August 27, 2010

Vulture culture

Although this piece is predicated on the Chitra collision in Mumbai, it is not my intention to judge events there; that would be presumptuous and premature. Before we jump in to condemn, as some seem to be doing already, it is worth remembering that any Master worth his salt has had his fair share of near catastrophic incidents- I certainly have had mine- and know that sometimes the difference between a near miss and a sensational casualty is plain dumb luck.

That said, there are some attributes that are common to most marine accidents, big or small, though the manifestations of what I see as typical behaviour are undoubtedly exaggerated in the case of a major disaster. Then, the Master and crew are trying to protect themselves, the managers and owners are trying to blame the Master (error of servant, My Lord!) or count beans or prevent clients walking away, the media is trying to grow its TRP ratings and most everybody is trying to blame the ship. A Master is lucky if he escapes a career without being at the receiving end of this barrage of conflicting interests that crawl out of the woodwork after any accident. Many of these- managers and owners are often at the forefront here, sadly- descend like vultures on a ship after an accident. Their primary imperative: cover management and owner’s backsides asap. Blame the ship, which usually means the Master or Chief Engineer.

I can tell you from experience that the resultant disgusting behaviour displayed by many is usually devoid of any basic human decency; the crew may have come through a life-threatening incident or other catastrophe, stressed after struggling for days without sleep, sometimes, to bring the ship safely to port. It does not matter; they are still run ragged working with no additional support- and work obviously increases after an accident, always. The crew may be suffering from extreme stress; that does not matter either. The vultures will chew their bones dry and spit them out anyway. Probably not their fault; it is the nature of the beast they have chosen to become. Something needs to be done about this behaviour, much of which is displayed by ex-seafarers now ashore, after a marine accident. Ship’s crew is not carrion to be fed upon.

I hope the Masters and crews of the two ships involved are being treated humanely by all concerned in Mumbai, but somehow I doubt it. Old habits and other diseases of the soul die hard.

The Chitra oil spill, and the potential for greater environmental disaster, will no doubt consume the Indian electronic media for a couple of weeks- bad news sells. It is easy when the pollutant is black, like oil, and can be seen easily. It is also easy when the scene is that close to Mumbai, never mind that one fisherman died when he drowned in the process of ferrying some eager beaver crew from a TV news channel to the crash site. In another incident, a constable died when he fell overboard off a speedboat on patrol in the vicinity. There were reportedly three police personnel in the boat on patrol, none of whom could swim (and, I am sure none were wearing lifejackets in the monsoons, even if these were available)

Amazing. Only in Incredible India. At the risk of political incorrectness, I think we continue to display the mentality of a Third World country when it comes to basic safety. A developing country must develop some common safety sense as well, surely? And while we are at it, what about developing some decent salvage capability of our own, or must we suffer the ignominy- not to speak of criminal delay- in negotiating with companies in Singapore or Dubai each time there is an incident and wait for their men and equipment to reach us?

The Chitra oil spill is generating hype because it is in Mumbai. I know many spills have gone unnoticed or unreported on our coastline in the last year or two. Near disasters on both our coasts, as when the Asian Forest and Black Rose capsized last year, did not create any hysteria at all, even though Greenpeace said at the time that the Black Rose incident could devastate Orissa’s coastline- and the Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary. The spill did do a lot of damage anyway- it threw up thousands of dead fish and crabs off Paradip, judging from fishermen’s and villager’s reports, and dead dolphins at the Jatadhari river mouth were attributed to the oil leaking from the ship.

Rural Orissa, as the tribals will undoubtedly tell you, is not Mumbai. It is not even urban. It does not contribute to media TRP ratings, so it can be ignored. Nobody saw the tree falling in the forest and nobody reported it. Therefore, it didn’t happen.

