August 26, 2008

Paradigm Shift




I once headed the Indian arm of a foreign software company for a couple of years. I saw and learnt, at close quarters, how that young industry managed problems of attrition and a young and temporary 'consultant' workforce in boom times; much the same conditions that we face in the maritime world today.

All said and done, they managed things much better. They did so because of a strong and robust Human Resource Development department that listened to its employees and adapted its policies optimally. They did this without going bust, and they are still doing so years later and growing, thank you very much.

In an earlier article of mine for Marexbulletin entitled 'Imagine', I tried to indicate the kind of paradigm shift required in HRD, and perhaps in the entire business model of ship management and ownership, if we want to tackle some of the pressing problems of today.

I have another such suggestion today. Just a suggestion; perhaps there are other options much better than mine which should be pursued; perhaps my suggestions, if felt valid, can be merged with those. However, the core reasoning I will outline below is, in my opinion, sound.


The fact is that a paradigm shift is unquestionably needed, one way or another, to tackle any booming industry which has a huge manpower crisis on its hands. Retention and attrition aside, I cannot see how we can continue to grow as an industry while being seen as increasingly unattractive by youngsters on the one hand, and one that projects alarming shortages in manpower requirements for the future on the other.

A mix of lower safety standards, higher insurance payouts in premia and inexperienced seafarers operating ships is not the ideal recipe for operational and financial sustainability in the maritime world. Throw in considerably higher fuel and crew costs in recent times, and the business model starts to look a bit worrisome.


In all this, and as I have found recently, it becomes difficult trying to present a seafarer's point of view to the industry, especially in India. The maritime world seems to resent this and reverts to an 'us vs. them' mindset. To be fair, many seafarers do that too, and too often. So, trying to find solutions sometimes tends to degenerate into a two way rant. Or a chicken and egg scenario.

It is my opinion that the more powerful chicken, that is the owners and the ship management part of the business, must take the initiative in, as the diplomats say, improving relations.
Once the intent is clear, seafarers may be brought around to a collaborative mindset instead of an antagonistic one.


To make this exercise successful, we need one more element in this mix that is missing thus far, and that is an interface with seafarers at large, and across Companies. I feel that there is a crying need for a seafarer organisation independent of owners or government to promote this effort, and indeed promote the industry in general.


I say this after some thought, and a growing realisation that while individual shipping firms may get as aggressive and creative as possible in their recruitment drives, and while the government may get as proactive as possible in promoting the industry in general, these are not the best agencies to negotiate seafarer welfare or address seafarer issues. This is primarily because they do this in an autocratic fashion, mandating things in the complete absence of seafarer input. I am convinced that this is why HRD in our businesses does not effectively work. Big Brother decides you need ice cream when all you wanted was a lollipop. Besides, he is watching you.

I say this also with a firm belief that existing seafarer organisations of any kind have not worked. Without going into the reasons why this is so, I will only say that the proof of the mule is in the kick; had they worked, we would not be in this mess today.


In addition, the government and the industry are ill suited to disseminate information about seafaring or attract youngsters into the industry. Serving seafarers are. We do not need to lure people into the industry with a fake collage; we need to tell it like it is, address concerns and help people make informed choices. If we do this, there will be minimal disillusionment later, and, provided we actually improve seafarers' lives substantially, I would stick my neck out and say there will be lower attrition issues across the industry in the future.

Again, this requires a paradigm shift in our thinking. I hope we are capable of that.


Humour me awhile. Assume, for a moment, that this idea is worth pursuing. Assume also, that we could name this organisation, aptly perhaps, the SPCA. (We can't, because the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals already exists. Pity.)

Our SPCA, of course, would be the Seafarer Promotion and Coordination Association. For now, let this delightful acronym be; we can rename it later.


Its objectives would be twofold and twofold alone.

1. Promotion of the seafaring profession across the country.
2. A pressure group for seafarers which
· pressurises government and promotes legislation for their welfare, including working conditions.
· pressurises government and promotes legislation for more transparency and dissemination of relevant information by the larger industry.
· pressurises industry to promote seafarer interests.
· disseminates information related to these to whichever seafarer wants to seek it through the internet.


(This idea was hinted at in this column two weeks ago in 'Time for the Hebei Jeebies', such an organisation would be very useful in the immediate aftermath of an incident such as the 'Hebei Spirit' one)


The SPCA should not be involved in any other activity like training or company specific promotions or seminars. Its brief should be collective, not sectarian.


