May 27, 2010

The well-known road to perdition.

Readers may also find ‘The Niger Delta, the next Somalia?” interesting – published in the same column ten months ago, in July 2009

History, as Marx would say, is repeating itself. It is now tragedy. Soon it will be farce.

About a week ago, five armed men in a speedboat boarded, ransacked and beat up all the crew on board a ship at anchor in Apapa, Nigeria, in the Gulf of Guinea. Five Chinese crewmembers were hospitalised, including the Master- shot in the leg, and a company representative, shot in the chest.

In unrelated back-to-back incidents next door in Cameroon, the Master and Chief Engineer of a Russian cargo ship are missing after an armed attack on the “North Spirit’ in the port of Douala. Also missing in the second attack in Doula is the Lithuanian Captain of the ‘Argo’. The armed men have simply taken the three away.

Cameroon has blamed piracy for its drop in oil production last year. Countries in Africa's oil-producing Gulf of Guinea say the threat of piracy is spreading, and is moving south. I will not even begin to dignify the argument of those that will say that these incidents are not high seas piracy but armed attacks within port limits; these semantics may be important to insurance companies but have little meaning to those mariners who are at the wrong end of an assault rifle.

In response to all this, the matrix is being reloaded once again. Foreign navies are ‘helping’ the local authorities in this troubled and increasingly violent region that has seen hundreds of foreign workers kidnapped over the years. The British Chamber of Shipping President is now saying that West Africa needs an anti-piracy centre similar to the one that covers the Eastern part of the continent. Meanwhile, a global coalition of organisations, including BIMCO, Intertanko, the ICS, ITF and P&I clubs, is getting together to demand greater action against piracy off Somalia; I wonder when they will add the Gulf of Guinea to their list. It all reminds me of Somalia, when I was witness to identical first steps being taken by foreign navies and governments when piracy there, shall we say, first flowered and then started to bloom.

It seems we are going down the same lethargic- and ultimately impotent- road to perdition as we have done in the Somali theatre. It is madness, therefore, to expect different results this time.

The biggest fallacy in fighting piracy is the one that continues to treat it as a criminal issue that will be solved by simply increasing policing and (this is hilarious) training crews. It is not. Piracy is a well-organised industry with murky links to parts of the Middle East, Europe and perhaps even Canada, judging by recent reports. It has links to extremist groups. It merges with political movements or militant organisations in some parts of the world, including in the Niger Delta, and it therefore demands political solutions concurrent with military ones. Besides, Somalia has proved beyond any doubt that policing even one ocean is impossible, leave alone two or three.

It is naive to expect that the success of the Somali pirates will not be emulated by others across the world, given the opportunity. It is a foregone conclusion, in my mind at least, that unless existing piracy is aggressively put down both on land and sea, any half baked sailor with a RPG, a boat, some khat and a large enough beef will be wondering how best to put all of them to good use; Africa, for a start, has enough corrupt and unstable governments, illegal arms, porous borders and rich resources that make the export- or should I say globalisation- of piracy an eminently workable proposition. I bet many criminal or terrorist groups across the world are compiling manuals on best piracy practices while the rest of the world is twiddling its thumbs.

Criminals at sea are a threat not just to the safety of crews but also to the security of nations. India, after the Mumbai attacks recently and long ago (the smuggling in of RDX by boat in the early nineties used in bombings across the same city) is no stranger to that fact. To me, therefore, all maritime criminal activity- including piracy and the smuggling of material, refugees or illegal immigrants, a universal phenomenon- is a potentially huge threat to border States.

It belies belief that the nations of the world- who are absolutely dependant on maritime trade- refuse to act effectively to stop piracy. This industry could do well to remind governments of the criticality of shipping. And for Heaven’s sakes, while they are at it, get them to make a mechanism to prosecute captured pirates!

We need to stop making seafarers guinea pigs again, this time in the Gulf of Guinea. The first step is to recognise that the old routines are not working and to come up with new comprehensive and workable ideas. The threat is widening and deepening, and it has the seeds within it to conflagrate at any hot spot around the world. The time for old-hat anti-piracy tactics is long past. What we need, instead, is a concerted global strategy. We also need more action and less smoke.


May 22, 2010

Something Happened

Something happens, usually when my cynicism is at its peak, which suggests that there is still some hope left for the seafarer. This happened last during the Hebei Spirit episode, when VShips stood beside the two officers who were obviously innocent; their eventual release from detention is as much a tribute to that firm’s tenacity and sense of fair play as anything else. VShips put their money where their outrage was; not many do that.

