October 28, 2008

Delusions of Grandeur

Soon after reading the latest United Nations Security Council resolution 1838 (urging States to “commit naval and air assets to the fight against rampant piracy off lawless Somalia”), I suffered, once again, my occasional delusions of grandeur. I get these sometimes, when I think that I am invincible.

And so I imagined myself as a mover, shaker, stirrer, general stalwart and, for added good measure, a pillar in the international maritime community. With unlimited power. These are a megalomaniac’s delusions; what can I say?

But, what if? What if I were in a position to pass just one resolution in that increasingly irrelevant body, or one in its poor cousin, the IMO? If I had that authority, what would that resolution be?

After the usual padding of grave concerns, notings, reaffirmations, recalls, reiterations, urgings and being seized of the matter (or is it seized by the matter?), this is what the meat of my resolution would say.

The (Saltshaker) IMO Resolution 420 (or, in brief, SIMO)

The SIMO resolves that all ex seafarers under the age of 55 working ashore in all shipowning and shipmanagement companies, shall, with immediate effect, sail for one month of every calendar year on one of the company ships in the rank that they last held at sea. At least three port calls must be made during this one month period.

The SIMO further resolves that, with immediate effect, one senior representative (a non seafarer who must be one of the top three honchos in the Owners’ or Managers’ Head Offices ashore) shall sail on board all owned or managed vessels which transit the Gulf of Aden or the waters off Somalia.

The SIMO will extend Resolution 420 to all regulatory bodies next year, including the IMO, making it mandatory for its officials to sail in Somali waters. A suitable mechanism is being devised; input is solicited from interested parties.

A certificate, (similar to the DOC of the ISPS and renewable annually), will be issued to each ownership and management company’s Head Office by Flag States for this purpose. Without this certificate, any ship owned or managed by them would be unable to proceed to sea. For now, we are calling it the ‘SIMO Eureka Certificate’.


One request now, before we go any further with this. Please stop laughing (or shaking, depending on whether you are at sea or ashore) and read my resolution again as if it were a serious piece of legislation and not horse manure.

First of all, let me congratulate myself on this: the plan requiring officials from the IMO and other regulatory bodies to sail annually (through the worst areas of the world, wherever they may be) seems to be an excellent. Gentlemen, put your money where your mouth is. Put your rears on the line.

All that aside, even the most cynical amongst us must admit there are some other advantages with SIMO 420:

A deepening of understanding of all seafarer related work issues, brought home by the fact that, periodically at least, the suits ashore will be one of them.
Give many ashore the golden opportunity to walk the talk and make improvements.
Address the severe shortage of Officers at sea.
Shore operations and technical personnel will keep in touch with the situation on the ground, machinery and operational issues and the impact of administrative policies.
Give shore managers firsthand knowledge of competencies of seafarers employed
Put pressure on industry in general and hopefully through them, on nations in particular, to solve the issue of seajackings off Somalia.
In future, deeper understanding of the impact of commercial interests, loadlines and fuel stemming and their effect on safety in general in bad weather.
Faster time to market with company related operational decisions. The manager is on board, after all.
Ditto with government and international regulations. I daresay one Director of a major shipowning setup or an IMO representative held hostage in Somalia will be worth a thousand seamen with this one. No diplomatic immunity either.

Against this, the disadvantages are few. Problems in implementation, for one. For example, I can see managers ashore choosing new ships on less troublesome runs for themselves. But what the hell. Imperfect as it is, I believe it is still worth it.

And for those who say that this will give rise to disruption in offices ashore, I propose SIMO 421: “Officers on leave will fill in for those managers and IMO personnel presently at sea”.

That should set the cat amongst the pigeons.

Having solved the immediate issues of the industry in one fell swoop, my mind then graduated to other interesting things. Top of that list was the recent report by P Manoj and P.R. Sanjai in Livemint that Indian crew on a Mercator owned tanker (bound from Kuwait to Europe) had refused to sail through the Gulf of Aden. In fact, Livemint says that the crew threatened to throw themselves overboard instead, whereupon the Master anchored the vessel.

