June 22, 2008

Bipolar disorder

(Also known as manic depression. Extreme changes in mood, energy levels and behavior.)

Right up into the early eighties, we sailors used to look forward to the next port. Often, after weeks of sailing, it meant a break from monotony and sometimes from hardship; many ships were old and usually without air conditioning or heating. We looked forward the long port stays, working like dogs during our watches or during the day and then going ashore like kings. Communicating home was another attraction of making port; letters came only there, phone calls were possible, sometimes with great difficulty, only in port. Shopping, drinking, and otherwise letting our hair down was expected, even encouraged. A German Master I sailed with as an officer used to get angry if he saw me on board outside my watch keeping hours. An Indian Chief Officer used to tell us cadets, with the usual profanity thrown in, “Roger off from the ship. If I see you on board you will be chipping the whole night”.

In short, we behaved like sailors on shore leave, and it didn't make us poorer seamen because of it.

There was not much thought given to port officials, the US Coast guard, superintendents and surveys. Those happened anyway, nothing too alarming to worry about. And Superintendents, in Indian companies at least, came aboard only in Indian ports. Foreign company bosses were not so problematic or egotistical, and not under the pressure they are today.

Sometime, in the eighties and later, things changed. The recession hit. Ships and cargo became more unitised. Turnaround times decreased rapidly. The industry learned how to run ships cheaply, with minimum maintenance and short manning. One started hearing the adage “A ship does not make money in port” more often. Regulations fell on us like a ton of bricks. Chief Stewards and then Radio Officers disappeared. Workloads increased dramatically and paperwork increased to ridiculous levels. The ISM code, and later, the ISPS code, hit us. Checklists checkmated the most intrepid. Short manning now became the norm. Criminalisation of the profession became more common and dreaded. Short of going to the loo, we had checklists for everything. (Aside- a hilarious Chief Officer I sailed with had this checklist, too, stuck in his cabin. Right from opening the door in the beginning to using air freshener at the end, everything was covered and had to be ticked!)

As port calls started being measured in hours rather than days, as regulations and paperwork choked the fun out of sailing, as clerks and minor officials were given powers disproportionate to their knowledge and responsibility and as everybody from ashore became a pain in the neck in one way or another, as all this happened, the fear and distaste for the shore establishment, from boarding officials to Superintendents to the Coast Guard to everybody in between, became more widespread.

Most seafarers today prefer long sailings over long port stays any day. Simply put, there is minimum interference from the shore establishment at sea. Sure, there are the usual emails, some horrendously long winded and autocratic. (Companies should really put in place an email policy which stresses that the shore establishment is a support function, not a control one). Sure, at sea there are maintenance schedules and watches to keep, ubiquitous paperwork to catch up on, periodical and ever increasing reports to be made… but there is no chance of a clerk landing up and threatening to fine the ship because a garbage can has its lid displaced, or an environment guy saying that the tyres of vehicles being imported carry 'foreign' dirt and therefore he will stop cargo operations unless 'the Captain can be cooperative'. There is no chance of a ship chandler's delivery guy calling up the Master on his mobile and even satellite phone (the Master having just gone to sleep after two days without any) and asking the crew to be sent down to receive stores. There is no chance of a Ministry of Agriculture functionary demanding ten cartons of cigarettes because she found a spider in the provision room rice. There is no chance of a Superintendent arriving for two days with an agenda that should cover ten. No chance, also, of a Port State Control inspection which was done ten days ago and is being repeated now to 'train some of our youngsters, hope the Captain doesn't mind'. There is no chance of being bombarded with a dozen different people all of whom seem to think the crew exists just to service their often minor needs. There is no chance of being mentally and physically stressed by people one wouldn't give the time of day to in other, different circumstances.

No exaggeration. All that has happened to me, and surely to almost everybody at sea.

The distaste and dismissiveness for the 'other side' is not limited to seafarers. An ex Master now in port operations gleefully and dismissively says, "We visit the ship, but we don't even go up to see the Captain". A senior functionary of a huge manning company says, with less tact and even lesser sense, "If seafarers behave like prostitutes they will be treated as such". A charterer's representative takes great pleasure in seeing the Master ten times a day for minor matters which could have been sorted out at the gangway; he also needs a more comfortable cabin to spend time in, given that today's ships are not built with well appointed spare ones. A US Coast guard inspector wants everything including six drills yesterday, when the ship berthed ten minutes ago. A ship chandler's delivery guy arrives with parts of his body apparently on fire, and knocks on all crew and officer cabin doors at three in the morning, the crew having just gone to sleep after arrival. He is kept waiting six hours, which increases communication with his boss remarkably well.

And, in these days of mobile phones, well, they just don't seem to stop ringing. Not unless you switch them off, which once created some friction between yours truly and the Managers of the ship, who seemed to believe that a telephone operators job was part of my job description. Things were sorted out only after I threatened to throw the phone overboard instead of switching it off. Batteries and charger included.

Antagonism within an industry is hardly uncommon. Operations and management are often at loggerheads everywhere, fighting turf wars and ego battles and the usual useless things. But in the end, in almost all other industries except shipping, saner brains realise that they need to work together and not against each other. Hang together, or we will surely hang separately.

This does not work in Shipping for one reason and one reason alone. The crew and management have no long term association plans worth speaking of. Even after ten back to back contracts, nobody at sea really belongs to an organisation. Everybody is temporary, and the maximum that can usually happen is that a seafarer will not return or will not be recalled. Besides the alarm this may cause in these days of shortages, nobody, deep down, really cares about that.

Besides, we in Shipping have a unique disorder, akin to a manic depressive or bipolar disorder. Depending on shortages or excesses of manpower and the imperatives of demand and supply in this cyclical industry, we treat each other either as prospective bridegrooms for our daughters, or something the cat brought in.

Small wonder, then, that this is an additional negative for a youngster contemplating the sea as a career. And, while one can always blame the economic boom in India for the increasing unattractiveness of the sea as a career option, we ignore the perception of Shipping as a backward profession at our own peril. And this perception, that it treats its professionals like bonded labour being sent to the Middle East, is not without justification.

Fix this, my friends, or we will never be home free.


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