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.