July 24, 2008

Food for Thought

I first tried keeping all the provisions unlocked at sea well over a decade and a half ago, and have done so on many of the ships I have sailed on; maybe even most of them. I feel that as long as we can afford it, people should be free to eat what they want and when they want it.

My initial proposal of keeping everything including the reefer compartments unlocked has been met with widely varying responses on board and ashore. Many Chief Engineers are unhappy at the possibility that crew would not properly shut the provision reefer compartment doors and that the fridge machinery would get knackered. So far, the first has sometimes happened but never the second.

Most cooks and many senior officers have felt that consumption would shoot up through the roof. Sometimes it has, initially, but never for long. When one knows one can eat whatever and whenever, one does not use one's stomach for storage.

Some cooks have felt that some essential items like milk and juice, and some 'luxuries' like ice cream and yoghurt would be polished off, leaving the entire crew then short supplied during a sea voyage. True to an extent, but we have compensated by ordering more of these goodies initially and until the system settles down.

Relieving Masters have often been almost annoyed at my immaturity. There is also a common refrain of, "Then how do you manage?" I have been unable to determine what has to be managed when everything is kept open to all. The guys making a cut on the provisions purchased are obviously unhappy, too. I don't much care; I am paid for the duration of my contract, not theirs, and I am certainly not paid to promote corrupt practices.
Besides, I do not manage. The cook does.

Generally, most of the other officers and crew have been delighted.

Much as I prefer to keep everything unlocked, I have decided against doing this on a few occasions. This is invariably when the objections from a Chief Engineer have been very strong on keeping reefer compartments locked. I must say that most of the initial naysayers are happy to give my proposals a fair chance and often change their minds once it is successful, but there have been times when I have been unable to persuade a Chief to do so. I scrap the plan, then, on the principle that a person responsible for machinery should have some say in what is being done to it. I admit, though, that I am disappointed at this intransigence. Old habits die hard.

The success rate of this initiative has been a hundred percent. Not once has the provision room been locked after it has been thrown open; not once have any crew misused their free access to provisions in any significant way.

And we have saved money. So much so, that I started distributing gifts every two or three months to the crew out of the saved cash. Depending on various factors like the cooks efficiency, wastage and costs of provisions on the route, these gifts were often significant. I remember, once, a Chief Engineer and a Chief Officer going ashore and spending about three thousand dollars on gifts for the crew; the same gifts for everybody on board.

Superintendents and company reactions, too, have varied. Some have been happy, others not so. Overall, they have been remarkably supportive.

I explained once to a Superintendent that my options for the saved cash were either
a) Leave it on board to be misused by somebody or
b) Misuse it myself or
c) Return it to the Company which may then think their allowances were too high and act against crew interests.

I explained to him why I felt that none of these options was preferable; besides, it was only fair that the crew that saved the money should benefit from it.
The Superintendent in question seemed to agree with me, as indeed most companies. In any case, they did not disagree too vehemently, because not one has instructed me, ever, to stop my system.

Perhaps there are many Masters doing this already; I simply do not know. Many may be doing much better. Nonetheless, at the risk of preaching to the choir, let me detail my experience with this system a little.

Presumptions, preconditions and suppositions:

