June 28, 2012

Reserving opinion

Deeply suspicious as I was about the motives of the Australian government when it announced the creation of a 3.1 million square kilometer protected marine reserve- the largest in the world, the size of India and covering a third of Australian waters - I am slowly veering to the position that the plan is, in spite of being an excellent example of crony capitalism combined with cynical and bleary logic, overall not such A Bad Thing after all.  

True, the timing of the announcement caused even my thinning eyebrows to rise. Just last month, a somewhat vituperative UN report had said that the Great Barrier Reef's UN World Heritage listing could be restated as "at risk" unless the reef was protected from the oil, gas and mining boom in Australia. The marine reserve announcement was therefore cleverly timed, stuck between the UN condemnation and the upcoming Rio summit where 130 world leaders would meet to discuss sustainable development. 

That Rio summit has now come and almost gone, leaving behind, in the words of one commentator, "the shattered remains of a slew of proposals that never got off the ground". Unsurprising, because, as Political Director of Greenpeace comments, "Governments, overall, are in the business of delaying and doing nothing."

Unsurprising, too, that the Australian marine reserve proposal drew sharp and immediate criticism. Shallow and transparent, it was said. Will be 'devastating' to local fishing communities since it restricts commercial fishing. The Australian Marine Alliance said the plan would mean a loss of $4.35bn and 36,000 jobs. (Eighty percent of the area will be open to fishing, though, and fishing communities are being promised a financial package). Another criticism harder to refute is that oil and gas exploration is being allowed near protected areas, and that 'no-go zones' seem to have been planned keeping the oil industry's interests uppermost in mind. The World Heritage Ningaloo Reef is a case in point, with the massive gas hub planned at nearby James Price Point. 

So yes, environmentalists' claims- in the words of the Guardian- that the Australian government has "deliberately created "holes" in the marine reserve network to appease the mining industry, which is pushing for a huge increase in shipping through the Great Barrier Reef to accommodate the boom in mineral exports to overseas markets, predominately China and India"- are justified. So are the apprehensions of WWF Australia, which says that areas rich in biodiversity have not been protected- like the Rowley Shoals- for the usual suspicious reasons. No doubt the oil and gas lobbyists worked overtime with the Australian government. 

All that is true. But here's the thing; see where we are coming from. Humanity has dumped nuclear and chemical waste into the oceans. Despite futile international summits, we continue to decimate nature everywhere today in pursuit of its mineral and other resources. (The Rio summit's Oceans Rescue Plan will probably go the way of other such commitments). Look at what corruption in the mining and oil exploration has done to Indian waters and shores. In Australia, coral cover has halved in the last fifty years because of bleaching and chemical run-off. Across the world, corruption equals politically sanctioned encroachment of reserves equals destruction equals junkets and seminars and sustainability summits in Rio.

The Australian proposal should be seen in this context. At a time when the rest of the world is doing precious little to slow down- leave alone reverse- our headlong dash to destruction, the Australians have increased the number of protected marine areas from 27 to 60; as I said before, the reserve will cover a third of that country's waters, including the diverse Coral Sea. All said and done, the new initiative means greater protection to Australian waters. And, while Australian environment Minister Tony Burke's statement- that he wanted the reserves to set a global benchmark for environmental protection and ensuring food security- may be taken with a dollop of salt, I have to agree with what he said later- "We have an incredible opportunity to turn the tide on protection of the oceans and Australia can lead the world in marine protection." 

So, is the Australian announcement a good start or is it just another sleight of mouth? Only time will tell, I guess. The thing is, we will probably run out of that precious commodity long before we run out of oil or ore.


June 21, 2012

Go to sea

Ignore everything I have said over the years in this magazine. Go to sea, young man.

Don't go for the money.  You will- if you are moderately smart- earn more in your working life ashore; a good MBA will even start you off on par with a senior officer's salary aboard. But an MBA will put you to work in a soul-destroying job, hustling corporations and individuals to make a living. You will have to lie and deceive and con; the money you make will be a poor consolation prize. Go to sea instead, for it will push you to your physical and mental limits. Get dirt under your fingernails and the sea breeze in your face, for that will teach you many things, but mainly what is real and what is fake. So go to sea because it will clear your head.

