June 25, 2010

No Mama, no Papa

Is the Indian shipmanning industry under serious pressure? Some of the seafarer numbers and remittance figures coming out of the Philippines make it appear so- although, in the absence of reliable Indian seafarer statistics (or indeed, any comparable statistics out of this country)- how would I know? We do not even know how many of our ratings are unemployed, though the DGS suspects enough are, and has put a moratorium on raising intakes by training institutes.

Filipino ‘sea based workers’ (a term that includes those employed in the cruise industry) sent home a record US 3.4 billion dollars last year- a 12% year on year rise; the trend is continuing in 2010 as European shipowners switch to cheaper crews, a fact borne out by remittances from Europe. Just five years ago, in 2005, total Filipino sea based remittances were at US 1.7 billion; these have since doubled. The Philippines Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) has some interesting statistics: the number of ratings has actually fallen from around 140,000 to 92,000 in the last two or three years. The number of officers has, however, jumped from around 51,000 to 79,000, an increase of fifty-four percent. (Incidentally, there is concern in the Philippines, as in India, that officers are quitting sailing much earlier in their careers than ever before)

To those still sceptical about the Filipino story, let me point out that Manila, not Mumbai, was chosen to host the 2010 international diplomatic conference on the adoption of the revised convention on STCW. The maritime world obviously thinks that the Philippines, not India, is the place to be as far as shipmanning is concerned. Thing is, they have thought so for many years now: Norway, the Netherlands and Sweden each have a major presence in that country in maritime training, and Japanese and other overseas employers will train, directly, a couple of thousand officers in the next few years.

Those of us who have seen the metamorphosis of the Filipino seafarer over the last few decades know that the POEA has had a lot to do with it. Although no such body exists in India, this is not an India vs the Philippines debate: substitute China, Ukraine, Nigeria or whatever for the Philippines a few years hence and the same rules will apply, and so will similar outcomes. The fact is that the Indian seafarer’s commitment to his career is dwindling and new recruits of calibre are hard to come by. With nobody to address this issue- or, indeed, to have a good look at the entire MET setup that needs an urgent overhaul- this weakness can destroy us. Falling standards do not inspire confidence in shipowners, and they certainly don’t warrant higher wages.

The historical comparative advantage of the Indian seafarer is being frittered away. We have no centralised apex body that examines seafarer employment related matters, promotes Indian seafaring to shipowners or to domestic youth, keeps statistics or databases or standardises mariner contracts. The authorities that were supposed to do some of these, at least, have failed. Middlemen in the MET and recruitment setups and corruption are doing the rest. And so, the Indian seafarer- especially the Indian rating- has, as a Filipino Bosun used to tell me in another context, ”No Mama, no Papa’.

The system is- by and large- corrupt, seedy, self serving and brainless. It does nothing for the industry; all it is interested in is lining the pockets of individuals, whether they be petty government officials or private touts. This is the biggest reason why the Filipino seafarer global marketshare is almost five times ours. The other reasons floated by some in the industry (seafarer commitment and demands, for one) are red herrings. They contribute to the killing, sure, but the corruption ensures that the slash across the throat slices the jugular .

Everybody knows this; some even try to fight it. Some large ship management companies choose new recruits carefully, sponsor them, train them at their own (relatively decently run) institutions and employ them on their clients’ ships. A few maritime training institutions outside the orbit of the biggies are trying to give good education to those that they do manage to attract, even if they are hamstrung by not being able to guarantee their graduates post sea training berths. Individuals with commitment and a desire to give something to the new generation of seafarers are still around across the industry.

However, these snippets are stray happy incidents in the tragedy that continues to unfold. These are the exceptions to the rule. The rot that has set deeply within the Indian seafarer selection, documentation, training and recruitment processes- in fact, with anything to do with that oh-so-fashionable term of this year, the ‘Human Element’- cannot be fought piecemeal. This system too, like so many in India, is falling apart and needs an immediate overhaul. If we cannot overhaul it, then the present system needs to be thrown away: nothing less will do. Happy snippets will never ever change the story of the broader tragedy. To change that, we need a completely new story, with chapters that make sense.


