May 26, 2011

Sailor’s curse

Words will never express the outrage I feel at the torture, then partial paralysis, coma- and, eventual demise of Capt. Prem Kumar in Delhi. He, his ship and his crew were taken hostage off the Seychelles last year, but the story of the ‘Rak Afrikana’ hijack can be read elsewhere. This is just a place for my salute to the man and a sailor’s wishes for inexhaustible courage to his family.

Words can express, however, other simple sailor sentiments: The global shipping establishment- uncaring and effete that it is- deserves nothing from the sailor today, because it gives him nothing- not even basic security. I hope a hundred thousand youngsters across the world have been discouraged from joining the merchant navy because of its dishonest non-response to piracy. I wish that media exposure of the calloused attitude of an establishment that lurches unwaveringly from impotence to sterility as its sailors are tortured, increases manifold. Another wish is that those in administrations, regulatory and industry bodies - along with the pirates, bankers, middlemen and many ship owners, most of whom can’t look beyond fiefdoms, ransoms or what they can make from insurance or piracy connected businesses- get what they reserve for the mariner: I hope they all rot in hell, and I hope their businesses go bankrupt on the way to their rendition.

The bigger tragedy is, of course, that the Rak Afrikana hijack- like so many others- need never have happened. If only many in the industry- whom I call the passive criminals- had done what some of us were saying was critical: deploy armed guards on all ships in pirate waters. The IMO and everybody else down the line, for their own self-serving reasons, ignored the fact for years, while seafarers were being taken hostage and worse, or that no ship with armed guards has ever been taken. They knowingly and criminally put their faith in managementspeak- the BMP. Even today, as the industry grudgingly accepts that armed guards are the way to go- even if for the time being and because it sees another way of making money after the old ways have been milked- just 12% of the ships passing through high risk areas carry armed guards. Unsurprising, perhaps but passive criminality at play again.

In my opinion, the industry, including its regulators and associated governments, all need a kick in the unmentionables- their wallets, before any workable response to piracy can even begin to be formulated. I fear that it is only when their balance sheets or circles of power are threatened will these lemmings act. Regurgitating slogans- a day in June as the day of the seafarer, or a year for orchestrating a response to piracy- is a piteous ploy that deceives nobody. A pathetic substitute for action and an acknowledgement of defeat is what it really is. These slogans are in fact insults to sailors.

It is sad, even to me, that I- who sailed for three decades or so, love the sea and took pride in trying to do a good job aboard- should shower curses on so many in the industry. But perhaps my sentiment reveals more about the state of shipping than about my own: perhaps my criticisms have more to do with a creeping disenchantment that has exploded into a deluge of disillusionment over piracy- or more accurately, the shipping establishment’s selfish non-answer to it.

In any case, my wish list at the moment is simple, and one that I know will be heavily sniped at. One, I wish that tens of thousands of active sailors would today refuse to sail through piracy areas without armed guards and other workable anti-piracy measures. And two, as already said and which is probably happening, I wish thousands of youngsters would vote with their feet and shun the profession. Hang the ‘Career of Opportunity’ claptrap: there is no reason to go out to sea to get tortured and killed. Besides, it is only such extreme measures that will kick the passive criminals awake from their coma, so different from the brave Capt Kumar’s.

Many will say to me that it is easy for me to talk: I don’t have to rely on income from sailing to put bread on the table. Many will also say that I am talking nonsense, pointing to those 90-percent-of-global-trade-is-by-sea figures as proof of shipping’s criticality to the world, and the large impact a major seafarer boycott would likely have.

The first criticism is largely valid, even though I resolved long ago not to work at anything afloat or ashore that involved deceiving or lying to any active sailor. Besides, my Master’s certificate is still valid and who knows? I miss the sea sometimes.

As for the second criticism, I disregard it with extreme contempt, because I am beginning to believe that if half the world has to freeze and the other half starve before it starts protecting its sailors, then so be it.


May 19, 2011


First, a warning: these plans are copyrighted and trademarked. Intellectual property rights and all that, you know. (As you will see later, one doesn’t need to have much intellect at all to have intellectual rights.)

I have developed unique communication software that can be custom tailored to meet individual management requirements for quick and cheap communications between ships and the office. It will work with any email client or interactive voice response (IVR) system, thus granting a wide variety of suspects in the office the ability to respond to most communication originating from ships in 1.4 seconds flat- or your money back! (Conditions apply). The software will, whether the ship communicates by email or IVR, reply and disconnect within those 1.4 seconds, requiring-for email- a maximum of two keystrokes by the suspect, sorry, operator. Voice is even easier.