Perhaps this can be funded by all the recruitment agencies in India. The parameters for contributions can be, annually, a per seafarer employed fee, or a flat rate.
Perhaps it can seek members from the seafaring community and charge a membership fee.
I do not envisage administrative and promotional costs to be that heavy anyway; they may be cheaper than five star hotel seminars of dubious value.


The structure of the organisation should be as flat as possible. At the administrative location, possibly:

· A small group of ex seafarers not affiliated to any one company and full time employees of the SPCA in an administrative and coordination function.
· A larger and rotating group of serving seafarers seconded to the SPCA, because, as we know, seafarers after a few years ashore start losing touch with todays rapidly changing conditions at sea. Serving seafarers keep our feet on the ground in many ways.
· A small administrative office
· One government nominee to assist coordination, and one from Industry. These to be coordination and assistance functions only, with control remaining in the hands of the autonomous body. In short, the SPCA to be autonomous and free from either government or industry controls.


I suggest that outside the administrative location and in other cities, promotional events that are organised use local seafarers as far as possible as temporary 'consultants' for organisation, input and promotional activity. A small pool of rotating seafarers will suffice. Some will be sailing anyway. These consultants can be compensated on a per use basis. They are spread throughout the country, and I am confident that at least some will be willing to give back something to the industry in a meaningful way and with integrity under these circumstances.


The SPCA should be autonomous, focused, free of the old boy network and lean. It should be able to move fast, which means minimal government and industry interference. It should be able to keep up with international events, resolutions and developments, which means an educated organisation that can plug into expertise when required. It should promote our industry well, which means lateral thinking and people who have the ability to present their point of view professionally and clearly. It cannot be old wine in a new bottle; it cannot be beholden to any group of entities in the industry.

It has to be setup and left alone for a while, periodic review and strict financial audits aside. It should be evaluated on the numbers of new entrants it generates and the improvements it helps make to seafarer welfare and working conditions.
I see an association like the SPCA particular useful in road shows and college presentations: who best to address seafaring related questions from the youngsters than local seafarers? Not ex seafarers, mind, many of whom have old, romantic and outdated perspectives today.


The apprehensions to such an organisation will be many. Many of us will see this as one more organisation amongst the many lazy ones, or fear that the SPCA will inevitably go the same way. To be honest, I have apprehensions about the selection of the permanent staff myself. As I said earlier, this will have to be, at least initially, an industry initiative, and if we go about doing this the way we have set up industry related organisations earlier, then the chances of success are minimal.

Other apprehensions include too much interference or control, the usual political shenanigans, corruption and partisan behaviour by the SPCA. Unfortunately and like many such organisations across the country, there are no easy solutions to endemic corruption. Perhaps an option to shut it down if a majority of the people paying the bills so vote is a good alternative.


Maybe somebody can tweak this idea. Maybe there is a slightly different and more workable one, in which case drop this and use that one. I don't care; I am not trying to promote my idea as the only workable one, or the best.

All I am saying is this: whichever way we go, it is high time that we started talking to seafarers at large when we talk about their problems, welfare and working conditions. It is high time we started talking to them outside an employee/employer atmosphere with a Big Brother smell in the room.
It is time we started listening to some of them. It is time we started involving them a bit more in the industry in a meaningful way.


As it is, because seafarers work away from administrative offices, day to day interaction including feedback is absent. There are also no exit interviews, or periodic meetings with management, outside the "talk down to the mariner" seminars.


Think about it: can you think of any other industry that does not talk to its employees?








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August 22, 2008

Sea of fear

Almost anybody with a Certificate of Competency can walk into a decent job today. Times are good for the officer seafarer: salaries are rising and so is the dollar, shipping is booming and shipyards are overflowing with orders, much like tankards at alehouses just before closing time.

So, in this benign atmosphere, why aren't seafarers demanding long overdue improvements in their working conditions from ship owners?


To start with, where is the demand for an equitable contract? One without restrictive, draconian or one sided clauses? One which lists in equal detail (same as those inevitable guarantees sought from seafarers) what the ship owners must guarantee the seafarer in return? Who is demanding details of Owners and P&I, for a start? Does anybody desire improved working conditions and decently manned ships?

Once aboard, where is the demand for a safe ship? Why do we so often, through ignorance or otherwise, accept lower safety standards from the owners? Why do senior officers leave port with unsafe ships and unfixed problems? How often have we accepted, on joining, less than satisfactory lifesaving and firefighting equipment and broken down critical machinery? Poor maintenance, leaking tanks, holed decks, poor spares and a hundred other small things all of which may not mean much on their own but collectively indicate a substandard ship? Why do we not reject an unseaworthy ship? We can come back and get another job within a week.


