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/

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