September 24, 2009

Flying South

While some of the State and industry players responsible for the dismaying increase in the criminalisation of mariners will not be reigned in unless the Maritime Labour Convention or some such is rammed down their throats, Masters and crews can do a lot to minimise the risk of being prosecuted for their behaviour during the course of their duties.

On the top of this list must be the staple rule of thumb: Do the right thing. Applied to operational accidents and maritime pollution, which must be the two main reasons seafarers are incarcerated these days, this means that crews must decide to, quite simply, ignore commercial pressure wherever safety is even obliquely affected. I agree that this would cover an extensive gamut of operational matters and is not always practical, but I also believe this: Money is made by the professional conduct of Masters and crews; this includes adherence to time tested practices of seamanship, navigation and the operation of machinery. This also includes compliance with international regulations, although many of these, like the ISPS Code, are so knee jerk and ill thought out that they remain a joke. Nonetheless, there can be no argument for bending the rules in an attempt to squeeze out the extra non professional dollar out of the system. If the industry wants to do that then it must start with getting the regulations changed; nothing less will do.

The second thing all crews must do diligently is maintain accurate records and logbooks. Countries, particularly the US, continue to prosecute mariners for non compliance with regard to rules and falsification or inaccuracy of records even outside their jurisdiction. This applies particularly to Oil Record Books (aside: why, pray, is the Chief Engineer not required to sign on some of these when the Master is?) but can easily apply to others too. I have found that keeping a contemporaneous record of unusual events that occur on board is an excellent practice, even if it is in a duty officer’s notebook to be transferred to the log later. This habit promotes a system that will be hugely beneficial in case the event escalates into a fully fledged incident; moreover, it promotes a culture of compliance. It sends out a clear message to the crew that the ship is serious about what it is doing.

Equally importantly, shipboard senior officers in particular and crews in general must deal with inspections and investigations in a polite and professional manner. This presupposes that they know the rules and are confident of the status of certification, operations, procedures and equipment. This presupposes, too, that they do not jump to attention if any inspector is being unusually obtuse and so this assumes that the crews know what they are doing. Senior officers, in my experience, can do much to obliquely define the attitude with which a ship faces a Port State inspection or an enquiry after an incident. Come to think of it, this attitude seems to work well with many others, including Ship Superintendents, Classification Society Surveyors and those particularly annoying customs and immigration personnel.

Next, I suggest nobody lie to shore authorities. I have had the US Coast Guard greatly appreciative of the fact that I reported even relatively minor navigational problems to them and the pilots before arrival into that country. On a ship that was on a regular run between Europe and the US, the goodwill thus generated resulted in inspections that were based on mutual trust and a visible degree of comfort on the part of the USCG that the ship would not try to pull a fast one over them. It made our lives easier.

Then, as any Master will tell you, crews should realise that not everybody is your friend after an incident. In fact, few are. Most owners and managements will not even pay your salary even if you are wrongfully detained and later proved innocent (I once asked management, half in jest and when they were sending me on an old poorly maintained ship on its first voyage to the US, if my wages would be on in case I was arrested. Unappreciative of my attempt at humour, they said yes. In any case, it did not matter; the ship was detained after I boarded but before I took over command). Usually, all parties will descend on the ship to protect their interests: a euphemism for a massive CYA operation. This includes owners, management, all hues of insurance and classification societies. In one such incident, the bridge of the ship was transformed into a photocopying centre, with one officer spending days just getting the paperwork done for that league of extraordinary gentlemen. Meanwhile, a Superintendent was advising me to take a set of copies ‘for my own protection’. (I told him I did not need those, as I had nothing to hide, although he might.)

The bottom line is that Masters and crews have to be wary of any attempts to railroad them after an accident. We hear and read the usual shibboleths from management on supporting seafarers, standing by crews, being one big family and such. We do not read of the many more incidents (or the names of companies) that have falsified records, abandoned seafarers or sandbagged mariners into taking the rap for them. There is not even a serious attempt to minimise crew or Master detention or seek bail, in some cases, if it is felt that doing so may be detrimental to management’s interests. The innocent man is the first casualty in such an atmosphere.