This bespoke path breaking patented software is appropriately named E-cliché™. Interested parties can contact me for an incredible introductory offer made later (while stocks last).

E-cliché™ involves a onetime keying in of up to 256 stock replies- email or voice- into the user’s computer terminal. These 256 represent the most commonplace clichés Masters are fed by managers. Anyway, after keying in, each of these banal utterances will then be allotted a unique identification number. (We will, at ridiculously cheap rates, arrange unemployed cadets to do the data entry grunt work).

That is all; the user is now all set to use E-cliché™!!

Whenever an email or phone call comes in from the ship thereafter, the user will- Step1: Click on the email or pick up the phone, and Step 2: Either key in or speak the number corresponding to the programmed stock reply from the ‘list of clichés (LOC)’. (A small laminated colour with the LOCs will be provided free of cost to each user).

Incidentally, when using the IVR, the hapless Master at the other end will not hear the user’s voice saying, for example, ‘one’, or ‘two’, or “two hundred and twenty nine”: instead, the Captain will simply hear an automated response that corresponds with the E-cliché™ chosen, and a surprisingly husky female voice will read out to him the full form of the selected cliché. The system will then disconnect immediately before the Captain can speak again.

Feedback from the industry at the Beta testing stage has resulted in us feeding a few stock responses into each system even before installation. These are based on the most common platitudes used by ship-managers. The user’s manual we supply recommends the use of these preset clichés appropriately: for example, the number ‘one’ is preprogrammed to respond with “seafarers are our most valuable assets”. We suggest that this be used as soon as possible after a ship is hijacked.

Other scenarios and suggested preset responses:

Scenario, Master’s message:”Awaiting critical spares since last October. Please advise.”
Preset E-cliché™ reply #5: “Arriving at next port.”

Scenario, Master’s message: “Help!! Pirates are threatening to secure my genitals with cable ties, keelhaul me and throw me into the meat room with ice in my underwear!!”
Preset E-cliché™ reply #18: “Follow latest version of Best Management Practices.”

Scenario, Master’s message: “Crew is putting on weight. We need to renew twenty year old gym equipment. Please sanction funds ASAP.”
Preset E-cliché™ reply #101: “This Company believes that everybody should grow together.”

Scenario, Master’s message: “Third Mate requests immediate relief before sailing this port. As you know, his entire family killed in home fire last week. FYI, vessel sailing tomorrow”.
Preset E-cliché™ reply #2: “We are endeavouring to find suitable relief. Please bear with us.”

Scenario, Master’s message:”Ref last mail, strongly suggest no deductions be made for Third Mate’s repatriation from his wages, on compassionate grounds.”
Preset E-cliché™ reply #3: “Amount to be deducted follows. We are about people, not profits”.

Scenario, Master’s message: “Officers and crew are refusing to work because wages have not been paid for two months. Kindly advise.”
Preset E-cliché™ reply #8: “Teamwork is indispensible.”

Scenario, Master’s message: “Chief Engineer regrets unable to attend company seminar two days after signing off since daughter’s school admission on same day.”
Preset E-cliché™ reply #255: “These seminars are very useful as they provide an opportunity for seafarers to give feedback to top management.”

Scenario, Master’s message: “Please advise plan re: longstanding small holes/cracks in shipside plating below waterline that are presently cement-boxed.”
Preset E-cliché™ reply #111: “Safety is paramount in our organisation.”

Scenario, Master’s message: “Reference your email dated April 1 regarding crew shortage, regret all officers and crew inform me that none of their relatives want to join this company”.
Preset E-cliché™ reply #222: “If it weren’t for seafarers, half the world would freeze and the other half starve.”

Scenario, Master’s message: “Help! This may be my final email! The pirates are threatening to shoot all of us this evening if the ransom is not paid immediately!”
Preset E-cliché™ reply #10: “Press Ctrl+Alt+Del”

It is easy to see that the E-cliché™ will revolutionise ship to shore communication as we know it and simultaneously increase productivity exponentially- one can even reply to phone calls while playing golf without interrupting one’s swing!

I intend, after the inevitable successful upcoming official launch of the E-cliché™, to immediately launch my next venture, the E-Seminar. This will be followed by another hot idea: a postgraduate diploma level programme that I am now developing with input from practicing ship managers; this is tentatively called the E-Shaft™.