Later, the Hindu Business Line reported that “After prolonged talks between the owners of the ship, the crew and the seafarers union, the ship finally lifted anchor and continued on its course.”

I would have loved to be a fly on the wall during those prolonged talks, but that is not why I mention the incident. I salute that crew, even though I think the tail wagged the dog on the Mercator ship; the decision should have been the Master’s.

Quite apart from this one incident of which I have incomplete knowledge, I will say this. It is a sign of the times and a condemnation of many Masters at sea that we have let commercial interests override the imperatives of Command with respect to the safety of our crews.

Think about this. The international community has admitted unwillingness and incapability in addressing the seajackings issue; statements have been issued saying that the naval coalition is not capable of guaranteeing safety and that owners should take their own security measures. Statements have also been issued that the coalition’s primary task is fighting terrorism, quite ignoring the fact that a portion of the ransoms being paid is going precisely to those terrorists these guys say they are fighting. Although the European Union and NATO are sabre rattling and sending in more naval ships into the area, it will not help merchant mariners if they claim, once again, that their mandate is not primarily to protect us.

International Industry Owner’s bodies have ruled out arming crews for obvious reasons: undermanned ships with untrained civilian crews are hardly a match for trained and heavily armed pirates, whether the crews are armed or not. The industry is not even talking seriously of either arming its crews and training them (once again, nobody has asked the seafarer his preferences) or outsourcing security to professional organisations; one problem is that mercenaries in Africa are suspect, and may well be snakes in the grass. But surely there are European or other such outfits? Other industries employ them to protect employees in high risk countries, don’t they?

Yep, but they cost money.

It seems to me that all and any in a position to do anything about seajackings are running around like headless chickens pointing fingers at each other. Which means that it is up to Masters at sea, now more than ever before, to use the authority which is theirs by right and by statute to protect their crews.

Use that overriding authority, gentlemen. Refuse to sail through dangerous waters, for your life and the lives of your crews are more important than your job. Use that authority, because nobody else is using theirs.

Oh, before I forget. The international community has acted at least once. Security Council resolution 1838; the one I started off with. Urging member States to take action and so on.

More than once, actually. Since February 2008, the United Nations Security Council has adopted the following resolutions on Somalia or the waters around it: Resolutions 1801, 1811, 1814, 1816, 1831 and 1838. Six resolutions in eight or nine months or a resolution every forty days, on an average. One of these (1816 in June) authorised use of force against pirates at sea, same as 1838 passed now.

To make this clearer, six months ago in June, the UNSC adopted 1816, which “urged States to be vigilant to acts of piracy and armed robbery around Somalia and, encouraged them to increase and coordinate their efforts to deter acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea.” (Paraphrased)

And now, in October, the UNSC adopts another one. Resolution 1838 which again “urges States to commit naval and air assets to the fight against rampant piracy off lawless Somalia.” (Paraphrased again)

Like Angelina Jolie or Madonna adopting orphans worldwide, they seem to be adopting resolutions all the time. Bravo!

The UNSC seems to think a resolution and some urgings, like clockwork and every month, is the cornerstone of a solution to both seajackings and their root cause, the two decade old anarchy in Somalia. Diplomats in their Armani suits who probably do not even go to a public rest room without armed security show remarkable resolve on seafarer hostages again! They really seem to think that they have the situation in and around Somalia well under control.

Maybe the next Resolution will urge all the pirates and the industry that thrives around them in Somalia to surrender. That should do it. The UNSC said so.

As you can see, not all delusions of grandeur are mine.


October 23, 2008

Indecent Exposure

About three months ago, when hijackings of ships off Somalia was becoming a matter of grave concern (long before the Stolt Valor incident) and when the international outcry with the Hebei Spirit’s detained officers seemed to be getting some traction, and when the hoohaa on seafarer issues and related officer shortages was at its peak, I wrote an article on the shipping industry and the particular problems we face today. My target was a mainstream newspaper or magazine. This was in line with my held belief that unless we take the profession of seafaring beyond industry publications and websites, we can kiss what little remains of our profile goodbye.