1. "Just like at home" is my first presumption. At home, one does not buy ice cream or expensive seafood, put it in the freezer and then instruct the family not to eat it until it is given to them. If we cannot afford it, we do not buy it. Once bought, we don't buy it again if we can't afford it, or not this month anyway. I do the same thing on board; the crew may get expensive stuff to eat as long as it is affordable. Trust me, everybody understands this concept perfectly.
2. One assumption is that there is be no psychotic amongst the crew who will throw all the meat overboard one stormy night. Of course, assuming this at the outset is paranoia.
3. The cook is competent and will surface teething problems to me reasonably quickly.
4. The fridge is not so isolated that a door mistakenly left open will not be noticed for hours on end.
5. It is preferable, but not necessary, for a 'Mess Committee' to be actively and concurrently involved in purchases and getting crew feedback. It is also much preferable for a full list of inventories of purchased provisions, including prices, to be available to all in the smoke rooms at anytime. The system works much better when it is fully transparent.
6. A good monthly inventory is a must, for budgetary reasons.
7. An important assumption: that the victualling amount provided for is sufficient for the ship and the run. (I have never seen one that was not.)
8. It is much preferable to have, as far as the run of the ship allows, minimum provisions on board at the end of every accounting month. Obvious advantages of easy accounting and flexibility in the next months purchases. Difficult sometimes, when one is departing a cheap port in the last week of a month for an expensive one.

Less obvious advantages:

1. Promotes integrity.
2. Promotes transparency. Excellent fallout advantages in other areas on board.
3. Promotes trust, which is, on its own, a very good idea.
4. Treats the crew like family. Eat what you want, when you want it.
5. Decreases a Master's workload. The only thing I have to really do is to watch the budget. The rest is taken care of automatically.
6. There are no excuses for bad food except bad cooking, because the Master or anybody else is canceling almost nothing.
7. I find that the crew makes a conscious attempt not to waste food and save money. Savings will come back to them in the forms of boxes of mineral water (depending on the run, drinking water supplied from ashore can be very unhygienic, as we know), chocolates, cookies or other eats in the cabins, or as presents, anyway.
8. Crew morale: This one should not be underestimated. When junior officers, how many of us have come back from work to find no milk in the refrigerator, or no juice? Just bread and butter. Sometimes not stocked, sometimes inadequately stocked and sometimes just plain consumed. In an era where there is no difference between day and night operations in port and even at sea, and when crews are short manned and overworked, it is ridiculous to follow the old 'quarter ho gaya sahib' routines of Indian companies, when trays were carried for officers to the bridge or engine room, and when provisions were dished out like at government ration shops for the crew. We all know of the games played in many of those ships. Therefore, any crewmember who can sit down and eat a decent meal after work (and whenever he wants to) is a much happier person, for he is being treated like a human being.

I must end with the story of a ship partly on the India run, where we happened to manage a particularly eclectic and quirky menu. It was customary, for example, to see a bunch of Filipino crew eating beer mugs full of Kwality Wall's pista ice cream for breakfast! Like delighted schoolchildren cocking a snook at the establishment and the headmaster. Offering each other more, bringing in leaking cardboard packs from the galley. I ask you, what could be wrong in being happy and content with small things?

In these days of minimal shore leave, food and victualling on board is more important for crew morale than ever before. The Master's responsibility is ensuring the quantity and quality of food, and the cook's job is cooking it hygienically and well. If, in the process, administration of the exercise is reduced, it is icing on the cake. In the end, this is a small matter; let us stop being control freaks and treat it as such.

I guess some of these views may be a little extreme. It has been indicated to me often enough.
All I can say in my defence is this: if I must be an extremist, I prefer to be one at the cleaner and more transparent end of the spectrum.


July 17, 2008

Managing mediocrity

For many ship owners, the arguments in favour of outsourcing operational and technical matters to shipmanagement companies are old, powerful and compelling. For an owner who may have little knowledge of the complexities of the maritime world, management seems a one stop solution. He gets the advantage of economies of scale. Extensive operational and technical knowledge. Ease with Statutory and Class matters and the advantage of a large and worldwide shipmanagement interface. Experienced owners get advantages too, like legal advantages and advantages on questions of liability. Plugging in to a wider gamut of maritime professionals, manufacturers and support vendors.
This is a pretty long and impressive list. On paper, at least.

At the same time, owners who manage their own ships advertise this fact loudly to potential recruits. And many seafarers prefer to work with owners rather than managers.

More on that later. I would like to elaborate on some other issues first, because it is my firm belief that for the long term and discerning shipowner as well as any officer who is not mediocre, a shipmanagement company is far from the best place to maximise potential.

