April 27, 2008

One Pressure Cooked Mariner with fries, please

With reference to the Command of a ship, one of the greyest legal areas I can think of is the relationship between a pilot and a Master, and indeed between a pilot and the navigational watch. It can be stressful, ambivalent and confusing at the best of times. Relatively newer practices and codes, including checklists and logs for ‘Master Pilot exchange’ have done little except generate more paper in an attempt to, well, CYA.

I have been witness to a near miss with a nearsighted pilot and a near moronic Chief Officer, who saw the boat fifty feet away and did not inform the pilot, because quote Cap, the pilot on the bridge, it his job unquote. Though this may be an extreme example, it highlights the confusion. What is a pilot? Well, traditionally it was advisor or “Servant of the vessel”- which put most of the liability on the Master, and therefore the Owners.

If this wasn’t confusing enough, we now have the Cosco Busan ruling against the pilot. This, in my view, changes, well, everything.

Let’s take a step back to try to understand the ramifications. Ignore the hype surrounding Capt. Cota’s alcohol, depression and prescription drug related issues. Ignore the dead birds and the oil spilled, even as you wonder how many birds have been killed and how much oil (not to speak of blood) has been spilled in Iraq. Ignore his 27 years experience or his recourse to the Fifth Amendment. Ignore his pancreatis and migraines and CPAP machines and apnea- remember this is a country which is used to finding specks of dirt on it’s Presidents’ and Presidential Candidates’ shoes, and so a marine pilot is, like the birds, fair and easier game.

Ignore the hoopla and come to the root of the matter. Which is, answer this question
“What is the legal role of a Pilot and/or the Master on the bridge of a ship in US waters?”

“Search me” is my answer. Perhaps somebody in the room has a better one.

Not an idle question and answer session, this. People are going to jail for these “crimes”. Criminalistion of the seafarer is fait accompli; it just got expanded to include pilots. However, at least we mariners are entitled to know the areas we are individually and collectively liable in, and which one of us will go to jail for what, and who will do what and to whom, and so on.

Or is that too uncomfortable a question?

Come to think of it, many other such grey areas exist in a Masters day to day working life. Idly thinking about this, and paraphrasing, here is a random compilation from my own experience. I hasten to add that these grey areas are usually exploited to create pressure, one which unfortunately many of us mariners succumb to. And, actually, so is putting a mariner in jail – not for a criminal act, but for an accident- a pressure tactic.

If we mariners had any sense, we would, similar to airline pilots, refuse to sail, or operate, from the very moment there was a possibility of lower safety, or when any of the myriad rules were broken. Our threshold of acceptable risk is just too high in today’s blame game world.

This would mean ships held up in port or delayed at sea, longer voyages and lower profits, higher costs for garbage and sludge disposal and maintenance of critical machinery (how many times have the engineers been less than happy with the separator’s performance and struggled with it daily?). It would mean turning the profit and loss statements and balance sheets of companies on their collective heads. It would mean a hundred changes to practices, stores and spares, manning and manning certificates, safe ports and terminals, pilotage and weather routeing, safe speeds and bunker and water reserves.
It would also mean a lower chance of a jail term, so, gentlemen, maybe it is time to prioritise.

But apologies, I digress and transgress.

Anyway, here is my promised grey area compilation of pressure tactics. Some suggested responses are in brackets, though to save time and stay ahead of the curve, perhaps you should take out that suitcase first, if you are sailing. Else, enjoy.

Trust me, all these incidents happened in firms many of us would consider ‘standard’.

I repeat, too, that these are paraphrased- even slightly exaggerated. But these incidents are essentially true. Actually, I must confess that one or two of the suggested responses are more than just ‘suggested’. One lives and learns and hopes...

· Charterer’s rep: “Captain, I have sailed in these waters for a long time and nobody reduces speed in thick fog and zero visibility, and nobody even doubles watches or uses the foghorn. However, and psst, you have overriding authority.” (Suggested response: That is indeed excellent. Why don’t you take over from me and crash at 25 knots using your overriding authority instead of mine?)

· Manager: “It is very difficult to get good junior officers these days. Though I understand you are always in fog and narrow waters in one of the busiest traffic density area in the world, why don’t you manage with this useless and dangerous guy for sometime?” (SR: Ok boss. But since I am doing all his work, and since the manning certificate is a joke, why don’t I sack him instead and you give me his wages in addition to mine?)