Why are seafarers not demanding an immediate resolution to the criminalisation issue? Or the lack of shore leave facilities which are increasingly common because of countries that give a rats backside about seafarer rights? Where are the seafarers at the forefront in demanding an immediate release of the Hebei Spirit officers? Leaving it to unions and industry organisations is not enough; one has to occasionally put one's money where one's mouth is.


Trust me; things will not get any better on their own. Because, your see, the labour being supplied (yep, you and I are labour, make no mistake about it) belongs primarily to countries in Asia, while owners remain primarily Western or rich Asian. Bluntly put, the more powerful countries where most owners come from have no interest in bettering your life or mine. It costs money to do so. We can't be allowed to die out, though, because we are required to run those ships. So some lower standards are maintained. Things aren't so bad.


The Indian recruiting agents are interested parties. Their record is hardly outstanding; they continue to be unwilling to do anything substantial in this regard. Ditto for the unions.

It is the Indian government which has to pressure international organisations to improve its citizens' lives at sea. And this will not happen until there is a powerful seafarers lobby (not owners, mind you, but seafarers pressurising governments and industry) in place. We know how all that works and what it involves, and if we don't, we had better learn.

A seafarers lobby without seafarers is like rum without coke, which brings me back to my initial questions, where are the demands? And, where are seafarers present in any (usually self proclaimed) body promoting their own interests?


I think that perhaps Indian seafarers, amongst others in Asia, have become spineless to the extent that we can't see beyond our next contract. I think that the contract system encourages this. Maybe it's not just a weak spine; perhaps there is more than a pinch of inertia in it. Youngsters looking at sailing for a few years before the inevitable MBA contribute to this disinterest in improving things; the shipping industry remains, often conveniently for owners and managers, frozen in space and time.


Mariners are fearful of upsetting employers; this is understandable up to a limit. However, your own safety and welfare, and attempts to improve those, lies in your hands.


I do not look at our brethren ashore to solve this problem; this has to be driven by those of us who are sailing. Owners and managers ashore are often part of the problem, ergo, by definition, they can't be part of the solution.


So the next time you accept a substandard hotel on joining or a wagged finger telling you what you can eat and when in that hotel, put your foot down.

The next time you see a substandard ship, walk away.

The next time a senior guy calls you a prostitute, tell him to do physically impossible things to himself.

If you are that disgusted with the treatment meted out to you in the US or Europe, including fear of arrest or no shore leave, refuse to sail there. Boycott South Korea too, while you are about it.


The next time you haven't had sufficient rest, refuse to work. It’s the law. (Disclaimer: though I have put down my foot too often on most everything, this one is a problem, as said in an earlier column. The STCW convention on rest periods came into force after I got command. And many Masters will agree with me that a Master stopping his ship rogers his own rest period faster than a snowflake melts in hell. Besides, a thus more fatigued Master does not contribute to safety. Unfortunately, much of this logic applies to everybody on board, and managers and owners know this well.)


That aside, Sailors always have more flexibility than many others. They are mercenaries on hire and contractual employees, at least so far. When sailing, the only fear I can possibly have besides a major incident at sea is losing my job. Trust me, people ashore fear much more. I have been there, too.

A Superintendent and a friend once put this across to me very well. He felt that a sailor losing his job meant another ship. A Superintendent doing so meant relocating his family, schools, moving house and the rest of the caboodle, and worse: he may have to sail again!


One of the biggest advantages a seafarer has is precisely this flexibility. Work when you want, when you want. Choose your employers, ships and runs. Choose safer ships, better working conditions, equitable contracts and employers.

Why would we be then so docile? What are we so scared of?


Maybe the time to strike is when the iron is hot, and when demand has over stripped supply.
So far the majority of us don't seem to have looked much beyond wages, though by many accounts many seafarers have got more demanding. Nevertheless, perhaps it is time to look at some of the other stuff too. Maybe it is time to get some spine back. The timing is right. The industry, like Uncle Sam, wants you.


We have to accept one overriding given here. That the time to evaluate a ship for safety and working conditions is after you join and are on board. A seafarer has to make himself aware of the ship, its condition, run and the working environment as soon as possible after joining. One has to be proactive and aggressive with this, because it can't be done before joining.

Some of the environment, depending on how receptive the Master and Management is, can be changed with a little effort. A little money and effort can be spent towards this. Larger issues of safety and well being, however, sometimes require drastic solutions. Walking away is one of them.


