June 19, 2015


I am often openly critical of the IMO; I believe that, like its parent UN, the organisation is compromised by commercial interests to the point where it is hamstrung at best and completely ineffective at worst. It is also far too bureaucratic, too far removed from the reality of shipboard operations today and usually does too little too late- often years too late. Then, it always has a readymade copout at hand for its failures - the regressive and only partially accurate excuse that it can only reflect the collective will of its members. Actually, these sorts of excuses are really a call for its own overhaul.

Even feeling as I do, I read with some bemusement the conclusion drawn by most in the shipping media after a recent survey of about 450 respondents that was conducted by Singapore based ‘Maritime CEO.’ Maritime headlines everywhere explicitly said that the survey showed that “the IMO is not doing enough to protect the lives of seafarers.”   

In reality, it appeared to me that only a slim majority -53%- had polled that the IMO could ‘be doing more for ship’s crew’, but leave that aside. My point is that the IMO is not set up or geared to care for seafarers or protect them; it is set up to serve the commercial industry. Its apologists will no doubt try to correct that statement of mine, telling me that the IMO is mandated to legislate on the three pillars of safety, security and the environment, and that all three obviously involve (and cover) the crew. I will then laugh loudly at their naiveté.  

That is theory, folks- and theory is when we know everything but nothing works. In practice, (to complete that old saying, practice is when everything works but nobody knows why) the IMO is, unfortunately, as far removed from the sailor’s daily reality as as Michelle Pfeiffer is. 

The IMO’s main job is- or has become- the maintainenance of the status quo. Its member Flag States- as compromised as the organisation is- try to protect the commercial interests of their own national or regional powerful lobbies. Its Consultative Member list, with a few exceptions, consists overwhelmingly of associations of mainly western shipowners, managers, brokers, agents, broader industry affiliations, niche industry affiliations, equipment and machinery manufacturers and the like. All these represent special interest groups that drive the decisions made at the IMO. Everything is seen through this primary prism.

There is no special interest group worth the name for seamen. That orphan has no parents to look after him. Here, too.

Pigs could fly. We could live in an ideal world, where the Secretary General of the IMO could declare that its mandated responsibilities towards maritime safety, security and the environment require, as a first step, sufficient numbers of men and women to crew each ship, not some ridiculously low number that suits shipowners and managers but is detrimental to basic safety. That it requires that these crews be sufficiently rested; that they not be involved in administrative and data entry duties that are peripheral to their job because some bean counter in an organisation that has consultative status at the IMO says so. That the crews be properly and appropriately trained, which is not the same thing as being trained as per the STCW conventions at all; those pander to the MET industry and do not have too much to do with proper training or even the real requirements of training.

In short, the IMO could start with pressurising its member States to follow existing maritime regulations instead of making new ones that usually do nothing much except try to justify the organisation’s existence. 

But pigs won’t fly, so you can all relax. And wait for the next IMO approved ‘Day of the Seafarer.’ Or wait for yet another round of platitudes from yet another Secretary General, along the lines of how seamen are indispensable, telling us about half the world freezing or starving without them, and how the industry should be more concerned about seafarer welfare and all.

Maybe there are still some seamen left out there who will buy that eyewash, but I somehow doubt it.  


June 11, 2015

The harder they fall

Container ships are getting bigger and bigger, and I am getting more and more uneasy about the safety of the men and women who sail on them. The economic viability of these ships, too, is looking increasingly chancy.

Many smart men and women in the offices of a dozen or so of the biggest operators have pushed these ultra-large container ships- ULCSs. All of them would have done their due diligence before committing billions of dollars to these giants, projecting tonnages, trade and freight demand well into the future. All these men and women were seeking efficiencies and economies of scale. Container ships carrying (so far) anywhere up to 24,000 TEUs or so at a time is their answer. 

I understand the argument. However, to me, what they are doing is, in a way, just gambling. They are betting that they will- especially since all the big guys have almost cartelised into two major alliances-squeeze the smaller players out of the long haul trades. Their wager is that freight rates will rise thereafter, when they have an inherent competitive advantage. With their ships a third larger than the biggest ones of a few years ago, they will be sitting pretty. The present downturn is a blip, they feel. The wheel will turn soon. 

Deep pockets or not, the gamble has proved very costly for ULCS owners so far. The advent of these giant ships has increased supply dramatically at a time when demand growth is stagnant at worst or very poor at best. So you have a situation where-when the break even freight rate of a Shanghai to Rotterdam 20 foot box is $1,300- you will be lucky to get $400, close to half of last years average. These are record lows. Unsurprising, since an estimated half a million container capacity has been added in this year’s first quarter alone, according to Braemar ACM.

Despite fuel costs having decreased dramatically over the last year, nearly everybody running these gigantic ships is losing money. I doubt they will be making too much of it for the next few years. We will find out how deep those pockets really are.

