January 26, 2012

Al Qaeda plot to use suicide boats against ships in the Med

The Algerian authorities say they have foiled an Al Qaeda plot to ram suicide boats laden with explosives into ships in the Mediterranean.

Told you.

The Moor's next sigh

Capt. Schettino and the night of the long knives

Note to Shipmasters: If you must screw up, then for heaven's sake don't screw up where the cameras can see and record you, because then you will be drawn, quartered, and fed to the lions.

The long knives- and longer pencils- will be then out. Reporters - made instant nautical experts complete with Perry topsiders adorning their feet- will tell the world that you are an incompetent coward. 

Your country will loathe you. The same people who expressed gratitude at your 'touristic navigation' - that was good for business- will want to hang you from the nearest lamppost.

Your contemporaries will disown you, shamed and disgusted. You should never have gone so close to land regardless of commercial pressure. You should never have abandoned the vessel when one or two hundred souls out of four thousand two hundred remained on board, your colleagues will say. None of us would have done that. Never. Ever.

Out of touch ex-Shipmasters, who have forgotten how to steer a ship leave alone command it, will spin fictions on camera and otherwise. They will attribute heroic qualities to ship captains- and to themselves, by extension- in a forlorn attempt at self-aggrandisement. A few moments of evaporating fame paid for with exaggerations and lies.

Your owners will quickly damn you, calling you an idiot and your action inexplicable (They are concentrating with everything at their disposal to limit liability - they need to vilify you). 

The head of your ship's classification society will have to hurriedly resign when he dares to suggest that other factors are also to blame for the screw up, implying that the ship coming close to shore- 'saluting'- has been going on for long, with possible encouragement by many. 

The hype will be built up until it reaches a crescendo. The sad deaths of around thirty people will be forgotten, almost, by the wolves baying for your blood. Headlines will scream- One hundred years after the Titanic! The biggest insurance disaster! Captain was talking to a beautiful woman! Crew did nothing! (Then how were three thousand passengers, many without even basic safety familiarisation, evacuated?) Pigs were flying! 

Your haggard mug shot will flash across TV screens across the world. You will look like the war criminal that you are being treated as; dazed, confused, and incoherent as you come to grips with the trauma of the shipwreck and your role in it. The world needs a devil- you are the chosen one for today.

Tapes will be released by the coast guard of your conversation with them after the sinking. Their official- rested and probably coffe-ed and prepared for the recording, will come across as a decisive hero in those. You, shipwrecked, traumatised and stressed, will come across as the villain they want you to be. The soap opera needs a hero as a counterpoint to you, the villain; it has chosen the coast guard officer for today.

There will be few questions raised about systemic issues that led to the tragedy, largely because the Sperry loafer talking heads are used to sidestepping puddles and do not have a clue which questions need to be asked when a ship goes down. Others do know, but they have the sense not to ask them in public. The owners are powerful, the regulators untouchable and the cruise industry brings in money. The Captain, however, is powerless and pack dogs go after soft targets. Simple as that.

In conclusion, towards the end of this piece, here is another bunch of notes. The first one to active sailors is this: There- but for the grace of God- go you.

To the wider industry, including its out of date sailors and others quick to lynch Capt. Schettino of the Costa Concordia: Wait, please. Demand a fair trial. Capt. Schettino has almost certainly made navigational blunders; he has probably- additionally- failed in his duties post the grounding and blackout. He certainly disregarded or underplayed the accident with coast guard officials and that may have cost lives. Let him be vigorously prosecuted; he should face the legal consequences of his actions, however rigorous they are. And so should Carnival, if there is proven negligence; let the truth come out there too.

To the loafer-ed reporters and sanctimonious television news anchors, many of whom seem somewhat excitable these days: It is time to pick on other bones, I think. Nothing more to see- or hype- here. Move on. You can return, as briefly as possible, in case there is an environmental disaster should oil from the wreck leak.

Meanwhile, consider this: At least half dozen ships have had accidents in the last two weeks across the world. One has gone down without a trace on Christmas day, killing 22 crew. Others have suffered casualties. Most of these incidents were not even reported by the international press; one or two were, almost as footnotes, and quickly forgotten. 