We all know that there are issues as grave but not as sensational which threaten our growth and well being, so my piece included some of those. I then sent what I thought was a reasonably written analysis (in fact, I did think it was almost as good as one I had recently read on Katrina Kaif being voted the sexiest woman in Borivli, or something like that) and sent it across to more than a half dozen mainstream newspapers and magazines in India in turn.

Not one of those newspapers even bothered to acknowledge receipt.

Disappointed but not too surprised, I sat down with a drink and tried to figure out just what I was missing, and why there was obvious disinterest in an industry without which India just cannot thrive, even survive.

The answers, as is usual when it comes to shipping, were alarming, because they indicated just why seafaring is considered a third rate profession today, and why, unless we do something about the crisis of profile beyond advertising toll free numbers and conducting esoteric road shows, it will remain so.

Consider this. Infosys started in 1981 with 250 dollars. Twenty five years later, it has a huge profile. Its expansion plans are front page headlines. Its management comments on national and international issues, is on the board of premier educational institutions and threatens to move to other cities when infrastructure is found wanting in one. It advises State and Central governments and is in fact part of many joint initiatives far beyond the IT world. Hell, there was even a move to make Mr. Narayanmurthy the President of the country.

It does not do all this just because it has revenues of four billion dollars today, or because it employs thousands. It does so because it markets its profile (and so does, critically importantly, the entire software industry spend time and money to do so), it makes a conscious effort to be part of society, it uses industry organisations like NASSCOM to further its interests, it treats its employees better than most (word of mouth being much more effective than a toll free number) and it is conscious of its sense of self worth in a million small ways.

In short, the software industry manages media, with numerous spin off advantages. Just one advantage is that it is now firmly established in a young Indian’s psyche that the software industry is the place to be, even though there are better paying and more interesting jobs out there. But, as I said, the media has been managed.

In contrast, we in shipping do almost nothing.

Please don’t tell me, once again, when I compare the software industry to ours, that we are fragmented. The software industry did not exist when I came out to sea; they compete with each other too. Please acknowledge, for once, that a big reason why Indian shipping has not been able to make a substantial dent at any national or international arena is that we have no leaders in the industry to compare with the Premjis and the Narayanmurthys out there. Worse, we have nobody who is interested in the profile of the industry as a whole; all we are interested is in XYZ Shipmanagement, Mumbai. We think the job is done by making the ‘wages last revised on’ blurb in our advertising a little bigger.

If we do not have an apex industry body worth the name, we should not be surprised when governments in particular and society in general treat us with the disdain we have benchmarked for ourselves by having substandard acronyms represent us.

If the only time India hears of seafarers is when the Stolt Valor is hijacked or the Hebei Spirit officers’ are incarcerated after being found innocent or when there is an ecological incident, we should not be surprised then that no youngster wants to come out to sea. That is all he knows about the industry; we have not told him any different.

After India sees Mrs.Seema Goyal running from pillar to post in Delhi to try to get the Stolt Valor crew released in Somalia, and after India sees that there are no industry representatives to give her any support whatsoever, nothing more needs to be said. Those pictures annul a thousand toll free numbers, college presentations and road shows as far as industry profile is concerned.

If we are not engaged with the media, then we cannot really complain that the coverage of the situation in the Gulf of Aden or Somalia is amateurish, incorrect and rubbish. Just one example, a retired admiral or somesuch from the Indian Navy was paraded on one premier news channel, saying that the crew should ‘try to find out where they were, at anchor or at sea’. And they tell me satellites can pinpoint what soap I am using in the shower!
A well informed and erudite representative from the Industry would have been so much better. Besides other things, he could have projected a professionalism that would have done wonders for our image.

If, in normal times, there is no profile cultivated by the industry, then the only press it gets will be during adversity, and by definition, sensationalist. Ignorance is not bliss; sometimes it is oblivion.

If we are content to be the frog in a small well, we should not assume that the well is the ocean. And if we do assume that, we should not then assume that the whole world believes it too.