But this has not stopped the gamblers. Maersk has recently announced the ordering of as many as eleven of its famous Triple-E vessels at a total cost of 1.8 billion USD. Other big players have taken a few deliveries this year; will they order more? I don’t know, but the stakes will be raised with every new delivery. And there may be no winners.

There are also operational issues at ports. The regular clogging of gateway ports in the West – headline news last year- is a growing concern. It appears that even leading ports cannot – despite having been ramped up to service ULCSs- cope too well with the sheer volume of containers that are required to be handled during peak times.  Some are pointing to the fact that huge container alliances means that greater volumes of cargo is required to be handled. That situation is not likely to improve soon. Pressure on terminals, road and rail connections and the like is likely to remain high.  

Ports are gambling, too. How much are they willing to spend on infrastructure, higher and higher cranes (which experts are already saying may be unsafe, given sway and swing) and dredgers to accommodate the projected ULCS fleet? What if they invest millions each and the gamble fails?

But that is only money. I am more worried about the safety of the crews that sail on these ships. As the breakup and sinking of the large bulk carriers and OBOs showed us a couple of decades ago, shipping has a poor record of  building large ships that are fit for purpose, and an even poorer record of reacting quickly when defects in shipbuilding are found. In any case, we always react after the event, and we have no system of handling defects systematically or universally.

Computer models and tank tests are not real life. Commercial pressures on classification societies and shipyards contribute to less sturdy and safe ships, as does the chronic underdeclaration of weights in the container trade. The containership MOL Comfort’s breaking up and sinking is a recent case in point. And so are the cracks on the hull of the brand new very large ore carrier Vale Beijing.

So I question the construction of these ULCSs. I also question- in an age when crews’ professional standards and motivation is falling, when weather is worsening at sea and when crew fatigue is endemic- whether less than two dozen men and women will have the ability and bandwidth to handle all that the sea will throw at them.


June 05, 2015

Outhouse training.

The scandal connected to almost all of the many training ‘courses’ that seamen are required to suffer goes way beyond the way they are conducted- at least in India and other large maritime labour supplying countries- or their general uselessness. I question the very motive behind the mandatory rubbish that allows the corrupt rolling out of STCW courses like confetti at a drunken parade. I question, on the same grounds, the equally useless ‘in house’ courses that shipmanagement companies love to bill their principals for. To me, this kind of training is what makes ‘courses’ a dirty word.

The primary objective of the IMO, national administrators and shipmanagers is that training establishments and shipmanagement companies make quick money off captive seamen or clients; there appears to be no secondary objective. Nothing I have seen of the conduct of the new MLC mandated courses in India- and nothing I have heard about these new courses from other countries like the Philippines- has changed this simple fact that is well established for almost twenty years. Not that I was holding my breath waiting for change, anyway. Were you?

At sea, I have sometimes felt the need to be better informed. Usually on professional matters- shiphandling, machinery limitations, legal implications of my contemplated decisions and such. I have even felt, looking up in a flat calm at the stars on a moonless night in the Southern Indian Ocean, and looking down at the strangely inviting sea, that I wished I knew more about the cosmos above and the ocean below.

I never felt- not even once in those many years- that I wished I had attended more STCW courses or ‘in house’ (should be outhouse) training. I am not alone here, for once. The contempt with which most seamen treat ‘training’ in this part of the world has to be seen to be believed. 

Actually, I was luckier than most; I fell between the cracks. Because I resisted these courses, because I was sailing in Command on FOC registered ships at the time STCW 95 was foisted on me and because the company I was with was better than most, I suffered less than many of my contemporaries did. I have never attended a Bridge Team Management course, for example, and even my first revalidation course was done three years too late. Later, I have refused to attend almost all outhouse training and was lucky that the demand-supply paradigm was in my favour when I was belligerent. I had to do the Security Officer training thrice, for different flags, though. What a load of crock that was. Multiplied by three.

Actually, what I could have done with, most of all when I was sailing in Command, was real-time information from shore. Vital information, and information a four year old was capable of accessing- and forwarding to me on the ship- at the click of a mouse. For example, in the years before this information was freely promulgated, location and frequency of pirate attacks off Somalia. We were on a fixed Red Sea- Kenya and Tanzania run, and were always in these waters. I asked the office; much hemming and hawing, but nothing happened. 

There were many other instances when I could have done with recent information on a host of important-to-the-ship issues- port, coastal, regulatory or technical information, for example. I often asked for this, but, as usual, nothing was forthcoming. The implication was, usually, that I was being problematic or I did not know my job. After all, other ships were running without this stuff, weren’t they? Meanwhile, here are twenty useless emails we need immediate replies to, to keep you busy.