Incidentally, the reason all this can't be done before signing on is this. People recruiting you and me either just do not know, or often do know but with planned and devious calculation continue to be less than truthful about the owners, the ship, its run and condition. They continue to be less than truthful about working conditions, contracts, promises made prior joining and the whole gamut of information which a manager of integrity should give a potential employee before employment. They just want the warm body on board; the truth won't set them free.


Irrelevant perhaps, but it pains me that many of them are ex seafarers themselves. I know that it is tough to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. Lying is unprofessional, though. Some integrity would be nice, but apparently integrity is not mandatory.

I am disappointed that these guys feel the need to be less than truthful; perhaps they have made their deals, like Faust.


Whatever.


In closing and with a quizzical eyebrow, I can only quote Faiz to all of us, whether ashore or at sea:


bol, ki lab aazaad hain tere
bol, ki zabaan ab tak teri hai

(Speak up, for your lips are not sealed.
Speak up, for your tongue is still your own)











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August 14, 2008

Time for the Hebei Jeebies

Capt. Jasprit Chawla and Chief Officer Syam Chetan must be heartened by the support they have garnered from the international shipping community. The two senior officers of the 'Hebei Spirit' have become the focus of an international outcry of sorts; for the first time in my memory, at least, organisations such as BIMCO and the ITF have, along with a gamut of individuals and organisations from across the maritime spectrum, condemned the South Korean intransigence and asked for the two mariners to be sent home at the earliest.

In India, too, the joining hands of diverse organisations such as MASSA and FOSMA with the NUSI and MUI is an unusual occurrence in itself. Office bearers of these organisations have, in petitioning the DGS and the South Korean Consulate, warmed the hearts of many seafarers who continue to see a Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads every time they sail. The guillotine of criminalisation that has both dismayed and disgusted seafarers seems to have been begun to be blunted.


So it may seem all the more blasphemous for me to suggest that these initiatives are the smallest tip of the iceberg, and may even be championed by organisations I consider inappropriate to do so. As said earlier in this column, I am a little wary of Owners or Managers Associations and the Unions taking upon themselves the onus of championing seafarer causes without any appreciable seafarer input; I would go further and say that seafarer issues have to be driven mainly by seafarers and not by anybody else. In my experience, none of these organisations can speak as well for me as I can. Besides, there are clear problems of conflict of interest here.


I urge readers to consider the criminalisation issue as a war which has to be fought. This is not a one off thing; for every Capt. Chawla there are many innocent Masters under the axe in many countries.

Yes, we have to start somewhere. But if we take a step back, this is what we are saying if we don't think this through: that every time an Indian officer is prosecuted anywhere in the world, we will do nothing and just count on our industry to support him. In this case, months after the event.

Folks, that does not work because it is arbitrary and unplanned. We need to systemise our attack before we enter the war zone. We need a multi pronged strategy to fight this; we have to prevent the Capt. Chawlas and Chief Officer Chetans of the future, not support them after the damage has been done, or after they have gone through, in their own words, "anger, fear, depression and frustration" over a period of eight months before we decided to support them. And remember, they are still not free men.


If this is a war, I think we should have our strategy in place first; the tactics (some detailed later on in this article) will follow. In any case, the tactics will change with geography and the unfolding of reactions to our resistance to the so far largely unchallenged status quo.
I must define the 'we' who need to fight the war. My 'we' are all the Indian elements of our industry which have a direct interest in a flourishing shipping industry. It means Indian shipowners, Indian seafarers and Indian shipmanagers. Let's call them the Trinity. These three are impacted directly by criminalisation of the seafarer; one obviously and the other two by the growing manpower shortages with criminalisation being a factor continuing to make the industry less attractive for seafarers.

(The rest of the industry, administration and government do not have a direct interest and so will be unwilling or lethargic warriors. Besides, seafarers are not vote banks.)

This identification makes us run into our first brick wall. Seafarers, by virtue of their occupation, are not easily organised. I have a few suggestions about this which I will surface in a week or two; for now, I will only say that seafarer's voices must be given an organised outlet. It is ridiculous to propose solutions to their problems with a complete absence of decent input from them, or without them having a representative say in critical matters directly of their concern.