The main problem with management is there is often clear pressure for the Master, officers and crew on all management ships to act in the interest of the shipmanagement company first and in the shipowner's interest second. This is interesting, because a Master's traditional brief usually includes crew, cargo, ship and owners. The argument that the words 'management' and 'owners' are identical or interchangeable and that the interests of both coincide is facile, even disingenuous.

Just one example, I have sailed on a ship where the vessel's position was doctored for the owner's daily reports for days altogether because of machinery problems and a secret option being kept open by the managers to pick up spares after diverting to another port. Parallel positions were reported and the final diversion was then minimised to protect management from charges of unprofessionalism. The object of the exercise was clear: it was to downplay the cost of poor maintenance and even poorer stocking up of spares on board. Perhaps the owners didn't buy the argument too well; it appeared to me that they put it under the 'cost of doing business with shipmanagement' on some spreadsheet.

Though this is an extreme example, there are countless others when the owners are, routinely and with calculation, misinformed on what the management and crew are doing or have done. This includes condition of critical machinery, bunker consumption and fuel efficiency, average speeds and maintenance details.

Most management companies do not think long term. Whether it is maintenance, crew welfare, statutory compliance or otherwise, the thinking, like the budget, is usually till the end of the year. Everything, including probably the Superintendents bonus, depends on what one does within this short time.

The other overwhelming imperative is, obviously, the need not to lose a client shipowner. Understandable though this undoubtedly is, it does not condone tendencies on the behalf of most management companies to bend rules and fudge figures to accommodate this. The game is played well, with many Owners' pretending they don't know what they haven't been told; what is not on paper is conveniently taken as invisible. The bottom line, however, is watched with a hawk's eye.
For a seafarer, though, this bending of rules sometimes translates into a less safe ship.

In my experience working for both, ships under management usually have poorer maintenance standards than when owners manage them. Not only that, management setups tend to keep everything at a mediocre level. They are driven by considerations of annual declared budgets, penny pinching (We have a hundred ships. If we save a hundred dollars a month on each, we are talking about decent annual money) and the need to keep snafus insulated from the Owners. Woe is the Master or Chief Engineer who forgets this basic fact. Team players are good, because they toe the line. That this constant second guessing consumes a fair amount of energy on board and is detrimental to basic efficiency is immaterial.

Seafarers contribute in no small measure to this professional degradation. A contract becomes more 'work in isolation', and there seems to be little will to do the job with a long term perspective. This acceptance of lower standards is widespread amongst floating staff too. The primary objective is often the completion of the contract. The rest is chaff.

The additional fact that there are enough owners out there who buy and sell ships like used cars, who threaten to change management unless costs are kept low and who change management every couple of years means that a seafarers chances of getting a junk in a management setup are higher than otherwise. This is not an excuse for Shipmanagement companies, by the way. Any half way decent one should refuse such run down vessels, but commercial considerations, like fatal attractions, prevail.

When safety issues get involved (and lets face it, the condition of equipment and machinery is directly relevant here, so this happens often) things get even more chaotic. Here, the default and unstated but clearly implied position of many managers is 'minimum compliance, maximum certification' (yes, including in 'top' management companies). Emails are circulated in fleets how xyz ship passed the USCG survey with 'zero deficiencies'. Known serious deficiencies are still not easily corrected. We wait for somebody to tell us what we know is wrong.

More alarmingly, I have witnessed the handling of life threatening incidents getting lower priority over the desire to retain an owner with a few ships. Blood money smells.

Just two instances which I believe highlight the unique issues with management companies. Incidentally, both are from very well reputed setups:

· I have taken over a ship with a two foot long and six month old crack in a shipside weld, which was nicely papered over with masking tape and painted. It was also not reported to the Owners. Why? Because work would have been required to be done which would have meant delays? Good job, guys, you didn't rock the boat.

