December 18, 2014

Enemy inside the gates



Egypt’s former head of naval intelligence Gen Yosri Kandil was probably right when he said that last month’s hijack of an Egyptian missile vessel by the Islamic State was a “quantum leap for terrorism”. Nobody should be too surprised, though; the attack bore similarities to the attempted hijack of the Pakistani naval ship ‘Zulfikar’ in September this year. Both were well planned, with serving naval personnel involved.

The two hijacks have one big difference, too; the Zulfikar was attacked by Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) in Karachi; the Egyptian hijack was the handiwork of the IS- Although Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which carried out the hijack, has recently switched affiliation to the IS from Al Qaeda. The possibility that a foreign power (a Russian merchant vessel in the vicinity was detained) could have helped the terrorists makes the situation even more murky.  

That the two attacks came to nought quickly- the Zulfikar was never taken over, thanks largely to a sole alert Pakistani gunner, and the Egyptian missile vessel was retaken after a small battle- was just fortunate. The stated targets were American and Indian ships in one case and Israeli vessels and offshore installations in the Mediterranean in the other. However, this menu would have certainly included targets of opportunity, given that jihadis in control of a hijacked naval vessel know it is a matter of time before they are obliterated. The Arabian Sea and the Mediterranean- at the doorstep to the Suez Canal- are not short of maritime targets anyway.

That there is nothing commercial shipping can do about the possibility of such attacks is obvious; citadels and armed guards are just not going to cut it this time. I wrote about the clear terrorist intent to attack marine targets in and around maritime chokepoints in ‘Escalating old threats’ last month. The Suez Canal is one such chokepoint; the Arabian Sea is no less critical, especially for oil.

The danger is even sharper since Pakistan and Egypt both have a history of extremist elements embedded in the State. The Damietta attack involved an IS member who took over, under a ruse, command of the naval ship prior to its departure. The Zulfikar attack was carried out in large part by serving Pakistani naval officers in uniform and displaying their identity cards; one blew himself up; another one who was shot dead was the son of a serving Superintendent of Police. There were plans to hijack a frigate as well, the PNS Aslat. 

Of course, the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is at the root of promoting terror, including maritime terror. It is also, arguably, the most powerful agency in the land, backed, as it is, by the Pakistani armed forces. Journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad found this out to his cost in 2011, after he wrote an article on the jihadist attack on the Pakistani naval base Mehran in Karachi. He had written that Pakistani officials had discovered a "sizeable Al Qaeda infiltration within the navy's ranks." Shahzad was kidnapped, tortured and murdered two days after his article was published. Many, including Human Rights Watch, allege that the ISI killed him. 

Pakistan and Egypt may be under the spotlight today, but I can think of a half dozen other countries, at least, where the combination of a weak State and embedded extremist sympathisers make for the high   likelihood of similar hijack attempts of naval vessels. No doubt, one such attack will be successful eventually. 

Crews of commercial ships are used to a hostile environment, and not just at sea. Even so, going out to sea is getting more dangerous every year.
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December 15, 2014

Positives in the time of cholera



The last two weeks have thrown up some good news for shipping, for a change. Not that the short term prospects for the industry are any better- UNCTAD's recent Review of Maritime Transport 2014 said that the world’s seaborne shipments grew by an average of just 3.8 per cent in 2013, and 2014 is going to be worse- but because, for one, the IMO has finally decided to make it mandatory to weigh containers before they are loaded.
 
In future, container weight will be verified by either weighing the loaded container at an approved weighing station or by adding the weight of individual items in the container, and adding the container's net weight to determine the gross weight of the box.

The bad news here is that this long overdue regulation, which dramatically affects safety, will not come into force for another two years. This should be unacceptable. Ships have suffered major stability issues- they have even broken into two, container stacks have collapsed and boxes have gone over the side- because of this criminal practice. Continuing to expose our crews to these dangers for another two years is intolerable. 

I am also curious what level of ‘inaccuracy’ would be considered acceptable at approved weight centres: ABB’s Senior VP Eero Lehtovaara says that a 10% variation is commonplace. That is too much. A figure of even 1 tonne of variation per container can add thousands of tonnes of potentially dangerous weight on a relatively modern container vessel, not to speak of the super-sized jumbos coming out of shipyards at an alarming pace. 

In another positive development, the International Chamber of Shipping formally said what many in the industry have long felt- that the IMO should be the main body for addressing ship emissions. The ICS has- somewhat obliquely- called for the UN’s Climate Change Conference to endorse this. 