June 18, 2010

Hail to the Chief!

It is odd that, while the changing role of the Captain over the years has been subject to much scrutiny and debate within our industry (though not much action in terms of balancing responsibility and authority), the poor Chief Engineer’s changed fate has been ignored almost completely. His life at sea and the pressures put upon him have altered as much as the Master’s in the last quarter of a century or so.

The Chief Engineer, or burra sahib, as he was known in the days of my apprenticeship (and, sigh, youth), had an enviable lifestyle. No doubt part of it was because of the manning levels: a full complement of certified (and well experienced, I may pointedly add) officers, two fifth engineers, an engine bosun and storekeeper, a gaggle of watchkeeping ratings and other miscellaneous crew ensured that there was an embarrassment of plenty at the Chief’s disposal. The Chief normally got up late for breakfast, pottered around in his office poring over logbooks, sounding books and such till ‘lime juice time’, when he went down to the control room to have a coffee and shoot the breeze with the engineers for half an hour or so. He then came up, had a shower, changed into uniform and proceeded to the Captain’s cabin for a meeting of the ‘top four’, 11 or 11:30 in the morning being considered a good time for a pre lunch beer by most senior officers in those days. Post lunch was siesta time, of course, after which the day was ending: time for perhaps another engine room round and a sundowner, and perchance a genteel game of bridge before retiring for the day.

The same man today is found more in a boiler suit than in uniform; beer has given way to lunatic water and the crew reduced to skeleton. No doubt, this is par for the course today; minimum manning has hit everybody. However, those who say that this change has hit everybody equally (and so why pick on the Chief Engineer as being particularly unfortunate?) miss some important issues that are unique to the Chief’s job.

For a start, the Master usually has to go up a maximum of ten or twelve steps to reach the bridge should he be required, and without changing many clothes. The Chief has to jump into a boiler suit and go down convoluted (and numerous) companionways at times before he reaches the Engine room. Even worse, he has to return, climbing uphill. He repeats this exercise quite a few times if there is some problem in the engine room and if, as is invariable nowadays, he has to send emails and faxes to the office. This is a smaller matter when younger, but ask any fifty something year old Chief and he will say that this is exhausting as one grows older.

Not as annoying as incompetent and inexperienced juniors or malfunctioning equipment, of course, and here too the Chief is under greater pressure than the Master is. Obviously, it is easier and cheaper to replace navigational equipment than engine room machinery. Malfunctioning navigational or radio equipment is also easier to spot by shore personnel like pilots or inspectors, and so this tends to get fixed relatively quickly. The same cannot be said for engine machinery. Quirks, idiosyncratic machinery behaviour, minor leakages et al can add considerably to an engine room’s workload and a Chief Engineer’s blood pressure; not to speak of the fact that repairs to engine machinery are done in house whenever possible. The Chief, therefore, is at greater pressure here: bare minimum manning, dropping officer and crew standards and old machinery have hit him harder than anybody else on board is. Shore workshop assistance has dwindled, retrofits are expensive and usually a last resort. Even routine maintenance is done under great time pressure. For these reasons, it has become commonplace to see Chiefs doing the job of a Second Engineer these days- controlling and planning the maintenance at hand, often even routine machinery maintenance.

Moreover, his own responsibility- that of overall in charge, has been at least sporadically relegated to the Technical Superintendent in many companies. Numerous phone calls, emails and telexes are a given along with machinery maintenance nowadays; Chief Engineers get extremely annoyed with all this, and of course with the habit many managers ashore have of second guessing and back seat driving. Superintendents will say that some Chief Engineers are not competent enough; perhaps that is so, but my opinion is that if a Chief (or Master) is not competent, should not be employed. The solution is not to have a Superintendent becoming the Chief Engineer sitting ashore; the Super has incomplete knowledge of the ship, machinery or personnel. He is poorly qualified to do the job remotely.

Then again, although the Chief is not more vulnerable than the Master is when it comes to fears of being criminalised after an accident resulting in pollution, he is almost equally insecure, what with the calibre of some junior officers and condition of oily water separators being sometimes what it is. His risk and responsibility has increased over the years, along with the Masters. Whistleblowers target him first.