The fact that I was seeking information- that could have been sent to me after talking to a manufacturer for five minutes, for example- to do my job better was lost to those dense minds. Once, on a ro-ro ship in a hurricane in the North Atlantic, I asked for a ramp manufacturer’s input to figure out why the stern ramp was taking in water. I did not get it.

It was only then that lightning struck and I realised, with complete clarity, what was happening. The managers ashore and I were talking at cross-purposes. They thought they were the bosses of the ship; I knew they were support staff to it. The thing was this: by continuing to play their games while we were fighting for our lives, they were more than inefficient. They were well on their way to becoming the enemy.

Perhaps we should mandate some basic STCW and outhouse courses for those ashore- administrator and managers both. They will still be better off than seamen- at least they will be on salary while they attend.


May 28, 2015

Selective learning

Maybe it is time to stop dishing out inane ‘lessons learnt’ when it comes to accident or incident reports. I understand that this is convenient and makes for good economics with insurers and all, but enough is enough, don’t you think?

Just one case in point- the UK’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch has brought out a Safety Digest for the year. One of the reports there pertains to two ro-ro vessels that broke their moorings at different times in an unnamed European port in high winds; one grounded on the opposite bank with some damage to her ramp (before she was eventually re-berthed) while the other was brought under control quicker with the use of tugs and thrusters. 

Under the ‘Lessons Learnt’ section of the report, the MAIB repeats many shop-soiled bromides as if these were something that crews were unaware of, or were not following for the most part. “Keeping a high sided vessel alongside in strong winds was (is?) always going to be a challenge,” it informs us. It goes on to use shatteringly painful (to a seaman) terms like ‘appropriate precautions’, ‘contingency options,’ avoiding being ‘lulled into a false sense of security’ and ‘confirmation bias’. It tells crews to “prepare a contingency plan” (Oh no, not another one, I hear the groans) which sets limits that trigger a response and avoid using selftensioning on the winches in high wind ports. And to (aha!) check moorings frequently.

Let me give MAIB- and some others ashore who concur with this rubbish- the perspective of just one guy who has sailed in command of maybe two dozen ro-ro babies all over the world, including a couple of them doing around 20 ports a month in Europe and the Mediterranean:

1.   Crews on Ro-Ro ships are fatigued to a degree that dwarfs even the high fatigue levels on most other ships. In addition to the usual reasons that the industry dumps on them that contribute to extreme fatigue, these crews put up with a new port (in often a new country) every few hours, extremely short ports stays, sometimes multiple terminals in ports and constant lashing and unlashing of cargo, in port, before arrival and after departure. In the high traffic density areas of Europe in winter, Masters and bridge watchkeepers are constantly on edge while sailing, with poor visibility and high seas (remember the North Sea?) often the norm. In port, they are often required to perform ISPS duties covering multiple access points (on one ship, one gangway and two ramps were required to be manned).  In short, they may not have the time or the energy left in them to react to emergencies in the way they should.

Lesson that should be learnt: Stop rogering the crews any further! Follow your own laws related to rest periods! Instead of berating and threatening him, support the Master who anchors the ship for the crew to get some rest (me!) or who wants to stop the practice of crew lashing and unlashing the cargo to give them some rest (me again!)

2.   Quite a few car carrier ports or terminals in Europe suffer from frequent high winds-Zeebrugge in Belgium comes to mind, but there are many others. I have seen ports like Bristol in the UK and Livorno in Italy closed due to high winds more than once. And I forget the name of that disaster of a terminal in Turkey- just a finger sticking out into the water- that was particularly unsafe- with an incompetent pilot, a corrupt administration and a dangerously inept tug thrown in for good measure.  These terminals and ports are not built to take in the big high-sided vessels that operate today.

Lesson that should be learnt: Build or modify terminals to make them fit for purpose. Back Masters when they say some ports are unsafe (Me again. Someday I will tell that story)

3.   The requirement already exists that operators and charterers must send a ship to a safe terminal in a safe port, although managers usually shudder violently if a Master brings up this legal concept. Another problem is that many managers, even some of those who have sailed, do not sometimes have enough shiphandling experience to comprehend what the Master is trying to explain. Besides, most do not care. What they are really thinking of is, what will the charterers say if the Master officially claims that the port is unsafe? How much of the crap will hit the fan? If it does, are we, the managers, covered? Is our client a big shipowner who will walk away with many ships? If the Master is right and an accident takes place, are we insured? And of course, how do I, the manager, protect myself and my job?

Safety is much lower down the list of priority of these blinkered minds.

Lessons that should be learnt: One, listen to what the Master is saying about safety! The poor sod may be right. Two: Stop worrying about covering your own behind- that attitude impedes progress, whether at sea or ashore.

What the MAIB wants ro-ro crews to do is right. But the lessons it chooses to ignore make it dead wrong.