If we want to shun the public eye, whether by design or ineptitude, we must realise that the price we pay is in low awareness amongst young recruitable talent. The price is also paid when legislation treats us as a shadowy industry and poorly or when society ignores us in a hundred ways. Small wonder that, in the words of Espinoza Ferrey of the IMO, “The public have a view of shipping, when they have one at all, which is all about a dirty, accident prone industry”.

Media is managed by industries much more insignificant than ours. It is managed in good times and bad and it is managed by professional organisations. The problem is that our industry is not professionally managed. An ex Master or Chief Engineer is not trained to manage media. Surprisingly, very few hire the plethora of professional public relations outfits available out there. Perhaps they don’t care enough to do so. Perhaps they think that a press release once in a while is enough.

This is the information age. Any serious industry has to manage this information, and, by extension, the electronic media. Your future employees and clients are looking for this information, offline and online. By not providing it to them, you are leaving them free to get it by innuendo, half truths and through a thin mist of confusion. They will move on to an industry that treats them with more respect by giving them the information they are looking for. The loss is yours.

It is clear to me now that this is another area in which we have failed. We can curse circumstances for the low profile of the industry. We can cry fragmentation and step motherly treatment. We can bemoan the fact that Ministries, Governments and Port States treat us badly.

However, the fact is that we have made no effort to raise the profile of the industry or of seafaring as a profession. We are content to be buried underground, unnoticed and unknown. By omission or commission, with lethargy or with wanton disregard, we have assumed that the mountain will always come to Mohammad, and that we do not have to do anything differently, or better. XYZ Ship management, Mumbai, has twenty more ships this year. That is all that matters, even though it doesn’t really have competent people to operate them.

The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in the stars, but in ourselves.


October 15, 2008

Single-handed sailor. (An open letter to the unconcerned.)

Greetings from the three quarters of our planet that you will never see! Welcome to the world of the forgotten Indian mariner!!

We are the tens of thousands of Indian Captains, officers engineers and crew at sea. We move the ships that carry your oil, steel, grain, fertiliser and a million other goods. Whenever you tank up your car, shop at the supermarket, move into a house or otherwise live your daily lives, we have made a lot of it possible.

You see us only sometimes, though, either on stock photographs holding sextants and gazing at the horizon or on TV being blamed for pollution and other environmental disasters.
We are here to tell you that neither of these pictures tells the truth.

The countries of the world call us, the merchant navy, their 'second line of defense', yet they weaken our own defenses every day. As I write this, three hundred seafarers are held hostage by armed hijackers in Somalia. Mrs. Goyal, the wife of an Indian Master held hostage, is doing the rounds in Delhi alone and unsupported to try to get her husband and his crew released in Somalia. Industry organisations are conspicuous by their absence at her side. The Government is dithering as usual. Three weeks have passed.

This is not a new threat, by the way, as many would have you believe by implication. This is years, even decades old. The hijackers have known terrorist links. Ransoms have been paid by ship owners for years encouraging this lawlessness while the international community has stood by, impotent and uncaring. Western naval coalitions have admitted they cannot guarantee our safety. They have asked owners to take steps to protect themselves. Owners place their financial interests above our survival, so don’t hold your breath.
Meanwhile, we continue to look for protection, but realise that we are abandoned. Some of us even say out loud that the emperor has no clothes. Most don’t see that, most choose the blinkers they put on; most should hang their heads in shame.

Meanwhile, the shipping recruitment industry in India and abroad continues to serve us platitudes and hogwash on how they support seafarers. When we are held hostage, the buck is passed from owners to managers to recruiters. The Government does little. The industry continues to want to hide the true state of affairs from new talent for fear of discouraging them. It continues to want to do nothing except body shop.

India is one of the largest pools of qualified manpower in the maritime world, yet it accepts the reduction of workers on ships to dangerous levels without second thought. It has recently even encouraged further short manning on Indian ships. Everybody is jumping around to show that they are more loyal than the king on this one.

The world admits that it overworks us to the point that fatigue impairs our judgment. It even makes regulations similar to those in the aviation industry mandating rest for us, and then blatantly ignores its own rules. In fact, it systematically delays, ignores or otherwise undermines any efforts at improving our working conditions, because such improvements cost money.