Anyhow and back on topic then, these are some of the factors which the Trinity's strategy should take into account:

· The goal is the satisfactory resolution of the criminalisation issue and the implementation of a true 'Fair treatment of Seafarers' by all countries represented at the IMO.
· A policy of gradual escalation in fighting criminalisation. Incremental steps and pressure to be applied as necessary by the Trinity.
· Use of the Hebei Spirit episode as a test case. To be used to fire a 'shot across the bows' of more powerful countries like the US and in Europe. Hebei Spirit to be the beginning, not a one off.
· Consider joining hands with the POEA in the Philippines as the other country supplying seafarers in large numbers. More teeth.
· Publicity, both national and international, is critical. Both of the problem, and the resistance to it. And in mainstream papers, because we need more than industry support; we need to dig into the Indian emerging power psyche and pressurise the Government at the same time.



Tactically, and a far from extensive list:

· Organise seafarer resistance. Like I said, more ideas in a week or two on this.
· The Government of India should be pressured by all Industry elements to make policy decisions and laws that protect its citizens who take to the sea as a career.
· The GOI to be pressured to make an immediate statement at the highest levels demanding the release of the two innocent mariners. Will the PM make a statement similar to the one he made when Dr. Haneef was arrested in Australia a few months before the Hebei Spirit incident? (I can't sleep at night). If not, why not?
· The GOI to demand that the IMO and the ILO come down on the S. Korean government. A resolution at the IMO demanding the release of the two? A boycott by ILO affiliated organisations?
· The GOI to be pressurised to raise the broader seafarer criminalisation issue with the US as well.
· Sustained pressure on the GOI to become more proactive at the IMO in protecting Indian seafarer and industry interests. Practical implementation of 'fair treatment' issues to be put high on the agenda. Officials to be chosen on the basis of their professional standing, not their political one.
· Similar pressure on the ILO and other international bodies
· Indian port unions to be pressurised to threaten boycott of South Korean ships calling Indian ports. Just threaten, for now.
· Trade magazines and media to mount a sustained campaign on this issue.
· Mainstream media to be targeted by the Trinity. The goal is to reach the protests to mainstream media on a regular basis. Erudite serving seafarers would make excellent spokespersons for the industry here. The campaign has to be sustained. I would like to see us persuading just one national news channel to take this up as a cause. I am sure this can be done if all the stops are pulled out.
· Seafarers should vote with their feet. An exclusion clause in a thousand employment contracts, saying, "The seafarer will not be asked to sail to or from S. Korea" will make the world sit up and take notice. Let's call it the Solidarity Clause.
· Shipmanagement companies to appraise any S. Korean clients on all these moves. In the end, it will be pressure on their government which will work.
· Shipmanagement companies to suspend acquisition of S. Korean clients.
· Pressure on the GOI to slow track any S Korean investment plans.
· Boycott of South Korean goods and services by the industry, and widespread publicity of this boycott, till the two officers are released. It is not the amount of revenue lost which will pinch the companies, it is the negative publicity.


If all this doesn't work, then I am afraid escalation may involve, say, a short message from the DGS stating that 'Effective two months later, Indian Certificates of Competency will not be valid for South Korea". Or something similar from the Government of India, essentially barring Indian officers from sailing into or out of South Korea.

The time is now. We can begin and test resolves and tactics and workability; lets also gauge whether we can use the same resolve to take on the broader, generic issue of seafarers being treated as criminals for no fault of their own, and even after being proven innocent.

For now, let's just start. It is time to give the heebee jeebies to the countries that treat us shamefully. The Hebei Spirit may well go down in history as the incident that made that difference and shook the lethargy out of us.


We need to do this for another reason. I believe that, at some level, this is not about Capt. Chawla or Chief Officer Chetan, or the dollars we will make and lose, or the fear that S. Korea will take reciprocal action against India. I believe that, at a very basic level, this is not about the fear of losing jobs or gaining job market share or Unions flexing political muscle. This is not even about addressing manpower shortages with promotion of seafarer interests.


The truth, as usual, is much simpler.


At a very primal level, this is about your self respect and mine.



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August 08, 2008

An attitude for survival.

A few years ago I faced, without doubt, the most dangerous crisis in my life at sea while in Command. Later, even after the dust had settled and the emergency forgotten, it took me quite awhile to analyse events; this happened slowly and long after the danger was past. Looking back at similar events in my career, I realised that while there are the inevitable 'what ifs' and 'maybes' to any such situation, there are many commonalities to an emergency too.

A break up of these common factors will have, usually, some or a combination of these elements: Long before the event, a safety element or two disregarded or underplanned, commercial pressure, fatigue, incorrect advice from ashore and mistakes made on board; sometimes numerous small mistakes which add up to a potential catastrophe. And luck.