Although hardly as dramatic, another such event reported last week was, for me, equally game changing. Director of Quality Assurance Capt. Pradeep Chawla of Anglo Eastern was widely quoted in some industry magazines calling for minimum crewing scales to be revised upwards. “Seafarers have been burdened with many new tasks over the last two decades,” Capt Chawla reportedly said at a seminar. “The manning scales have not looked deeply enough into the consequences of watch-keeping and safety standards on board.” Capt. Chawla apparently made a presentation where, as Lloyd's List said, he showed slides of “a hapless master juggling an impossible array of small, distracting, but necessary tasks, including paperwork regarding everything from SOx and NOx compliance, port state control ballast water compliance schemes, and the owner’s cost cutting initiatives”. He also felt that the industry should look at pursers and administrative officers on ships once again to handle the mountain of paperwork.

To be sure, nothing Capt. Chawla said is unknown to anybody in the industry; the lowest rating sailing on any ship in the world today could have told us this ten years ago, just as he could have told the Koreans that the Hebei Two were innocent. What is path breaking are not the facts, but that a company of the size and reputation of Anglo Eastern is openly recommending that more people be placed on board so that they can operate ships unfatigued, and safely.

The Hebei Spirit outrage came after a long period of ship owners and managers starting to murmur about seafarer criminalisation; this issue of fatigue seems to be reaching a flashpoint of sorts too. It is not important how this round began, although it was first highlighted two decades ago; certainly the MAIB in the UK has raised it with the IMO for many years now (The IMO, typically, sat on it). The recent near disaster with the Shen Neng I at the Great Barrier Reef had Australian authorities listing officer fatigue as one of the causes once again. Managers and ship owners agree privately that ships are dangerously undermanned sometimes; a few (very few) have even placed administrative officers or additional staff on board.

No, it is not important where the issue started, but it is very important where it will end.

It seems clear to me that the seafarer shortage issue has quietly just escalated. Anglo Eastern’s opinion certainly matters enough that ship owners of any reasonable quality will not be able to push aggressively for lower manning scales now, so I assume, perhaps somewhat optimistically, that the era of mindlessly slashing crew complements is slowly coming to an end. Of course, if this happens, some owners will move to substandard managers, flags or classification societies and continue with their self-destructive behaviour. However, if some Port States get tough on manning levels, (you can bet that Australia is looking at this) these cowboys may find it problematic to operate their ships freely worldwide. I hope they do. May I remind these owners that manning certificates are actually ‘Minimum Safe Manning’ Certificates? With stress on ‘Safe’, please?

I also think that companies like Anglo Eastern will find very quickly that revising manning levels upwards makes business sense as well, and may well promote seafarer employment and retention for their companies. Such practices always do. (If I were going to sail, I would certainly consider giving a call to Anglo Eastern or VShips, for obvious reasons. One stood by its people; the other is taking sense and will probably make my ship safer and easier to work on.) Not just that, but any company that has adequately staffed ships may find, in the not too distant future, that they can market themselves to commercial interests much more easily, and perhaps ply to stricter waters more smoothly. They are putting money and effort behind safety and seafarer welfare; they are obviously serious about quality.

Of course, Anglo Eastern’s statement will not wave a magic wand and make the less committed disappear overnight. There are more substandard ship owners and managers around than we think there are; these toads are not going to turn into Prince Charming without many kisses. Just one recent example: a former machinist of the ‘Faina’, who was released by Somali pirates in February 2009, has hanged himself in Odessa because of non-payment of dues by the ship owner, at a time when he needed money for his daughter’s medical treatment. The amount owed? About 5000 dollars.

No, the vermin will still prey on our colleagues, and manning certificates will mean little to them. Nevertheless, what Anglo Eastern’s statement does is this- it raises the bar for the industry. It also gives notice to the IMO, Flag States and other regulators: they may find themselves redundant if a segment of the industry is prepared to take measures unilaterally after finding present rules inadequate. Therefore, the statement will differentiate, on another parameter, the wheat from the chaff, including regulatory chaff.

I am pleased on two additional smaller counts. For one, I am always pleased when anybody in the industry looks at seafarer issues through any other prism except the ‘demand and supply wages’ one. Second, my view is that most conferences like the one where the Anglo Eastern statement was made are akin to the Shakespearian life, full of sound and fury signifying nothing. Most industry meetings, to paraphrase Metallica (which is as distant from the Bard as I could get) has too many of the nowhere crowd crying the nowhere cheers of honour.