It worries about the projected shortfall of tens of thousands of seafarers over the next few years and the fact that few youngsters want to sail today, yet governments, national and international organisations and the Industry do precious little to address this issue in any systematic manner.

Some countries trust us to bring massive ships into their ports, and then treat us like criminals and terrorists once we are there. They violate our human rights in many ways, denying us shore leave, arresting us for accidents, sometimes even detaining us after we have been proved innocent in their own courts. Moreover, they do this despite the international industry wide outcry against all norms of civilised behaviour.
(Two innocent Indian Officers are detained in South Korea as I write this; both were exonerated by the Korean courts. Hang your heads in shame again.)

Our own sound byte hit media ignores us. We don’t seem to sell anything, so advertisers and news anchors move on. They feed on us rarely, though, like vultures, with screaming headlines and concerned voices, which mean nothing beyond today’s ratings. (Case in point, the recent hijack of the Stolt Valor with 18 Indians. One or two news channels carry this story, which is sensationalist, inaccurate, ill conceived and will be canned as soon as ratings drop. Hostages released or not. Welcome to the jungle.)

Our own governments sideline our petitions; we are not vote banks. Our society takes us for granted.

The country grows fat on back of the oil and material we bring in, yet does nothing for our welfare.

Our fellow citizens do not know what we do; they stereotype us as dumb sailors. They do not want their children to work with us. They want to enjoy the benefits we provide and yet do nothing to make us stronger. They are worse than spectators to our plight, because they do not even know what our plight is.

Indian Officers are acknowledged as the finest in the maritime world, and have been for decades. Yet we are unsung and undefended at home. Worse, we are ignored.

We spend months away from our families at a time trying to make an honest living. Yet drowned seamen never get media attention, though dead seagulls after an accidental oil spill do.

We contribute substantially to the Indian economy. Tens of thousands of Indian seafarers work abroad, earning good foreign salaries, most of which are remitted back home. This has been going on for decades. Yet, and although Shipping carries the vast majority of goods into and out of India and is a vital element of a growing economy, Industry demands for a level playing field are brushed aside.

Members of our fragmented industry do not look beyond their own individual self interest. Headhunters call themselves managers. Small accountants with big calculators compromise safety at sea. We watch, spectators with no say in matters of life and death. Ours.

We have no national seafarer organisations worth the name. We have no lobbying groups. Therefore and consequently, we have no voice and no say in anything, including in our own working conditions. We have, though, self appointed guardians of ‘seafarer interests’, most useless, many with their own axes to grind, many with huge conflicts of interest and some even downright and proven corrupt. The list of their acronyms covers all the letters of the alphabet; their usefulness covers nothing.

The industry reacts to every change and every threat very predictably; part of it regulates and most of it rubs its hands at new revenue streams being generated in training us poorly and in our own time. It then adds the workload of this regulation to our overworked working life. It does so without consultation, thought or empathy, all the while ignoring with cynicism old regulations that mandate minimum rest for us. It does so in the complete absence of any HRD policies or oversight on existing workloads. And then it is surprised when it gets the reputation of being a backward industry!

Some of us started working when barely out of our teens. We do our jobs to make a honest living. We do not expect gratitude but we do not expect ridicule either. We do not expect to be ignored and marginalised and held hostage by either armed terrorists or unarmed managers and bureaucrats. And we do not accept being treated as criminals by your world any more.

We were always the forgotten people, but now we are being ground into the dust.

The irony is that tomorrow your world will need more of us.


October 09, 2008

Paper Boats in the Age of Plausible Deniability

I have some doubts whether the implementation of the International Safety Management Code has translated into 'safer seas and cleaner oceans' to half the extent which it sought to do.

Specifically, I have doubts whether bookish Management principles, if applied willy nilly and with no periodic overview for practicability, (which is, unfortunately, the way that they have been applied) will ever make a substantial difference to safety at sea. (SOLAS existed before ISM, and the two are not to be used synonymously, in my view.)