However, even a cynic like me will tell you, from experience, that it is not impossible to counter the advice of these friends. If I keep it simple, do the right thing, keep proper records and do not lie, then I have mitigated the danger of incarceration to my crew and myself. Mitigated, mind. Not eliminated.

In the end, a favourite fable of mine should complete my suggestions to mariners in such eventualities. The fable is not just a good story, but it contains some wonderful lessons on life, particularly for those of us at sea. So here it is, the fable of the nonconformist sparrow:

Once upon a time, there was a nonconformist sparrow who decided not to fly south for the winter. However, the weather soon turned so cold that ice began to form on his wings, and he fell to the earth almost frozen to death. To make matters worse, a passing a cow crapped on the little frigid bird.

At the end of his tether and dying, the sparrow cried out, “Woe is me! Is this is how my life is to end, frozen and with cowshit all over me!!?”

But, wonder of wonders! The fresh manure warmed the sparrow and started defrosting his frozen body. Slowly but surely, the sparrow was thawed out, warm, happy and relieved to be alive. Happily warm and still lying in the cow manure, he started to sing.

Just then, a large cat came by and, on hearing the bird singing, investigated, cleared away the manure, found the chirping bird and promptly ate him.

There is not one, or even two, but three morals within this story:

Moral 1. Not everyone who craps on you is your enemy.
Moral 2. Not everyone who digs you out of crap is your friend.
Moral 3. If you are warm and happy in your pile of crap, keep your trap shut.



September 17, 2009

Wolf at the door

It was revealed recently that way back in April, a Russian warship arrested 12 Pakistani nationals who were, along with their Somali comrades, attempting to attack a tanker off the African coast. On the 28th of April this year, the warship Admiral Panteleyev had received a distress call 120 km east of the Somali coast from the Antigua registered tanker Bulwai Bank under attack by pirates. The Russians sent in commandos who foiled the attempt and tracked a mother ship that was giving directions to the criminals. When they arrested this vessel, they found that it was an Iranian trawler whose six man crew had been taken hostage earlier. The trawler was now in command of Pakistani national Mohammed Zamal, who threw his satellite phone overboard when the commandos stormed the mother ship.

Among those arrested were 12 Pakistanis and 11 Somalis. A large cache of arms was also recovered, including Kalashnikovs and handguns. The Russians later said that the Pak nationals, identified so by identity cards they were carrying, were well trained in military and naval tactics. This evidence was handed over the Pakistanis on May 8; the authorities in Pakistan said initially that these good folk were fishermen. In any event and as is quite usual for that country, there is no progress on the Pak investigation so far after more than four months.

Surprised? You should not be, because Indian naval analysts have reportedly pointed out the fact, starting as far back as nine months ago, that many weapons found amongst Somali pirates have Pakistani ordinance markings. Rocket propelled grenade launchers, rifles, even magazines seized during a raid on a pirate vessel were found to be of Pak origin.

A few, me included, have been crying ourselves hoarse about the links between terrorism and piracy for a long time now (see earlier column in this magazine, Dire Straits). I find it dismaying but not too surprising that the increasing body of evidence confirming this nexus is ignored by most in the industry, and, indeed, in the Government and by the international community. The US is preoccupied in Afghanistan, probably has nightmares about its earlier involvement in Somalia and perhaps does not have the stomach for a continued sustained war on terror any longer. In India, we have become accustomed to waiting for Uncle Sam to do the honours. We remain a soft industry and India remains a soft state even after Mumbai. (Our new defensive strategy? Put on more lard.)

I am convinced that we in India would do well to pay some attention to the strong signs that the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal continue to be our Achilles heel and a weakness that hamstrings Indian maritime security. The attacks on Mumbai have been largely digested by a populace that seems inured to government mediocrity, ineffective policing and helplessness. Appalling as those attacks were, there may be worse to come. While India Inc. continues to be riveted by stories of alleged revivals in the economy and the direction of the stock market, and while the shipping community worries about overcapacity and the possible collapse in Chinese demand, major existential threats to maritime security are being systematically ignored by all of us. Unless reversed, we will pay for this wooly headedness, and we will pay for it in blood.

