August 28, 2009

Call of the Wild

I used to think it happened only to me when on ‘leave’ between ships. I assumed that the slightly sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach whenever the office called was unique to my metabolism, which asked, “Are they calling me back already!?’. Later on, I was relieved to hear from other mariners that this was normal and so was I, or as normal as a seaman can be anyway.

By the way, ‘leave’ is actually a euphemistic term for unemployment, don’t you think, given that I am not paid when I do not sail? (Begging your pardon, and please ignore this aside, potential employers. My sense of semantics is not appreciated by most anyway.)

Say what you will, but you cannot really blame the poor seaman for getting as jittery as a virgin bride gets as the day of reckoning approaches. With one difference: In his case, experience has reinforced his apprehension; ever since he was a trainee or a junior, a phone call has invariably preceded sudden and overwhelming bedlam.

From a mariner’s point of view, a typical pre joining scenario goes something like this:

1. Telephone call from company, (hereinafter called the call of the wild). You are required to be in the Mumbai office ‘immediately’. Seaman tries to flim flam and buys as much time as possible.
2. Hullabaloo at home. Wife upset. Kids confused. Seaman trying to simultaneously get his act together to go to work, lend emotional support to the family, handle his own conflicting feelings and complete the inevitable last minute stuff that needs to be done before departure. (Actually, we know that the turmoil is not helped by prolonging the inevitable; that only seems to make things worse. However, we never really learn. I much prefer sudden departures to prolonged ones, as I would a sudden death to one that lingers.)
3. Check in to Mumbai flight. End of Stage One. Switch to business mode even as one tries to come to grips with the wrench of leaving home. Are they safe? Do they have family and friend support if something goes wrong? Will the dog still be alive when I return? You know, stuff like that.
4. Arrival Mumbai. Rush to office or hotel to dump bags. Eventually rush to office anyway.
5. Assembly line process starts. Pre joining briefing (which is usually as scanty as your briefs and half as useful), go for medicals. Auto rickshaw to alleged doctor.
6. Everything from your heartbeat to your faecal matter is tested in fifteen minutes of controlled, impersonal and crudely systematic assembly line mayhem. This is how cattle must feel at the abattoir, one thinks. No seaman is alarmed by all this, though. He has done this before, and often, and survived. In fact, some of us even manage to pull up our zippers between the urine sample and the ECG.
7. Auto rickshaw back to office. Quick stop for a cold drink somewhere, mouth is too dry. Could be dehydration or distaste.
8. Assembly line almost complete. Ticket, Agents details, Ships name (Please ensure it is the one you had been briefed about). Result: one number mariner processed and ejected.
9. International flight. Time to start thinking about the ship one is joining and start gearing up for taking over. Provided one is not stopping en route for further briefings with the Owners, of course, which often adds to fatigue without adding to useful information.

In the last many years, my reluctance to sail, and therefore a honed instinct that tries its best to delay the inevitable, has created much friction at home. The shortage of officers has not helped: calls from manning agents (or Ship management Companies, as they like to be called) within a week after signing off from one ship have the potential to ruin one’s weekend for sure. So much so that I once started avoiding taking such calls. This is when the friction started at home, with a typical conversation with the wife going something like this:

Wife to me, “Capt. Persistent from ‘Run of the Mill Ship management’ Mumbai is on the phone”
Me to wife, “Tell him I am in the bathroom with diarrhoea.”
Wife: “I do not lie; you should know that by now. You talk to him or I will just tell him that you don’t want to talk to him.”

Me: “Gandhi was a great and honest man, but his wife must have had a tough time with all his experiments with truth.”

Wife: “Hmpff!”

This behaviour of mine is unprofessional; I am the first to admit. After all, a Master cannot hide in the toilet forever. However, I maintain that my conduct, unbecoming as it unfortunately is, is nonetheless more becoming than that of a Chief Engineer friend of mine, who simply disappears whenever he is expecting the call of the wild from his employers.

This gives rise to many bewildered managers. I recall one incident that happened many years ago, when the manning guy called me up from Bombay (I was in another city) to enquire about this Chief’s whereabouts.

Manning head, post pleasantries: “Where the @#$% is Tripathi?” (Name changed in case Tripathi is still doing this somewhere else)
Me: “How do I know? Ask his wife in Bombay”.
MH, annoyed: “I did. She says he left by train for your city yesterday to meet you.”
Me, genuinely bemused now: “Well, he may have reached this city, but he sure as hell hasn’t reached me.”
MH: (unprintable) hangs up.