During the emergency, a few of the crew will think and act appropriately on their feet, some will be beset by inertia and paralysis; annoyingly, some of the time will be consumed by sometimes useless communication. Other factors like fatigue, stress, equipment problems and morale are also common. And luck.

After the emergency, the management of the incident on board and ashore, operationally and otherwise, is the main imperative. Unfortunately, we tend to ignore one factor, a human one; the long term effect on the crew of a stressful life threatening situation.


It is easy to say that a Master, like all other seafarers, is trained to deal with emergencies, and stop there. My brief here is not to dispute the adequacy of our training, though I could well do that, it being a view I hold. However, my intention here is to suggest what I believe are good steps which should be taken on board in handling emergencies. That is, in addition to what we normally do.

I hasten to add that what I say is not meant to be a manual of any sort; just small things which I believe make a big difference. Though written for Masters, this may be helpful for everybody on board.

(I must stress that these are just some of the steps which happen to work for me and that I believe that there will be better and more cogent solutions from better Masters than myself. It is a pity we don't have a professional forum to tune this list and make it much better. We really should.)


Before the emergency

· I would put a 'Command mindset' on top of my list of essentials. Frankly, this includes the ability to say NO when safety or integrity is involved. No to everybody, from God to the Devil. Masters must learn to say no. This has to be cultivated in oneself beforehand; when the faecal matter hits the fan it is usually too late. Plan for safety. Say no to everything which comes in the way, including to the owners. That is part of your job. The thought should be: safety is my job and my responsibility and my decision. Inputs are welcome (provided they don't become useless and time consuming communication, especially in an emergency) but, in the end, this baby is mine.
· Safety is a continuous process. Plan beforehand. Do attend routinely to commonly downgraded or taken for granted (in today's busy commercial world) aspects of cargo, lashings, cargo shift possibilities, free surface effects in tanks, stability, watertight integrity, soundings, ventilation, securing high splash areas like the fo'cle and weather routeing services. Ignore checklists for this purpose. A Master's routine rounds starting soon after sailing works much better. Push a safety culture on board which stresses the importance of doing the basic things right. This is more important on short sea trades where routines are prone to be ignored. Anybody who has sailed in areas like the South China Sea or the North Sea on short sea trades will agree with me that weather does not look at the trade and neither does a fire, and that a typhoon can kill you as surely ten miles from the coast as a hundred.
· Be on top of safety issues unique to the kind of ship or its run. Educate yourself beforehand; if required, ask for information from the office.
· Do not accept dangerously low fuel reserves. Another common pressure tactic utilised which we often tend to succumb to. A voyage can easily take a few days longer, and often does. Fuel consumptions can be higher than anticipated for a variety of reasons. I for one don't want to run into bad weather and worry about running out of fuel at the same time.
· Make the fact that safety is your priority known to the officers, crew, managers and owners in said and unsaid ways. By doing so, you draw a line in the sand politely; it makes your life easier. In any case, you will be surprised how many support you even as some others will apply commercial pressure on you.
· Keep yourself updated regularly on board of deck and engine machinery problems. Build a rapport with senior officers for this purpose. (Avoid the CYA or blame game. It is a game with no winners.) An overview of possible problems is essential for a Master to gauge cascading effects of these and also to handle emergencies. Synchronicity of events can kill as surely as an explosion.


During the emergency:

This is not, as seen in one Cadet's dubious training text book, an exercise of "If the ship runs aground, stop engines immediately". This is a mindset exercise for professionals. My suggestions here:

· Think. Don't let yourself be overwhelmed by minutiae. Think about what can get worse, what else can go wrong and what your options are. Think ahead and be prepared. Shortlist reliable officers and crew in your mind for critical tasks. Keep thinking, like a chess game, as many steps ahead as you can cope with.
· Remain in Command and keep morale up. Keep calm. Panic spreads. Cultivate an attitude of 'us against the world' on board at these times. This keeps morale up as much as anything else, in my experience.
· Coordinate. Self explanatory, really, but what is not is that an individual's ability to multitask becomes critical. Speed and accuracy are vital here.
· Keep spare bandwidth. Don't run on top gear but keep some physical and mental reserve. You will probably need it sometime, and then you can move into top gear for awhile. This helps you keep physical and mental control, too.
· Seek information and opinions from on board and ashore, if required. Be aware that some will assume you are trying to pass on your responsibility by doing so and will bring this up much later as a Command failure. This does not matter. You are solving the problem. Besides, dogs bark. The caravan passes.
· Solve the problem and forget the peripherals. The smaller or the less important stuff, like heaven, can wait.
· Delegate. We are dependant on very basic things as well as big ones at sea. Everything from a torch and a walkie talkie to an Act of God can be critical at different times. So, delegate the small stuff to junior officers and the medium level stuff to seniors. Do not delegate a Master's decisions and actions; those are yours alone. If you start delegating these you start losing your authority. Chaos and panic can result quickly.
· Keep a log and records; this can also be delegated. Take photographs if possible and applicable.
· Be aware that some ashore will already be preparing for financial catastrophe while you are fighting for your life. That’s ok, that is their job. However, it is not your priority, so minimise non essential communication with shore/commercial interests. In fact, minimise all communication with shore unless seeking information, especially specialist information. Tell them so. Your concentration should be on the problem in your face. Do not let communication paralyse action.
· Be aware that you will hear, "Captain, you are in command, it's your decision" more often. Be well aware of the reasons for this statement, and for the fact that some firms will be recording what is being said on the phone.