If we must talk about Mumbai, let us talk, instead of the Chitra oil spill that was an accident, of the deliberate environmental decimation of a city and its surroundings that has gone on for decades. The sea has been encroached upon; worse, sewage from millions of residents is dumped untreated into the sea. Massive industrial waste is leached into the earth or creeks or the 18 km stretch of the Mithi River from where it finds its way to the Arabian Sea: this includes waste from chemical manufacturing units, besides oil slicks and garbage. The 2005 submersion of Mumbai in the rains has made no difference to anything. The continuous disposal of sewage and garbage into rivers has led to reports of dangerous levels of faecal matter concentrations in almost all water bodies of Mumbai. Even forgetting the millions that live in slums without sewage facilities, the BMC collects 2600 million litres of sewage every day of every year. Two thirds goes untreated directly into the sea; the treatment of some of the remainder is, additionally, substandard. Do the math on annual numbers for some staggering figures.

The pollution after the Chitra collision is another drop in the ocean, but this drop took over our television screens. Who can blame those earnest faced and self-righteous TV anchors for treating us to those pictures and videos of the beached ship and the glistening, sexy oil slick? With all her curves showing, the ship is certainly more photogenic than all those pipelines we see around the coast of Mumbai, spewing filth into the sea round the clock. Who can blame them, then, for the screaming ‘environmental catastrophe’ headlines?

All that said, the Chitra oil spill is a disaster- no mincing words there. It has sullied our coastlines and the reputation of our ports and industry; it has thrown up, once again, major weaknesses in our response actions and in our preparedness. A lot needs to be fixed, and fast.

However, the city of Mumbai, in its present form, may be a bigger threat to itself than the oil from that beached ship.


August 19, 2010

Exploding the umbilical cord

After the Limburg attack, part of a statement attributed to Osama Bin Laden:“By exploding the oil tanker in Yemen, the holy warriors hit the umbilical cord and lifeline of the crusader community...”

Authorities in the UAE have confirmed that the explosion on the VLCC MStar in the Straits of Hormuz- a choke point through which around a quarter of the world’s oil passes- was caused by an external attack; traces of explosives were found on the ship’s hull. An Al Qaeda linked group, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, has claimed responsibility for what they said was a suicide boat bomb attack. However, some analysts have expressed doubts about this version of events.

It does not matter whether Al Qaeda attacked the MStar or not. Chances are high, as I have repeatedly said in this column to the point of frustration, that such an attack was a matter of time anyway. There will be another.

If I were feeling charitable, I would say that the maritime industry is incapable of protecting its crews or ships and that the self-serving navies of the world are well meaning but bumbling and incompetent. I would say that there is only so much shipowners- or, indeed, States- can do to stop terrorism or piracy on the high seas. I would say that suicide attacks on ships (the Limburg in 2002) by Al Qaeda have occurred before. I would mouth platitudes about the MStar incident being a wakeup call and go back to sleep.

On the other hand, in a more typical uncharitable moment, I might accuse all the jokers involved- the regulators at the IMO and some Western nations included- of an informal criminal conspiracy instead. I believe that there is so much money involved in the business of maritime security today- piracy ransoms are only around a third of the total moolah to be made in the business- that it is counterproductive for many to actually try to solve the problem. Moreover, almost the only victims, hanging political correctness for a bit, are sailors from the Third World.

Sure, there are some in the industry that would like to see piracy disappear, but too many ignored rising attacks off the Somali coast for years when sailors like me plying in those waters could see the threat escalating by the week. (So could the navies of the Western world, who were very much there and patrolling even then). Nevertheless, for many in maritime businesses today, piracy is the goose that lays the golden egg. Additionally, for many nations it is an opportunity to exercise their navies in the pursuit of influence in the region, a gateway to oil. Piracy is an additional expense for shipowners and a headache for managers, sure, but at least the former can buy insurance. So who actually pays for piracy?

Well, the seafarer, for one, sometimes (and perhaps increasingly, since pirate attacks are getting more violent) with blood. In addition, in the end, the consumer, who has the additional costs passed on to him one way or another. Most others actually profit from hijacked ships. Small wonder the problem is not fixed, although navies make laughable statements about pirate attacks decreasing, as they have been making for a couple of months now. Gentlemen, all that is happening is that the high waves of the monsoons are deterring pirates and hiding your ineptitude for a while.