A month or so later, I joined a ship and there was Tripathi, the Chiefest of all the Engineers, down at the gangway come to say hello.
“What happened, Chief?” I asked him later. “You sparked off a major inter city manhunt.”
“Yeah, they asked me a week later where I had been, after I resurfaced” he said, with a twinkle in his eye. “I told them that I had disembarked en route at yet another city to meet some friends.”


August 21, 2009

Full Tosa: Demanding a systemic response to criminalisation

It is a damning indictment of the warped state of affairs that Ajmal Kasab can be guaranteed a fair trial when Capt. Glen Aroza cannot, but this indictment is not the purpose of this piece.

Capt Aroza, the Second officer Mohammed Rizaul Karim from Bangladesh and Seaman Eduwardo Mallorca have been charged with involuntary manslaughter in Taiwan. In an incident that brings back memories of Capt. Raj Kumar Goel’s three year detention in the country in 1996, Capt. Aroza and his colleagues are being blamed for allegedly causing a Taiwanese trawler to capsize and for the death of two fishermen. Quite apart from the fact that the Captain was not on the bridge and that no signs of any collision were found on their VLCC, the ‘Tosa’, the detention and imminent trial of Capt. Aroza and his crew spotlights, once again, how seamen can be persecuted with brazen impunity.

In another recent incident, Norwegian police have charged the Captain of the COSCO owned "Full City” for not warning coastal authorities that his ship was in danger of stranding. The Full CIty was eventually responsible for one of Norway's largest oil spills that hit a 150 km stretch of coastline in Southern Norway near a bird sanctuary. I am interested to see how Norwegian law is applied here; the Captain faces a maximum two year jail term if convicted.

Close on the heels of the Cosco Busan disaster in the US (Cosco seems to be having a bit of a party leaking oil across the world) and not too long after the Hebei Spirit officers were released by South Korea, the Tosa story underlines to me once again that the maritime justice system as it applies to seafarers has failed. In an atmosphere where marine pollution laws are being tightened in many countries, including across the European Union and Canada, I fear that what we are seeing now is the beginning of a regular persecution of mariners for crimes without intent. The criminal prosecution of seafarers in these circumstances must be stopped, but our present system of so called justice is incapable of doing so: this is, in fact, a system to be feared by all law abiding seafarers. What it tells them is that they can become criminals and go to jail for years for an accident in a foreign country, and there is nothing they can do about it.

Those of us who bring up the Hebei Spirit as an illustration of what the industry can do if it gets together are guilty of over simplification and exaggeration. The entire industry chest thumping in the aftermath of that saga cannot hide the fact that two innocent Indian officers spent a year and a half in detention in a country that manipulated its systems, probably at the behest of powerful business interests, to subvert justice. We ignore the fact that the Hebei Two were, despite international industry outcry, held guilty by the Koreans even as they were released.

It is crystal clear to me, at least, that we can no longer continue to depend on the goodwill of countries when it comes to marine accidents and the inevitable persecution of Masters or crews. Making guidelines for fair treatment of seafarers in a bid to strengthen the present system is absurd when the system itself is corrupt, hostage to special interests and usually looking for scapegoats. The IMO is barking up the wrong tree here.

What is needed, instead, is a systematic protection of seafarer rights. What is needed is for an apex organisation like the IMO or the ILO to automatically launch its own investigation, backed by maritime experts, every time a seafarer is detained in a country after an incident. This investigation must shadow the investigation being conducted by the country in question and publish publicly its findings, making recommendations if required to the State where the detention has occurred.

If this independent investigation thinks that there is no prima facie evidence of any culpability on the part of the seafarer, the seafarer must be allowed to return home, promising to return if required in future. In any case, the international community must ensure that the entire process is fair and speedy. In case the prosecuting country fails to follow the recommendations of the independent investigation, it should be ‘blacklisted’ and face penalties in trade and shipping businesses.

It is probably too much to expect the Indian Government to show some spine when it comes to seafarer or even industry issues. Nevertheless, Governments of major seafarer supply nations like India and the Philippines must flex some muscle, and private industry players must concertedly push for this muscle to be flexed. India does not seem to tire of tom tomming its emerging superpower status; time to put some money where the mouth is, gentlemen. My recommendation: threaten Taiwan with trade sanctions unless Capt. Aroza gets a free, fair and speedy trial. There is no prima facie case against him, anyway.