After the emergency

· Make a conscious effort to defuse the pressure the crew has been under.
· Be aware much of the crew, and you may be suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I would advise any Master to have a basic knowledge of its symptoms. When it first hit me many years ago, it took me awhile to recognise what it was). Be aware that the maritime world will do nothing to address this; a seaman is expected to be the strong and silent type, and get ulcers.
· Be aware this is the time personnel problems will surface on board. Release of pressure can create its own problems.
· Be aware that many interests will now start playing the blame game and 'protecting their interests', often a euphemism for blaming the crew if they can.
· Stand up for your crew and officers who have performed well under pressure. And stand up to those who try to point unfair fingers at you.


And, when the accountants and their calculators take over the ship, take a minute to be satisfied with yourself. Leave the self analysis for later; it is too soon right now. Distance lends perspective, and one needs that if one wants to learn from this incident.

In closing, and as said before, this article is oriented more towards a workable mindset than a checklist for action; we already have enough of those, though shipping casualty rates continue to rise worldwide inspire (or maybe because) of them.

My suggestions are a psychological exercise; an attitude I find useful to have when Joyce's "scrotumtightening sea", or indeed any other crisis, comes knocking on your door.


Sometimes, the right attitude is half the war.









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August 01, 2008

Opaque facades

A conversation is attributed to Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, in which Nehru enthusiastically exclaims, "Bapuji, the whole country is moving!"
Gandhi replies, "Yes, but in what direction?"

I would like to ask a similar question of our managers ashore in the maritime world.

The shipping world is moving, or appears to be. The right noises are being made on officer retention, safety, fatigue, criminalsation of the seafarer and other such burning issues. Unfortunately, a lot of these noises are like politician's speeches, full of high flown idealism, catch phrases, platitudes and declarations of intent: we should do this, we must do that to progress, we must work together, teamwork, procedures, we are a family… all these all sound wonderful to the untrained ear.

Talk, unfortunately, is cheap. And misguided effort is not progress.

I strain my ears to hear a simple statement such as, "Here is a major improvement we have made with regard to just one burning issue, and this is how it has worked, or this is why we think it will, and our benchmark for success will be a substantial drop in our seagoing officer attrition rates and a measured increase in job satisfaction amongst our seagoing employees."

I wait for such statements, but it is a bit like waiting for Godot.

Blinded (and blindsided) as the industry is with manpower shortages, it is but natural that most of the microphones are directed towards just this one issue. I suspect there is still a hopeful but dying school of thought that assumes that seafarers are not terribly bright and therefore will be taken in by the same clich├ęs' time and again. Good luck with your microphones, gentlemen; I sincerely hope you are right this time.

Seminars seem to be the order of the day. In the absence of any concrete measures, these are apparently an excellent means of interacting, solving problems and coming together as a family. Along with women and family clubs and such creative ideas, these should certainly fool some of us some of the time.
I do wonder, though. How many managers or owners are paying their seagoing officers wages to attend these gatherings and listen to bromides? They certainly seem to be paying themselves. (In this connection and not so long ago, I remember some of the same seafarers having to pay for the privilege of eating dinner with their bosses and listening to them at seminars, besides paying for flights and hotel costs, of course, in some of the same 'top' management companies.)


All supply and demand, right? Perhaps, which brings me to a related subject. The transitory nature of association between owners and floating staff, seminars and 'families' notwithstanding. Because, that is what it continues to be, this relationship, transitory.
Perhaps it is time for all of us to accept that there are no new ideas, and until we come up with solutions instead of banalities we should stop deluding ourselves and others. Let's be upfront about the supply and demand bit. Let's accept that we have run out of ideas, and that it is every man for himself.

