November 20, 2014

Lifeboats or death traps?

The continuing scandal of lifeboat related casualties- often because of issues with falls or impractical and suspect release mechanisms- has gone on for far too long. It is a disgrace.

On October 24, in yet another lifeboat related fatality, a crewmember died in Colon and another was hospitalised after an accident on the Coral Princess, a Princess Cruises ship; the crew were picking up the boat after some maintenance work. Earlier this year, five crewmembers were killed and three injured after the lifeboat on the Thomson Majesty, another cruise vessel, fell into the sea during a drill in the Canary Islands. In both cases, a lifeboat fall gave way with the expected- and much too common- grim consequences.

There have similar and horrifyingly commonplace such incidents on all kinds of ships; I bring up these two incidents only because I expect that these vessels- required to have the ability to evacuate large numbers of untrained passengers in an emergency- would have had higher levels of regulation and scrutiny, and better trained crews, than, say, the average tramp ship. 

Of course, as we all know too well, is that the fault lies more in the design of lifeboats than anywhere else. The seeming inability of the IMO to stop seamen dying in these death traps, even after many years of experts screaming themselves hoarse about lifeboat design and regulation, is one of its biggest failures. 

Things have been bad for a long time. How bad? Well, close to a decade ago, Rear Admiral John Lang, Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents at UK’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch, even questioned the wisdom of continuing to launch lifeboats for exercise purposes. Another recognised expert, Capt Dennis Barber, wrote extensively on faulty lifeboat design in an article “Dangerous Lifeboats- A race to oblivion?” way back in 2006.  He ended by saying that it was disturbing to consider that the enclosed side launched lifeboat may have killed more seafarers than it has saved. 

Many seamen- including me- have, ever since the advent of the enclosed lifeboat, been extremely suspicious about its design, its unnecessary complicated release mechanism and the dangerous on-board release regulation and operational requirements. I even question the need to have an enclosed lifeboat in the first place. 

To me, the KISS- keep it simple, stupid- maxim is something that needs to be kept uppermost in mind when designing any safety equipment, something completely missing with lifeboats. And, although I agree that an enclosed lifeboat may have a couple of advantages- going through burning oil in the water, for one- the disadvantages far outweigh these. Complexity of the release mechanism, a long ‘drop height’ (especially on some of the car carriers I have sailed on), the overbearingly stifling atmosphere inside and the unnecessary need for long-term protection against the weather (in this century, I was not going to spend weeks inside the lifeboat waiting for rescue, anyway) are just some of the biggest. I have often thought that the rigid canopy of the enclosed lifeboat should have a mechanism- pressurised gas, as liferaft covers do?- that can allow the crew to just blow it away if required. 

 (In 2007, after the MSC Napoli was abandoned off Cornwall, the crew found the overheated and stifling atmosphere in their enclosed lifeboat intolerable. I don’t know how many were seasick, but two were seriously ill when they were rescued by helicopter. And they had spent only a few hours in the boat!)

In short, I had little confidence in these lifeboats. And then, after the rescue boat requirements came into play, there was the additional requirement- to be able to recover the boat quickly using the same crazy mechanism, with no deck space to work with on the boat and long falls and heavy hooks swinging and threatening to almost decapitate you at any moment!

I do not know- although I have my suspicions- of the reasons behind why the IMO is dragging its feet for decades on this; why the rules, location and the construction of lifeboats have not undergone a metamorphosis in this age of fast evacuation systems. 
One thing I do know, however, is that we need some seamen in the IMO, not just bureaucrats. 

Until that happens, I propose a small change to the SOLAS regulations. Let us incorporate this somewhere: “Every IMO functionary involved in regulations pertaining to lifeboats will be required to take part in a rescue boat drill once every three months, and perform the functions of either the bowman or the stern sheet during the drill.” 

That should bring change quickly. That should stop this scandal. 


November 13, 2014

Escalating old threats

It would be easy to be dismissive of Al Qaeda’s threat to shipping- made late last month in its affiliated online magazine ‘Resurgence’- as nothing new, or something that is part of a one-upmanship game it has going on with its brother in terror, the Islamic State. It would be easy to say this new threat is just old wine in a new bottle. This would also be a huge error of judgement, because the threat has increased considerably in the last few years. And so has the danger.

The threat, published in an article “On Targeting the Achilles Heel of Western Economies,” asks that Al Qaeda mujahideen fighters attack ships- particularly oil tankers- in the chokepoints of the world. “Even if a single supertanker (or even an ordinary westbound cargo-vessel) were to be attacked in one of the chokepoints or hijacked and scuttled in one of these narrow sea lanes, the consequences would be phenomenal: a spike in oil prices, an increase in shipping rates, more expensive maritime insurance, and increased military spending to ensure the safety of these sea passages,” it says. 

“Simultaneous attacks on western shipping or western oil tankers (a sea-based version of the cargo plane bomb plot) in more than one chokepoint would bring international shipping to a halt and create a crisis in the energy market,” it adds.

