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

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