The Costa Concordia incident- terrible and tragic as it is, with around thirty expected casualties- is not grounds for damning Capt Schettino and the crew of the ship like this. Schettino is guilty- even if all the charges against him are true- of many things, maybe even manslaughter. Let him face the music, but for heaven's sake stop reviling him as if this was genocide.

In short, get some perspective. If for some reason you can't do that, then get a life instead.

January 19, 2012

Seaworthiness, duty of care and culpable homicide

Sailors on merchant ships know very well that the employer's statutory 'duty of care' is a hollow idea exercised more in breach than in compliance. Employers routinely fail to provide seaworthy ships or staff them properly to address overwork and fatigue. Each of these are grounds for negligence, as are suggestions from superintendents and other office lackeys that encourage Masters and Chief Engineers to cut corners and contribute to this breach of a basic obligation. We know how that works, but recent events tell me that shipping has reached -even given its own atrocious record- a new low. The unique lack of intestinal fortitude that our administrators, shipowners and managers have usually displayed was standing at the edge of the abyss; it has now taken a great leap forward.

Take the fate of the Asphalt Venture hostages- seven Indians moved ashore by pirates after their ship and the rest of the crew were released in April last year. A recent Indian Ministry of Shipping press release (Release ID 79475) titled 'Hijacked Ships with Indian Crew as on 10th January, 2012', concluded with this innocuous sentence- "While 36 Indian seafarers are on board four foreign flag ships, 7 seafarers of “ASPHALT VENTURE” are held hostage on land", adding somewhat gratuitously, "So far, no ship with Indian flag has been hijacked".

Very neat, except that, two weeks earlier, press reports from Somalia (the Somalia Report for one, dated December 28 last year) claimed that two of these hostages were already dead, one having died in October. This is what they had to say in December: "A second Indian hostage has died while in the custody of pirates in Harardheere, according to sources amongst the pirates. The deceased hostage was from amongst seven crew members from Panamanian-flagged MV Asphalt Venture which pirates released April 28th, and now only five are alive, according to pirates".

"He was in serious condition over the last month and he died this week. Now we are holding only five Indian hostages from the crew of the MV Asphalt Venture," one of the pirates holding these hostages told Somalia Report. "He is the second hostage to die, two months before another hostage died," added the pirate. 

Will the Ministry of Shipping, the ship owner or the manager involved tell the families of the hostages the truth? Are two of the Asphalt Venture hostages really dead?  Where is the duty of care in all this? Or even basic humanity, actually. The least they can do is to let the families know whether they should hope-or grieve.
Or take the 'Vinalines Queen'. The 2005 built, 56040 DWT bulk carrier- one of the biggest ships under the Vietnamese flag- sank without a trace on Christmas Day off the Philippines north coast. Only one crewmember out of twenty-two survived, being picked up by a passing ship five days later. The Vinalines Queen was carrying more than 50,000 tonnes of nickel ore- loaded in Indonesia- at the time, and cargo liquefaction is said to be the cause of the capsizing. She had reported a sudden 18-degree list in bad weather hours earlier. 

The liquefaction of ore fines is an age-old problem when cargoes are loaded from countries like India and Indonesia. Spurious moisture content and transportable moisture limit certificates, the over spraying of ore fines with water and the collusion of cargo interests with port authorities- and sometimes even shipowners- have resulted in so many casualties over the years that the IMO and Intercargo warnings have become a bit of a joke. After the Asian Forest and Black Rose sinkings off the Indian coast earlier that year, three Chinese ships went down in a forty-day period in December 2010. Forty-four crew died, and everybody got into the act once again. Round table conferences were held by IMO and Intercargo "reminded the industry of the dangers associated with the carriage of hazardous cargoes." In the continuing nauseous game of musical chairs, Intercargo now says, after Vinalines Queen, that it is "continuing to work through IMO to protect the safety of seafarers and their ships". Ho Ho. 