I can almost guarantee that the scenario that played out with piracy will replay itself if maritime terrorism escalates- the prerogative for which lies with the terrorists, by the way, not anybody else. They will decide when and where and how (and how often) to blow up our ships. The rest of the world will react, as usual, after the event. Most of the reaction will be discussion. Much of the rest of the reaction will be opportunistic and parasitic, as another gravy train leaves another station.

Although the MStar attack has been dwarfed, in the Indian media, by the story of the MSC Chitra disaster in Mumbai, the terrorist attack to me is a much more significant event. If I club at least some pirate gangs with the Al Qaeda linked Al Shabaab in Somalia (as I always have, with good reason), the marine battleground now includes a few million square miles of the Indian Ocean, the Southern Red Sea including another chokepoint, the Bab El Mandab straits- and now, with the MStar attack in the Straits of Hormuz, the entrance to the Gulf. At risk are a quarter of the world’s oil supply and a huge proportion of Indian trade, not to speak of global merchant vessel access to the Suez Canal. The fact that this is a contiguous body of water adds an additional alarming dimension to the issue. For starters, there is no way that present crew complements can stay on full alert for days on end, for example, on passage from Suez to the Gulf (or from the Cape to the Gulf) even without port calls en route, without being severely fatigued to the point of delirium. There is also the fact that a VLCC is severely restricted in her ability to manoeuvre in narrow and shallow waterways with heavy traffic and traffic zones anyway; we often can’t zig and zag avoiding suicide boats without courting disaster of a different kind.

The MStar attack may not be surprising (see my earlier columns here, including ‘The Conspiracy of Silence in March this year) but it nonetheless has the potential to deal a body blow to trade in general and energy security in particular. Shipping has no effective answer to such attacks: we all know that by now. Hiding in the steering gear during a pirate attack waiting for a friendly naval helicopter to rescue you will not work when a boat primed to blow is heading for you at fifteen or twenty knots- even if you see it, which you and your standard marine radar probably won’t, especially at night.

The MStar, carrying two million barrels of crude oil, was lucky that the explosion was not effective enough to tear a hole in her tanks; I am sure that the terrorist bomb makers will tweak their science and their payloads before the next attack.

So, are we seafarers sitting ducks when faced with suicide attacks? I for one am sure that we are. What is also worrying is that there are no easy or cheap answers, but I know this much: we had better start looking at the harder and more expensive ones. We cannot afford to respond to maritime terrorism as we responded to piracy- opportunistically, ineffectually, incompetently, half-heartedly and, eventually, impotently. Because this time around they are out to kill us, sink our ships and unleash environmental catastrophe on our oceans. We will need a robust- even an armed- response. We cannot fight these threats with platitudes any longer.


August 12, 2010

Duty of Care.

The rape and subsequent suicide-or is it murder? - of a South African Cadet on the ‘Safmarine Kariba’ cannot be written off as an aberration. There seems to have been a pattern of sexual abuse of both female and male cadets across that particular Cadet programme. No doubt maritime lawyers will write tomes of opinions on the incident; the ship was registered in the UK, was in Croatian waters when the South African trainee Geveza jumped (or was pushed) overboard after being allegedly raped by the Ukrainian Chief Officer. A legal nightmare; exactly what lawyers love.

Some of the rest of us may find it puzzling that it was only after the tragedy that other trainees, both male and female, spoke out about what looks like a pattern of sexually abusive behaviour on the ship and in the wider Transnet programme in South Africa. Surely, in these days of emails and mobile phones, youngsters would have reported sexual abuse to the company or recruiting office, or at least informed folks at home? If not when at sea, at least from some port?

What stopped them from doing so, I suspect, is a combination of factors. Inexperience and awe of the powerful, for one. Those Cadets report being told that the Captain (and, by extension, the senior officer?) was God, and ‘what happens at sea stays at sea.’ Maybe some of us have forgotten, though I have not, that senior officers- especially the Chief Officer- was the single entity on a ship that could make a Cadet’s life hell, and often did in the good old days- though hardly in the Safmarine Kariba manner.