· Superintendent: “During your next port stay of ten long hours, I am coming down to Port Chaos. We will call Class and do six surveys. We will also do a ship inspection, an ISM audit and have four beers in the evening. Meanwhile, don’t forget the cargo, stores, sludge disposal and crew change and such small routine stuff, and stop people even dreaming of going ashore”. (SR: Great! Since we will also ‘do’ the crew, -and since I hear it is a peaceful berth and a wonderful place for stopping the ship so everybody can sleep till we comply with the mandatory rest periods, we will do that too. Will you inform Operations or should I?)

· Superintendent: “That equipment is critical for the survey. I don’t know why the Chief is saying it has been knackered for months and has been mentioned so in his handover notes four months ago... It was working fine last month when I was there.” (SR:Then you should have done the survey last month)

· Owner’s representative: “What do you mean a Flag State Inspection has stopped the ship because of holes in the funnel?? Why didn’t someone point them out to the Superintendent when he visited last month? How can they expect us to renew plating before the ship sails. Can’t you make an arrangement with them and get the ship moving? How come you didn’t report these holes when you joined a week ago?” (SR: Yes, I probably can make an arrangement, but in case I get jailed in this country reputed for strict laws and low corruption, will my contract and wages be on till I am released, at least? And apologies, next time I will go directly to the funnel of any ship with a toothcomb as soon as I step on board)

· Dry Dock Superintendent to Chief Engineer: “Chief, there is a lot of oil around in the water from the yard just outside the dry dock. When are you are afloat, can’t you lower your bilges a bit?” (SR: Yep, and maybe my pants too?)

· Operations: “Captain XYZ always loaded five hundred tonnes more cargo than you. Can you explain why you are loading less?” (SR: Lemme try. We are unfortunately limited by deadweight. Also, you see, he was often sailing with the loadline well immersed, because he also had problems taking out the ballast. Can I send you photocopies of the official log book where the Chief Officer has logged down sailing drafts? And if so, do you want the same officer’s statement confirming this, or will my word do?)

· Manning Superintendent/DPA who has not sailed for a decade and a half: “Captain, the charterers are complaining that you have informed them, based on calculations, that many containers are under declared in weight, and hence you may have to shut out cargo. If you do that, we will spoil relations with them, which we must avoid at any cost. Can you send me a full report ASAP right now, even though I understand it is past midnight over there?” (SR: Sure. Make sure the secretary you have arranged to assist me is blonde with blue eyes, please?)

Come to think of it, some of these incidents are quite funny. Maybe I can write a book next time I am behind bars. As the management types say, in every adversity there is an opportunity.

Mariners seem to be getting a lot of opportunities these days.

First published in www.marexbulletin.com

Right now

Shipping magazines lately seem to be inundated with articles on how companies are dealing with the manpower shortage. Some stress their new initiatives. Most combine the old high salary+short contract+family carriage+safety standard paradigm and hope for the best. Many stress their size, which doesn’t really matter.

Some of these companies proclaim they are thinking-out-of-the-box. Perhaps they are, and perhaps seafarers are flocking to them. The overwhelming sense I get, however, is one of jaded, desperate and repetitive actions which result in predictable and well experienced outcomes. The more things change, the more they seem the same.

Meanwhile, stories have started doing the rounds of managers sitting on candidates’ documents while reneging on their wage offered commitments- it is obvious that they have not learnt anything new in the last thirty years.

In managementspeak, proclamations of paradigm shifts are catchy and feel-good. Unfortunately, these often postpone action to later. Like Alice in Wonderland, the implication is “jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today”.
We need more than catchy phrases. We need a two pronged approach: Strategies for retention of employees in the future as well as tactics for attracting employees today. Because without managing today, there may not be much of a tomorrow left.

In a couple of previous articles I have suggested longer term strategies; in this one, I would like to suggest a few steps the more intrepid amongst us could actually take, right now.

I would strongly advise, however, that every company take some time to gauge it’s requirement of manpower long term before this exercise. A tough ask, because like the Indian stockmarket till recently, long term has been taken to be one month, where it actually should be a couple of years, at least.