Even more specifically, I have grave doubts, given that the world at sea is still more a place for sweat, grease, grime, soap, dirty overalls and blisters than it is for checklists, that using paper as a substitute for any of these does anything except contribute a veneer.

This veneer is plausible deniability if something goes wrong. This veneer is hiding behind reports and using checklists as shields.

Like junk bonds, the window dressing of dubious paper at sea is encouraged in many ways:

· The first is, of course, that not a single additional person is usually provided on board for all the additional paperwork. Ashore, each organisation would perhaps employ a battery of clerks to assist. On board, all we do is encourage the Master and crew to become clerks. Ridiculous.

· Pre joining paperwork and briefings: High levels of the former and absurdly low levels of the latter. Shore personnel in reputed companies often do not know or cannot even make available basics like the ship's particulars. Briefing?

· Certain nationalities join with thick files of tests and certificates for every person. Quantity is supposed to imply quality here.

· Mandatory Training requirements have ballooned over the years; the quality of training is usually best forgotten.

· Ponderous ISM manuals in a language not understood by most of the crew and many officers. Maybe we should make an Honours degree in English Literature compulsory for seafarers, many of whom sign a half dozen manuals as read in ten minutes anyway.

· Reams of checklists. An extremely agile mind is required to keep track of which checklists have to be filled when. One often faces absurd scenarios when people are running around filling checklists instead of contributing to operational requirements. It is not surprising that checklists are sometimes filled up hours or days after they are supposed to, and predated.

· Audits by Company and shore personnel sometimes degenerates into an exercise to make the paperwork look good; fixing a non conformity operationally is sometimes given less importance than closing the paperwork on it. Clerical satisfaction sometimes overtakes professional satisfaction, absurdly enough.

· The percentage of time spent by Officers on board ships doing administrative tasks has increased dramatically. Since the fixed number of humans on a ship cannot create time (maybe we need a training programme for that) so far, the clear implication is that time spent on paper is taking away from much more critical tasks, the ones that actually contribute to safety . Who gives a damn about this?

· Reports, handover notes, Non conformity reports and such are now made at sea with an eye (and a groan) on how much administration they will additionally generate. Deficiencies are not report often because of this; sometimes they are fixed outside the system.

· Administrative issues including recommendations and requirements post a Superintendent's or other audits are often slowly implemented and passed on to a reliever if possible.

The implementation of the International Safety Management Code starts with frenetic efforts to qualify for the Safety Management Certificate (SMC) on board and the Document of Compliance (DOC) in the office. Many seafarers are openly cynical about this exercise, as was a Master who witnessed a first Administration external audit being conducted between 1 and 3 am during an 11 hour stay in port. This, in a language which he could not understand but was common between most of the crew and the auditors (even though the declared language as per ISM was English). All the while, the crew were red eyed, bunkering was in progress and about twenty percent of the crew were being relieved, including the Second Engineer. (A SMC was issued immediately on completion of the audit).

Post initial certification and this being a cyclical industry where cost differentiation is a major factor, managers are increasingly under pressure to keep costs down. This usually translates into pushing administration onto overworked and ill trained crews, many of whom are not computer or language literate enough to handle the increased paperwork ISM involves, or indeed to even understand the Company’s manuals. Meanwhile, shore personnel, similarly not qualified or able to manage the ever increasing statutory requirements thrust upon them, pass on everything to the ship. No overview of existing paperwork, no oversight on conflicting requirements and no attempt to streamline the ISM system or junk older checklists and filing. The resultant chaos is not unexpected.

Barring a handful of Companies, most, including well known management companies worldwide, do not seem to have any budgets even for sufficient computers for officers and crew, leave alone software and email arrangements which would make documentation paperless and easily transferable. There are usually minimum additional resources made available for implementation of the Code, including training, manpower and material. The system is supposed to manage with more or less the same resources.

Commitment aside, in large parts of the world, even the older Marpol and SOLAS regulations are still incompletely followed. Port officials, including Port State Control inspectors are often bribed to turn a blind eye to many deficiencies, and, indeed, will create deficiencies where none exist if they are not taken care of. Superimposing new rules over such old ones is counterproductive.