Duty of care be damned. Sailors- mainly Asian- are being regularly killed by the tens because of greed and incompetence. We can shoot off an email to the ship today, asking the Master to take urine samples from crewmembers x, y and z and send them ashore for analysis of alcohol content to comply with our grossly misguided Drug and Alcohol Policies, but we cannot seem to ensure independent and honest results of moisture contents of tens of thousands of tonnes of cargoes that we will load- even if they have the potential to kill all those crewmembers and make our ships disappear without a trace. We are beyond negligence; we are well into the realm of culpable homicide here, folks. 
In 1972, Volkswagen recalled 3,700,000 1949-1969 cars because of a problem with the windshield wiper-the wiper arm had a screw that frequently came loose, causing problems in rain.

Early December last month, the brand new Vale Beijing- a megaship ten times the size of the Titanic and one of the biggest ships afloat- had just loaded 384,300 tonnes of ore when cracks in two of the ballast tanks appeared, indicating some sort of loading or structural problem.  At the time of writing this piece, not a single sister ship has been recalled; in fact, we are hearing news about how one of those- with 350,000 tonnes of ore- is in China where Vale is holding on to the cargo awaiting a rise in ore prices. 

Forty years ago, almost four million cars are recalled for a wiper defect. Forty years later, at a time when bigger and bigger ships- especially boxships and bulkers- are being built, the industry does not feel the need to stop even one ship when its brand new sister ship obviously has life threatening structural problems, knowing fully well the decades old history of large bulk carriers breaking up at sea without warning and drowning their crews. Seaworthy ships and the duty of care are out the window; culpable homicide is in again. 

(Since I have used that term twice now, here is the Indian Penal Code definition of 'culpable homicide' that backs up my claim. You decide whether it applies. Read the 'or with the knowledge" part carefully, please.
"Whoever causes death by doing an act with the intention of causing death, or with the intention of causing such bodily injury as is likely to cause death, or with the knowledge that he is likely by such act to cause death, commits the offence of culpable homicide.")
And so shipping blunders on, a dirty and grubby industry that ignores its legal requirement of providing a seaworthy ship or a "duty of care" to its crews. This is because it actually does not care for them, and neither do international and national regulators, so who is going to enforce the law? It never has cared for the seafarer, and every potential entrant to the industry should be told so at every Pre-Sea course, so that he starts his career with no illusions- especially illusions that can kill him.

Meanwhile, old life threatening issues drag on, hostage to industry and regulatory corruption and incompetence. Age-old industry practices continue to threaten the lives of crews. Underdeclared container weights continue to threaten to capsize or damage ships. Even lifeboat mechanisms- that are supposed to help save lives- continue to snuff them out instead. 

It is an endless and dangerous game. The hypocrisy kills me, though. I wish that, instead of telling seafarers claptrap about how valued they are, the industry would collectively get off its behind and actually prove it to them just once. I wish that, instead of blindly exhorting contractual employees to be loyal and giving them nothing in return, shipowners and shipmanagers would deliver on their legally required duty of care, or guarantee them a seaworthy ship. The industry has a long way to go from culpable homicide to there.

January 13, 2012

Deja Vu in the Gulf, threats in the Strait of Hormuz

Shipping has never organised itself enough to influence political decision making that impacts geopolitical events, even if those events end up in a war that threatens it directly. However, shipping usually ends up paying the price- and first, whether the price is financial loss or sailors' lives- whenever armed conflicts occur. Governments across the world will react, often robustly, when their economic interests are threatened by other nations, but orphaned shipping is not seen as a vital industry and so it has no voice; it is a dog in the street that is at the mercy of every passing car.

So is the case of the present brinksmanship between the West and Iran that is concentrated on the strategic Strait of Hormuz. Everybody has their pants in a twist because the flow of oil through the Strait is threatened today, and, while the world talks of international laws on shipping lanes and their vital interests in the region, they are talking about the risks to the flow of oil, not about the risks to shipping or its sailors. But then, they never do.

It is important for the industry to understand the situation and which way it might go, for that is vital to its interests. My take is that declining Western nations with tottering economies, led by the US in a Presidential election year, see an economic advantage in a possible conflict- the consumption and sale of armaments. Politically too, the abnormal influence of Israel on their policies and their worries at the increasing Iranian influence in enclaves of Iraq seem to have made them tone up the rhetoric against Iran in recent months. The demonising of a nuclear bad-guy Iran and its leadership has been going on for years, though, although it was interrupted by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. After all, Iran and the US have been antagonists ever since the Shah was forced out and especially since the Tehran US embassy hostage crisis that scarred Jimmy Carter's presidency.  Finally, Western friends in the oil rich states around Iran are desperately against Iranian nuclear and regional-satrap ambitions- and some of them host Western navies at their bases spread across the region. 