I am thrilled to have been proved wrong, for once.


May 14, 2010

Thoughts after catastrophe

As I write this ten days after it exploded and sank, the Deep Water Horizon calamity, because that is exactly what it is, will be a game changer- and not just for the oil industry. We in commercial shipping may distance ourselves by making a distinction between an oil rig and a ship, but the average Joe does not, and neither will regulators and governments that look aghast at the devastation that a single marine accident has caused.

The statistics are staggering. The Horizon will likely rival Exxon Valdez on the disaster scale by the time this appears in print; the present slick is at 9 million and growing at the rate of 5000 to 25000 barrels of oil a day; at one stage it tripled in size within twenty-four hours. Worse, this will probably ravage much larger areas off the US coast than the Valdez incident thanks to geography, the Gulf Stream and the Loop Current. Louisiana accounts for a third of domestic seafood produce in the United States, and this 1.8 billion US dollar industry now threatens to disappear almost overnight. Scientists are warning that the coastline of Florida may be at risk too. Amongst the other casualties of this devastation will be bottlenose dolphins, alligators, endangered turtles and hundreds of bird species. The impact of this single incident will be felt for years- even decades.

“I can’t imagine we’re not going to have some mass casualties,” says Michael Parr of the American Bird Conservancy. He is right; there is no sign that the leak will be plugged anytime soon, what with robot underwater craft working 5000 feet underground with no real solution in hand. The financial costs of the cleanup are likely to be equally staggering. BP, the operator of the rig, has seen 20 billion dollars of its market-cap wiped out since the incident; cleanup costs obviously not included here.

Political finger pointing in the US is well underway, although nobody is clean enough to do that. There is big money involved; the lease for a deepwater rig runs to a million dollars a day, give or take. President Obama is in the hot seat, having proposed increased drilling off the US Atlantic coast just weeks ago. (Republicans are also calling the Horizon Obama’s Katrina, though that is a little unfair; Katrina was not creating mayhem at the bottom of the ocean floor). Not that the Republicans have a cleaner history, with Sarah Palin’s “Drill, Baby, Drill” slogan for the industry fresh in people’s minds- and which many say should now read ‘Spill, Baby, Spill.”

The Deep Water Horizon episode will almost certainly end with much tougher US safety and oil spill response regulation, and therefore increased costs, for the oil industry. Commercial shipping, it’s cousin, won’t escape easily either.

Leaving the US for awhile, lest we think this is just their problem, I read recently that Nigeria has a couple of thousand incidents in its oilfields annually; many are, let us say, not minor. I am surprised that Saddam Hussein’s destruction of the oilfields and the estimated 520 million gallons spilled into the Persian Gulf did not result in a greater uproar; that was a deliberate act. In any case, much of the developing world is chasing oil at sea, and much of it gives, compared to the US, much lower priority and funding to the possibilities of such catastrophe, or resources required post accident. I shudder to think what would happen if a similar incident were to happen on the Indian coast; this is a country that ignores ships sinking and leaking oil in ecologically sensitive areas on its coastline. Orissa is a particular case in point.

Finally, my soapbox take on all this:
Oil and shipping companies get a bad rep, some of it undeserved.

More than 90percent of all goods-including oil- is carried by sea.

Recent accidents that could have been major include the Cosco Busan in Frisco and the Shen Neng I in the Great Barrier Reef (the Aussies did a slap up job there, with luck assisting). There have been at least five accidents, to my knowledge, on the Indian coast in the last couple of years where little has been done to even understand the risks, leave alone fix them. Two or three of these have been off Orissa, and have endangered the coastline, sanctuaries and endangered species (like the Olive Ridley turtles), but nobody really cares. We don’t have the equipment. We don’t have the people. Worst of all, we don’t have the will.

Ships and oil platforms are getting bigger and more numerous. Operators of both are run by accountants with calculators, who override professionals, though in reality both businesses require highly trained people and expensive equipment for safety.

Governments around the world, including the US, are just not geared to deal with the scale of such disasters. Hell, they cannot even deal effectively with a twenty year old issue that has been found to cause major accidents- fatigue at sea- because of the same accountants.