Commercial pressures threaten to override many issues, including Safety and Marpol regulatory issues. There are companies who will perhaps spend the money, but there are very few companies who will delay vessels in order to implement the Code.

There is also a widespread belief that in some developed countries, political, chauvinistic and regional considerations are being used to unfairly target and detain ships from other continents, countries or with crew of some nationalities.

The role of the Master has undergone, literally, a sea change. Over the last twenty five years, there has been steady erosion of his authority though his responsibility has increased. Instances like the Erika demonstrate that though it is quite a simple matter to arrest a Master, it is quite another matter when it comes to taking action against a country or a classification society or a company, some of which are widely held to be the real guilty parties in many such cases.

Even on a day to day basis, ease of communication has meant many managers wanting to dictate to the Master on all issues, including safety and pollution issues on which the Master is usually the best judge. There is thus tremendous pressure on Masters, and therefore crews, to bend regulations, including the Code, at every step. With increased documentation, this has put additional pressure on Masters. As one Master put it to me, “earlier the Company wanted me to lie verbally. Now they want me to lie in writing”

Masters and Crew are then prone to taking the easy way out and ignoring regulations even when not pressured to do so.

The impression one gets is that a large part of the Industry is being carried down the ISM route kicking and screaming. In Europe and the US, inspections are becoming more stringent and detention of ships more likely. Recently some European countries have come under pressure for “incomplete” inspections. One view is that as time passes, stricter controls will spread worldwide and compliance will become more the norm than the exception. Perhaps.

The objectives of the ISM Code were "to ensure safety at sea, prevention of human injury or loss of life, and avoidance of damage to the environment, in particular, to the marine environment, and to property.” Excuse me, gentlemen, but you missed the part of generating paper and checklists like confetti, because that is what the exercise often gets reduced to.

Recently, a Shell tanker, the Ficus, ran aground off New Providence Island in the Bahamas because the Master was busy doing paperwork in his cabin and did not reach the bridge as scheduled. It is easy to say ‘human error’ and ‘error of servant’ and collect the insurance.

More difficult is acknowledging the possibility that the deluge of paper a ship is snowed under may be inherently detrimental to safety.


October 01, 2008

Undermining Overriding Authority.

The International Safety Management Code mandates, in respect to the Master’s overriding authority that , “The Company should establish in the SMS that the master has the overriding authority and the responsibility to make decisions with respect to safety and pollution prevention and to request the Company's assistance as may be necessary.”

It goes on to say, importantly that, “If senior management's commitment to the system and the company's efforts to improve safety and environmental protection performance are to be translated into effective action on board, Masters should be given every encouragement and assistance to implement the system. Any system of checks and balances implemented by shore based management should allow for, and sit comfortably with, the master's overriding authority and discretion to take whatever action he considers to be in the best interests of passengers, crew, the ship and the marine environment.”

To complete this wonderful picture, it asks the Company to ensure that the master is, amongst other things, “given the necessary support so that the master's duties can be safely performed.”

How nice. They should have a preamble, “Once upon a time”, so we would know at once that this is a fairy tale.

The only thing that is well and truly established, in practice, is the sentence of death in a manual somewhere that establishes the Master’s overriding authority on paper. After that, everybody heaves a sigh of relief at having successfully passed the buck and goes home.

Not only that, this is often touted as a ‘trick question’ and used by many auditors. Like schoolchildren, senior Masters are asked, “Where does it say ‘overriding authority’ in the ISM manual?”

No lollipop for the wrong answer. It would be hilarious if it weren’t so pathetic.

In practice and in my experience, the “Master’s overriding authority” is often a hollow term selectively used by managements. Its use to them is restricted to finding a mandated patsy; other than that, managements often behave as if ‘overriding authority’ is insignificant, even irrelevant.

