February 24, 2011

FUBAR’s parable

Once upon a time there was a kingdom with a long coastline by the sea. The king’s otherwise idyllic life was much disturbed by just one fact; the kingdom had a long connection with the oceans- and maritime trade- going back thousands of years, but hardly anybody wanted to work on ships anymore. This was a big problem. Other kingdoms threatened to eat into our kingdom’s maritime manpower market share. It was a matter of prestige and tradition, not to speak of money, that this trend be reversed immediately.

This state of affairs could not be allowed to continue, the king decided. The Minister of the Merchant Navy was summoned and told to find out what the hell was going on. Go forth, the king commanded, and do not return until you have found, as per our ISO manuals, the root cause of the problem and recommendations to stem the rot. You have six months or it will be off with a lot of heads, including yours.

The agitated Minister immediately and as usual formed an expert committee of rich ship-owners, ex-Captains who had not even stepped in a bathtub for twenty years, teachers who taught because they could not do and assorted body shoppers, and loudly read out to them the kingdom’s marine riot act.

In turn and as usual, the committee immediately appointed consulting firm MBAss (so named because it was started by not one, but two management school graduates) to prepare a report with recommendations that would immediately make the kingdom’s mariner market share go through the high roof of the king’s royal court. The court jester did briefly wonder how outside consultants, with zero direct experience, would have better knowledge about shipping than the collective wisdom of thousands of ship-owners, shipping administrators and other experts within the kingdom, or the thousands of seamen who were subjects, but these doubts were not even whispered. Heads would roll all over the main deck if the consultancy was questioned.

In any case, after five months of intense brainstorming and not before ensuring that all the latest business school techniques had been exhaustingly applied, MBAss produced a white elephant before the expert committee. Of course, they did not say it was white, or even an elephant: instead, they called it FUBAR- short for Fugitive Underappreciated Bosun Archetypically Represented.

MBAss told the committee that a) FUBAR was the prototype of a typical seaman and had been programmed with the complete life experiences of a 12-year-at-sea Bosun. He would react like an experienced seaman and be, in all ways, a representative of that animal profession b) The committee could now examine this typical seaman- FUBAR- and see for themselves what the market share problems really were, and what the solutions could be, and c) The term FUBAR should not be confused, as the court jester was seen sniggering, with the other identical acronym which, pardon MBAss’ French, meant that the situation was Mucked Up Beyond All Recognition, so to speak.

The experts went out of their minds with joy (Actually, they were out of their minds earlier, but never mind). At last they had the problem dead in their sights! They could not wait to examine FUBAR for themselves and find out for themselves the (ISO approved) root causes of the market share issue!

The court jester was threatened with burning oil (to be poured simultaneously into all his orifices) after he quipped that since the committee had not gone to FUBAR, then the mountainous FUBAR had come to them. They also were uninterested in his fable about the many blind men and the elephant.

One ship-owner approached FUBAR and examined him closely. “See how his tail is too short and does not wag?” he said. “He is not loyal. That is the reason why our market share is dropping. Bad elephant! If only we had loyal FUBARs there would be no problem. We would flood the market, get market share and, incidentally, lower FUBAR’s banana wages too.”

“He is not smart enough,” piped up another expert who hired seamen for the King’s fleet. “See, his eyes seem almost closed! That is actually the root cause! We need more intelligent FUBARs at sea, even if we there is no need for rocket scientists. In any case, rockets have not been invented yet.”

A third official from the King’s Ministry suddenly shouted in disgust, “See, FUBAR is defecating on the floor! Even after the hefty fees charged by our maritime institutes, he has not been properly trained!” He looked accusingly at the teachers. “We need better training!! Sailors from other kingdoms don’t crap on the floor! That is why they are preferred!!”

A senior faculty from a well known maritime college in the kingdom piped up, all defensive and dismissive, “Nothing is wrong with our training. We train well, but we are not the Wizards of Oz. We do not get FUBARs of any potential, but we still produce products that are fit for purpose (We even have yet another acronym for them FFPFUBARs). The real problem is that too many of the FFPFUBARs are without jobs. The kings fleet must employ all of them day after tomorrow. End of problem”.