On the other hand, it is difficult to see how a conflict will benefit anybody in Iran, except some of its hardliner leaders. Unfortunately, those are the very leaders whose voices are getting more shrill with every passing day; Iran's threat to close the chokepoint of the Straits of Hormuz ("Easier than drinking water from a glass," said Iranian Naval Commander Habibollah Sayyari) as a reaction to increased western economic sanctions has already seen oil markets jittery. Imagine the impact, economists are saying, of Iranian Vice-President Mohammad Reza Rahimi's threat- that should further sanctions proposed by the USA be imposed on Iran, “not even a drop of oil will be allowed through the Strait of Hormuz.” Keep in mind that about 16.5 million barrels, more than a third of global oil supply, pass through Hormuz. Every day.

But, surprise, surprise! Folks, Iran has already closed the Strait once on Dec 31- by manipulation, not by force. What reportedly happened was this: Iran announced- the previous evening- that it would test-fire missiles as part of its 'naval exercises' around the Strait of Hormuz. For five hours or so, not a single warship or merchant vessel transitted the Strait. Then, tongue in cheek, Iran announced that no missiles had been fired at all. "The exercise of launching missiles will be carried out in the coming days," Iranian navy commander Mahmoud Moussavi said.  Easier than drinking water, after all.

The scenario today has some remarkable similarities with the 'Tanker War' during the Iran-Iraq conflict in the eighties, in which around five hundred and fifty ships were hit by missiles or mines or whatever- and, if my failing memory serves me correctly, around 450 seamen died. Then too- as now- shipping was in recession and political rhetoric was high. Then too, as now- the West sold billions in arms to Saudi Arabia and other States in the Gulf. (Billion dollar arms deals have been announced in the last fortnight, by the way- Saudi Arabia and some Gulf States included). Then, too, the war of attrition at sea targeted shipping. Sailors were the forgotten victims then, as they will be now, if war erupts. In fact, given the firepower Iran has developed over the years, and the fact that it has more than twelve hundred miles of coastline littoral to the Straits, and given that the generals of NATO countries will be chomping at the bit to teach those pesky Iranians a lesson (Iran Iraq same- same, just one letter difference, after all), casualties at sea will be far higher.  I don't know about you, but I get a keen sense of Deja Vu- or, given the rhetoric, should it be Deja Boo instead?

If the situation escalates dramatically, Israel will be in the war, aerial bombing Iran. In addition, Iran has the ability to strike at US and British bases in Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman- an eventuality that will bring war to the waters of the Arabian Sea and the Gulf both, with greatly escalated dangers and costs to shipping- and over a much wider area too. 

I think that the rhetoric from both sides will remain ratcheted up throughout 2012- perhaps more so as the elections in the US draw near. In addition, unless both sides cool off, chances are decent that there may be a small skirmish between the West and Iran sometime. If this happens, one can only hope both sides will back down after a round-one pissing contest and better sense will prevail, for a change.

Sadly, inevitably, shipping cannot do much to counter this massive threat to its businesses or its assets, except use every means possible to pressurise governments to internationalise the issue. Although I have little faith in the United Nations (who would, especially after the illegal Iraq war sanctioned by it?) that is the only way, right now, that outside influence can be brought to bear on countries that are snarling at each other like a bunch of Rottweilers in the park. Much of the oil that passes through Hormuz is bound for Japan, China and India; these countries stand to lose heavily if the Strait is even temporarily shut down. Besides, the world cannot afford- for economic reasons, if nothing else- a war in the Gulf of Oman, with its devastating affect oil prices in particular and on trade in general. 

Notice that  I do not speak of the collateral murder of ship crews as an argument against war here, because I know that line of persuasion will have few takers, either from outside the industry or from within it. Oh, me of little faith!