Friends of mine tell me that the maritime world is not geared for my suggestions, and that neither private companies, the IMO nor the Indian government has the enthusiasm, people, budget or organisations in place to do what I suggest. I can only say this in response: The entire maritime world descends on the scene of an accident like bees on honey smelling money. There seems to be no shortage of budget, will or manpower then, and no shortage of enthusiasm either. I am sure some of this enthusiasm can be easily diverted to benefit the innocent seafarer, for a change. Lack of will is usually just an excuse.

We will not be able to fight the criminalisation issue by tilting at windmills after each incident. In the absence of a systemic response, we will be firefighting the problem, not solving it, and so we will lose.

One does not go into battle except with the intention of victory.



August 14, 2009

Reality check

I am trying my best not to forget that I am a seaman.

It has been a couple of years now since I sailed last. This is not the first time I have taken a break from sailing: this rolling stone spent close to two years with a software company almost a decade ago that had no connection with the sea. (I would have liked to gather Kate Moss, though, but that is another story.) I have, in addition, taken a year off once or twice to stay out of the rut. I don’t know about you, but I find it invigorating to evaluate my life once in a while.

But that isn’t my point here. Thing is, I think I am at a stage ashore when I am likely, unless I am careful, to join the multitude of ex seamen who step into shore occupations and forget where they came from. They become businessmen or yuppies, and deluded ones at that, embellishing and resenting their past in equal measure while living a life that is considerably less real than one that they left behind.

The question as to why mariners move ashore and then enthusiastically contribute to a system that is antagonistic to seamen has been oftentimes asked by better men than I, so I will not even try to answer it. A Master Mariner friend of mine fell into a shore job and told me a few months later that the shipping firm he worked for treated Shipmasters with disdain. Including him, obviously, since he said to me in a contemptuous tone, “We Superintendents go to the quayside and we don’t even bother going up to meet the Captain.” Although I thought at the time that the Captain was better off not having his precious rest disturbed by the likes of my friend, that is quite beside the point, actually. This man (an ex Captain) felt it important to let me (a sailing Captain) know that Master’s were nobodies ashore. His blathering revealed his mindset, and I wondered at the time whether the real reason for his working ashore was that he wanted to be in a position where he could pamper his juvenile ego, or at least pretend to. On the other hand, perhaps the neckties he now wore to work had sufficiently choked the blood supply to his brain.

Not just senior seagoing officers exhibit this pathetic arrogance. I say pathetic because it exposes what a wretched existence they must live, torn between a past they now deride and the absurdity of their present behaviour. My moving into a high sounding function ashore in an earlier avatar has meant nothing to me in the past: I remained proud of having been a seaman and lost no opportunity to advertise how the sea shapes men positively. In any case, I cannot understand where the contempt comes from: most shore functions in shipping are meant to support shipboard operations, not control them, a fact that any twopenny MBA graduate will tell all of us for free. Instead of realising the respect a sailor deserves, however, too many of us slip into something more comfortable: arrogance.

This arrogance (or superiority complex, though Freud tells us that this is actually an inferiority complex manifesting itself which is a theory I can easily believe) is displayed by many including the lowest clerks in many shipping company offices. Depending on supply and demand, I hasten to add. As one clerk told me in Hindi, which I loosely translate tongue in cheek here: when times are bad we have to even make a donkey our father.

Such vagaries (and vulgarities) aside, I for one firmly believe that a sailing Chief Engineer or Master deserves far more dignity than he is bestowed by his colleagues, and certainly deserves more respect than many of the senior honchos in his organisation ashore. Moreover, the lowest ranked crewmember is more critical to the profitability of the organisation than many of the clerks who treat him like dirt, market forces notwithstanding.

I am glad to say that after a couple of years ashore I still feel this way. I remain on my guard, though. I know that the moment I start drifting into the usual flatulent arrogance of the pompous will be the moment I will start to lose whatever little sense I have left. I hope that I have the intelligence to recognise this event if it happens. I hope it never does.

However, if it does happen and I find myself drifting into the meaningless blather of the self important, I hope I have enough sense left to go back to sea to get some salt on my lips once again. I did it once a decade or so ago, leaving a comfortable head honcho’s shore job. People told me I was crazy, even dumb.

Whatever, I still think it is better to be a dumb sailor than a puffed up ass.


August 07, 2009


Once upon a time, up until about thirty years ago, more people from Europe went out to sea to make their fortunes. Then things changed: economic prosperity at home resulted in higher salaries ashore; this, coupled with the unique disadvantages of seafaring nullified the advantages of a seagoing career in potential seafarer’s eyes. The industry sought alternatives, and found, amongst others, Philippines and India as cheaper and more willing sources of manpower.