An ex-ex-ex Captain spoke next. “All of you are giving FUBAR no respect; that is the real problem. Besides, with subjects in the kingdom prospering ashore, FUBAR probably does not need to sail anymore to earn his bananas. It is also possible that he wants to spend more time with Mrs. FUBAR or in his harem with the other lady FUBARs, as we do. Or with his child, little FUBAR. And of course he is used to the internet and mobile phones ashore, which also haven’t been invented yet, but that he still doesn’t get at sea”.

“He looks dissatisfied,” another FUBAR-shopper confirmed. “He is probably telling the truth to other subjects about his life at sea and discouraging them from taking up the profession. And he stomps his legs angrily at us, so he is certainly looking to stop sailing soon. That is the real problem- these FUBARs leave after a few years. They should stay on ships even if they want to quit. They should also lie to others about the actual conditions in the King’s fleet, or we should chop off their trunks.”

The Minister of the Merchant Navy spoke last. “On not-so close examination, it appears to me that FUBAR is male. That is the real issue. We should have more female FUBARs at sea- it would dramatically and prettily increase our mariner market share. After all, so many of the King’s subjects are female. What a waste to exclude them! And who knows, females may make life at sea more interesting for the male FUBARs and solve retention issues.”

The meeting wound down. The committee and MBAss representatives left for cocktails and dinner, satisfied that they had identified enough root causes to keep the King happy for awhile while simultaneously retaining their own heads on their respective shoulders.

The court jester was the last to leave. Idly, he looked at the elephant and wondered, muttering to himself, “I wonder what FUBAR thought about the problem. After all, he has a dozen years of sea experience behind him”.

FUBAR finally opened his eyes wide and looked at him. “You will never know until you ask, will you?” he said, and closed his eyes again.

The Minister reported to the King the next day. “All is figured out, Sire,” he said. “To increase mariner market share, I recommended this: We need seamen who are properly FUBARred. They should be smart- preferably MBAs- and loyal, like dogs. They must continue to sail even when they don’t want to, and they must lie about their profession to everybody, especially females, more of whom must be sent to sea immediately. They must not be dissatisfied no matter what. We must respect them and employ them by Tuesday- or at least say that we do and we will. They must be trained properly; I recommend that particular stress be given to toilet training.”

“Hang it all,” said the bewildered king, using an expression that had the blood draining from the Minister’s face. “I never realised that the problem was so jumboesque and complicated.”

“I will do one thing immediately, though. I will decree that every seventh male and every sixth female born in the kingdom from midnight tonight must join the merchant fleet after eighteen years of rigorous education, including potty training. Failure to comply will mean off with many parts of the anatomy slowly.”

The king paused. “But will this mean we will end up with far more FUBARs than we actually need?”

“That doesn’t matter, Your Majesty,” the Minister replied. “We give bananas only to those who are signed on and working on ships anyway. As for the others, we get money for nothing and elephants for free.”

And everybody lived happily ever after in the kingdom of FUBAR.


February 17, 2011


In line with similar laws across the world, Section 299 of the Indian Penal Code defines “culpable homicide” thus: "Whoever causes death by doing an act with the intention of causing death, or with the intention of causing such bodily injury as is likely to cause death, or with the knowledge that he is likely by such act to cause death, commits the offence of culpable homicide."

I now accuse the international community- and their trigger happy navies- of culpable homicide in connection with the murder of innocent mariners. They sure as hell had knowledge that their acts were likely to cause death; they are not that incompetent.

I accuse them of criminal negligence that has resulted in the barbaric torture of seamen (BIMCO’s words, not mine) - including savage keelhauling, beatings, threats of execution and such assorted outrages. I accuse them of knowingly and deliberately putting seamen’s lives at risk by their calculated escalation of violence when dealing with hijacked or mother ships, shooting crew- human shields or not- and otherwise gambling with mariner lives at risk with full foreknowledge of inevitable fatal consequences.

And I accuse the UN, the IMO and the wider maritime industry- that loves to propagate warm theories about its family of seafarers- of being accessories to murder and the torture of their claimed brothers. I accuse them of playing their power and commercial games with dice loaded against the seamen without whom they would not exist.