So, unless the world a) changes consumption patterns and/or b) is willing to pay much more for everything (which will happen soon enough- since every marine accident brings new regulation and more stringent safety features and so raises costs- this one will, too), future disasters will be more in number and bigger. Simple statistics of probability, really.

Meanwhile, part of the problem is you and I, as consumers.


May 06, 2010

The Odd Couple

“The Old Man is ok,” the Filipino Chief Officer told me cryptically. “But there is a problem when he drinks with the Old Woman.” The Old Man was obviously the Captain, and the Old Woman not so obviously his wife, who was a broad shouldered thirty something year woman who was hardly old, or even frail, as I found out to my cost later.

The problem, the Chief explained, was this: The couple used to get sozzled late at night and roam around the accommodation alleyway on the Captain’s deck. Bare assed naked. At sea and in port. Sometimes looking for a book to read in the smoke room, sometimes just out for a walk. Nude. Like that Emperor with no clothes.

The duty officers at night therefore had the additional responsibility of keeping a good alleyway lookout by sight and hearing and all other means appropriate to the prevailing circumstances and conditions, and, if the circumstances of the case admitted, shepherding the two back into their cabin, locking the door (a key to the Captain’s cabin was kept standby on the bridge at all times) and, since their cabin door could be opened from inside even when locked, tying up the door handle in the alleyway with rope such that it couldn’t be opened from within. A rope with a spliced eye was kept standby in the alleyway fire hose box.

This is why Indians stay put in domestic shipping companies, I said to myself, mentally rehearsing the knot I would use on that emergency rope. This was around thirty years ago, and I had just signed on my second foreign ship as a Third Mate. The idiosyncratic old men and women I was used to at sea thus far usually had their clothes on even when they were going crazy.

Ten days later, we reached La Guaira, Venezuela. I was on cargo watch at around 0100 next morning when the Turkish AB came up to me at No. 2 hatch with a gleam in his eye. “Captain, wife, no clothes,” he informed me laconically but with the same gravity that he used on the bridge to report a ship sighted suddenly in the open sea.

Like a fool, I rushed into the accommodation at a time when angels should have feared to tread. One deck below ground zero, I found half the crew groggily but excitedly gathered around the companionway door leading to the Old Man’s deck, too scared to go up and too excited to sleep or miss the fun. On the Captain’s deck, I found the Old (and Odd) Couple rummaging through the medical locker searching for condoms. Starkers. Not a stitch of clothing on them, although the Captain was at least wearing his whiskers.

I took off my working gloves. This job would require delicacy, precision, diplomacy, speed and the ordinary practices of seamen. Also a strong nose, because both of them were reeking of whisky and unwashed sweat.

I bravely caught the Captain’s arm. “This way, sir,” I told him, pointing towards the open door of his cabin, with the flourish, I hoped, of a MaĆ®tre D' indicating the direction to the best table in the house.

The Captain shook off my hand angrily. “Where are the condoms?” he demanded, looking accusingly at me as if I had stolen them all in a burst of misplaced optimism.

“They were here last week”, the wife added, looking at me with unfocused and puzzled eyes, alarmed, no doubt, by the possibility that the damn things were independently mobile. Meanwhile, I was trying to stay focused, looking into the Captain and his wife’s eyes with great concentration, partly because I was too scared to look anywhere else.

I was also flummoxed. They should have a course on this during Pre-Sea training, I thought. Our education does not prepare us enough in practical watch keeping. We need additional training in nude crowd control.

I decided to take the mare by the horns. I grabbed the lady’s arm, planning to lead her to her cabin and hoping that her faithful husband would follow. She whacked me immediately; a roundhouse that came from nowhere and split my upper lip, which, much to the crew’s delight remained swollen for a week. “Don’t touch me,” she screamed, much like a Bollywood heroine does as the villain advances lecherously towards her.

I panicked. I was in trouble now. No way was I was going to be sacked for assaulting a nude Old Woman. If I was going down, I would take others with me. So, in my best commanding voice, I called for reinforcements from the deck below.

Surprisingly, there seemed to be no shortage of volunteers; the operation was completed quickly and cleanly, partly because the Captain went suddenly sheepish as he realised, even in his inebriated state, that the show, almost private so far, now seemed to be going public.

We shooed the two lovebirds into their cabin, locked, and tied the door. I kept the Turk on guard outside the rest of the night for good measure, despite his alarmed protests.

Even later, the Captain never once asked me why my famous stiff upper lip was swollen.

(Footnote: Some stuff has been changed to protect the guilty)