Don't go to sea to travel. You can buy an air ticket and do that more easily. You can have breakfast in Rome, lunch in New York and your luggage in Tokyo. You can be a jet setter, arriving everywhere but travelling nowhere, missing out on the three quarters of our planet that is water. If you do not go to sea, you will never see - as this sailor has- the exhilarating sight of two hundred dolphins leaping out of the water in unison in the warm Indian Ocean, and then landing in perfect synchronised abandon in the water, making a collective sound loud and clear as a thunderclap. And then doing the same routine again and again and again and again. 

You will never have your breath taken away by a sunrise or sunset or a whale off your port bow. You will never get, even in first class, the complete feeling of well being that a clear star-studded night in the middle of the Pacific guarantees you. When you look up and recognise the stars as old friends. When the crisp air is pure oxygen and the coffee tastes better than anything on earth. When you are sure, alone on the bridge at night, that you are the only human on earth, and you understand why so many of the world's thinkers and writers have been sailors of one sort or another. 

Go to sea to get away from civilisation. Go, because this takes you back to basics. You and your shipmates against the elements. No clutter. No emergency services either; no doctors or fire-fighters or policemen. Just you and your training. A different stress from what you will feel after the MBA. A good stress, as you will find out, because there is no sense of running to stay in place that many a job ashore entails. There is little sense of being a rat on a treadmill - something that is almost guaranteed ashore.  Little concept of senseless work at sea either, the effort-without-accomplishment feeling that is so commonplace on land. What a sailor does usually shows results, good or bad. Go to sea, then, to escape becoming a rat. Go to sea to escape the life of quiet desperation that Thoreau saw most men leading.

Don't go to sea if you have no other options; there can be nothing worse than being stuck on a ship for months, working day and night and feeling trapped in the job. Instead, choose the sea. Choose it with the complete realisation that you are committing yourself to a lifestyle that you have examined and preferred. Go to sea because it is something you want and desire and not because it is the easy way out. Because it will not be; the sea is a mistress that is many things, but it is never an easy one- and that is one damned good reason to choose it.

Go to sea for the power it gives you. Not the CEO's power, forced by fear, favour or bribery, but the power of a true team that must rely on itself because there is nobody else around. Feel the adrenaline surge as you do your clearly defined job right; no collective responsibility escape clauses apply here. 

Go to sea for the power it gives you over yourself, too; there is nothing more intoxicating than working- under severe pressure- to physical and mental exhaustion and finding reserves within yourself that you never knew existed.  Extreme individualism or testing one's limits- call it what you will, but go to sea because this jargon will be real and not some jazzed up public relations exercise.

Anyway, go to sea. Find a way to get around the touts and corrupt company officials that have taken over the job market. Forget the tough economic times. Forget the petty accountants with their small calculators and their delusions of grandeur that convince them that they are the ones running ships; sailors know better. Forget the system that tries its best to make a filing clerk out of you, because you will be what you want to be; nobody will be able to take that away from you without your consent.

Go to sea, young man, because the experience is unmatchable. Go, because although many things will happen to you out there, only one thing is guaranteed, and that is this- every lad that goes to sea will return a man. 

So go- and go with pride, because you are one of the chosen few.


June 16, 2012

Steel in the spine times

I feel sorry for ship-owners today. They are not just caught between a rock and a hard place; they are almost buried under the stone. High costs and ridiculously low freight rates- coupled with the need to service asset borrowings have, at a time when finance has dried up in a punishing marketplace- combined to push many to the edge of the abyss. Some have gone under; many others are teetering, shell shocked, praying for better times soon.

Sadly, it is likely to get worse long before it gets any better.

One reason I say so is because if this is the greatest financial crisis we have seen since the Great Depression, as is widely believed, then the blood seen on the street should be more copious than it was in the eighties- the last serious downturn. So far, there is no evidence that this is true. I don’t see stories of hundreds ships laid up- abandoned dark and gloomy derelicts- across the world. I don’t hear stories of significant arrests of vessels because some creditor or the other has taken the owners to court. I don’t even hear the gaggle of woebegone tales from seafarers that were so common in the 80’s- wages unpaid for months and then never, sailors working for peanuts and sometimes just for food, shelter and seatime, salaries slashed and dreams afire. There have been no demonstrations so far; no anecdotes of certified officers quitting the profession in droves, working as parking attendants in Connaught Place in New Delhi or unemployed. All that was happening in the eighties. It was in the news. Thirty years later, during a period when mass media and the internet have exploded, there areso far no reports ofsimilar things happening. This financial crisis has, so far, been almost civilised as far as shipping is concerned.

