May 24, 2012

Faking it

Eighty four year old Jazz vibraphonist, piano man and charter boat captain Teddy Charles died recently. The man- who played with legends like Miles Davis- gave it all up in the 60s to sail in the Caribbean, returning to music and captaining charter boats in New York twenty years later. Drawing a parallel between music and the sea, Teddy said once, "You work with the sea, or you lose. It’s the same in art, not just jazz. There’s no way you can fake it.” 

I am afraid that is precisely what is happening at sea today; we are faking it. Inevitably then, we are losing.

It has been a slowly eroding loss, not a cataclysmic upheaval even though the results have been nonetheless disastrous. The largest fallout of the drip-drip changes has been that our seamen are not working with the sea anymore; they are working with paper. Gone are the days when we joined a ship for the first time with just a couple of certificates; today we need a handful before we even step aboard, which increases to a small suitcase full in a few years. Certificates of competency were succinct and clear earlier- 2nd Mate, Foreign Going. None of the 'management level' verbose claptrap we are issued with today, which promotes the foolhardy fallacy that a mariner is an administrator first and a seaman a distant second. 

We may think that the word 'management' thrown in here and there (our Masters are CEOs, say some managers, a statement I think actively degrades the Master's actual role) makes for making the profession more attractive or makes outdated and out of touch shoreside regulators and administrators feel they are making a difference, but it does not. We are faking it.

There was a time when we used to be tired, at the end of a long day, by doing what seamen are supposed to do at sea. I remember that as a good feeling, because a seaman is rarely stressed out by seamanship. Today, our crews are fatigued by paperwork instead, and this-for the many that regulate and promulgate but never actually do what they preach- let me tell you, this is mind-numbing fatigue. This is exaggerated by the exasperated knowledge that most of the paperwork is unnecessary, duplicated, duplicitous or useless and we are doing it at the expense of our real jobs; seamen are stressed out today because they are faking it.

Faking it would pass uncommented or even unnoticed if everything was otherwise hunky dory with our men and women at sea or if we did not struggle to get suitable talent in the industry or to retain it. That is not the reality, as we all know. And, while we may like to pretend that the steps being taken- the Maritime Labour Convention, new STCW regulations and all the rest of the rhetoric- are actually going to solve the problem, we all know, deep down where we can't fake it,  that they won't, because we are throwing paper at a problem instead of solving it.

We in shipping fake it elsewhere too. When we spew out knee-jerk regulations after an incident. When we claim our ships are becoming safer even after the knowledge that mariner competence levels are dropping. When we fill up checklists and working hour sheets at sea. When we claim we are concerned about our seamen. When we say we are tackling piracy. In a million ways, we propagate the untruth that we are doing everything we can to make shipping and ships safer and greener, when what we are actually doing is running in place trying to pinch a dollar or two or manage the fallout of bad PR that this industry is plagued with. 

Letting seamen do what they should be employed to do should be a simple matter in the internet age, when almost every administrative function can be done ashore, if only we had the common sense to do this. The other problem is that faking it is lucrative for many. From maritime education institutes- factories, really- to regulators to managers to insurance companies to unions, faking it rings cash registers and pays fat salaries and bonuses. There is no incentive not to fake it; there is little reward for professionalism at sea; the reward lies only when one fakes it, preferably along with the boss.

My deep fear is that shipping will soon be unable to differentiate between what is unreal and what is real, because faking it has gone on for so long already that it is in our genes. We will start believing- without even a twinge of doubt- our own lies eventually, I fear. We will continue to put administration above seamanship. Inevitably, therefore, small or large implosions will continue to occur whenever the fake and the real collide. 

We will be puzzled at these, because we actually believe that the mask is the face. By then, we will have sacrificed whatever professional competence we had- at sea or ashore- at the impostor's altar. We will not realise this though, because the imposter has become our reality. We will be akin to the sterile john in the cheap motel who believes -just because the lady said so- that his virility is singular.
Delusional behaviour is a sure-fire way to run an industry as real- and vital- as shipping into the ground. Teddy was right. You work with the sea, or you lose. There’s no way you can fake it. 

We should stop.


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