March 27, 2009

Mettle fatigue

By now, sailors must be absolutely fatigued by the melodrama over the fatigue at sea issue. I certainly am. Beating a dead horse tires everybody out.

The latest: Eight months after the ‘Antari’ incident, a Marine Accident Investigation Branch (UK) report recently took the unprecedented step of recommending that the UK government take unilateral action in addressing the problem of seafarer fatigue. The Antari ran aground off Northern Ireland last year when the officer on watch fell asleep; investigations confirmed continuous overwork and fatigue ever since he joined the vessel. The MAIB says that such instances are rising and says it is just a matter of time before ‘unguided missiles’, as it calls such ships, cause a major disaster. The report also severely criticizes the IMO for ‘failing to address this issue satisfactorily’, hence the recommendation for unilateral action. It also says seafarer working hours are ‘close to slavery’.

Ho Hum. Pass the popcorn.

The moment the lowest rating is told, sitting at home, that the car carrier he is slated to join is short manned and on a short sea trade in winter in the North Sea, he knows exactly what he is letting himself for. A port every alternate day, lashing and unlashing, insane port stays, perpetual fog, heavy traffic and a contract that promises only one thing: that sleep will be at a premium. Everybody knows this: from the seaman to the Master to the manager. The Flag State knows this when they issue a Safe Manning Certificate, hiding behind the notion that crews’ commercial duties are not their concern when they deliberately short man ships. They will claim that it is the responsibility of managers and Masters to ensure sufficiently rested crews. In short, not my problem.

The managers will point out that they are complying with all regulations and absurdly minimal manning certificates. Masters will bemoan the fact that they cannot operate ships with skeleton crews without completely ignoring fatigue. We have gone round this mulberry bush many times. It is tiring.

However, there is a way, as I discovered when I barred crew on one such ship from involvement in cargo securing at about fifteen ports a month. This, after a helmsman was found nodding while steering in the North Sea. Obviously, the stuff hit the fan after my decision. Charterers, owners, managers and supercargoes decended on me. Accountants whipped out calculators and told me how much money and time they would lose by having to arrange expensive shore securing gangs who would work only on a ‘separate lashing gangs required and to be paid during ship’s total stay in port’ basis. The crew weren’t happy either, for obvious reasons. I stuck to my guns, perhaps because I was tired and fatigued by it all. Surprisingly, I kept my job, perhaps because this was a couple of years ago.

Pardon me, therefore, for saying that I for one cannot understand what the Antari hoohaa is all about, because it is crystal clear to me that regulatory authorities in general and managers in particular have no intent to solve this problem. Periodic brouhahas after accidents over more than a decade have resulted in nothing more than hand wringing and finger pointing; the Antari incident promises to be one such. I predict that the wringing hands will be washed soon, though all the perfumes of Arabia may not be enough.

The buck stops, as it often does, with the Master. I should put my foot down more often.

On board Contingency Plans are too many in number and too complicated in implementation. Sometimes we take the ‘What if’ question a little too far. I have periodic nightmares of Superintendents sitting over coffee and risk assessment, one telling the other, “What if they crash into a whale, or even a mermaid? We need a contingency plan for that!”

As a Master, I have sometimes wondered if I am even aware of all the various contingency plans in the manual, worrying that if there is an emergency, I may not realise that the mandarins of mayhem have it well covered. On paper, at least.

Slightly more seriously, some contingency plans are useful, prime examples being abandoing ship, fire, collision, grounding, oil pollution, pirate attack, man overboard and crew injury. Unfortunately, there have usually been more than a dozen contingency plans each on the ships I have sailed on recently, most of them doing nothing more than cluttering emergency planning and diluting the point of the exercise.

Contingency planning must be focused and operationally sharp. It must take into account the level of staffing on ships these days and the fact that small crews are more likely to be overwhelmed by a spreading and escalating emergency more than ever before. It must allow for the time consuming and complicated reporting requirements that are commonplace these days, and that some officers may not be fluent in the language of the emergency manuals on board. It must have, ashore, a Superintendent and a DPA who are completely familiar with the ship (Superintendents often are, DPAs are often not). Finally, contingency planning must cover the most threatening likely emergencies and no more. Twenty contingency plans may look impressive on paper, but the system is unworkable in practice. The planning must be focused and simple. It appalls me, for example, when “Emergency Stations Muster Lists’ occupy entire bulkheads, because I can almost guarantee that many crewmembers have not understood their elaborate, confusing and often conflicting duties. Drills would be conducted in an atmosphere of crisp urgency without confusing crews as to their duties, if the contingency planning were simpler.

How much simpler? Tongue in cheek now, an example from a Norwegian engineer in a Montreal bar, who had me in splits with his ‘Shipboard contingency plan in the event of a nuclear attack’.
It went something like this:
  • When you become aware of the occurrence of a nuclear attack, call the Master and sound Emergency Stations.
  • Try not to panic, or at least avoid screaming.
  • To prevent being struck by flying debris, get under the table and make your profile as small as possible by placing your head between your knees with your fingers interlaced behind your head. The head must be well between the knees for the next step.
  • Kiss your ass goodbye.

    Thank you for your attention.