Yawn, you say. We know all this. We know that Gibraltar and Bab-El-Mandab and the Malacca Straits and Hormuz and other chokepoints are particularly vulnerable. We know the history of the USS Cole and the 2002 Limburg bomb. So what is new?

What is new, in my view, is- firstly and overarching everything- the spread of piracy and its natural links with terrorism. We saw this in Somalia. We will see this in Southeast Asia too; maybe even off and in West Africa. And, later, elsewhere. That maritime chokepoints are often in the close vicinity of unstable States with extremist sympathisers (to put it mildly) will only add to the threat.

Then, the particular threat to the extremely narrow and vulnerable Straits of Gibraltar, which sees more than a hundred thousand ships transit every year, should not be underestimated at all. This is because of:

One, the continuing refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, which has reached the European shores of the English Channel. One can safely bet that terrorists would have already used the chaos to move people around; many refugees come from countries that have a history of breeding terrorists anyway, including but not limited to Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria.

Two, the fact that the small but strategically placed Tunisia in the Med is the biggest supplier of foreign fighters to the IS and other extremist groups in Syria and Iraq. A dangerously unstable Libya, that has done much to contribute to the refugee crisis, adds to the mess.

Three, escalated terrorist focus, shown by the fact that Al Qaeda tried to hijack a Pakistani Navy frigate in September this year, and that its audacity- or the need to keep up with the IS- may have reached new levels. The 117-page issue of Resurgence that repeated the maritime threats is remarkably detailed, particularly about the US oil flow system, and may indicate a new willingness to target maritime assets and disrupt energy supply.

Finally, four, which is this: the IS and Al Qaeda, in my opinion, will be more collaborative than competitive in future. This will multiply the threat exponentially.

Meanwhile, reports from the Middle East and elsewhere say that international navies are working together to keep maritime threats at bay in regional waters. Australia has sounded the alarm, and the British Royal Navy is supposed to be on alert after the Al Qaeda threat was made. I have no doubt the intelligence and military apparatus in other countries is gearing up as well, but that is not going to be enough.

The fact is that commercial ships cannot protect themselves against a terror attack. Successes against piracy have come because of armed guards and citadels, tactics that will be useless against a determined group of individuals who want to ram a high-speed explosives laden boat into your hull. The solution, as often, will lie ashore, and will rely heavily on intelligence backed up by action.

Commercial ships will just be innocent bystanders in this exercise, although I am sure some smart folk out there will quickly add some new paperwork and some new STCW courses for crews to suffer, should the threat escalate further or, heaven forbid, should a couple of ships be attacked and sunk.


November 06, 2014

AIS- more foe than friend?

In the six and a half years since “AIS- friend or foe?” was published, things have arguably gotten worse. That old piece of mine was more about the misuse of the AIS on board ships during navigation; a recent report strongly suggests, however, that spreading data manipulation is defeating the main purpose of the Automatic Identification System and its regime- maritime security.

Not that the navigational misuse issue has gone away. Far from it. For example, the UK’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch said recently, in a press release, that the January collision between the multi-purpose cargo ship Rickmers Dubai and the un-manned crane barge Walcon Wizard which was being towed by the tug Kingston in the south-west traffic lane of the Dover Strait TSS was caused by Rickmers Dubai’s officer on watch not keeping a visual lookout and monitoring the radar, but rather relying solely on AIS information. 


This is hardly an isolated incident. Too many lazy or incompetent navigating officers continue to use the AIS for collision avoidance, especially in congested waters where a visual watch and radar plotting should be the focus. They also continue to give AIS data the same sanctity as they would give, for example, a radar plot. The potential disastrous consequences of this course of action are obvious. 

The data manipulation problem has been highlighted by specialised data analytics company Windward, which has just published a research report that says that vessels around the world are increasingly falsifying or manipulating AIS data, and thereby compromising maritime security.
Real-time AIS information on ships is freely available to almost everybody online today. As a result, people like commodities traders and commercial data mining corporations are using this data connected with movement of ships and their destinations to project economic and commodities trends. This adds to the mess; I suspect that at least some of the AIS data that is being manipulated today is being done at the behest of commercial interests.

The report says that ships are increasingly manipulating data to conceal their identity, location and destination. It says that AIS data is becoming unreliable, with “far-reaching implications, including to global security and intelligence agencies”. And it says that the incentive to manipulate will likely see a sharp increase over time.

The manipulation takes many forms. Over the past two years, for example, there has been a 30% jump in reporting false identities. One percent of all vessels report a false identity today.
Then, ships destinations are manipulated; only 41% are accurate. Windward underlines how this undermines “commodity traders and others tracking global commodity flows and supply and demand dynamics”. I am, however, more interested in the maritime security implications of such falsification. Vessels also manipulate GPS data (59% increase over two years) to transmit wrong positions. Chinese fishing vessels seem to be particular offenders here, but they are not the only ones.