In connected developments: the drama of the North Korean ship Mu San detained by India is not yet complete. However, Chinese proxy or not, cash strapped Pyongyang seems determined to push the sale of military and nuclear technology to regimes which are often hostile to India. Other countries are starting to take action against the long standing rogue state: last week the UAE seized containers from the ANL Australia bound for Iran from North Korea on suspicion that they contained arms bound for Iran. The Australian government confirmed later that weapons including rocket propelled grenades were found in the containers, an obvious cocking a snook at the UN imposed sanctions on North Korea on June 12.

Far away, in Russia, the 'Arctic Sea' story includes strong rumours that the Israelis mounted the operation to hijack the ship as it was carrying arms to Iran. A Russian journalist reporting that story has fled Russia fearing for his life.

As worrying as the arms sales themselves is the fact that the players in this game, China, Pakistan and North Korea, have had an existing nexus for decades: the Pakistani nuclear programme and missile systems included. None other than the infamous Pakistani nuclear scientist Khan confirmed this link to a newspaper this week. And this nexus has always been hostile to India; in fact, that hostility is one of the prime reasons for the genesis of this cabal.

Amongst threats from outside our borders, Pakistan’s strategy of ‘death by a thousand cuts’ does not need reminding. The similar Chinese ‘string of pearls’ strategy involves surrounding India with elements hostile to it. "Investments" in naval bases and commercial ports and listening posts in Bangladesh, Burma, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are all threats to Indian security. Civil wars in Sri Lanka and Nepal have increased Chinese and Pakistani influence in the region manifold. And of course, you have historical ‘the enemy of an enemy is my friend’ alliances between many elements in our neighbourhood, including rogue States and sponsors of terror. China, Pakistan, North Korea, Iran and Myanmar have been strongly interconnected for the past few decades; and, except in the case of Iran, much to our cost. The nuclear proliferation trail, too, flows right through these countries and beyond, but that is just one thread of the nexus. China is already testing our resolve; witness the increased incursions in the North East, last week’s provocation in Ladakh when Chinese soldiers crossed the Indo Chinese border, threatened some shepherds, and spray painted, in red paint and in Cantonese, ‘China’ on boulders well inside our country. Witness, too, its aggressive stand on Arunachal Pradesh.

Recent tales about the use of idyllic and Muslim dominated islands in the Indian Ocean as a launching ground for terrorists bound for India via Sri Lanka have added another dimension to this threat. Make no mistake, we are being encircled. Somalia is just another spoke in the wheel.

To a layman, the Indian response seems pathetic. Except for a George Fernandes declaring once in a while that ‘China is the biggest threat’, or the Indian government flim flamming on Pakistani terrorism with sickening regularity, we don’t seem to do much else. Sure, armed forces' presence in some North Eastern states has been raised after increased Chinese incursions, but we are outgunned when it comes to the Chinese. Besides, China has built massive infrastructure on its side of the border which will allow it to move in troops quickly: we have done nothing.

We in the shipping industry need to be particularly worried at the confirmation of Somali/Pakistani links. Our crews will be at greater risk and our ships and cargoes will become preferred targets. The consequences for Indian maritime trade and shipping will be huge if the usual State players from Pakistan gang up with Somali pirates and terrorists. It will be, then, a simple matter to target Indian shipping and trade interests around Yemen and Somalia, and, later, even beyond to Kenya and the North African coast. Equally importantly, Pakistan will then have opened another hostile border with India by proxy. It will use Somalia the way it uses Bangladesh and Nepal, as a staging ground for terrorist and criminal attacks in India. It will be able to make this exercise plausibly deniable to a world that has always had its eyes wide shut when it comes to Pakistan, 'the epicentre of terrorism in the world'.

China, in the meanwhile, is not so quietly expanding its zone of influence in the Indian Ocean. To me, chances are good that the Mu San affair, like that of other North Korean arms ships, has tacit Chinese approval. After all, the Peking/Pyongyang/Islamabad/Tehran nuclear proliferation connection is decades old.

It is about time that India started treating its own maritime security seriously. It is time to call a spade a spade, link terrorism to Somali policy officially and take strong action. The Indian Government must surface these threats to the electorate; that is part of its job. It must strengthen the armed forces and coastal security; post Mumbai actions are inadequate, poorly executed and are taking far too long. It must act swiftly and with clarity in our country’s interests: right now the Indian Government just lists these threats periodically and retires to contemplate its navel, expressing concern when it finds some lint there.