Which means that either a) the present crisis has been overrated enormously or b) the worst is yet to come. I am putting my money on b.

I think what happened was that the initial period of gloom and doom- 2008 and 2009- was followed by a sporadic recovery of some sectors in shipping, after which they promptly tanked again. That rise- even some temporary- gave owners breathing space. Today, this has lulled us into believing that the worst is over, or it at least that the worst can’t get any worse. I think, also, that we have started believing too much in past cyclical downturns as an indicator of either the length or the depth of the depression today. The same rules may not apply this time; in fact, I bet you that they won’t, because I suspect the paradigm has shifted.

Why? Because, for one, the world’s economy faces an existentialist crisis today. What if what we are seeing is the beginning of the collapse of unsustainable crony capitalism, the aftermath of which will singe us all? What if consumers in the US (by far the biggest economy and the biggest consumer) do not, well, consume as they did before, ever? What if China and India follow their lead? (Note that there are initial signs in India, at least, that consumerism is easing off). What if demand stays depressed for years? Sure, economies will still need to move some amount ofore, coal, oil and other such commodities,but what happens to the zillion other things that we buy at the likes of Kmart, almost all of which are produced elsewhere, mainly in China? What if demand falls permanently, plateauing at a lower but more sustainable level? What happens to China? What happens to shipping long term?

Then, the climate in Europe continues to deteriorate by the hour. The mid June Greek elections may or may not provide some respite- if they do, it may well be a temporary reprieve more than anything else. The fact is that Greece is a failed economy whether the Greeks exit from the EU or not. A ‘Grexit’ will pose particular problems for that country, but there is no guarantee that staying in the Eurozone will be some sort of get out of jail free card for Greece. It will pay through its nose either way. Spain (and then Italy?) are hanging in by a whisker and a prayer, but many think that the story is over; Spain has been downgraded again by Fitch to near junk status; it is looking for a hundred billion euros to recapitalise its system, and that may just be the beginning of the end for the fourth largest economy in the Eurozone.Can you imagine the shockwaves that will ripple through Europe if Spain falls like Greece? If pressure comes on Italy next?

Yes, the story is over for the time being, at least. It is just that the fat lady still has to sing.

For shipping, even an informal collapse of the Eurozonewill prove to be very messy. It’s financial, insurance and reinsurance markets lie there and so do many of its biggest ship-owners, including in tottering Greece; although they are putting on a brave face so far, many are asking Greek ship-owners to contribute more to the economy. Add to this shipping’s peculiar problems with tonnage overhang and you have the recipe for considerable chaos going forward. A good outcome for shipping will be if the Greek crisis is deferred somehow for a year or so (as is usually done, this will be accomplished by printing more Euros and pretending that all is well). This is because reports suggest that the tonnage overhang may ease off by the end of this year or the beginning of the next, although I am not holding my breath yet- China is trying its best to keep its shipyards afloat, offering sops and what not. Whatever happens, however, we will be in a slightly better position if we can at least pretend to absorb tonnage before a complete Grexit blowout- or similar. 

That still leaves us with worrying questions on commodity prices (have they peaked?), the Chinese and Indian growth stories (have they ended or even significantly paused long term?), new heads of vessel operating costs, (both regulatory and otherwise)and questions on the daily agonies of the marketplace. These questions may light fires under the balance sheets of shipping companies, sure, but it is the bigger questions that supply the fuel for the conflagration.  It is the questions that are being asked in Europe and the United States about the sustainability of the present economic system that can burn us badly.

As I write this, Japan's stock market index, the Topix, has hit 1983 levels as investors show concernthat the derailment of the global economy will worsen the country's economy; incidentally, an economy that has not gone anywhere since the Topix peaked in 1989. It has fallen 76 percent since then- a quarter of a century ago; Sony has fallen to levels not seen since 1980, when it started selling the famous Walkman in the United States. A generation of zero returns is a long time. Even more worrying is that the same thing can easily happen elsewhere. 

Which is why I say that we should stop trying to predict- as so many are doing today- when shipping will turn around and start worrying about the real possibility that it is not just the economy that is collapsing around us, but the system. A systemic collapse will be far more painful and go on for much longer than a few years more. It will also require more backbone to handle; shipping will need more steel in its spine.

Have a nice day.


