February 15, 2008

Rest in Pieces

(All those who made the STCW rules regarding mandatory rest periods put up their hands, please.
Now, all those who have their hands up, please put your hands down if you haven’t sailed in the last five years on at least a four month contract.

I now rest my case regarding rest periods at sea.)

However, I recommend that all who have not sailed recently stop reading this till they look up the fatigue forum hosted by the Nautical Institute. Read some of the reports there, please. Although, and in case you didn’t know, the fatigue reports there are boring for many who are still sailing. Boring, because they are so commonplace- there is nothing new there.

So, a smattering from just one report there, bold mine: “....the crew is continuously on anti piracy watches at night on bridge we have continuous lookouts........ We get pilot on arrival then berthing stations followed by cargo ops. There are 3 Gantry cranes in operation which means besides Duty officer and Gangway ISPS watch there are 2 more seamen on deck to check for any container damage etc, Reefers plugging and un plugging etc. Ch off being busy with preparing IMDG cargo lists, reefer lists and checking stability and Ballasting / Deballasting operations. In addition in port mandatory items like lifeboat lowering etc (though not every voyage) or checking the pilot side access doors watertightness through the underdeck passage (can maintain these only in port). Completed cargo ops around 1400 hours- Departure station, mandatory stowaway search as per ISPS, undocked and pilot off around 1530 and then transit Singapore straits to arrive eastern boarding grounds ........ there is cargo ops again 3 or sometimes 4 cranes and to top it there is crew change, provisions, stores and bunkers. This continues till 1300 hrs the next day followed by departure stns and then transit Singapore straits .........manning of Bridge by master, duty off, lookout, and at night Antipiracy watches for 2 nights transiting Gelasa and Sunda stratis for the next 2 nights. So which ever way you look at it NO ONE on board is spared the fatigue levels. Rest hours are violated every voyage.”

Trust me, this is commonplace. Not restricted to the Malacca straits or the English Channel- it is a commonplace worldwide phenomenon. Ask anybody, but then you knew this already. Rest hours are indeed violated every voyage on numerous vessel’s at sea.

Fatigue. The dry taste in the mouth, the punch drunk feeling, the inability to think straight. The physical and mental dullness, the feeling of being burnt out. Exhaustion and weariness. When we are more likely to make mistakes, sure. More likely to have health problems too, stress, high blood pressure, sleeplessness, headaches- too much coffee and too many cigarettes. Physical and mental exhaustion, higher irritability, lower concentration, depression- we know, we know- the rule makers and the bosses tell us. We know, ad nauseum. Didn’t we make the rules? Didn’t we tell you to follow them? Didn’t we give you overriding authority?

We know, we know. We just don’t care.

As we read this, the chances are high that on most ships on short sea trades, chronic fatigue is a daily part of almost every seafarers life. On other, luckier ships with longer sailings, this may be restricted to a few days a month, with hopefully a chance of recuperation at sea.

On certain other kinds of ships and trades, however, the Master, Officers and crew are stressed out and tired to the point of exhaustion over most of their contracts. for months on end. That is common, too.

Chances are high that on most of these ships, the STCW rules regarding rest periods are being blatantly broken, forms fudged (one guy I know photocopies a fudged form every month and files it)- till the next accident, when the entire fraternity will bemoan short manning, rest periods and consequent human errors in a meeting or seminar somewhere. And all, rule makers, ship-owners, managers, societies, insurers, officers, crew and rule breakers- will go back to business as usual. It is a fragmented industry, it’s dog eat dog, you see; we can’t take the high ground if it costs us money.

For crews, the only plus in this chronic fatigue, I have found, is a feeling of camaraderie, a feeling you get from performing multiple critical tasks under stressful conditions and time pressure over extended periods of time– a feeling that, as a unit, you are working like a well oiled machine, thinking one step ahead, hour after hour. And will be doing so for the next week or two if the run demands it, or if you are unlucky.

Did you know that Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) is a recognised and independent medical condition? A distinct disease, mind you, the symptoms of which are being displayed by many sailors as we speak and shuffle these pages.

Treatments for other CFS patients in the west and ashore include medication, painkillers, anti depressants, mild exercise and therapy.
For the sailor, subject to abnormal living conditions, and prolonged periods of fatigue, we offer for the same condition , as a panacea, new rules and forms. The magic wands at sea. Our solution to this hernia, strangulate it with paper.

Of course, various institutes and bodies abroad have conducted extensive research on seafarer fatigue, written up impressive looking papers and even proposed the usual solutions. This research has remained largely academic, as usual. Did we expect any different?

We play games; we tell Master’s to follow the rules, and yet will likely sack them if they do. We often hear of airline pilots who refuse to fly because of similar rules regarding rest. How often have we heard of Master’s stopping ships because the crew are not rested? Hell, they are usually not rested, that is why ships are not stopped. Besides, if I stop and anchor a ship in many parts of the world today, I will be keeping, in addition to anchor watches, anti piracy and deck watches under ISPS, which will perhaps involve a fair amount of the crew. The crew may be actually more rested if I don’t stop the ship! And as for my rest, I will be too busy answering calls, making reports, sending emails about the stoppage and packing my bags to get any.

To add insult to injury, we get people to lie on their mandatory rest period forms. Wonderful. Akin to digging your grave before you get shot, or is it afterwards?

Why do we do this? Why do we run a higher risk of accidents and why do we disregard our crews’mental and physical well being?
Because we are a regressive and callous industry? Because short manning is cheaper and the norm? Because seafarers are not organised enough to effectively put a stop to this? Because we are incapable of managing ships and following the rules at the same time? Because the rules are ridiculous?