We have gone beyond callousness and insensibility. We have reached cold-bloodedness, simulated outrage at recent events by BIMCO, INTERTANKO, the IMO and other such acronyms notwithstanding.

The torture and murder I mention is not in dispute any longer; I wish I could take some pleasure in the fact that I saw it coming, but I am too disgusted to do that. The torture and murder – as described- has been acknowledged by the top commander of the European Union’s Naval Force, Maj. Gen. Buster Howes, who says that the torture of seamen by pirates is ‘systematic and regular’. Amongst the keelhauling and the beatings, "If warships approached a pirated ship too closely, the pirates would drag hostages on deck and beat them in front of naval officers until the warship went away,” Howes says. Note that he speaks in the past tense, so all this mayhem has been going on awhile, during which everybody has been speaking with a forked tongue. Meanwhile, pirates have tied hostages upside down and dragged them in the sea, locked them in freezers, beaten them and used plastic ties around their genitals.

Everybody knows this. Why then, does the Indian navy repeatedly fire and sink mother ships (the first one, if I recall correctly, was in 2008 when a Thai fishing trawler was sunk, with several crew reported missing, presumably killed) putting hostage lives knowingly and repeatedly at risk? In the most recent incident this month, the mother ship Prantalay 11 was fired at by the Indian navy’s ‘Cankarso’ in ‘self defence’ off the Lakshadweep Islands, the navy says. (Self defence? A naval ship needs to defend itself against small arms fire in a hostage situation by shooting at the hostages, many of whom had to jump in the water?). What the navy doesn’t say, in any case, is that we will never know if any hostages were killed or injured in the shootout and by whom. Crew in other incidents have jumped or been thrown into the water by pirates as naval ships approached. Meanwhile the pirates have been brought to India and charged. Mainstream media is all excited about the navy’s success. They are heroes guarding our coastline. The charade is complete.

The saga of the Beluga Nomination, including the cold blooded execution of a crewmember by irate pirates after a Seychelles patrol boat fired on the hijacked ship, does not need to be detailed; it is part of the same well simulated outrage that has spewed out from all quarters after the event. There is less outrage at the fact that the entire crew spent more than two days in a ‘citadel’ with no rescue and before they were taken, or that two others are still missing. Beluga officials are said to be ‘incandescent with rage’ at the naval actions. Join the club, gentlemen.

Even lesser publicised is the fact that the Captain of the Samho Jewelry, said to have been shot by the pirates in the stomach as the South Korean Navy was engaged in a five hour operation to ‘rescue’ the ship, was in a coma for a week and a half as a direct result of that action. And, not that it matters, but one of the bullets recovered from his body was fired by a Korean commando. Another recovered bullet is mysteriously missing. A crew lost a few teeth in beatings by pirates, either before or during the raid. The Captain and other senior officers were frequently beaten with pirates shouting “Kill.”

Other navies- both western and eastern- have been similarly culpable. The Malaysians who put crew’s life at risk in a similar rescue operation. The Danes, who probably contributed to the Nomination’s crewmember’s execution with their close proximity. The Russians, whose brutal treatment of Somali pirates has been hardly criticised and must be at least partly responsible for the escalation in violence.

The world would have me believe, washing seafarer blood off its hands with all the perfumes of Arabia, that increasing ransom amounts have resulted in more hard core gangs having taken over the piracy business. Rubbish to that red herring. Rubbish to that specious argument; the criminals are on both sides of the fence.

The fact is that the citadel recommendation put out by incompetent suits- that we knew was going to escalate matters and kill seamen (see ‘Citadels in the sand’ here, published three months ago) have done exactly that. The fact is that Somali pirates make a few hundred million dollars, maximum, in ransoms annually: the legitimate world rakes in up to twelve billion from the business of piracy. The fact is that navies are being pressurised by their masters to do something, and those masters are being pressurised sometimes by commercial interests- as an example, Samho had reportedly paid a staggering 9.5 million dollars a couple of months ago for another ship; rumours say that Korean ships are being targeted by pirates. Did this decide the Jewelry affair? Another example: the Indians are now openly talking of suspected Pakistani terrorist links with pirates. Is that why the Indian navy is reacting with lethal force, or is it because it is rattled that the entire southwest coast of the country is now a war zone? Whatever, some navies have obviously been given a licence to kill. The crew is seen as collateral damage. Seamen, as usual, are seen as expendable by everybody.