In atrocious weather on a damaged ship not that long ago, there was expressed consternation when I requested allegedly reputed managers, on the phone, to get me expert technical advice on the residual structural strength of one critical and weather damaged part of the ship. The clear implication, said in so many words, was that I was somehow overreacting, and that ‘we know best’ (even though ‘we’ have not sailed for a decade each and our sensitive parts are not in a sling right now, as mine was). The fact that I pointed out, having worked ashore, that this would require just one phone call to one manufacturer and that it would help me make an important decision, was ignored. Mommy knows best. Or, how dare you have any ideas? Or, what can you really do, now that you are sailing and due to sign off. Not come back to us? Don’t.

Wonder what happened to the ‘give the Master necessary support’ bit in the ISM, or ensuring that the Master can ask for assistance where necessary. Assistance, not control.

Forget the emergency. Egos must be fed regardless and bean counting must continue. Absurd and disgusting.

Then there is the instance where I rang up Operations with a cyclone in the vicinity and told him that many vessels had sort refuge in a nearby port, or not sailed out under advice. However, since I understood the commercial implications of doing so, I was steaming at slow speed in sheltered waters close by, waiting for the storm to blow over and postponing the refuge decision. (I have the bad habit of telling managers the truths they should know about. Some people never learn.)

Panic at the other end at the possibility that I might seek refuge. Did I know how many problems that would create? Charterers would kill him. Capt. Xyz on another Company vessel was in the same port refusing to sail out: Owner’s wanted to ‘sack him’. And finally, a veiled threat, telling me to seriously reconsider. (In a similar scenario, I was once advised by a Company Superintendent to make copies of log books etc. ‘for my own protection’. I told him I didn’t need any, though management might.)

On the flip side, one can imagine the respect I have for one Superintendent who told me, in an emergency, to “do what you think is best. I will back you. Let me know if you need anything.”

My point is that the very possibility of the Master making an emergency decision often throws everybody in a tizzy. The overwhelming response is to push him into continuing with business as usual, if possible, or to hide pertinent facts from other parties. Managements want to mislead owners to score brownie points (or to avoid having the book thrown at them), Owners want to mislead charterers and so on; it’s like Spy vs. Spy out of Mad Magazine at times out there.

Owners and managers will sometimes cajole, bluff, lie, haggle and blame each other to keep expectations low. Manage with substandard staff, these are tough times. The spares are arriving at the next port. Owners are not agreeing to an extra officer even though one is required, but don’t worry, we are pushing for one, or at least a cadet (I need an experienced hand for safe operations and you are sending me a trainee?). The shipchandler goofed up. Ask the Chief Engineer if he can ‘manage’ without Oily Water Separator spares for another round trip. Can you hide important safety related stuff from the surveyor?

With each of those common instances, the implication is that the Master, officers and crew are ever ready to continue to sail on that near substandard ship. At each stage, these kinds of managers are daring the Master to exercise his overriding authority and refuse to sail unless issues are safely addressed. They know most won’t; statistics tell them so, and so do spineless Masters. (I confess that, at times, I have been one of them.)

This is part of the game, too. Wear the Master down if you can’t control his predilection for exercising his authority. In normal times this is an irritant. In an emergency, this is life threatening.

You should realise, gentlemen, that this is an emergency, and listen to what the bozo with the four stripes is telling you. You found him qualified and experienced and put him there. He is not your enemy. He may even be on your side.

Realise also that all of you ashore, regardless of rank or ego, are a support function and no more. Expert opinions, including yours, are welcome. Undermining the Master’s authority by any overt or covert means is against the letter and spirit of the very same Code otherwise found convenient by you when passing the buck, and is not welcome at all.

If this is unacceptable to you, please take over part of the Master’s responsibility, if legislation lets you. Then, and only then, can you take away some of his authority too.

In industry everywhere, authority and responsibility go hand in hand. However, the Master’s authority at sea is being constantly eroded while his responsibility is actually increasing. This happens when countries legislate or criminalise on matters which are not in the Master’s control. This happens when companies don’t match talk with action. This happens when Master’s are overwhelmed in today’s fast turnaround times with regular legislative and other issues and no shore support. This happens when the ‘Master’s overriding authority’ is used as a vacuous phrase, like a politicians promise at election time, with no muscle behind it.

This happens so often that it smells of a conspiracy.