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.


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