It is time that India started flexing some muscle publicly. Expressions of concern mean nothing when the pack of wolves is at your door.


September 10, 2009

Theme from Shaft

Stories have started trickling in again about cash strapped companies abandoning crews without salaries, or even without food and water. In one case, a company even refused to repatriate the dead body of a crewmember on a ship stuck in Africa. It is often difficult to know the full extent of this problem; the old boy network that exists in the industry does not encourage publicity detrimental to certain commercial interests, especially if these are large Shipmanagement setups or their Principals. However, organisations like the ITF have started ringing alarm bells.

I am reminded of the recession in the eighties. Although I was fortunate to escape largely unscathed, I do recall joining a horde of officers at one small (now huge) manning company's offices at Ballard Pier. I remember vividly, twenty five years later, how everybody in that office, as in many others, treated all of us, Third Mates and Masters alike, with disdain and disrespect bordering on contempt. For some obscure reason, even the peons, receptionists and clerks (access to a manager? Ha!) did not have the basic courtesy to tell us that there were no openings; they seemed to take an unholy delight in making us fill forms and hang around their office for the day, and then ask us to return the next day. I did that for two days and then tore my form up, vowing never to enter that firm's offices ever again.

(How times change. That same organisation now periodically tom toms the fact that it considers its seafarers 'part of a family'. I can only say, based on my experience and that of others much more recently, that their family must be incestuous.)

I was present, too, when a friend of mine in dire straits after Scindias closed down visited some seedy manning setup in a dive near the then named VT in Mumbai. He was asked to pay twenty rupees for the form to apply for a job that we later found out never existed. Some joker had decided that duping broke seafarers of twenty bucks apiece was a good way of making money.

As it turns out, we got away lightly. A collage of anecdotes heard now flashes before me as I write this: these tales cover not just the recessionary period of the eighties but a few years after that too, when manning agents continued with the same mindset. Incidentally, I believe this: that although many call themselves 'Shipmanagement Companies' now, the mentality has not really changed. Sometimes a rose by another name doesn't smell as sweet.

And so, I recall a Chief Officer telling me in the nineties boom, when officers were getting scarce, that he went around agreeing to join the companies that had treated him shabbily in the past, did his medicals, collected his ticket and missed the flight. A Fourth Engineer telling me in the eighties how he was never paid a year's wages in a pretty well known outfit. A Third Engineer returning with some minor engine spares as poor compensation for unpaid wages after the owner sent in some musclemen to rough up the protesting crew. Stories of terrible treatment and living conditions, substandard food and threadbare wages. A Second Mate told me he worked as a certified officer for just food and board in an Indian company. A batchmate told me that one of the best known Indian companies asked him to come back after six years of unpaid leave. An out of work junior officer was found working as a parking attendant in Delhi. Minor demonstrations in Mumbai by officers were witnessed. A national magazine ran a lead story on the Indian seafarer's plight; usual crocodile tears were shed and wiped away.

Of course, none of this is news to those of us who lived through that period. However, such anecdotes of downright mistreatment and criminal dereliction would certainly be an eye opener to the many who joined the industry in the nineties and later, and who should be wary now. Those mariners who have seen just good times and the facade put on by the same manning agents in times of officer shortage should not be shocked if they suddenly start getting treated like poop stuck under somebody's shoe.

All indications are that the theories of an immediate revival in the global economy are somewhat overstated. It is not my case that shipping is absolutely down and out, but with unique issues of overcapacity, shipping might well take longer to recover. It is best to be forewarned and forearmed in case this happens; in such conditions, the default schizophrenic thinking of some shipmanagement honchos and their client owners is to shaft the seafarer of his legitimate dues, for a start.

My two paisa worth of advice to mariners: Stick to good setups, which may not always the biggest or the best known ones. Work directly for owners. Don't be bothered by a salary difference of a few hundred dollars. Most importantly, perform professionally.

And expect professional behaviour in return. At the first sign of trouble, especially unpaid wages, walk away.

Because it is better to lose a month's wages than a year’s.



