February 06, 2009

Arrested development

The last few years in command have been a time of general mental stagnation in many ways for me. This is not because I know it all and am perfect; far from it. I have hardly learnt everything and all my professional mistakes are unfortunately not behind me. Every ship, and many officers, have taught me something new, and I have survived on luck as often as any of us. This feeling is not about a superiority complex, which Freud told us does not exist anyway; it is about a general feeling of dissatisfaction at the fact that, in many ways, professional and personal development seems to have estopped for me at sea . The feeling is more ennui than inertia.

One of the things that leap out is the fact that a big reason for this kind of unease is that seafarers are often disconnected from the larger industry they work in. There is no great measure of give and take of new professional knowledge through our entire contracts akin to what there is in many other professions. We feel disconnected from the wider industry because we actually are.

I stress on the ‘new professional knowledge’ bit in my last paragraph; recycled knowledge is there aplenty. Unfortunately, the dissemination of knowledge of what is happening in our industry worldwide, new initiatives and international trends, news, legal, technical, professional and human interest developments are just some of the information a seafarer is starved of.

I will ignore, today, the feel good company information that comes through. I will even ignore, on the same grounds, in house magazines that the larger management companies usually publish. I will also ignore voyage specific information that is sent across by default and contains information relevant for just the one voyage. This does not enable a seafarer to get an overall view of, say, regulations, procedures or intentions. The big picture is missing, unless it is mandated that it be hung on board.

Many officers and crew at sea are not interested in continuing to learn. Some have seen it all; others do not want to see any more, still others want to go through professional life just totalling their bank balances. They prove one of Newton’s laws. They are the bodies at rest that continue to be at rest. The problem is that these gentlemen are in large enough numbers for many ashore to generalise and say that there is no demand for new information or knowledge on ships, unless it is relevant to the task at hand. These seafarers are mentally inactive because of choice. At the opposite end of the spectrum are others, interested in new ideas, but forced inactive because they have no choice. Despite wanting to explore, these others are starved of even basic information in this information age.

There has been some attempt to redress this knowledge deficit in the better shipping firms. Many companies subscribe to emailed news now; some even send quality professional magazines on board. Unfortunately, the industry component of such news is usually insufficient, superficial and poorly presented. Even more unfortunately, many magazines sent on board are old and dated; they have obviously done the rounds in manager’s offices for a month or more before being sent on board. This is annoying, because dated news is no news at all. Besides, at least I need no reminding that a low ranking clerk ashore is more equal than the highest ranking officer on board.

Regardless, the end result is that tepid and old information tends to bore people who thirst for new knowledge. A wag friend of mine would undoubtedly say that updating seafarer knowledge is not part of the contract between the shipowner and the mariner and therefore not mandatory. True, my good friend, but this lack of information also dulls technical and professional growth and therefore efficiency on board, all of which is more in the employers’ interest than anybody else’s.

I do not count company seminars as acceptable substitutes here. For one, upgradation and professional mental stimulation is a continuous process and not an annual or semiannual affair. For another, company seminars typically have themes and are therefore narrow in scope and execution, and they cater to the lowest common denominator as far as coverage of the subject is concerned. Thirdly, the collateral advantage to an employer of a mentally sharp crewmember is maximum when said crewmember is on board and not when he is ashore. If I were an employer, I would want my seagoing employees to be sharper at both land and sea. The present lot of employers seems to use seminars as a marketing exercise.

Annoyingly, those of us who are interested in new information know how easy it is to access it ashore. Many of us try to keep ourselves abreast of industry developments while off ships. We may not subscribe to trade magazines, because we know that the information is easily available on the internet and in professional and trade publications and literature brought out by statutory bodies. We see this literature, usually in passing, at managerial offices and reception areas, and we wonder why we are not part of the loop at sea.

We hope that lightning will strike somebody who will devise a way to feed the fleet with this material someday. In addition, we hope that there will then exist a system of sending fresh and widespread industry related information to us on a regular basis. We wish somebody would spend an hour a week sending us an email with this information. And we wish that so many people did not assume that so many of us at sea were so dumb.

Mental growth is not stymied by this lack of knowledge alone, although I do believe that this is a big factor. There are many other reasons: Tedium, lack of variety in shipboard life, overwork, drying up of shore leaves, which used to refresh a seafarer in many ways and a paucity of selectable social contact are other reasons that contribute to the stranglehold on human and professional development at sea. Some of these reasons are in the nature of the beast and have to be lived with; others, like shore leaves and overwork, will probably not be satisfactorily addressed at least in my lifetime. Skeletal manning certificates and an industry which is antagonistic to the seafarer, or at least uncaring, will ensure this. However, the dissemination of new information is an easier and cheaper matter to fix, and will undoubtedly help general satisfaction levels improve.

Many trade magazines are online. Many are interested in marketing their information in the form of emailed newsletters to subscribers, as many of us know. Companies could well subscribe to both of these on behalf of each ship. The emailed newsletter to be received on a weekly basis; the magazine to follow directly on board.

While on the subject, what would happen if companies opened, for mariners, reading rooms or libraries in their offices across the country? What if they stacked them with professional reading material and invited all mariners in the city to use them? Maybe they would even get a few new recruits that way.


The meltdown in the freight and charter markets and the inevitable decimation of the global merchant fleet will have far reaching consequences way beyond what many imagine. As industry struggles to come to grips with the magnitude of the crisis, one big issue is that nobody really understands the full extent of the spread of the disease, and so does not know how much needs to be amputated. Citibank was bailed out for an amount equal to a third of India’s entire annual economy. Madoff has made off with 50 billion dollars, which if five percent of India’s annual GDP. The gloom and doom pundits in the maritime industry, too, forecast years of recession in the industry. The mood has swung from the perpetual boom scenario to a long term bust one. Neither of these may be accurate, but we better be prepared for paying the piper for some of the excesses of the last few years.

Cynics may well argue, when I talk of the need to manage human resources in turbulent times, that the industry has always lurched from one crisis to the next and made some money along the way, and so does not really need a long term sustainable solution to manpower issues. I do not buy that argument for one reason alone: If we do not find lasting solutions in India that address global seafarer shortages, then, sooner or later, a large part of the shipmanagement industry in India will cease to exist. Only logical. Besides, which cheaper nationality, except perhaps China, can produce mariners in the numbers required?

Meanwhile, for those of us at sea, expect major downward salary revisions, more choosy employers, poor maintenance and other budgets and stagnant working conditions. Some of us have seen, in the 80’s, what this can exactly mean. I hope, for the sake of the industry, that owners and managers have learnt something from those years. Somehow, as those famous guys used to say during our competency exams at the MMD, I have a few doubts.

Everybody and his aunt, from the IMO to owners and shipmanagers, are making the right noises on recruitment and training so far, although I fear that these noises can become shrill and change very quickly, if, for example, the recession goes on for the next three years. The industry is sitting on recent record profits. It would do well to invest some of those towards fresh recruitment and training of its future crews.

Failing to do so will chase another generation or two of youngsters away, with disastrous long-term results. Trained mariners do not appear out of thin air when required or ride into the sunset when they are not. We have seen in recent years how mismanagement of human resources has choked the industry. Matching supply and demand is not a simple linear equation; if it were, we would not have be facing unprecedented officer shortages today

Some equations are quadratic and complex and require a measure of foresight to solve.