“About 27% of ships do not transmit data at least 10% of the time, and large cargo ships shut off their transmissions 24% longer than other ships. 19% of ships that ‘go dark’ are repeat offenders”, Windward says. (Well, I am one of those offenders. I have ‘gone dark’ off the close coast of Somalia between 2000 and 2006 often, and I would do so again today. But that is because I don’t like to tell any khat chewing guy sitting in a fast boat with a rocket propelled grenade launcher in one hand and an AIS receiver in the other where exactly I am.)

Economically sanctioned countries have often created fake ships with spoofed AIS signals. Criminal gangs, including drug smugglers, are not going to install an AIS on their boats and mini submarines because the IMO says so. Spoofing or manipulation of AIS signals by terrorists or criminal gangs is another threat. Manipulation by interested parties for commercial reasons- or by fishing fleets for political reasons or to subvert environmental or other laws- add to the lack of reliability of a system that was meant to help fix maritime security. 

The said fact is that AIS information cannot be taken at face value by any security agency and can be easily spoofed or manipulated.Therefore, all of what they receive is suspect- and nothing is easily verifiable. How useful is that?


October 30, 2014

The National Maritime Authority is a bad idea

Not many in commercial shipping thought too long or too hard about President Pranab Mukherjee’s statement when it was made in the Indian Parliament in early June, where he announced that the government would form a National Maritime Authority (NMA). This is because they thought this was to do with the country’s maritime security. He said as much. His exact words: “Recognising the importance of coastal security, my government will set up a National Maritime Authority.”

It appears now, from the buzz in media circles, that the NMA is going to be an overarching body that will oversee not just maritime security but all aspects of commercial shipping as well, including trade and commerce and the offshore industry. Interestingly, media reports suggest that the NMA will make redundant the Directorate General of Shipping, which, under the Ministry of Shipping, deals with all executive matters relating to merchant shipping. So far.

If so, I think the NMA concept is ill conceived, overly cumbersome and a grandiose idea that lacks the required attention to detail. Let me tell you why.

The idea of the NMA (actually, a National Maritime Commission) was pushed by the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) in May. Now, the IDSA is a Ministry of Defence funded think tank that has little expertise in maritime commerce. It is therefore, in my opinion, not qualified to suggest any kind of changes in the regulation or conduct of commercial shipping. That is assuming it did so in the first place, and that the reported possible disbandment of the DGS is not the result of some bureaucratic fancy.

More importantly, making the NMA responsible for two huge and distinct maritime functions- security and commerce- is setting it up to fail. The DGS looks after just one of those today and is nevertheless overwhelmed by its mandate to perform Flag State, Port State and Coastal State duties, not to speak of specific environmental incidents and the overview of commercial maritime education in the country. The NMA will have its hands full with coastal security alone, a massive undertaking that has still- after so many years since the Mumbai attacks- to be brought under meaningful control. The NMA should therefore not be given any other brief- especially a completely discrete one from security- like handling commercial shipping.

I am told that the NMA is supposed to be constituted along the lines of the proposed Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) — which is a centralised agency that will have effective aviation safety and oversight control and will replace the present Directorate General of Civil Aviation. I will point out that, if such a body is given the additional responsibility of taking care of security in the skies, then the CAA idea is as equally fraught as the NMA proposal. Our legislators should avoid the same mistakes many laymen make- security, safety and the promotion of commerce are three entirely different beasts.
Many writing for mainstream newspapers disagree with me about the apparent need to do away with the DGS. To them, the NMA idea makes sense. They point to the need to follow and merge IMO regulations with national ones. They rehash the age old criticisms of the DGS- that it is an organisation always led by a non-maritime person (who is transferred as soon as he or she has settled down!) and one that fails to attract the required numbers of professionals with the required expertise. An organisation that is weak and clumsy, has legacy and governance issues and has outsourced some of its functions- for example, to do with oversight on maritime education- to third parties like the Indian Register of Shipping and the like. An organisation that is under-resourced and so not adequately equipped to carry out its duties. Therefore, in their opinion, the NMA is exactly what we need.    

I don’t think so. Because, for a start, there is every likelihood that the proposed NMA will face an identical situation with respect to lack of resources or professional expertise as the DGS suffers today. Also, I foresee that, if the NMA replaces the DGS, many existing DGS personnel will simply be transferred to the new NMA, which will otherwise be staffed (probably in Delhi) by ex Indian naval or armed forces officers and bureaucrats with little knowledge of commercial shipping. I predict that such a National Maritime Authority will suffer from all the ills of the DGS, and will, in addition, find itself burdened to the point of paralysis with maritime security issues that can be overwhelming all on their own. 

Instead of proposing a big bang change that sounds good on paper but is likely to ring hollow in the end, the Modi government needs to think this NMA business through. The solution, in my opinion, is not to have a single body doing everything, but to keep maritime security separate from safety and the promotion of maritime trade. To revamp and strengthen the DGS and make it accountable. And, as always- always- attract the right people to do what needs to be done.

The government should realise that generic weaknesses cannot be overcome by the pouring of old wine into a new bottle. A grand plan, if not backed by the ability to execute it, always results in equally grand- even spectacular- failure.