Commercial pressures too have increased dramatically. Long term charters without any break or maintenance time, charter party speeds that are so optimistic that the ship will never average that speed unless it has a gale pushing it and optimistic bunker consumptions projected by owners mean that the Chief is fighting a losing battle trying to keep his abstracts acceptable to charterers. When the crap hits the fan, there is ridiculous pressure from some managers in an attempt to justify the lies they have told the owners regarding the state of the vessel’s propulsion and consumption.

Included under this same head must come the repair of deck machinery. Aging cranes will inevitable break down; tired engineers spending half their contracts repairing these cranes at sea and in port can do little to prevent downtime. I have sometimes intervened with Superintendents to press home the futility of declaring equipment as perfect to owners (and so, indirectly, to charterers) when it is not, but perhaps I do not explain myself too well. There is only so much a Chief Engineer can do.

There has been an unacceptable trend in the last many years of renewing steel and upgrading deck steelwork on the run: a job that often requires considerable manpower and resources from the engine room to undertake, and a job that is done on some ships for months on end without a break. In a time of limited resources, this kind of work is inevitably carried out at the cost of higher priorities of maintaining engine room equipment and machinery. Alas, owners learnt during the recession in the eighties that riding squads, shore workshops and temporary additionally fitters were dispensable; they also learn that ships could be run sometimes to bare maintenance levels (and even lower) and that, somehow, the Chief ‘would manage’. What many still have not learnt is that the hidden costs of ignoring essential maintenance are much higher, and will emerge later to bite the organisation in the unmentionables.

All in all, there is a case for the industry giving sailing Chief Engineers much more credit for the work they do; a job that is becoming more physically strenuous, mentally taxing and stressful with each passing year. There is also a case for sailing Masters to hold their Chiefs in greater esteem than many currently do; they will find, as I did, that if there is one thing that makes a ship tick like a well-oiled clock, it is mutual respect between these two top ranks on a ship.


June 10, 2010

The Tapioca Girl and the Dirty Old Man

Almost fifteen years ago, a shipping company I was sailing with asked me if I would go for two months on a ship chartered by them plying in Southeast Asia. My job, a Cargo Superintendent’s, was to oversee the operations in all the ports that she called. This was a liner service where we did our own cargo bookings and so greater involvement was required from people on board; involvement we Masters sailing with the outfit were used to. You know, liasioning with customers and the office, managing last minute cargo changes to bookings, stowage, lashings, stability and such stuff. Additionally, that ship was taking twice as long in Bangkok as our own ships did for the same cargo movement; I was to ensure a faster turnaround.

That assignment (I returned there a few times, sometimes for just two weeks) turned out to be the most entertaining one of my life.

On our first call to Bangkok, loading Ro-Ro cargo, tapioca and steel on that multipurpose ship, I discovered that the Chief Officer would close the hatch covers at the first sign of approaching clouds, claiming that it was going to rain. Only at night. He would then retire to his cabin with a girl who was part of the stevedore gang brought in by us to load bagged tapioca. The Captain did not like it when I woke him up at midnight and told him that the charterers were not paying stevedores to have a good time with the Chief Officer, and neither were we running an escort service gratis for him or his crew. He liked it even less when I slipped a letter under his door an hour later (he wasn’t answering the phone) informing him that his ship was off hire because the hatches were needlessly closed and the tapioca girl was still missing.

I discovered that partying on board in the evening after closing the hatch covers (rain! rain!) was a daily affair (another off hire letter the next evening handed over to the Captain while leaning over a couple of painted women and tripping over a couple of beer bottles). Besides, every usual trick in the book was used to delay the ship in Thai ports. It got very annoying, and made a policeman out of me for a trip.