June 11, 2012

"Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate"

On the third day of this month, Somalia Report news agency says, armed militia tried to storm the hijacked Suezmax tanker Smyrni- held near Bargaal in Puntland, Somalia - presumably to free it from pirate control. The militia failed and went home; casualties have been reported but it is not clear who was killed or injured in the aborted attack. The Smyrni was taken by pirates from far off the Omani coast a month ago; a day before the hijack, it had been attacked with pirates firing AK47s and RPGs but had escaped. It wasn't so lucky the second time around. Managed by the Greek company Dynacom, the 156,000 DWT tanker had no security team aboard at the time. It did have, however, 14 Indian crew among its complement of 26; most of the others are Filipinos. It was also carrying 135.000 tonnes of Azerbaijan crude worth 120 million dollars.

Are all the crew still alive? We don't know. We don't care. 

Interestingly, two days after the Smyrni incident, local sources in the same district of Bargaal told reporters that unidentified helicopters had been looking for other ships held by pirates. 

Across the same expanse of water that holds the Smyrni, relatives of hostage crew of another hijacked vessel- the Albedo, taken a year and a half ago in November 2010- speak of repeated phone calls from the ship, with their sons, fathers and brothers begging for help, saying they are being tortured by pirates. These calls go to Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran and Sri Lanka, during which khat charged voices tell them that they are beating their loved ones, forcing them to stand in the sun, or starving them. These calls have been going on for eighteen months. There are probably no calls to India, though, because the sole Indian hostage is reported to have died due to 'lack of medication'. What does this mean? Was he tortured or injured and did not get medical help? Was he sick? Has he really died?

We don't know. We don't care.

Who has attacked the Smyrni now? Is it- as initial reports said and subsequent reports say is likely- the UAE (and almost certainly US) funded Puntland Marine Police Force (PMPF)?  If so, who authorised the attack? The Puntland government, many within which are linked to pirates? The owners or managers, concerned about the huge ransom (Eleven million dollars has been mentioned) that they may have to shell out? The backers of the PMPF? Sterling Corporate Services, that trained the PMPF? (The discredited Blackwater was the original trainer, but- probably because of the spotlight on it after the Iraqi civilian deaths- many of its employees appear to have just changed their uniforms and voila, a new company- Sterling- was born. Blackwater- in whatever avatar- has strong links with powerful people in the US. Its founder, Erik Prince, remains untouchable)

What, asks Russian journalist Voytenko Mikhail, are the Smyrni's owner's excuses for exposing the crew to mortal danger, "for whose well being he is responsible?" And, "Will Puntland practice the use of force further on and what about lives of the crews and safety of the vessels and cargoes?"

Tut, tut, Mikhail. Of course they will, if their masters sitting across the world say so. What do you think the recent hoohah- with Puntland's President being keynote speaker at antipiracy conferences in London and all- have been all about? The world's navies have been doing the same thing for years; they are just outsourcing the slaughter of crews to the PMPF and such types. Distance lending enchantment to the view and all that, you know.

Meanwhile, the wife of the Albedo's Captain says that her husband's captors "put pressure on me every other day and ask when the money is being dropped. They are calling families who never received phone calls in all these months. We are all totally tired. I’m so tired mentally, but I try to calm them and convince them that everything will be resolved soon. They are impatient and in a hurry to get the money.” 

Relatives of the Albedo's crew from Pakistan and Sri Lanka speak of repeated phone calls in which hostages say they are being tortured. Families are frightened and have nowhere to go. Private groups in Pakistan are trying to raise the ransom; the wife of the Malaysian ship owner of the Albedo- who has promised to pay half the 2.85 million dollar ransom being negotiated- says her husband is in hospital because of the pressure. She said they were getting hourly phone calls from the pirates who threatened to kill a cousin who was on board the Albedo.  “We must have hope because there are so many lives on that ship,” Mrs Khosrojerdi says.

Dunno about that, Ms Khosrojerdi. However, what I do know is that we need to put up a neatly stencilled notice on the gangway of every merchant vessel. This should preferably obliterate the ubiquitous ISPS related board that sticks in my craw every time I read it. My notice should be prominent and read by every officer and crewmember stepping aboard every merchant vessel on the planet. It should be mandatory (IMO, amend everything at once, please). The notice must bear, in bold font, the same inscription that appears on the gates of hell in Dante's 'Inferno'. 

"Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate"

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.



June 07, 2012

Mouth Open. Eyes Shut. Safety Off.

Don't groan, but yet another report on safety at sea has been unleashed upon us.

