board. A quarterly P/L statement, so to speak.

This would increase paperwork to an extent. So, to counter that, I would put in place an ISM system which would be lean and effective. No duplication, no unneccessary paperwork, no dumping on board of new checklists, manuals and forms without an overhaul of existing ones. I would consider a computer based system which would generate checklists, and where data would have to be entered only once. I would effectively stop half the ship running around with paper between ports, a common sight these days in hectic runs with short port stays and short sailings.

I would place an Administrative Clerk on board, effectively outsourcing payroll and general administration, port papers, administrative data and the Chief Steward’s function away from the Navigators and the Engineers .. and I would give him a decent salary and a career path, absorbing him into the office after a few years at a later known date and time, subject to performance. He too, would be entitled to annual bonuses. He, too, would be co-opted- a resource, like the rest of the sailing staff.

Any financial irregularity would be met with instant dismissal, including any improprieties on the part of the Master.
I would demand the highest professional standards, both at sea and ashore.
Evaluation systems would be well thought of; considerable weightage would be given to safety of operations, professionalism, level of statutory and other compliance, economically astute decisions and commitment, encouraging feedback all the while.

The Engineering Superintendent ashore would have essentially a support and oversight function. How is the ship performing? Are they cutting corners to try to save money? Are they meeting Statutory and Company requirements and preventive maintenance standards to a high degree? What assistance do they need from ashore? What is going wrong?
The Superintendent would have more time to do this, because some of his earlier operational part of the job has been passed on to the ship, where it rightfully belongs.

I would have oversight on the Master. Between the Superintendent and the Owner/Manager, that should be manageable. In the present system this is imperfectly done, since it is left, by and large, to an Engineering Superintendent.
And I would be tough, but fair.

I can hear some saying, it will not work. Or it will not work in an Indian context. Or it will not work with mixed crews. Or it has been tried and see what happened. Or it will not work for a million other reasons.

I will only suggest this; One, look around. Many industries view administration and management as a support function, not a control one. Many industries have put in place transparent systems which attempt to make employees stakeholders in the business in one way or another- that is the way the world is going. Look at the IT industry, with similar high levels of attrition, a young workforce wtih many in non-permanent jobs; many there are effectively contract employees, or, to use an euphemism, ‘consultants’. Are they that dissimilar from us?

And Two, by trying out such a system, what have we got to lose except our chains?

First published in http://www.marexbulletin.com/