They were dangerously sloppy in other ways, that crew. About ten miles from Singapore, at full speed, I heard the rattle of the chain as the anchor was let go ‘by mistake’. I still don’t know exactly what happened; the Captain told me later that the Bosun had let go the anchor while taking off the lashings. Some Bosun. In any event, they got another letter from me, because it took them a few hours to pick up the anchor from 50 metres of water, the windlass being almost as weak as the crew was. The incident cost them a fair bit, because Singapore pilot rebooking charges and stevedore waiting costs can be heavy, and so can off hire. Lucky they did not damage anything major or lose an anchor. Or a man or two.

Anyway, after seeing all this drama- and more- for about a fortnight, I vowed to get more tough with the ship the next call Thailand. (My boss in the office was even more exasperated and blunt, and told me that my first job was to ‘straighten that #$%@#& out’; he was talking about the Master). However, as it turned out, I did not need to do much at all, because two things happened in Bangkok soon after arrival next call.

The first: Two hours after berthing at Klong Toey, the tapioca girl’s husband landed up and threatened the Chief Officer, shouting Thai abuses at him from the quayside. In turn, the Chief Officer and one or two crew, all with more bravado than brains, rushed down the gangway to confront the husband ashore, who promptly pulled out a revolver and fired two warning shots in the air. That got everybody’s attention; it also got their testosterone levels down with a thump. The crew rushed back to safety inside the accommodation. Tapioca girl problem solved.

The second incident was even more interesting. Asleep in a cabin late that night, I heard a god-awful ruckus and came out groggily to find the Chief Officer holding a smallish metal box in his hand and banging mightily on the Captain’s locked door. “Big problem, he told me hopefully. “Captain not answering. Mebbe he dead.” Two other crew with him nodded unsympathetically in agreement.

Turns out the Captain had gone to a seedy bar ashore and returned with two seedy girls (I promptly dubbed him Dirty Old Man). A couple of hours later, one of the crew saw the girls going down the gangway with the metal box and challenged them, whereupon the ladies dropped it and took off. The box was found to contain all the crew’s passports.

Anyway, we broke open the Captains door and we found him lying on the carpet in a small pool of blood with a smashed temple. After he was brought to, he told us that the girls had probably slipped something into his drink and, after he was groggy, smashed his temple (dangerously close to his left eye, he was very lucky) with a glass ashtray. The DOM had a swelling the size of two golf balls for weeks, and was blind in one eye all of that time.

Nothing else was missing, but the metal box used to have eight thousand dollars and a Rolex watch in it, which were now gone with the perfumed wind.

No more girls allowed on board. Banned by the Captain next morning. Party problem solved.

As for the tapioca girl, she returned every voyage to work in the stevedore gang, but I never saw her going up to the Chief’s cabin again. I did see her sneaking a wistful look at his bridge front porthole once or twice, though.


June 03, 2010

Information or confusion?

It is quite incredible, even inexplicable, that there is so much misinformation going around in the age of the internet and cheap communication.

Take CDC’s, and the confusion about that basic (and these days, essential) seafarer’s document. A google of ‘Indian CDC’ throws up 810,000 hits, the first one being the DG Shipping’s website. The NAMAC site a little lower down explains things much better, but of course a youngster either planning to join a maritime institute or graduating from it would prefer an official site. One would think that reliable and authoritative information would be available easily at the click of a mouse, and be a huge improvement over the time when, for example, I was a Cadet.

Cadets signed indentures in those days and were not eligible for a CDC (after a particularly sadistic Chief Officer made me mug my indentures up word for word, I started calling them dentures instead.) Most of us never owned an Indian CDC until we rejoined after our tickets; I, who joined a foreign company immediately after Second Mates, never got around to getting an Indian CDC for the next twenty years. I did all my examinations in India without an Indian CDC. All that was required (and accepted then, by the MMD) was a stamp from a Consulate or Embassy of the country where the vessels I sailed on were registered; if any of these were part of the Commonwealth, a stamp from the Indian Chamber of Commerce at Ballard Pier sufficed instead. Youngsters are disbelieving when I tell them this today; no doubt, they write it off as yet another old salt’s exaggerated tale.