The fact is that INTERTANKO says that piracy is spinning out of control, but it says this after a VLCC is hijacked off Oman and the pirates are knocking on the doors of the Straits of Hormuz. We are inundated with figures of 2 million barrels of oil aboard this ship and its 200 million dollar worth. The profanity that mariners have had to undergo for so long has no such ‘out of control’ spin- the risk to their lives brought about directly as a consequence of the actions of the world’s navies and the actions of the industry does not matter. Their lives are priceless or valueless: take your pick.

There is another disturbing element to all this: a Master is usually dependant on information gained from either the radio or the management or from communication with setups like EUNAVFOR whilst at sea, given that unlimited internet browsing is hardly freely available at sea today to the majority of seamen. He is otherwise cut off from information that is directly relevant to the safety of his crew and ship.

The problem is this. Global media hardly covers piracy except isolated, sensationalised incidents. The management, EUNAVFOR and such will no doubt propagate Best Management Practices blindly and with impunity, even if one or two of these practices are directly responsible for the murder of seamen or of putting them at the mercy of enraged pirates and increased risk of torture and death. Having sailed on a fixed run between Tanzania, Kenya, Sudan and Yemen a few years ago when piracy was very much a concern but hardly at the present scale, I can tell you that information is tough to come by as it is. When the entire information one is getting is from incompetent parties, or those with other agendas, or those with scant regard for your life, or those who are accessories to the murder of other seamen, then the crew have no information and no friends.

Then, if the crew is unarmed, they are sitting ducks for the pirates. Worse, they will not know which trigger happy navy is around the corner waiting to fire on them once they are taken hostage, or when they will be taken out on the bridge wing to be human shields, or beaten, or keelhauled, or shot, or have their genitals tied with plastic ties, or other fun stuff.

Maybe I should add ‘criminal conspiracy’ to my list of accusations against the international- and maritime-community, such as it unfortunately is.

Postscript: Between the time of writing and publication of this piece in marexbulletin, Jacob Stolt Neilsen, the now geriatric Norwegian shipping magnate, says that pirates that the navies of the world encounter should be executed on the spot. Acknowledging that there would be backlash against hostage crews with this course of action, he nonetheless says, "But you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs. This is war and warfare costs lives."

Come sail with me, Mr. Stolt-Nielsen. Let us see what happens when your eggs are on the line.


February 10, 2011

Mother Teresa and World Peace

Somewhat like the much hyped ISO certification, the term ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ can mean anything you want it to mean. This is nice, because the idea of propagating your organisation as a socially responsible and caring one is seductive. When an industry’s core activities are often seen as shady or dishonourable, this idea can be more- a diversionary tactic, for one: witness some of the oil majors and other multinationals rolling out green and clean advertising when their principles are proved to be somewhat less than moral in their operations across the world. Tongue in cheek, I call them Vice Principles instead.

I bring this up today because I see that this buzzword-CSR- is being used increasingly by shipping organisations that are perhaps desperate to project a better image in a marketplace becoming more sensitive to environmental and such issues. Perhaps they feel that they are enhancing their brand, such as it is, or even rebranding their franchises. Perhaps they feel that a declaration of caring quality is a good idea even when there is not much that they do to back it on the ground. Whatever their motives, I feel that this exercise, essentially a marketing one, can easily backfire since there is not much meat between their slices of bread. Without change in operational practices, this declaration of intent can easily return, at a future date, to haunt them when their bluff is called or if an incident occurs that shows up the chasm between talk and action. Shipmanagement companies run a particular risk here, because their brands are linked with those of their client ship-owners- and we all know what some can be like.

Unfortunately, CSR implies a certain corporate culture of higher responsibility and conscience. It is not philanthropy, despite what many in shipping seem to think today: it is beyond that, and perhaps even beyond money. It is a part of a business model that says that the organisation will self-regulate to perform all its activities in a manner that is in the public interest and the interest of all its stakeholders- employees, partners, vendors, consumers and the public at large included. Protection of the environment becomes a big part of that public interest in our industry, for obvious reasons.