Meanwhile, I am working closely with regulators to develop a modular E-cliché™ training programme that will soon be mandatory for all ship managers. The two day course will take one day each for in depth training in the two steps of the E-cliché™ software. Day 1 will teach only Step 1 (how to click on mail in your inbox or how to pick up the phone). Day two will cover Step 2- the use of preset clichés and the LOC, with wide-ranging additional scenarios practiced and discussed extensively.

Now, a special, amazing offer. For a limited time only, readers of this column can buy just one step of E-cliché™ and get the other one free! Book now- quoting reference number ‘420’- to enjoy this fantastic offer at an unbeatable price!

Before it is too late.


May 12, 2011

Singed Phoenix

Phoenix, Jeannette Vogel

The tale of the Phoenix- the sacred firebird- is near universal. Although the Greek version is the most well known, Chinese, Roman, Japanese, Russian, Turkish, Persian and Indonesian mythology has similar stories to tell. And, according to some, so do Indian sacred writings with their references to Garuda, the vehicle of Shiva.

The Greeks say that the Phoenix lives for a thousand years, at the end of which it builds a nest and then sets itself ablaze, burning ferociously while crying and singing a beautifully haunting song. A new Phoenix emerges from the inferno, reborn and rejuvenated, to live for another thousand years- when it will burn and rise from the ashes again.

The Phoenix has long been a symbol of rebirth and renewal- even of immortality. Today, as sailors are taken by fate to what appears to be the edge of the abyss and when the very career of sailing is besieged, I think I sometimes hear a beautifully haunting song that sounds like that of the Phoenix. I then wonder which mariner is burning. I wonder if he will be allowed to rise again. His is an international tale, too; I wish it were just a myth. I wish I could lie and say that he was burning all on his own instead of being killed.

I do not despair about the circumstances of a modern sailors life or his ability to overcome adversity, Sailors have always been both tough and stoic; even today, the loudest noises about piracy, criminalisation or the generally degraded mariner life do not come from seamen but from others in the industry who will never face these perils.

I do not doubt that a solution to piracy will be found later rather than sooner. It will be found for the wrong reasons- probably when the economic cost becomes unbearable to accountants- but it will be nonetheless found. It may not even matter, at that stage, how many sailors blood has been spilled in the meantime or how many careers have been destroyed by the experience.

I do not doubt that, later rather than sooner, the industry will gravitate to cynically acceptable levels of seafarer criminalisation. The world needs scapegoats and sailors are soft targets, so criminalisation will not go away. A fine balance might be struck, though: Enough criminalisation to appease the vultures but not enough to kill the prey or even scare it away from the profession. I am willing to bet that that is the way this game will go, MLC and fair treatment guidelines notwithstanding.

I do not doubt that there are solutions- and not very difficult ones- to the sailor’s degraded lifestyle. A little of the problem here is that we have conspired to take all the fun out of the profession, but most of the problem is money or allocation of other resources. The latter issue is relatively easily solved if one has the ability to build and manage an appropriate business plan. (This is not a simple question of getting the biggest bang for the buck, though, although this may soon become a case of a skinflint industry not getting any kind of worthwhile seafarer bang at all.)

Actually, this- the broad niggardly attitude of shipping towards the profession of seafaring- is the main reason I do despair. In a world that treats us sailors little better than the scum of the earth- it always has- the industry, lip service aside, doesn’t do anything to make things better. Its mentality directly results in second rate, inappropriate and unwilling youngsters joining shipping after they have nowhere else to go, because it does little to make the profession worthwhile. Most of the industry then, after these kids have entered the charnel house, picks on them relentlessly until their bones litter the floor. It eventually- as a direct result of its actions- drives away the survivors. A few gravitate to administering the abattoir if they have the inclination to do unto others what has been done to them. The rest- singed but not yet burnt- leave and are lost to the industry. It is their beautifully haunting song that I hear.

This, at a time when we need smarter people at sea than ever before, shows me that we are going downhill, and fast. It tells me that the Phoenix has built its nest. It tells me that the firebird is already singed; it seems inevitable that it will burn sooner rather than later.

This Phoenix too may eventually rise again, perhaps, but I wonder: when the Phoenix is reborn, does it retain the thousands of years of knowledge and experience of its ancestors, or does it have to reinvent the wheel again?

I do not doubt shipping’s ability to step back from the abyss; it has, within it, some very smart people both ashore and afloat. Seafaring is a profession where fortitude, strength of mind, bold decisions, decisive actions and lateral thinking is a way of life. Yes, they can. Yes, we can.

The zillion dollar question is, do we want to? For if we don’t want change badly, our abilities will be sacrificed at the altar of expedience and petty commercial opportunism. The cry of the Phoenix will then have the lyrics of Tull’s ‘Locomotive Breath’ within it, because this train will not stop moving either. It won’t slow down.