Let's stick to increasing wages until the whole thing implodes in our faces and then we can go fishing.

Let's forget about wasting time and energy on ideas which have been done to death over many years and have not made any substantial difference. (Doing the same unworkable thing again and again makes one very good at, well, doing unworkable things.)

Let's not pretend any more.


Veeresh Malik, whom I quote here with his permission, says this much better. He makes a very valid point in an online merchant navy group when he writes that "the industry should tell it like it is: tell sailors there will be no shore leave, no families and no respect demanded or given between anybody ashore and afloat, but only amongst the crew"

Elaborating, he is making a point, questioning the "respect" bit, given short timelines and a purely transactional relationship. So, better if shippies on board are put into their isolated little cocoons, and some sort of give none/get none kind of relationship emerges.
(That works well assuming the ship itself is 100A1. But when the owner expects the crew to present a ship which is not 100A1 as such, then the score starts changing, right?)


Unfortunately, like many of us used to an autocratic setup at sea, our industry too does not take such criticism very well, and in fact often treats it as blasphemy. The industry is not run in a terribly transparent manner to begin with. In addition, the transitory nature of employment does not lend itself to the chances that seagoing staff will be interested or concerned in either a company's structure, budget, shore procedures or future plans. Sometimes the very nature of ownership is hidden from the seafarer, in a post box somewhere.
The veil is not encouraged to be lifted anyway. The opaque curtain remains. The status is well and truly quo.

A seafarer's criticism, however constructive, is usually downgraded, compartmentalised and dismissed as frustration and the output of a less than intelligent labourer. This is because managements see themselves clearly as the bosses who know best, never mind the hype about families, teamwork and all that jazz.

I hasten to add that there are notable exceptions to this; I have been corresponding with some managers who have responded to this column or my blog, displaying an understanding of the maritime manning business which is rare.
Rare as they may be, they are the people who will make a difference; I wish I was in a position to give them badly needed support.


It is my belief that, in contrast to non transparent ownership and management, senior officers on board have become (or have been forced to become) much more transparent over the years, thank God. Short manning surely has something to do with this, plus improved communications between ship and shore. With increasing regulations and greater preparation and paperwork required at sea prior arrival port, information has to be speedily disseminated by the Master to ensure that there are no problems while tied up at the berth. Transparency, therefore, is also mandated by circumstances, and leads to greater efficiency.
Could it also be (gasp) that seagoing staff is now more progressive (gasp) than its managers?


Coming back to the criticism issue, although it is allowable to criticise seafarers publicly in abusive language, calling them prostitutes (talk about fleeting relationships!), like a shaky pillar of the shipmanagement community did not that long ago, it is not preferable for the company concerned to publicly apologise. Hey, they say, members of our 'family' call each other streetwalkers all the time!

It is perfectly all right to be condescending and snidely derogatory of seafarers, their intelligence or commitment. (A good one currently doing the rounds is that a seafarer's job is not rocket science. I absolutely agree. And neither is arranging visas and tickets, which passes for shipmanagement quite often.). I have seen this happen numerous times. However, the faecal matter hits the fan when a manager is unfairly and similarly attacked by a senior seafarer. I have seen this happen, too. It isn't pretty.

Under usual (if not normal) circumstances, a seafarer may gripe about management on board, but, unless he is a senior officer not afraid to speak his mind, he really has no easy avenues of surfacing his opinions to the management in any constructive way. He can't effectively criticise them; hell, he can't even really suggest improvements to management style! (The 'management level' nomenclature added to his competency certificate is then made to feel like window dressing anyway).
The only recourse he does have is to quit, or refuse specific assignments which bring him in contact with people he would rather not work with. (I happen to think the second option is unprofessional, and I have stuck out my neck to say so.)

So, the opaque curtain remains. And so does memory.


Meanwhile, I wonder if there will ever be room in the maritime industry for somebody who thinks he can make a difference to HRD, and raise it above the level of a fish market on a Sunday morning.

And meanwhile, gentlemen, at the end of my virtual seminar here, I vote we disband the old boy's club, precisely because it is old and outdated. I suggest we stop pretending that our interactive session here was anything more than a grievance redressal forum. In fact, let's do away with future seminars altogether, given our transactional relationship.

But before we go, just one thing. Somebody please tear down that opaque curtain; it’s a facade and too many are hiding behind it.





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