June 08, 2008

The colour of blood.

Right through the nineties, I seemed to be assigned ships which were predominantly plying in the Malacca Straits and South East Asian waters, and some of these never stirred out of the Straits and Indonesian waters adjacent to them. And, right through the nineties, the Straits and surrounding areas had almost daily multiple incidents of piracy, or attempted piracy.

We were boarded once, probably by amateurs, because a foolhardy chief officer could chase them away with a raised voice and a searchlight. Other company ships were not so lucky.
Ships used to call on the VHF to report attacks all the time, and daily. I remember one of these incidents was almost within the Sultan Shoal anchorage area; regulars there will know that the North West bound traffic lane there passes less than a mile from anchored vessels. This is practically Singapore harbour. Surely something could be done here to assist the ship?

The response? The dedicated anti piracy VHF channel effectively saying "There is nothing we can do right now", and calling, later, to collect data for some babu in some crusty office to collate, analyse and use with authority at the next anti piracy meeting.
Seamen died during that time in piracy attacks, and later. Fortunately not too many at first unless they resisted. Of course, later there was Aceh and the separatist movement there, when things escalated and more sailors died. Later and suddenly, pirates became terrorists in the world's myopic yes, though dead seamen stayed dead. Later, everybody suddenly discovered that these pirates were the bad guys. Later, we were expected to hear, all wide eyed and impressed, how various authorities established that links existed between these pirates, sorry, terrorists, across the world. Later, we were meant to assume this was a new war.

Somalia has not had a government since the early 90's. Fishing boats started getting hijacked a few years later while on the Somali coast, and merchant vessels a few years after that. No real action, besides paying ransoms for the ship, cargo and crew, was taken by the world or shipping community.

Contrast this to sometime around 2002, when I was on a regular run from Kenya to the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. The International Maritime Bureau used to send daily warnings asking ships to stay at least a 100 miles from the Somali coast. Ships closer to the mainland were sometimes hijacked, sure, but the French Navy patrolled the 3300 mile long coast. The German navy, too, as part of the 'Allied' fleet (love this term, please always remember that the Allies are the good guys), seemed to be in attendance at the entrance to the Red Sea and around Aden. Military aircraft used to fly low over this area and check out ships in transit. We were regularly called on the VHF, in international waters and by the US navy, and particulars taken.
Remember this was after the New York World Trade Centre attacks, when the 'war on terror' was taking off, or freaking out, depending on your point of view.

As a seaman, and in my experience, many ports and waters have been dreaded for decades. Authorities like to hide behind semantics, but Robbery, Armed Robbery, Piracy, Hijacking and Terrorism are just words to a seaman when he is at the wrong end of a knife or a gun. The southern Philippines, the Sri Lankan coast, certain African and South American countries, the Indonesian archipelago, the Malacca straits and parts of the South China sea have been known, sometimes for decades, to be piracy prone, even infested, and supported by powerful people ashore.
Authorities within some countries have been strongly suspected to be involved. Or elements within governments. Various international fora have raised these issues, and, as our industry often does, raised them impotently. At the end of the day, insurance covers everything, don't you know?

Go back a decade or two. I remember reading that, during the worst of the Iran Iraq war, more than a seaman a day was being killed, usually in rocket or such attacks in the area. Unfortunately, some of those years of sailor casualties coincided with the recession in Shipping. Seamen's lives became even cheaper then; nobody was really interested in a boring body count.
Seventy one merchant ships were attacked in 1984 alone. Unarmed civilians were killed, while the industry, the IMO and the world community stood by wringing its hands and mouthing platitudes. A couple of tankers were supposed to have been sabotaged by the Iranians, or the Iraqis, depending on your affiliation, and were bleeding oil into the sea. Alarm bells were rung at the possibility of the potential for disastrous ecological damage.

Of course, we were shown the usual pictures of seagulls drenched in oil and the environmental fallout of that war. I don't remember seeing the body of a single dead seaman. Oil stained seagull photographs are a favourite tear jerker with the media. Dead seamen don't evoke the same response, of course. But, as much as I like animals and seagulls, if I see one more oily bird I may puke.

So much for history. Let's fast forward to the present. Today, we ask all our seamen to implement the ISPS vigorously and with great gusto. We ask them to participate in the war against terror. We ask them to forget semantics.
Certain countries ask us to forget our dead comrades and grieve for their nationals instead. Not only do they not ask us nicely, they stop our shore leaves while doing so. We can bring massive ships capable of doing huge damage into their ports safely, but we can't be trusted once we are there.

Once again, the industry watches, impotent and uncaring. Once again, a ship is hijacked with ten Indians on board off Somalia. Once again, the crew survives because they are lucky. Once again, we are told about the fractured nature of our business, and how difficult it is for authorities to coordinate things to any degree of satisfaction. Once again, the spiel is dished out. Once again, the assumption is that the world is doing the best that it can.

So let me ask you this. What would have happened if a passenger ship had got boarded and robbed during the nineties in the Malacca Straits? Would any action have been taken? I can see the headlines and the sanctimonious talk show hosts going to town with this. The pirates were too smart to hit a passenger ship, of course, because they knew there would be fallout. But, what if? What if a couple of passengers were killed? Remember Achille Lauro and the military response later?

Or, what if a tanker ran aground 5 miles from Singapore or Malaysia after a pirate attack, with crew incapacitated or dead? What if we had more oil soaked seagulls? Do you think the world would have taken action then? Do you think our industry would have remained impotent?

My beef is not with the Western world, or the double standards prevailing there which we Indians have seen enough of. Those are outsiders. My beef is with my own brethren and contemporaries who have failed to fulfill their responsibilities, including many in my own country.
Actually, they haven't failed. Failure is when you try and don't succeed. Actually it is worse, because my colleagues haven't even tried.

Let's face it; this is an industry which regulates as much as it can. It regulates the number of checklists and frequency of equipment checks and drills. It regulates maintenance schedules, alcohol intake and training and procedures for everything under the sun. Hell, it even regulates the colour of the lids on segregated garbage cans. Safe ships, cleaner oceans and all that jazz, remember?

It does not, however, even begin to get a handle on the man made risks a seaman faces (natural risks are passé'). It does not even begin to regulate on any single issue which effects a seaman's well being, leave alone his life.

The ISPS code is brought out within weeks and months of an attack on mainland USA. The industry is dragged into it kicking and screaming, prepared or not. Practicality of implementation is thrown to the winds. Officials in international organisations are as usual petrified that if powerful countries act unilaterally, they might well become redundant. (Usefulness can be debated, redundancy seems final).
Tell me then, how come no quick and concrete action is similarly taken on seafarer fatigue issues which were first raised by respected organisations almost twenty years ago? The industry dithered for years, and even now pays lip service to the STCW rest period rules.

One of the largest manpower suppliers to the world of shipping, India, does not even have an apex body which coordinates seaman's welfare and interests. Associations which exist are toothless, clueless and useless. Most are social or networking fora, nothing more. One or two State run ones are proven corrupt; officials have been found fraudulent.

So and anyway, folks, what we are saying are this: Seamen's lives, like those of citizens of some third world (oops, developing) countries, don't really have much value. And if you are a seaman from a third world country, you count least of all. Even worse, you count least in your own colleague's eyes. Your life is insured, sure, but your life counts for less than a life in the western world, it counts for less than your colleague's life in Mumbai, and it may even count less than a seagull's life.

Because, you see, in the case of the seagull and the others, the colour of their blood is white.

first published in www.marexbulletin.com


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