Regardless of whether this happens or not, shipping needs to hammer home to the international community that an international industry subject to the IMO’s evolving emission laws should not be forced to bear the burden of the vagaries of individual State regulations that are cumbersome and more expensive than those mandated by the IMO. It needs to particularly target the USA and Europe during this offensive, pointing out that only a third of the world’s fleet is registered with developed nations and that shipping transports 90% of everything but produces only a little more than 2% of greenhouse emissions- and the percentage is reducing.  

I fear that shipping will have a tough time pushing this, not least because some of the national regulators are arrogant and impractical. Nonetheless, it must go in all guns blazing. Rolling over and quietly accepting unfair treatment will only make things worse longer term.

Towards the end, heartening comments on the treatment of seamen from V.Ships’ President Roberto Giorgi, who warns, in a Lloyd’s List piece, that ships’ crews need to be treated with more dignity and respect because the industry needs to recruit more people to go to sea. I would have written off this comment- and others that I will mention later- had they come from the majority of shipowners or shipmanagers as usual empty talk, but Mr Giorgi has my respect for his involvement with seafarer rights, and his actions in support of getting the officers of the Hebei Spirit released five years ago. 

He went on to say what I have long felt- that the industry cannot take the MLC as just a piece of legislation, and that shipowners’ associations should lobby and advertise maritime careers. That shipping needs to take much more seriously seafarer criminalisation and abandonment issues, and that crews need to see the industry defend their rights. 

I have a small bone to pick with Mr Giorgi, though. He is reported to have added that the industry should ‘enable seafarers to understand the important role they play and the opportunities available to them across the maritime sector’. While I have no problem with the opportunities bit, I will point out, with some experience, that those at sea are usually in little doubt of the critical importance of their role. 

Those ashore are often under a delusion- they think they are the ones operating the ships that pay everybody’s salaries and bring in the profits. Seamen always know better. 
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December 11, 2014

The officer shortage number delusion



(A confession: I wrote this piece a month and a half ago after IMO Secretary General Koji Sekimizu opined in a blog on near-future officer shortages after The Danish Maritime Forum in Copenhagen. I held off publication fearing I would be accused of being repetitive, since I have written about this stuff before. Nonetheless, I feel, now, that another warning is worthwhile.)


I have become accustomed to taking officer shortage predictions with a dollop of salt when they are spewed out by the captains of our industry. I know that their intentions are not honourable; they are in the business of enticing hundreds- or thousands, if they can- of youngsters based on these fanciful numbers. Swelling idle seafarer numbers cost them nothing and exaggerating demand is in their DNA.

I have a problem, though, when the topmost honcho of the topmost maritime agency in the world repeats, in writing in a blog, these bizarre numbers that remind me of the fanciful predictions that are being made about Indian stock market indices and how equity investments will multiply manifold in a few years.    

The logic shipmanagers and shipowners have sold to many, including Mr Sekimizu, apparently, is this: The current fleet is going to increase in size by 70 percent in the next fifteen years because a) see the past numbers and extrapolate(!) and b) shipping has to meet the increasing demand for seaborne trade with the growth of the world economy. So, their simple mathematics tells us that, if half the current number of half a million officers retires during this period, we would need to train an additional 600,000 officers to meet demand. At the very least, this logic says, we need half a million more officers by 2030. We had better start now; we need to train about 40,000 of them every year!

Where do these figures come from? Are they carefully reached or pulled out a hat? Do they take into account the unknown number of seamen and cadets without jobs or training berths today? Do they factor in the huge tonnage overhang or the fact that the industry claims that slow steaming is here to stay? Do the numbers take into account the massive ships that are coming out and the fact that every one of those ships means that two or three jobs- across each rank- will disappear?

I strongly suspect that shipping, fragmented and HRD-clueless, is actually incapable of producing any seafarer-demand numbers with any degree of accuracy. Besides, new environmental laws mean that the game has changed; we will probably see shorter vessel working life spans in the next decade, and we will almost certainly see more consolidation in some trades and more fragmentation in others. The offshore sector will throw up some surprises, too. To expect that shipping’s mandarins know it all- when many of them have a history of getting it wrong- is optimistic. To believe that they have no conflict of interest when they churn out officer shortage numbers is worse than optimistic; it is delusional.