· Prior joining a vessel, I have been given handover notes from the Master I was to relieve in a few days. These were then discussed on video conferencing with the managers. I have discovered, later and on the ships computers, that these handover notes were about two years old. They were being printed with minor changes since then, and presumably being discussed at other conferences. No problems, no issues, everybody happy with their head in the sand. ISM requirements complied with. Put a tick on that checklist! On the same ship, my relieving Master got annoyed with me because I did not give him the password of the 'new' handover notes I have made on the ship's computer (I forgot to delete the file). Never mind that he has printouts and the company has a copy. He wanted my computer file accessible for copying when he signs off; he called up my hotel after I had signed off a few times to get me to change my mind.

Looking at most management companies from a seafarer's point of view, these companies are probably excellent employers if one is a mediocre or low calibre officer. Large fleets, more employment opportunities. Lower expectations and pressure. (Lower wages, too, but like the lady told me once, you can't have everything). If you mess up a couple of times you may get away with it; you will be switched to other owners. More anonymity, which suits a low calibre individual just fine. Just keep the management happy above all others; come and go when they want and accept a little unprofessional pressure. And before I forget, for god's sake don't rock the boat.

On the other hand and by a similar yardstick, these are not the companies that a seafarer with higher standards of efficiency, integrity or professional pride should preferably choose, at least long term. Go where you will be more appreciated and where you will respect employers more; go to good ownership companies. All other things being equal, you will be happier there. Avoid Shipmanagement companies if you can, except for the few exceptions which prove the rule.

Come to think of it, I would have the exact same advice for above average owners, too.


July 05, 2008

Convenient truths

Maybe I am reading too many articles on shipping these days; my wife seems to think that they do nothing for me except raise my blood pressure. But when one comes across a handful of disturbing reports in a week, and when one examines closely the responses of the bodies of regulators, surveyors, flag and port states, owners, managers and the wider industry involved to these maritime events, then popping a pill a day to control blood pressure isn't nearly enough. It is time to bring out the defibrillator.

Two such events unfolded recently. Actually, they unfolded a while ago, but, as usual, we in the Industry have shown the usual callousness and lethargy in one case, and debated the other one to death. Both highlight the conflicts of interest that permeate the maritime world; both (with apologies to Alan Parsons) highlight the Vulture Culture that is widespread in our industry.

The first event is, of course, the curious case of the M.V. Rezzak. If I put together all the press releases issued by the DGS, including its very recent one, they tell me that a quarter century old and small Panamanian registered ship with twenty five Indians on board was detained for two weeks for presumably major deficiencies by Port State Control somewhere around the Black Sea. She then loaded a heavy density cargo and sailed out on a twenty four hour passage in bad weather. She never arrived; she disappeared mysteriously within VHF range of land with no transmitted distress signals of any kind. No EPIRB, no VHF, no DSC or GMDSS alerts or calls, nothing. No other ships in the busy area saw or heard anything. Not even a scream.

The usual suspects conducted investigations; besides raising a tentative finger at the Master's decision to continue on the voyage instead of taking shelter in a suitable lee anchorage, the investigation was inconclusive, even suspiciously vague. In fact, the 'investigation' seemed more like a Statement of Facts to me.

Indian authorities have protested the Rezzak incident recently at the IMO, four months after the Rezzak disappeared and after questions were raised in the Indian Parliament.

(Having been at the receiving end of reactions from similar suspects from port state, owners, managers, class, insurance and flag after a major incident at sea, I can testify to the lengths at which these go to protect their own interests at the expense of the Master, Officers' or crews'. It is a revelation. I could write a book on that one. )

Coming back to the Rezzak, did I forget to mention that she disappeared more than four months ago? Oh, I did? Bears repeating, though.

If an airliner had crashed, action would have been taken instantaneously. Everybody and his mother in law would be out there, diving, investigating, reporting and interviewing.