The generic problem with any business proclaiming Corporate Social Responsibility as one of its goals applies to shipping too: a business is in it for the profit and so is an amoral entity. Individuals within any business can be moral or honourable, perhaps, but the organisation itself will be hard pressed to make any such claim. Corporations in industries like ours have a huge additional issue, though, which is this: the cornerstone of CSR has to be ethical conduct by individuals in particular and by the business as a whole. Ethics, as we all know, can sometimes be quite a rarity in shipping.

Instead of biting off more than they can chew, I would suggest to the CSR drumbeaters that they concentrate on promoting ethical behaviour within their organisation first. Start with employees, including those at sea. No touts or middlemen for jobs. No lying to crews about contractual terms and conditions, age or type of ships that they are slated to sign on. No withholding documents that belong to the seafarer. No shortchanging, nickel and diming or withholding wages. No immoral behaviour when a seaman signs off on medical grounds or dies at sea. Reliefs on time. You know, simple stuff like that.

Many ship managers could also start making operations ethical first. No hiding stuff from owners to either bleed them or make your own organisation cover its blunders. No lying about machinery condition, fuel consumption and speed. No covering up shortcomings. No padding accounts. This is simply professional behaviour, you know; we don’t need grander names like CSR for it.

Ship owning entities would do well to stop using CSR to divert attention from the way their operations are conducted. They could start with a zero tolerance to the STCW convention on rest periods, for a start. That should keep them busy for awhile.

The furtherance of ethical behaviour goes for those at sea too. No skimming the victualling accounts. No magic pipes. No shafting juniors on pressure from the office, real or imagined. No hiding operational mistakes. No sitting out contracts with minimal commitment. No unprofessional behaviour.

Unfortunately, buzzwords are often stock phrases that become meaningless after years of unending- sometimes sickening- repetition. Nobody buys them, least of all your own employees. Sometimes they even point to an organisation’s inability to come up with new ideas- and remind people of all those Miss World contestants touting Mother Teresa and World Peace as their burning goals on their hopeful way to glory and questionable endorsements of beauty products. One doesn’t fool the public too long by spouting tiresome inanities. All of us understand integrity and ethics, though. We know right from wrong even when we don’t do what is right.

An organisational goal of ethical behaviour, therefore, is better defined and understood, and anybody who is actually serious about the image of their business would do much better pushing the idea of ethical behaviour more seriously. Trying to leapfrog ethics to jump onto the Corporate Social Responsibility bandwagon may seem very seductive and contemporary, but this opportunistic leap- particularly in shipping- is likely to propel the entire circus headlong into the brick wall of reality.


February 03, 2011

Orchestrating while Rome burns.

The world continues to feed off piracy more than Somali pirates do. And so it is unsurprising that the maritime industry, in the year that the IMO’s annual theme is “Piracy-Orchestrating the Response’, continues to talk, not act. The theme is more cacophony than melody: the toothless global response to piracy has, in any case, as much to do with callousness as it has to do with impotence, insensibility or culpability. (About ten percent of the year is over. The orchestra should have been playing by now, what?)

Last year, more seafarers were taken hostage than ever before on record, says the International Maritime Bureau’s global piracy report. In 2006 there were 188 mariner hostages; 2010 saw 1181. That is a jump of more than six times in five years, during which time the coalition navies, according to another report by the US based foundation ‘One Earth Future’, ramped up naval operations off Somalia that today cost about $2 billion a year.

Of course, those hostage figures are suspect; many agree that actual numbers are higher.

Follow the money, they say. So, to understand the business of piracy a little better, consider these numbers from the same OEF’s ‘The Economic Cost of Piracy’ report:
Total cost of piracy = 7 to 12 billion dollars annually
Average ransom in 2005, $150,000; average ransom in 2010, $5.4 million.
Cost of counter piracy organisations: $20 million
Insurance premiums: $460 million to $3.2 billion
Cost of security equipment: $363 million o $2.5 billion
Cost of prosecuting pirates (One UN honcho says- not in the OEF report- that 9 out of 10 pirates caught are released): $ 31 million
Cost to regional economies because of piracy: $1.25 billion

And a contentious figure: Ransoms accounted by the OEF in 2010: $ 238 million. Contentious because some experts have said this is based on the number of ships hijacked in 2010, not those released. Many more ships were taken than ransomed, they say; the ransoms paid were actually totalled around $ 80 million. They also say that the OEF’s assumption of 30,000 transits a year through the Gulf of Aden are overstated, and should be a maximum of 22,000.