September 03, 2009

The Enemy Within

I have a sneaking suspicion that while some of us armchair critics expound on the state of affairs in the maritime world in terms we like to think are mordant wit, the industry itself is out to lunch. I believe that not many in any position of responsibility really want improvements; here I include those in a position to influence governments, regulators, ship owners and managements. I reserve my largest dollop of contempt for managements within many private shipping organisations, though, many of whom seem to revel in their stance of obdurate obfuscation. They make no real attempt to improve anything substantially in any arena, although everybody probably descends on seminars (and the free martinis at seminars) that seem to do nothing except cost money feeding egos and stomachs both.

Decades of this behaviour have ensured that this backward (and backward looking) system is well and truly set. I could live with it if the closed and tightlipped nature of commercial shipping stopped here, but the problem is that the nature of the beast does not merely discourage improvement and open management; it actively opposes it.

Take the issue of criminalisation of seafarers; much hue and cry is generated by all in shipping about the abhorrent treatment seafarers face across the world. Committees are setup, guidelines published and great outrage shown. Much bravado and bluster is on display. Meanwhile, the satraps will tell the media, in hushed tones amidst air conditioned and genteel tinkling silence, that their organisations stand behind their seagoing employees. This, barring very few exceptions (I doff my hat to those few) is hogwash. The vast majority of ship owners and their third party managers care for nothing except their bottom lines; they are the enemy within, because, after an incident, they will sacrifice the same seafarers to protect their wallets, falsify documents and 'protect Owners' interests' faster than a porn actress strips when the camera is switched on.

Or, take environmental issues. Other international transportation industries are miles ahead of us here: the Airline industry, for example, engages governments and regulators regularly on emission standards and such, even as statistics show that flying is one of the most fuel inefficient ways of travel. The oil industry spends billions annually to promote an ecologically sensitive image of their conglomerates even as they decimate local ecologies in Africa and Latin America, and indeed around the world. Shipping, by contrast, continues to be perceived as a dirty industry with questionable integrity despite its generally excellent record. Although I believe that shipowners and managers within our industry have pretty average integrity levels, I do not believe that these are generally lower than the integrity of officials in, say, the oil or airline industries. Actually, what happens is that there is no attempt by anybody to improve the image of an industry that is no worse than most. And this is because the big organisations, managers and industry bigwigs that do this in other industries just do not care enough in ours.

This attitude towards the industry, both by outsiders to it and insiders within, manifests itself in many ways: for example, bluster by managers and filibuster by maritime government officials is commonplace. Playing the blame game is another sideshow. In any event, the intent does not seem to be to solve the problem, but to perpetuate the status quo one way or another.

I sense that much of this callous inertia in shipping is because of the peculiar way in which the industry is structured. In particular, the rummy ownership and management relationship that has existed for far too long. This discourages improvement in management practices, because the middleman, which is what the Ship management companies really are, has no real stake in the industry. Granted some are huge middlemen, but size does not mean better management or even greater commitment. What matters more is retention of clients to these folk, for which the Owner's short term bottom line is paramount. It is this ambience of penny pinching and the obsession with Profit and Loss statements that stunts any progress. Seafarer and environmental issues have nowhere to fall except between the cracks that such monocular vision generates.

I think, though, that environmental issues may well be the ones that will, in the near future, jump up and bite the ship management industry in the unmentionables. In a world that is becoming increasingly intolerant of oil spills and more stringent about greenhouse gas emissions, it is just a matter of time before the middlemen are made to feel more heat. A salvo may well have already been fired in the Cosco Busan case, with Fleet Management hit with a ten million dollar fine for, amongst other things, improperly trained crews. I would not be surprised if more countries started penalising the middlemen more; this would mean that Owners and Ship management companies would have to rethink the nature of a relationship that has left many legal implications in conveniently grey areas thus far.

If this happens, as I think it just might start to after the UN Climate Change Conference at Copenhagen in December this year, we might actually see more managers actually doing what they are paid to do: manage. I doubt if this will change attitudes or eliminate inertia in a hurry, though it would be par for the course even if it did that. The shipping industry has usually made changes only when forced to do so. I call it management by third party decree.

Otherwise, any voices shouting for change have usually been heard as loudly as the sound of somebody breaking wind is heard against the sound of thunder.