Then there is, more so today, fear of losing one’s sea berth. I can’t say about South Africa, but the maritime sector in India is teeming with Cadets who are unable to find a training slot at sea without bribing somebody or pulling strings. Being signed off a ship (as some South African cadets were reportedly threatened with, if they did not submit) must be terrifying if one’s parents have taken loans and one’s future is at stake even otherwise.

That is not all. The fact of the matter is that a sea career is not for everybody. It requires a particular kind of mental and physical toughness. Most youngsters that I see in programmes today- again in India- do not display this strength. Neither does one get the impression that the sea is a calling as it was with many in older generations; these Cadets seem to have drifted into the profession either because they couldn’t do anything else or because they have dollar signs in their eyes. Either way, they are ill prepared for the physical and mental hardships- even rigorous hardships- of a sea life. You can bet that they will be found struggling when something goes wrong, as it inevitably will, the sea being what it is.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not implying, in any way, that the Cadets in that South African programme were even partly to blame for what happened. If the allegations are true, all the people involved (including an administrative officer, judging from reports) should be severely prosecuted. What I am saying, however, is that we must recognise the circumstances that lead to the abusive behaviour- sexual or otherwise- on board, and find ways to deal with the issue. The mind-sets of the youngsters we train at sea today will not change; we have to find ways of protecting the young we take into the profession.

It is paramount, in my opinion, that two simple steps be taken on any ship that employs youngsters, especially female youngsters. One, they should have free access to the Master wherever any sexual harassment is seen to be involved. Two, free simultaneous access to the Office- by email or phone in case they want to report abuse. They must be encouraged not to hesitate should there be need to report abuse. In fact, it may not be a bad idea for a crew manager to call them up and talk to them occasionally.

I make these recommendations with a little apprehension: for one, a Cadet’s life is, by definition, prone to harassment, and these steps can well boomerang with some Cadets using the opportunity to make false allegations, similar to some dowry allegations against husbands in India. For another, it is annoying for a Master when crew liaise directly with the office. On one ship, Filipino crew used to regularly call up, on their mobile phones, manning agents in Manila, ‘arrange’ their own reliefs and then would come to me asking me to confirm their signing off dates from managers. (My response was a refusal; if you want to talk to your office instead of to me, then you have to get them to talk to the owners. I am not getting involved in a three way here.) However, I still think my suggestions are valid: we must make an exception in the more serious matters of possible abuse; there must be a system to protect youngsters against any rogue senior officers on board. We have a duty of care towards them.

I overstress personal safety when I teach youngsters in trainee programmes, to the point that I am perhaps boringly repetitive. The last thing I want happening is a trainee going and killing himself at sea because he was unaware of basic personal safety. I underline the fact to them that handholding the raw is difficult at sea in today’s times of minimum manning, and that safety awareness is therefore critical from the start. Perhaps I should talk to the kids about basic personal security too, one of these days.

Meanwhile, I can bet that intake into Cadet programmes in South Africa has taken a severe beating after this incident, as it should. Crimes at sea are hardly unusual, and in fact may be lower, statistically, than similar crimes ashore. However, the fact of the matter is that the reputation of the industry as a seedy one is reinforced by such incidents. The only way to counter this is by having a transparent robust and workable deterrent system in place. We want to encourage teenagers, including women, to go out to sea; it is our moral duty to protect them from criminals we may have inadvertently employed as their seniors.

To those who disagree with my approach, or believe that I am overreacting, let me ask you this: How easy would you be with sending your eighteen year old daughter to sea today?


August 05, 2010

Words of Mass Desperation

I almost dropped the cat when I read the headline: ‘IMO approves theme for WMD 2011’. Turns out I had panicked needlessly: WMD was World Maritime Day and apparently had nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction, although one never knows with the IMO and its regulations.

Anyhow, the theme for next year’s WMD, I am told, is “Piracy: Orchestrating the Response.” Hmm. Orchestrating, eh? Like music? Maybe they will ask me to play the Fifth of Beethoven while Rome burns and people throw grappling hooks from fast boats onto the railings of my ship.