We don’t need to self-destruct, you know. The songs that our sailors sing do not have to come from the bowels of hell.



May 05, 2011

Worshipping false Gods

Shipping pundits, following savants from the political and financial world, seems to have rediscovered old jargon in a new bottle- Nassim Taleb’s ‘Black Swan Theory’. Taleb had theorised, in his famous 2007 book, that unexpected events of large magnitude and consequence are the ‘Black Swans’ of history; these events are impossible to predict and therefore are known only after they occur. The name of the hypothesis comes from the fact that everybody presumed for ages, before a black one was discovered, that all swans were white. Taleb theorised, “After they (Black Swan events) occur, we find rationalisations for them, but we should accept that random events may disrupt any model or plan”.

Seems to me that a Black Swan may be what we simple sailors call force majeure or an Act of God. Seems to me, also, that shipping is joining the chorus in making excuses for so called Black Swan events which should have been well predictable, not random- and, therefore and by definition, not Black Swan events at all.

Forget the World Trade Centre attacks, the Japanese triple disaster (earthquake, tsunami, radiation) or the revolutions in North Africa or the Middle East- which are touted today as Black Swan events but which I say were well predictable. After all, if you build nuclear reactors in one of the most risky seismic zones in the world, you should not be surprised when an earthquake shakes or a tsunami floods or a reactor leaks as a consequence, should you?

The shipping industry, however, has taken its excuses a step further, some claiming that Somali piracy, for one, is a Black Swan event. This surmise would be hilarious if it weren’t pathetic. Somali piracy has been around and escalating for a decade and a half. A Black Swan event? One had to be deaf, dumb and blind to not have seen it coming. And have half of one’s anatomy in the sand, to boot. As for the other alleged ‘Black Swans’ that maritime experts are touting- Japan and the Jasmine revolutions included- shipping should know better than most that such events are likely to recur. They should need no reminding that this industry is always hostage to cataclysmic events, since whatever the nature of the ‘Black Swan’- political, financial, environmental or security related- global trade, the lifeblood of shipping, is invariably hit. Surely the industry doesn’t need a rocket scientist to figure that out?

Deep Water Horizon, despite what the pundits are telling us now, was not a Black Swan event. When you buy over corrupt administrations in order to operate with insufficient safety, you are predictably tempting fate. No doubt some of the sea birds were tarred black with the oil spill, but folks, those were originally white birds, swans or not, not black.

We continue to build bigger and bigger ships, and continue to staff them with short manned and fatigued crews. No matter how good or well trained these are, we increase the chances of an accident every time we do so. Of course, we can tempt the Gods, rush headlong into disaster and then claim an Act of God to collect insurance and soothe our consciences, but we cannot claim, with even a tinge of integrity, that the disaster was surprising or unpredictable, or that the swan was black.

We cannot continue to fail to reach international agreement on vessel emissions and then claim Acts of God or Black Swans when the seas rise and the weather deteriorates - as it has been doing, while we continue to build and load ships without taking this fact into account. In doing so, we are playing with dice loaded against us; simple logic says that we will lose.

We cannot let greed overcome our common sense when we send ships through the melting- and pristine- Arctic without proper en-route emergency facilities or even, in some cases, proper navigational charts. The Gods of destruction await us eagerly, not Black Swans.

We cannot ignore piracy or its links with terrorism and then claim surprise at the escalation in violence. We cannot claim that the consequence of our ostrich like behaviour is something we could not have predicted. We cannot say that piracy is a Black Swan event just because we- for more than a decade- refused to see the obvious. We can’t attack pirate mother ships and then act astonished when hostage seafarers are tortured, executed or die in the crossfire. These results are not a consequence of Black Swan events; they are a consequence of stupidity.

A Black Swan event- or an Act of God- has to be more than an insurance racket, you know. But then shipping often misses the point completely. Or, even when it does not, it just- like that famous elderly nun in the convent- completely and conveniently ignores the entire point, and to hell with the consequences. In fact, our industry seems to specialise in either missing the point or conveniently ignoring it, and then crying wolf, or Black Swan, or force majeure.

That elderly nun, by the way, also missed the point- or chose to ignore it completely- when the agitated Mother Superior rushed into church where all the nuns had gathered. “I MUST tell you all something,” the Mother Superior said excitedly. “We have discovered a case of gonorrhea in the convent!!”

'Thank God,' said our elderly nun at the back. 'I'm so tired of Chardonnay.'

And I am so tired of these false Acts of God.