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.


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