Wait a minute. It is just July 2010; we are barely halfway into this year, and they are talking about the theme from Shaft, sorry WMD, for next year already? Have they given up on this year, the “Year of the Seafarer” so soon? Hmm again. Maybe seafarers are not entitled to a full year and are being given just half of it; maybe the IMO is calling it “Half the year of the seafarer” now, like Half-Pant Rao, (the gent so named because he has been seen in nothing else but shorts since 1989.)

IMO is making an action plan for next year, the story continued as the cat squealed its protest at the indignity of being dropped. (Cats, as can be seen, demand more dignity than mariners are given). The IMO plan is to “increase pressure” at the political level, including at the UN Security Council, to fix those pesky Somalis once and for all.

Increase pressure. Sounds like a case of constipation to me. But why are we waiting for six months until next year to do this? Why can’t we increase pressure this year? Like right now? Or perhaps after the monsoon break, when everybody is freshly shaved and bathed and all the Armanis at the UN have been sharply steam ironed? Could we do that, please? Maybe we will save a few hundred seafarers from being taken hostage by, err, increasing the pressure today instead of next year.

Finally, the IMO threatens to “strengthen the protection of persons and ships sailing though piracy-infested areas by constantly improving guidance to the industry, promoting even greater levels of support from navies and providing care for those attacked or hijacked by pirates and support to their families”.

Wow. My family are indeed blessed; they will be taken care by a UN body if my ship is taken. (Maybe they will get those fat foreign exchange UN pensions too, do you think?) In addition, I will get guidance, like manna from heaven, probably in neat and impressive folders. Things are looking up. Maybe I can throw the guidance at the pirates- a guidance missile?- in self-defence, if all else fails.

So much for the UN and the IMO. However, there is a bigger issue here, which is that I seem to find sweeping grandiloquent statements made by various maritime industry bigwigs tremendously funny. Or maybe I just like pricking balloons to let the hot air whoosh away.

So, some examples of my own version of Mad Magazines infamous “Snappy answers to stupid questions” follow. (I actually intend to try one or two of these as soon as I am filthy rich and do not need a job anymore):

“Remember, there is no ‘I’ in teamwork!”
(Yeah, yeah, and there is no ‘U’ there either, so sit down quietly, will you?)

“You cadets are the ambassadors of the nation”
(Good. The way seamen are being criminalised, we can all use diplomatic immunity)

“You need to set an example to others and work with dedication”
(Can’t I just work because I want to do a good job and earn decent wages?)

“Seafarers are our biggest and most valuable assets”
(Ah, obviously the seafarer shortage continues. And excuse me, but must you sound like Pamela Anderson before the implants?)

“Seminars give us an opportunity to get to know each other so seafarers and managers can exchange ideas”
(You mean seminars are good because we can both let off steam while you are being paid and I am not, don’t you? And what is wrong with exchanging ideas on the phone instead? At least I don’t have to ruin my vacation doing so.)

“The Indian maritime history goes back to 2500 BC”
(So what is new? Tell me what we are doing for the industry today instead, past glory being somewhat like youth: never recovered.)

“The seminar was excellent and gave us floating staff a chance to interact with the management.”
(I really need this job)

“Safety and zero deficiencies should be your topmost priority”
Be careful. Port State Control will screw you and fine us, so for heaven’s sakes don’t get caught.)

“The purpose of this seminar is to strengthen the company’s safety management system”
(The purpose of this seminar is to bill the Owners and make some money. The system will be actually strengthened at work, not in a fancy hotel)

“There is a lot of potential in India for the maritime industries”.
(What? You haven’t made any money here yet?)

“This company remains committed to the environment. We are taking the lead in compliance with new regulations.”
(Rape seems inevitable, so we are trying to enjoy it)

“Remember one thing: you are the institute’s best assets and its foremost advertisement; make us proud!”
(Don’t mess up, and if you do, don’t tell them who trained you.)

“Keep up the good work and always keep the Indian Flag flying high”
(I have completely run out of something useful to say)