Perhaps some of these proposals could be tried out instead of vanilla salary revisions- there is no automatic assumption that seafarers prefer one over the other here. The goal is to promote a sense of belonging and well being amongst potential and current employees- and not just to encourage them to ‘get what they can’ in the present manpower scenario.

Some of these measures could also be in exchange for an enforceable or demonstrated long term commitment by the seafarer; and in fact, companies could do well to push the advantages to the seafarer of this commitment at every opportunity, and stress how such a relationship is of mutual benefit. In the hurly-burly of demand and supply, many of us often forget that.

I would also advise some number crunching, as these suggestions impact profitability for owners. I am convinced, though, that a cost-benefit analysis would justify many of these actions:

1. Reduce tours of duty to a maximum of four months for Junior Officers, and three months for Seniors. This would address somewhat one major minus of being at sea in an era where a contract is akin to a jail term- albeit a decently paid one.
2. Put in place cheap private communication. Emails to be freely possible, and free. Phone calls home could be either subsidised, or better, made considerably cheaper by installation of new technology. I believe that a ten minute call home almost everyday (What? Too much? How often do managers call home when on tour?) should be possible at about a hundred dollars a month, give or take.
3. Assign seafarers back to the same ship as far as possible, and with the same crew. Will address issues of disorientation and social isolation and promote a feeling of belonging. I have seen this happening, and it works.
4. Do not short-man ships. I do not refer to the manning certificate levels, which are often a joke, but levels appropriate for the ship, it’s condition and it’s run.
5. Do not dump administrative workload on board which belongs to the office. In fact, try the reverse, on the assumption that there are often more idle people in shore offices than on board.
6. Involve seafarer’s families in social activities. Some companies are doing this, and it is a good idea. Like the military worldwide which has an automatic and often informal community supporting families while the soldier is away, our families need this support, too.
7. Give maximum opportunity for families to sail- even though very often they will decline to do so, for many reasons we all know.
8. A group medical insurance scheme for seafarers (between tenures) and their families.
9. Repatriation for close family emergencies.
10. Demonstrated commitment to timely reliefs at the completion of the agreed upon tenure.
11. Incentives based on performance, not on time served.

On another note, and on the shortage of entry level seafarers- particularly deck cadets and trainee engineers .

I think that our industry’s inability to attract well educated and academically excellent urban youth is fait accompli. We would do well to stop banging our head on that wall at once. Higher salaries ashore, better lifestyles and an easier, more normal life are all enemies we cannot easily conquer.

Instead, what if we concentrated on smart, well educated youth from the smaller towns? Lets face it, all we require of an entrant at that stage is a proficiency in Math and some Science, particularly Physics- which is language independent. I would also suggest targeting youth who do not speak or write good English - maybe even any English- and training them extensively in the language as part of their pre-sea training.
Fluency in written and spoken English is a must, if we are to retain our competitive edge.

I would tend to think many of these youngsters would find shipping salaries very attractive; they would also have fewer alternative options. I would canvas coastal areas first, maybe fishing communities and others connected with them. Branch offices of manning companies could handle this; it would get their officers out in some fresh air too.

One last item on my agenda which is long term but needs to be started soon.
I have been convinced for awhile now that what the Shipmanning and management industry needs is a well functioning apex body. The advantages of this are obvious; lobbying and cooperation with government and international regulatory bodies and non-regulatory associations, promotion of best practices, co-operation between members, advancement of ethical practices- the list is endless.

I also think that, within this apex body, a committee of serving seafarers across ranks would be an excellent idea. This would perhaps balance the initiatives been taken in today’s manpower crunch with some real time feedback- without which these decisions tend to be taken in a vacuum, as they now are.
How that can be managed with these ‘committee’ seafarers sailing for half the year is problematic, but not insurmountable. Perhaps a rotating committee or somesuch may be the answer.

In addition to the advantages already mentioned, such an apex body would be able to propose a concerted course of action to address the many manpower issues related to the industry today. Not only that, it would be able to realistically project future requirements, trends and training needs.
Also and very importantly, it would address the issue of the perceived negative profile the industry, and what could be done to make it more attractive for future generations of seafarers and managers.

Existing associations like FOSMA have somehow not been empowered to address these issues in a big way. For example, an association like the one I suggest would have no role in direct training of it’s members employees. It would be a facilitator across the spectrum without any operational role at all.