Because the solution – overhauling rules and practices, manning ships appropriately- are just too expensive and unworkable? Because making rules is easier than finding solutions?

Or maybe it is because the industry is insured against human error and errors of servants. It is, however, not insured against errors of management. And so, hurrah, we can’t be liable for what we pretend we do not know. If accidents increase, we will just pay a higher call to the P & I next year, or better still, threaten to switch to a more accommodating Club.

It is the emperor with no clothes. It is the elephant in the bedroom we refuse to see.

And it is the blind leading the blind. Both heading for the ditch.

First published in http://www.marexbulletin.com/

February 02, 2008

AIS: Friend or Foe?

First of all, let me state the obvious and the known: The Automatic Identification System for ships was supposed to be a tool to be used for functions such as Automatic Identification of ships (by VTS and shore facilities and also other vessels), whether for general information or Security purposes.

Also, let me state something which is less obvious. The possible errors within a shipboard AIS, whether the offset error or errors in initialisation or the manual feed of information, as well as the limitations of an AIS system, are ill understood by a majority of officers on board.

In an era where gizmos tend to replace basic tenets of navigation and collision avoidance, and where GPS, electronic chart systems, ECDIS and/or radars are getting more integrated, the possibility of misinterpretation and potential catastrophe is huge. Many of the same officers do not understand fully the limitations and errors of Radar or the GPS either. Nonetheless, it is not unusual these days to see almost complete reliance on such systems even while the net effect of limitations of each of the componenets is poorly understood, leading to potential cascading errors in navigation. The AIS is yet another cog in this seamless disaster waiting to happen.

In the last few years, I have experienced Officers giving the CPA from an AIS the same sanctity as that of a radar plot. I have also seen watchkeepers anticipating course changes of traffic depending on what their destination as displayed on the AIS is. Own courses have been altered in anticipation of the targets course change based on this destination, which, of course, somebody may have just forgotten to change.

In congested traffic lanes, with multiple close targets, this is a dangerous practice.

I have often seen these: wrong dimensions. incorrect mooring/underway status, , incorrect names/call signs/MMSI's. "AIS swap", similar to radar target swapping is also very common.

I have also seen pilots in European and British approaches and rivers, in fog and without, using the AIS as an easy collision avoidance tool. The name of the ship, its CPA, a short talk on the VHF with the pilot saying “you are passing 1 cable off, its ok”- easy. And this on a ship where he has stepped on board three minutes ago, has no idea of the AIS equipments reliability, limitations or errors- and has not asked anybody about those either.

I have had agents come on board in Europe and tell me, “Captain, we were watching your speed on the port AIS in bad weather. You were doing only 3 knots, so we knew you would change your ETA”. Big brother is watching you, indeed.

In the Bosphorous, I have seen ships being threatened with fines for showing incorrect AIS destinations- regardless of the elaborate VHF reporting requirements where the correct destination has been repeatedly stated. Agents used to send us, regularly, warnings about these fines.

Off the coast of Somalia, I have wondered, in an age where I can track ships via their AIS on the internet, how simple and deadly it would be for pirates to use this technology for their own nefarious purposes.-thus standing the Security usefulness on it’s head.

I have heard VHF conversations between ships, asking each other to alter course or take other action based on AIS data on CPA and destination alone.

This is a disturbing trend, which is to use the AIS and the VHF as the main tools for collision avoidance. It is not unusual to see action been taken based on these... an AIS given CPA and a VHF decided course of action. Cultural and language issues, incorrect identification of ships and others detailed above make this an action which is fraught with danger.

Clearly, there is over-reliance on the AIS. Clearly, the AIS was not meant for some of the functions it is now being put to use for. Clearly, our navigators do not understand the limitations and possible errors of this equipment. And so, clearly, we need to do something about it.

On balance, I would like to see some of these brought into effect

-A no-integration, no ECDIS/electronic chart policy unless people are sufficiently trained prior joining such a vessel. Failure to do so is contributing to phenomena like paralysis by information, a tendency to sanctify all data as equally correct and reliable, and a tendency to navigate the ship on screens with hardly even looking out of the wheelhouse porthole- what I call ‘computer game navigation’. (On one ship, I came up to the bridge to find a small fleet of sailing boats a cable and a half away in daylight and good visibility- unseen by the watchkeeper since these were not seen on the radar due to high anticlutter used, and since obviously they didn’t carry AIS, and since looking out of the porthole was apparently not in the contract. I threatened, in jest, to restrict the Officer’s certificate to read ‘Valid only on ship’s which experience no boats’ )

- ‘Hands off’ AIS installations, which mean no operator input required after initialisation except a daily check to ensure that AIS is functioning. This would mean that data like the destination is not displayed. I can’t see why this should be a problem, shore entities and VTS has enough other data confirming this, including Port clearances, vessel and agent’s declarations and VTS VHF reporting requirements. And at sea, we don’t really need to know where a ship’s destination is, except our own. Besides, this will stop the assumptions being now made with sometimes unreliable or scanty data.
This will also stop creative ways of revenue generation in some countries, like fines, for incorrect AIS input.

-The stoppage of using AIS as a collision avoidance tool by all concerned. At best, a AIS CPA may be confirmatory to a Radar plot; it cannot replace it.

Other recommendations, like improving the calibre of some Officers who seem incapable of understanding the limitations or optimal use of all electronic systems, including Radars and AIS, are outside the scope of this article.

Some of these should undoubtedly go towards an increasing unacceptable tendency at sea, which is navigation and collision avoidance by gizmo. Last I checked, most of all of these were ‘Aids to Navigation’, and that is where they must remain- useful, good aids, but not the main dish.

Or else, we will have to soon coin another term to go along with other such earlier ones- AIS aided collisions.

This post is supported by boater safety