September 24, 2009

Flying South

While some of the State and industry players responsible for the dismaying increase in the criminalisation of mariners will not be reigned in unless the Maritime Labour Convention or some such is rammed down their throats, Masters and crews can do a lot to minimise the risk of being prosecuted for their behaviour during the course of their duties.

On the top of this list must be the staple rule of thumb: Do the right thing. Applied to operational accidents and maritime pollution, which must be the two main reasons seafarers are incarcerated these days, this means that crews must decide to, quite simply, ignore commercial pressure wherever safety is even obliquely affected. I agree that this would cover an extensive gamut of operational matters and is not always practical, but I also believe this: Money is made by the professional conduct of Masters and crews; this includes adherence to time tested practices of seamanship, navigation and the operation of machinery. This also includes compliance with international regulations, although many of these, like the ISPS Code, are so knee jerk and ill thought out that they remain a joke. Nonetheless, there can be no argument for bending the rules in an attempt to squeeze out the extra non professional dollar out of the system. If the industry wants to do that then it must start with getting the regulations changed; nothing less will do.

The second thing all crews must do diligently is maintain accurate records and logbooks. Countries, particularly the US, continue to prosecute mariners for non compliance with regard to rules and falsification or inaccuracy of records even outside their jurisdiction. This applies particularly to Oil Record Books (aside: why, pray, is the Chief Engineer not required to sign on some of these when the Master is?) but can easily apply to others too. I have found that keeping a contemporaneous record of unusual events that occur on board is an excellent practice, even if it is in a duty officer’s notebook to be transferred to the log later. This habit promotes a system that will be hugely beneficial in case the event escalates into a fully fledged incident; moreover, it promotes a culture of compliance. It sends out a clear message to the crew that the ship is serious about what it is doing.

Equally importantly, shipboard senior officers in particular and crews in general must deal with inspections and investigations in a polite and professional manner. This presupposes that they know the rules and are confident of the status of certification, operations, procedures and equipment. This presupposes, too, that they do not jump to attention if any inspector is being unusually obtuse and so this assumes that the crews know what they are doing. Senior officers, in my experience, can do much to obliquely define the attitude with which a ship faces a Port State inspection or an enquiry after an incident. Come to think of it, this attitude seems to work well with many others, including Ship Superintendents, Classification Society Surveyors and those particularly annoying customs and immigration personnel.

Next, I suggest nobody lie to shore authorities. I have had the US Coast Guard greatly appreciative of the fact that I reported even relatively minor navigational problems to them and the pilots before arrival into that country. On a ship that was on a regular run between Europe and the US, the goodwill thus generated resulted in inspections that were based on mutual trust and a visible degree of comfort on the part of the USCG that the ship would not try to pull a fast one over them. It made our lives easier.

Then, as any Master will tell you, crews should realise that not everybody is your friend after an incident. In fact, few are. Most owners and managements will not even pay your salary even if you are wrongfully detained and later proved innocent (I once asked management, half in jest and when they were sending me on an old poorly maintained ship on its first voyage to the US, if my wages would be on in case I was arrested. Unappreciative of my attempt at humour, they said yes. In any case, it did not matter; the ship was detained after I boarded but before I took over command). Usually, all parties will descend on the ship to protect their interests: a euphemism for a massive CYA operation. This includes owners, management, all hues of insurance and classification societies. In one such incident, the bridge of the ship was transformed into a photocopying centre, with one officer spending days just getting the paperwork done for that league of extraordinary gentlemen. Meanwhile, a Superintendent was advising me to take a set of copies ‘for my own protection’. (I told him I did not need those, as I had nothing to hide, although he might.)

The bottom line is that Masters and crews have to be wary of any attempts to railroad them after an accident. We hear and read the usual shibboleths from management on supporting seafarers, standing by crews, being one big family and such. We do not read of the many more incidents (or the names of companies) that have falsified records, abandoned seafarers or sandbagged mariners into taking the rap for them. There is not even a serious attempt to minimise crew or Master detention or seek bail, in some cases, if it is felt that doing so may be detrimental to management’s interests. The innocent man is the first casualty in such an atmosphere.

However, even a cynic like me will tell you, from experience, that it is not impossible to counter the advice of these friends. If I keep it simple, do the right thing, keep proper records and do not lie, then I have mitigated the danger of incarceration to my crew and myself. Mitigated, mind. Not eliminated.

In the end, a favourite fable of mine should complete my suggestions to mariners in such eventualities. The fable is not just a good story, but it contains some wonderful lessons on life, particularly for those of us at sea. So here it is, the fable of the nonconformist sparrow:

Once upon a time, there was a nonconformist sparrow who decided not to fly south for the winter. However, the weather soon turned so cold that ice began to form on his wings, and he fell to the earth almost frozen to death. To make matters worse, a passing a cow crapped on the little frigid bird.

At the end of his tether and dying, the sparrow cried out, “Woe is me! Is this is how my life is to end, frozen and with cowshit all over me!!?”

But, wonder of wonders! The fresh manure warmed the sparrow and started defrosting his frozen body. Slowly but surely, the sparrow was thawed out, warm, happy and relieved to be alive. Happily warm and still lying in the cow manure, he started to sing.

Just then, a large cat came by and, on hearing the bird singing, investigated, cleared away the manure, found the chirping bird and promptly ate him.

There is not one, or even two, but three morals within this story:

Moral 1. Not everyone who craps on you is your enemy.
Moral 2. Not everyone who digs you out of crap is your friend.
Moral 3. If you are warm and happy in your pile of crap, keep your trap shut.