I envisage an organisation like NASSCOM, which has served the Software industry well. Let’s just say “A National Association of Shipmanagement Companies”

NASMCOM, anyone?

First published in www.marexbulletin.com

April 08, 2008

Soft Skills, hard realities.

The following is a short summary of things I wish I had known before my first Command. I would have made a better Master, and have been easier to work with.
This list will be almost certainly useless to the many Masters who are now sailing. Regardless, I just thought some things needed to be said- maybe they will be of some use to future Masters.

My own checklist, so to speak, and one I find more useful than most:

Communicate with the Chief Engineer first. He is critical. More critical than the Chief Officer, because, in a crunch, you can do that man’s job but not the Chief Engineer’s. Start building trust. What are his problems? What are the machinery and manpower issues? Is he finding enough time for preventative maintenance? Any safety or other issues? Anything broken down now? Waiting for important spares? Are things good at home? (Oh yes, that matters far more than we think. I defy anybody to be working at his peak if there is turmoil on the home front).
Familiarise yourself with Engine Room machinery. What are the fallbacks in the event of failure of critical machinery? What happens if this happens during manoeuvring? Are there any engine driven pumps which may immediately stop if the M/E trips? Generators? Compressors? And a hundred other similar critical issues. Stress on the Chief that as far as possible that during critical times, the main engines should be run on slow speed to give you on the bridge time to manoeuvre away from danger. Stress too, that a sudden drop in speed is usually manageable, loss of steering in a sudden stoppage less so. In my experience, this is, since it is not their area of expertise, not obvious to many Engineers.

Encourage a daily half hour before meals for an impromptu get together over a beer, or in these days of treating seafarers like children, a soft drink. Eat your meals together if possible. A visibly friendly Chief and Captain solve a few problems just by making this fact clear to the rest of the crew.

A high level of professional trust between a Master and a Chief Engineer is critical. What happens is, in the absense of this preparation, the only time these two then talk is when there is a problem, when they are strangers to each other and under stress. Heat of the moment issues tend to flare up because they don’t really know each other.
Familiarity breeds trust too, not neccessarily contempt. A Chief Engineer or a Master who trust each other pay each other the highest professional compliment.

Communicate with the Deck Officers. Try to gauge competencies. Your conversations will also give them a chance to gauge your style of working and the kind of person you are. Again, start building trust. Stress that you don’t want yes men, and that everybody agreeing with everybody is a recipe for creating an organisation of pygmies. It can also lead to disaster. Stress that you are perfectly happy to have them disagree with you. Stress that this disagreement does not mean that a ship has suddenly become a democracy, but that you will hear them out. Change your mind on less important matters if this happens, make them happy that their input is important. A boss who listens to his juniors often learns as much as he teaches, and makes them more confident- which is excellent for the ship he is on.

Communicate with the Engineers and Crew. Encourage them to surface their problems through Department Heads. Ensure decent quality of food and entertainment on board, ensure their grievances are addressed. This is more important today: with shore leave very infrequent, it is more critical now that all on board are as comfortable as is possible. Address usual hiccups with allotments etc immediately. It is not a favour, it is your job.
One comment here: Many Masters, including me, have no knowledge of cooking. In a multinational crewing environment, it is important that suitable people be then nominated from different cultures to give the cook and the mess committee (oh yes, form a good working one asap, and be transparent with provision purchases) decent feedback, and suggestions for improvement.

Encourage email wherever the facility exists. Push for this facility with Management- a few there, as well as a few Masters on board do not seem to realise how little time and money this takes, how important this is, and how much impact this has on crew morale and well being. Anybody who has sailed will tell you that, though many think a periodic pep talk is all it should take for crew morale to be up. Morale is the sum total of a crew’s psyche, it is not a bunch of ticks on a checklist, or a monthly meeting as per ISM.
Surprisingly and in my experience, quite a few of the officers and crew do not use this facility even where it exists. Though it is hard to believe this in today’s age, some actually do not know how it works. On one ship, I emailed my son to setup an email account for a Filipino AB, who was thrilled after his family was able to communicate with him.
Did that AB go that extra mile for me henceforth? You bet he did.

Back your people: Back them when they have made an honest mistake. Back them when they are tired. Tell them when they have done something wrong, but don’t generalise. “You are a third rate watchkeeper” doesn’t do anybody any good. Tell them what you expect, and be tough but fair. Back them with shore staff if the crew is right. Stick your neck out a bit. Be a Master, not just an administrator.