The problem is not that the Lloyd’s Register Educational Trust Research Unit's latest study is rubbish. The problem is that the report- that says it explores 'differences in perception of risk and its management in shipping' but seems to concentrate on shoreside sincerity in managing issues of safety and crew welfare- is all true. Concisely- interpretation mine- the report points to an industry that pays lip service to safety more often than not.

The problem is that LRET tells us nothing new; none of these reports really do. I therefore question the usefulness of the report while agreeing with its findings.  I also find the entire idea- dissecting seafarers, examining their feelings, thoughts and reactions under a microscope and then rolling out, with numbing regularity, reports to an industry that simply does not care- cynical and patronising. 

Of course, LRET has published its findings in a manner palatable to the commercial world, publishing mariner comments as anecdotes or case studies instead of an indictment; that is the way such reports usually go, and have gone for the last twenty years and more. It finds that a small family run shipping company cares- compared to bigger outfits ('ship management?')- more about safety and crew welfare than the others looked at. Of course, LRET cannot say that the overwhelming majority of ship owners and managers care more about profits-or their promotions, or PR, or their morning cup of tea- than they do about seafarer lives or welfare. LRET can only cite cases that show this, and they repeatedly do. (Not the tea one, obviously)

I bet that each anecdote the report cites- each one, without exception- is something every seafarer has personally experienced or see happen. I certainly have. Some of the reports LRET cites are so common: The Captain being sacked for daring to stop the ship because the crew were fatigued. Penny pinching shore staff. The need for a Master to point out that the Superintendent could be arrested in the US if an equipment test was not done. The incident where a company were more worried about the PR disaster that an explosion would cause (only in my case it was a possible sinking) than about the lives of its employees at sea. The reduction in crew strength and shift to cheaper, less than competent crews. The almost juvenile need of managers who want to be told that everything is great on board and there are no safety issues. Managers saying (on the phone, obviously) that fatigue is an on board problem which would go away if only the senior officers managed the crew better. The emphasis on making sure the paperwork is perfect (even if safety measures are not) “to protect the corporation in the event of any mishap,” as a respondent told LRET. The owner's niggardly reaction to the cost of even a cup of coffee and a snack while a crewmember was joining a ship. The unsubtle racism that protects some officers- both ashore and afloat- at the expense of others born with the wrong skin pigmentation. 

Nothing is new in all these anecdotes LRET cites. My fellow sailors and I have seen it all. Repeatedly. I wish the LRET report had said as much- that this kind of behaviour is commonplace in shipping. So commonplace that a seaman expects it, takes it for granted and is actually surprised when things happen differently, even in 'big' ship management companies. I was certainly surprised when I worked directly for the owners of a small fleet of small ships. LRET has it on the ball there; working for owners directly is better than working for managers.  My words, not theirs, obviously.

What is not said in the report- which nonetheless seems to find fault with four of the five companies canvassed- is that a majority of managers and owners behave appallingly over basic safety; we lie when we imply that the bad guys are exceptions in the industry. I know that, which is why I question the usefulness of these studies, however carefully worded; nothing ever changes. Nothing ever will.

The industry is shooting itself in the foot and it knows it. Writing for BIMCO, Andrew Guest says it well, albeit too diplomatically for my liking: "Wasting time and money on safety campaigns when every last cent has to be watched in one of the worst recessions in shipping might seem a perverse way of running a business. That, however, is what it seems some companies are doing, as their audience has already been convinced that the safety messages are simply empty rhetoric or flummery.” 

The industry's 'default setting' is well known to all sailors. For example- and outside the LRET report- I am told that many Shipmasters have recently been pressurised to reduce speed in the pirate kill zone, because times are terrible and the cost of fuel spent is more than the cost of armed guards. This is already happening on a decent sized scale and will undoubtedly escalate. An industry that did not- for years- use armed guards and hid behind shady BMPs now wants to hide behind armed guards and ignore one of the few sensible things that was being recommended in the BMPs- maximum speed in pirate areas. My opinion on the spines and characters of the Captains, DPAs or other sundry shore personnel responsible for safety and security of those slowed-down ships is unprintable.

There is a well-worn slogan on preparedness that comes out of the United States gun lobby: "Eyes open. Mouth shut. Safety off". Unfortunately, the rhetoric that comes out of shipping has always interchanged the body apertures in the first four words there- to Mouth open. Eyes shut. Safety "Off". Maybe that is why we still need reports like the LRET one. Where nothing is new, not even the exasperated, derisive snort that escaped me as I read it.