Nonetheless, contrast my experience with that of youngsters today. Whether trainee ratings or cadets, too many seem to believe that a CDC, instead of being a simple document of a seafarer’s identity and a record of his sea service, actually guarantees them a job. It is not their fault that they are misinformed; middlemen and ‘agents’ tell them so in moffussil hamlets and shipping companies in major cities fob youngsters off with the notion that once they get a CDC they will be employed by them. Small wonder then, that considerable effort has to be made by people like me to correct their misconceptions. The fact that Shipping Masters and their offices remain largely inaccessible to new entrants adds to many a youngster’s anxiety; this, in my view, is largely unnecessary and easily avoidable.

It is the same with STCW courses. I came across a young man on his mobile phone outside a shopping mall recently, and overheard a conversation where, at his end, he was loudly repeating ‘PST, ‘PSSR’ etc, and writing the words down on the palm of his hand. There was no shipping office or any maritime institute of any kind within fifty miles.

Curiosity aroused, I asked him what his conversation was about. It transpired that the ‘agent’ in a small Bihar town had taken him for two lakhs, telling him that if he went and did the four basic STCW courses (at additional expense), he would get him a job on a ship. What company or ship, I asked him. He did not know. What about a CDC or Pre Sea training? He did not know that either. Who was this agent and what was his history? Well, he was a small time scrap dealer who had ‘contacts’, and had a history of having sent one guy on board a ship in ‘Saudi’ with a Liberian CDC. Finally, what was the phone call about? Turns out that the agent had forgotten to tell him what courses to do; just ‘go to so and so institute and they will know’. Our youngster, finally, was making some enquiries.

I sat this lad down over a cup of cheap roadside dhaba tea (it was good but the cups are getting smaller) and explained the game to him, leaving him sadder but wiser, I hoped.

We in the industry will say, with some truth, that there are charlatans associated with every profession. We will say that the information is out there and is easily available to anybody who has access to a ten rupee an hour internet connection. We will say that some steps have been taken to stop corruption in the system, including centralisation of issuances of CDCs. We will say that DG approved institutes are easily identifiable to anybody who is interested in a marine career. We will say that maritime institutes or commercial ship management companies are not in a position to regulate what happens outside their bailiwick.

However, that is a legal position, not a humane or equitable one, and certainly not one that my conscience allows. The fact is that abuse of the system is widespread, be it MET institutes selling courses (and promises) of all kinds, agents selling fake documentation for CDC issuance- and even fake CDCs on occasion. (Another such racket was busted in Mumbai just last month). The fact is, also, that there is enough information available for the interested out there, but it is not easy to assimilate for a person totally unfamiliar with shipping. I bet that I would find it easy as pie, in comparison, if I needed information on an MBA, engineering, medical, IT or a multitude of other such careers.

I think there is an urgent need for a centralised authority or industry body to put up a website that is current and gives all the relevant information to a youngster interested in the career, all in one place. Perhaps a Ministry of Shipping or DG website would be best, but it is not essential. At the risk of repeating myself, it is critical that this website be authoritative, comprehensive, current, relevant and widely publicised. Furthermore, there should be a way for the interested to call up or email a human being for any clarification. Maritime institutes across the country could be persuaded to be contact points for this- and they should be involved in publicising this website, as should the Ministry of Shipping, the DG, industry bodies, maritime job portals and ship management companies. Not to speak of newspaper advertising; we see enough of the feel good ones from the Government; let at least a few be useful.

No doubt, I will be reminded that many such websites already exist. My point is that these are not comprehensive enough- and, equally importantly, they do not have the obvious authority that a Government approved (or even run) website would have. Maybe one of these existing websites can be beefed up and a link to the site placed on the DG shipping’s website- confirming the fact that the DG recommends the site. Maybe the DG itself can put it up under their ‘training’ section. Maybe the IMU can. There are many ways of doing this, but the present way- of often having competing websites- is not comprehensive, and is just confusing for a newcomer.

This is the information age, if we want good people we have to make it easier for them to become educated about pathways and options in maritime careers. We simply cannot leave it to scrap dealers and other such touts to educate potential talent: if we do, then we deserve both the devaluation of the industry and the low caliber of future crews that we get to train.