Learn to say No. when safety or your professional integrity demands it. This includes saying no to management, and no to your crew. How you say no, of course, is upto you, but this is a critical part of any Shipmaster’s job.
With management, this is not as difficult as it sounds. You just have to have an attitude of “If I am right- then, on important or critical matters, I would rather get sacked than do something I consider unsafe or wrong”. Then it is alarmingly easy.

Manoeuver the ship extensively at the first opportunity. In open waters clear of traffic, and preferably in calm seas with no current, put her through the motions. Get a feel of the ship, the extent of her transverse thrust going ahead or astern, her response to the rudder and, if applicable, thrusters, steering at low speeds, loss of steering going astern, effect of wind on her superstructure, stopping distance, crash stop .. and whatever else it may require for you to quickly understand that particular ship’s characteristics. Have a look at the manoeuvring diagram for comparison. The little time spend and the little money you burn doing this can save a lot of money and heartburn later.

Downgrade paper For the first two weeks, don’t spend unneccesary time on paperwork. You can catch up later. There is a growing tendency to have paperwork dominate our lives; even when handing over or taking over Command, paperwork- port papers, company and ISM requirements, accounts, victualling, payroll and month end papers, multiparty reporting requirements- tend to consume almost all the available time, leaving little time for what is really important. Which is the crew, the ship and the cargo.
So, initially, get on top of all these three. Concentrate on the old fashioned stuff- safety equipment, a drill or two, the ship’s condition, the ballast, the cargo, the people- and downplay paperwork except what is essential.
Put on a surveyor’s hat and inspect as much of the ship as you can.
Prioritise. Your first function is the Command, there is enough time to be a clerk later.

Be truthful with the Office. Surface the problems realistically. Admit mistakes made by any on board, including yourself.
Propose workable solutions.
Some in the office will distrust you anyway; experience with other Masters or their own paranoia drives them. Ignore such people. You have nothing to hide, and the only thing anybody can do is take away your job. If you are any good, it will hardly be the end of the world.

The Superintendents are your allies. Don’t assume otherwise. A good working relationship with the Superintendents is nearly as important as the one with the people on board. Don’t fall into a predictable antagonistic mindset. Superintendents are doing their job, and if you do yours, you complement each other.
Incidentally, treating them as collaborators instead of either adverseries or bosses is both counterproductive. Treat them as seniors, and be professional about it. Don’t kowtow. If somebody kowtows, it is suspicious; it signals that that person may not know his job.
By assuming this professional attitude you leave the door open for a constructive disagreement with a Superintendent- and a disagreement or two will surely arise from time to time. It is the nature of the beast, but, since both of you are otherwise on professional terms, the chances of this degenerating into anything more than a disagreement are very low.
A brief aside- I have never regretted disagreements with Superintendents, but I have regretted occasions when I let these degenerate into a squabble due to my own boorish behaviour- even though at least one Superintendent was big enough to continue to work with me for another couple of years despite that. I may not have been so magnanimous in his place.

Leave time for yourself: A ship is a twenty four hour job, and one tends to become jaded and burnt-out after awhile. Keep some time everyday to yourself to do what you like to do on board, and, barring emergencies, guard that time zealously. Difficult, I know, and depends on how hectic the run is, but I find this works. A change of scene- mental at least since a physical change is not possible- relaxes you and gives you a different perspective on your work. It also makes you calmer, and a calmer Master is good for everybody on board. He also performs better.

Distance yourself from your rank in your mind. Too many Master’s seem to be unable to do that. It is as if without that ‘Captain’ as the tag, they have no identity.
We are all, finally, just people. We harm ourselves by associating ourselves too deeply and only with the rank or the job. We all know what that does to us, and sometimes our families, because we continue to be authoritarian when we step ashore, unable to adjust to a different reality. Or, by the time we do, it is time to shift realities again.
While the imperatives of Command cannot be ignored, it is good, even while on board, to tell ourselves once in awhile that there is more to us than just being Masters, and that this job is not our only definition.

Else, by the same reasoning, we become nobodies when we relinquish command, and I certainly and vehemently disagree with that notion.

Published in www.marexbulletin.com