April 07, 2011

Reluctant Brides

Shipping reminds me of a reluctant bride the way it behaves sometimes; it knows what has to be done- and by whom- but it will try everything else first, and usually for the wrong self-serving reasons. It then runs hither and thither like a headless chicken as the sky begins to fall, appalled as if its modesty has been outraged.

Take for example the issue of armed guards on ships passing through the pirate infested Indian Ocean. Many, including this perpetrator sitting behind this keyboard, have cried ourselves hoarse for many months, saying that arming ships was the only short term answer to piracy, political stability in Somalia being the obvious permanent solution. Shipping, however, was fixated on the Best Management Practice hoopla even when that directly resulted in the torture and killing of its crews, because that was the cheaper way out. Industry thinking changed only when the entire Arabian Sea became a war zone and re-routeing ships became a very expensive exercise. Cheaper to hire armed guards, so the reluctant brides did so after much blood had been shed, and amidst displays of great opportunistic sanctimoniousness.

The flavour of the month has since changed somewhat. ‘Go after the mother ships’ is the new battle cry, and this makes me as irate as the BMP claptrap did earlier. Navies- including the Indian navy- are aggressively attacking mother ships mindlessly, uncaring of the plight of the crew hostages held there. The sequence of events goes like this: the navy chases a mother ship. Sooner or later a pirate fires a round or two off his AK47 in the general direction of the naval ship, which then quickly claims self defence and firebombs the indiscriminate crap out of everybody on the hijacked vessel- often a fishing boat. Hostages and pirates alike are fired upon; many survivors jump in the water. Some pirates and hostages are undoubtedly killed, though we never hear- or ever will hear- the truth about how many innocent mariners perished in these operations. We will never hear the truth about the torture they may have had undergone as naval vessels moved in. News may leak once in a while- like that of the Pakistani hostage who was executed by pirates as the Indian navy closed in on a mother ship last week- but I am willing to bet half my meagre life savings that actual casualties, and atrocities against crews, are considerably higher- and are kept secret. Keep those dumb sailors – and future cannon fodder- in the dark. Way to go.

Our reluctant brides in shipping do not care that all this is happening, though. I hear nobody in the industry objecting to this deliberate exposure of its employees to torture and execution. In fact, the mood is usually quite the opposite. Shipping magnate Jacob Stolt-Nielsen may have been criticised by some for his disdainful comments on mariner safety when he advocated that any pirates apprehended should be summarily executed, hang the possible backlash to seafarer hostages. “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs,” he said in response to those who worried about hostage crews being tortured or killed in retaliation for pirate executions. This is war, he said, and warfare costs lives.

Criticised or not, I assure you his way of thinking has many shipping executives nodding their heads in synchronised unthinking agreement. And governments that order their navies to fire willy-nilly on hostages and pirates obviously agree that the death of mariner hostages is acceptable in crossfire or because of deterrent execution by pirates. I think these folk don’t care about breaking eggs to make omelettes because none of their own eggs is on the line here- and never has been.

They also don’t care about seafarer lives for one simple reason- almost nobody in the general public does. Imagine the uproar if the crews of commercial airliners were being systematically tortured and executed anywhere – and regularly- because of international security force actions.

Take seafarer fatigue- another issue that has resurfaced recently for the nth time- as another example that displays the reluctant brides’ lassitude in technicolour. SIRC Cardiff’s study may say bluntly that “the major cause of death for British seafarers is suicide that is undoubtedly linked with excessive fatigue”, but this means nothing to the reluctant brides that have been fending off the amorous suitor called fatigue since he became a nuisance more than twenty years ago. The numbing, depressing and demoralising impact of a day-in-day-out stressful atmosphere caused by a combination of –amongst others- fatigue, alienation, paperwork overload, short manning and regulatory or operational pressure can only be understood by a seafarer who has sailed recently. Unfortunately, few of our reluctant brides ashore, especially in senior regulatory or commercial positions, can claim that honour today, so they are like virgins advising streetwalkers on sexual technique. Even more unfortunately, they have lost their ability to empathise with their colleagues at sea- and, in fact, will blame ‘the human element’, fatigued, undermanned and depressed as it may be, for a large proportion of accidents on the water. Without doing a thing about addressing the root cause of fatigue, of course. Some hand wringing goes on, as recently, when a CMA CGM Master killed himself over the way the company treated him after an incident. The hand is wrung a couple of times and then sailors are hung out to dry again.

You can bet that the reluctant brides- or should that be coy virgins? - put up an act, though. Many a company seminar promises ‘frank exchange of information between floating and shore staff’ once or twice a year. Full of Shakespearean sound and fury, this usually signifies nothing and goes nowhere. Unsurprising, for this is an industry that asks its hostage seafarers to keep silent about the atrocities they suffer at pirate hands, as recent reports have shockingly exposed. Instead of offering counselling and all kinds of support to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder- even trained soldiers are granted that these days after conflict - we sweep civilian mariner blood under the carpet. Typical. Loathsome.

(I now invite some of my ex-employers to invite me for a ‘frank exchange of information’ on issues of my choice. I promise you that the meeting will make all reluctant brides present blush beetroot red in unison.)

And then we lament the fact that nobody wants to go out to sea today. Are we that dumb? Do we expect young prospective mariners to be even dumber? Do we not know that an uncaring industry that does not even have the will- leave alone the guts- to protect its own employees is worth absolutely nothing? Do we believe- in this age of revolutions off the internet- that educated and qualified youngsters will still be sucked into this profession; that they do not know the truth? Are we content in continuing the pretence and ignoring the stink, borne out of cynical insensibility that wafts higher and stronger every day?

Do the reluctant brides even know, amidst their tittering nuptial charades, that the emperor has been without clothes for quite a while, and that every active sailor knows this?


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