The total annual costs of piracy, the OEF says, acknowledging that these are “notoriously difficult to calculate”, are between 7 and 12 billion US dollars a year. Yes, that is billion with a B.

To me, regardless of the dispute (which seems to be more about a spat between two accountants with competing calculators rather than anything more substantial, like seafarer lives) the stark fact remains that the amount of ransoms paid to pirates are a very, very small percentage of the total profits of piracy, much of which go into the pockets of administrators and international organisations, besides insurance and security companies, equipment manufacturers, lawyers, assorted ‘experts’ and other riff-raff. Much of the crew may be on wages of less than $50 dollars a day; armed guards may cost $1500 a pop. Something seems terribly wrong. That aside, there is, given the money being made by non-criminal elements in these shenanigans, a clear conflict of interest in wanting to address the problem. This explains somewhat why we have not been able to make any headway at all. The world manages the problem of piracy because it makes more money doing so.

That aside, I am angry that the discussion on piracy has been reduced, in much of the global and industry media, to two things. One, money, as usual. Two, mildly sensationalist reporting of hijacks and other reports of lists of ships taken. The latter, in particular, are put out regularly by many organisations and newspapers across the world, almost as if record-keeping was the way to fight piracy.

Actually, I can usually manage to ignore even that. I find it more difficult to ignore the shipping industry’s lack of will in even framing the right questions at a time that piracy has widened and escalated almost beyond recognition. More and more crews of hijacked ships are being beaten and forced to sail the ocean on mother ships as pirates hunt for other prey. Many have been killed last year. Taking an ‘every ship owner for himself’ approach is clearly not working. Some questions that need to be answered are:

  • Do we limit the fight to foisted ‘Best Management Practices’ and hope for the best?
  • Do we continue to accept the fact that the colour of skin of the majority of seafarers at risk determines this international response?
  • Do Eastern States, whose crews and ships are increasing and more at risk, have clout commensurate with their fleets at these international bodies that are sometimes mainly western old boy clubs?
  • Have the ‘Leopard’ and the ‘Beluga Nomination’ incidents shown us the obvious limitations and dangers of the citadel approach, or should armed guards now be mandatory, citadel or not?
  • What will be the impact on hostages if navies- as in the Samho Jewelry case- engage in five hour rescue operations with hostage crews caught in the crossfire? The next seafarer may not get away with just a bullet in his stomach, as the Master of the Jewelry did. Was the incident fallout of the reported record $9.5 million ransom paid for another vessel by the same owners two months ago? Will more owners or insurers knowingly put crews at greater risk in future by arm-twisting States into similar military action?
  • How do we protect ships from an MStar like terrorist attack?
  • When do we acknowledge that piracy and terrorism are linked? Are we waiting for a public announcement by Al Shabaab or some such to say so? Or is the problem that linking the two will automatically make paying ransoms a criminal activity in many countries, almost all of whom have corporations, lawyers, mercenaries and the like profiting immensely from piracy?
  •  Do we need armed guards between Aden to Sri Lanka on all our ships? And between Aden and the Gulf?
  • Do we need a better ongoing intelligence operation in Somalia? Or do we trust Western governments (Blackwater, with a changed name and smelling just as sweet, scandals or not, is now in Somalia, by the way) to feed us relevant and timely information?
  • What will be the impact of the current unrest in Yemen on anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden- with demonstrators calling for the government to step down?
And, the biggie, and one that requires concerted industry action : How do we put pressure on the international community to take quick and effective measures to change things on the ground within Somalia, a haven for both pirates and terror groups today? How do we get the world to stop its blind-men-and-the-elephant act and acknowledge the beast in its totality? When do we realise that this is the only long term solution to the problem of Somali piracy?


When do we realise that we can’t hope to orchestrate squat the way we are going?