By all accounts, Mr Sekimizu is an honourable man. Even more reason, then, to examine the numbers a little more carefully. Even more reason, then, to realise that what is in the industry’s interest is often not in the interests of the lowly seaman. Even more reason to be circumspect and not believe numbers that have been pulled out of a crooked hat; I am sure he does not want to become responsible for another horde of seamen running around from pillar to post in the streets of Mumbai and Manila looking for the hundreds of thousands of promised jobs that simply are not there.
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December 05, 2014

Falling standards- the perfect storm



The situation is near alarming, compared to even half a decade ago, when Shipmasters and Chief Engineers were already cribbing about dropping competence standards at sea. But then, all the elements of this perfect storm have been in place for a while, so it is not surprising that more whitecaps are visible today and that the barometer is dropping fast. And this storm- the competence race to the bottom- is picking up energy and moving ashore too, to Superintendents, DPAs, and other maritime professionals. It will get worse, and it will have a huge impact on safety at sea and the maritime environment.

To me, the first- but by no means the only- problem was always that commitment to safety was never embedded in the business models of most players in the industry. Nobody wants an accident, of course, and everybody says so, but few are willing to put their money where their lip service is. Commitment to safety must go beyond and must involve raising intake and training standards and complying- in letter and spirit- with regulations. This has simply not happened; in fact, it has gotten worse in recent times, magnified by the downturn and the fact that more and more players today make their money buying and selling ships rather than operating them. Speculatory business models hardly think long-term.

Many more incompetent or inexperienced officers are being sent on ships today by managers who know fully well what the risks of doing this entail. Creativity in circumventing regulations has taken new turns. Just one example: During MLC inspections, a couple of States started scrutinising the overtime figures on crews’ pay slips to check if the rest hour sheets were fudged. A well-known manager’s response? Instruct Masters to continue to fudge the rest hour sheets and show the overtime payment as a ‘bonus’ on the pay slip instead. Fatigue- a major proven contributor to accidents- is ok. Being caught is not.

New regulation has worsened the already crippling administrative load on ships. Although a few companies have moved minor clerical work ashore (payroll or victualing, for example), the majority have not. Masters remain overwhelmed by emails, most of them worthless, which every minor shore functionary wants an immediate reply to.  Dropping standards amongst marine superintendents add energy to the perfect storm; one Master complained recently to me that he was being sent copy and paste jobs from a google search in response to a machinery problem!

More junior officers are inexperienced, ill trained and incompetent today. New technology adds to this collapse of standards, especially when senior officers are found wanting too. The grounding of the Ovit off Varne is a prime example, where ECDIS alarms were not working, the wrong scale of chart was in use and normal seamanship forgotten. Much worse is the fact that the Master did not know how to operate the ECDIS properly; he relied on equally incompetent junior officers. And that dangerous navigational marks were sighted by the lookout- and reported -but were disregarded by an officer who only went by his flawed use and interpretation of the ECDIS.

Almost frightening, because anybody who has sailed in the last decade understands too easily why  this sort of thing is common. All of us understand too well how catastrophically this can affect basic navigational safety.

Despite the known effect of low morale on safety, owners’ commitment to the rights and welfare of seamen has also dropped. The MLC2006 is hardly going to change hardened mind-sets. No wonder statistics say that, since the entry into force of the MLC, ‘detainable deficiencies were most frequently recorded in the areas “payment of wages” (39.5%), and “manning levels for the ship” (28.6%). Other areas with high deficiency levels are “health and safety and accident prevention” (43.1%), “food and catering” (15.4%) and “accommodation” (10%).

Are you surprised? I am not. Nothing will improve as long as everybody in shipping is focused on just making money at the expense of everything else. It should be obvious why this mind-set impacts safety negatively and massively.

We should also be considering the fact that this mind-set is the reason why most youngsters consider seafaring a third rate profession, and how low-calibre intake has a direct impact on safety. We should consider that we are growing junior officers at a time when professional maritime pride has been hammered into non-existence. By the time these juniors become seniors, their ability to say an authoritative no to a potentially unsafe act- whether proposed by the owners, managers or crew- has been eroded significantly.

That erosion is well underway already, including with Chief Officers waiting for their first Command. Who treat everything the managers and owners say as gospel. Who will rarely dare to say no to any directive, unsafe or not, that comes out of the mouths of these deities, and neither will they contradict anything written on paper, especially if it is part of a good looking manual.

They are the eye of this perfect storm.

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