Be that as it usually is, here are some questions a curious seafarer would like to ask the IMO and the Industry, for his own future reference:

-If the IMO can get its members to put mechanisms in place for enforcing its regulations on board ships (except, of course, for inconvenient ones like the STCW rest periods), why can't it, in this era of crew criminalisation at public hearings, have a mechanism for forcing Owners, Managers, Class and member Port States to testify at similar public hearings? (Unless it says, like its big brother, that it can only 'urge' its member states to comply with its resolutions. Then it would be admitting its own frustration and impotence, and quite resolutely too.)

-Why are the Owners and Managers, once again as it so often happens, in the background? Of course, they may be one of the many post box owners and travel agent managers, in which case we have another issue that Shipping has been facing for decades. Maybe we need to hold a convention on that one, and discuss this over cocktails and dinner.

-Can the report of the Port State Inspector's deficiency list based on which the Rezzak was earlier detained be publicised widely in mainstream newspapers in India, please? Can the said inspector comment on the Rezzak's structural integrity?

-What happened after the reported malfunctioning EPIRB was replaced at her last port before the disappearance? Was the new one tested and fitted float free? Was it approved?

-Was the Rezzak seaworthy when she sailed out in bad weather? Yes, yes, she was probably certified, but that is not always the same thing.

-Was she overloaded? Was the cargo properly stowed and lashed? (Yes, there is a stevedore company certificate or something to the effect, but….).

-Any comments made in writing on the Master, Officer's and Crew by the inspector?

-Can the Class surveyor in attendance step forward, too, please, and comment on these (and similar) queries?

-Has fraud been investigated and ruled out?

-Did the Port State do enough after the ship was reported overdue, and if so, did it do so quickly enough?

-As one of the largest sources of manpower to the maritime world, shouldn't India, in all its new found emerging power glory, be doing more for its citizens at sea?

The Rezzak, when all is said and done, reminds me of the Holmes story about the curious case of the dog which did not bark at night. The omissions seem ominous.

But I may be wrong. Maybe I am paranoid, and maybe this is a simple case of a combination of an unfortunate but excellent ship, human error and an Act of God.

It would be nice of everybody to investigate the matter properly and prove that convenient truth, however.

We all owe the families of the twenty five missing Indian seafarers at least that much. Or maybe I am wrong there, too.


The second of these is not really an event but an ongoing debate that has been done to death. So much so, that my old theories of the Industry selectively implementing rules or cynically discussing them to death (Planned non compliance by debate?) are reinforced.

On one hand, there is continuing resistance to the idea of effectively marrying the SOLAS convention with the Safe Manning Certificate. I will not bore you again, (having done so earlier in this column, please read 'Certifiable Insanity' published here about a month ago) but I will quote just this much from that article:

" Issued by a Flag State that does not want too many people to be mandated on board else Owner’s may choose another flag, used gleefully by managers to attest to the fact that they are meeting requirements by appointing the requisite number of heads on board, ignored by all the crew but not the Master, the Minimum Safe Manning Certificate should be renamed the Minimum Manning Certificate: not much is safe about it."

Since then, meetings have been held at high levels internationally. These have been conveniently inconclusive. The 'debate', which is often a euphemism for planned and ad nauseum delay, has been postponed once again.

On the other hand, it has been reported that the two largest (as far as I know) Associations of Ship owners, agents and managers have joined hands to, amongst other things, promote seafarer interests.

Laudable as the intention undoubtedly is, and deep as the pockets of the joint entity may be, I fear that some of the crying issues of seafarer interest: fatigue, working conditions and criminalisation, to name a few, cannot be solved by organisations that represent shipowners because there is an inbuilt conflict of interest there.

Oh, and I almost forgot. This crying issue, too, the one we are discussing. 'The impact of the Safe Manning Certificate on Safety at Sea"

Nope, can't see a solution to this one either.