India is facing, today, what Europe faced then, which is a slow erosion of seafaring as a preferred option. Listen, for a moment, then, to the sound of history repeating itself, and ask yourself if this is inevitable or inconsequential. Ask yourself, too, if this is desirable, or if we need to address this issue seriously or just plod along hoping for the best, expecting the worst, and not doing much about it all either way.

I believe we in India are at the cusp of a major trend change. For one, there is a difference between these two parallels I have drawn above. Europe, particularly the UK, dominates shipping in other ways even today, decades after its seafarers stopped coming out to sea in large numbers. They have forced a monopoly in shipping as in some other industries; along with the US and some other powerful countries, the centre of gravity of shipping regulation, insurance, consultancy, research, freight indices, reinsurance, classification and a plethora of other specialised services is still in the West. We could argue if the US is more powerful than Europe here, but, in any case, Asia is not where the biggest decisions and regulations are made. The roll call of big maritime corporations may include Japanese and Taiwanese ship owners, but the influence of a relatively smaller European company on international regulation is larger. Indian influence is almost nonexistent compared to even some other Asian countries, anyway.

Which means that if India loses even the six percent or so market share she has of the global seafarer market today, she can kiss the industry goodbye eventually, because shipping expertise will die out in a generation or so. The EU survived this sort of thing by keeping Asians and others away from employment in the shoreside industry in Europe and promoting former East European nationalities there: we in India will not have similar options. Expatriates will not come in unless Mumbai is a magnet the way London or New York are.

We have other inherent disadvantages when we compare ourselves with China, arguably our biggest future threat when it comes to manning market share in maritime expertise: our governments have so far been largely disinterested in our industry, especially in the promotion of seafaring as a career. Additionally, although we in India seem to have accepted that we will have to source people now from non English speaking and semi urban or rural backgrounds, we have no drawn no large scale plans of either recruiting them or improving their language (and sometimes even mathematical) skills once employed. The Chinese can mandate “Fifty thousand English speaking mariners required by 2012” and deliver. We will be slower even if we get our act together, because we will be looking at the private sector to largely fund and manage this kind of exercise: one that has so far not shown much vision when it comes to manning issues. Indian governments, too, continue to be shortsighted on this score year after year.

The Philippines, another huge competitor, has supported private and public initiatives much better, which is why a third of the global seafaring community comes from that country today, and why Filipinos still want to go out to sea. I can easily foresee, a few years down the road, a time when China and the Philippines will, between them, decimate the Indian manning market share. Besides, we will not be able to claim professional, language or other superiority if we continue to recruit people with lower academic scores and language skills compared to earlier, and especially if we do not train them properly to overcome these deficiencies.

So we need to fix the problem. We need to forecast domestic and international requirements reasonably accurately and not just play the hackneyed ‘supply and demand’ record. We need to aggressively source new recruits, perhaps starting some formal identification of these at Class/Grade 10 level. We need to explain to them the advantages and disadvantages of seafaring realistically. We need to train them appropriately, including additional training in language or other skills if required, probably as part of the Pre Sea training. We need to push the government to extend tax advantages to domestic seafarers, or there will come a time when we will see no Indians on Indian ships.

Existing national and international ship owing and management organisations must be involved in this and other industry/government initiatives; right now they seem to be mere public relations orientated bodies. In addition, as often said in earlier columns (just one, ‘Carpe Diem’ last September), we need, desperately, an independent national seafarers body for feedback and input to government and industry. Not a Union; we know how that works, but a body that can facilitate this process by giving input into young seafarer expectations from the industry.

What is frustrating is that all these thoughts are nothing new. These measures, and probably better ones, have been put forward by some of us often. Frustratingly, nothing happens. Therefore, this, too, is the sound of history repeating itself.

What is equally frustrating is that nobody who can implement a workable alternative seems to be interested in doing so. Not in industry and not in government, both of whom appear to work in the ‘I am all right, Jack” mode with no thought to the responsibilities they have chosen to take upon themselves, and which are critical for the long term survival of the industry.

You know, I am sometimes irritated by the media hype that seems to surround Mr. Narayanamurthy of Infosys. However, one of his comments in an interview not that long ago resonates, when he said, “In India, we mistake articulation for accomplishment”.

You haven’t seen anything yet, Mr. Narayanamurthy. Peep into the maritime world; our leaders are postmasters at ‘MAFA’.