November 29, 2012


“The ship was cracked and they sent it out to the ocean. It was the worst alternative. They sent us in a floating coffin ... to drown.” - Captain Apostolos Mangouras of the Prestige

                                       Mangouras breaking down in court, talking about the relatives of his crew 

The outcome of an on-going court battle will determine whether our tears on the subject of seafarer criminalisation over the years have been, as I suspect, just so much crocodile.

As I write this, the surreal trial of 77 year old Captain Apostolos Mangouras is underway in A Coruna, a northern Spanish port city. It will last six months or so; a hundred experts will testify. Ten years after the tanker Prestige broke up and caused the biggest oil spill in Spanish history, prosecutors are looking to send the courageous Old Man of the Prestige to jail for twelve years. The charge is criminal damage of the environment and of a protected nature reserve. Prosecutors are additionally demanding 4 billion euros in damages. Also charged are the Greek Chief Engineer Nikolaos Argyropoulos and untraceable Filipino Chief Officer Irineo Maloto, besides Jose Luis Lopez-Sors of Spain, who ordered the leaking tanker out to sea in a storm.

The real culprits have not been charged, of course. Officials of at least three European countries directly responsible for the disaster, for a start. Outside the court in A Coruna, Greenpeace activists have hung a huge banner with photographs of politicians that so many believe remain criminally responsible for the incident. It says, starkly, “Where are the guilty?”  One of the photographs is of the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who was Deputy PM at the time the Prestige broke up. Three governments of the time- Spanish, French and Portuguese- refused entry to the ship against all international laws and against all good sense; the loss of integrity and the subsequent breakup of the Prestige thus became inevitable, as did the huge environmental damage. Those governments- led by Spain- should be in the dock today, not Mangouras.

The 26 year old Bahamas registered tanker had 77,000 tonnes of fuel cargo aboard in November 2002 when it sent out a distress in a storm off the north western Spanish coast. Against the advice of its own contingency plans drawn up by its own experts, the Spanish government ordered the ship out to sea instead of bringing it into harbour, where the oil would have been contained, the ship saved and the eventual catastrophe prevented.

The Prestige, sent out to die by the stupid, drifted for six days in the Atlantic in 8 metre high waves in a Force 10 storm off Cape Finisterre, leaking oil, listing incrementally on her way to sinking. She would eventually snap and go down a hundred and fifty miles off the coast, spilling 50,000 tonnes of oil that drifted into - and onto- the coast.

Capt. Mangouras had warned that the Prestige would break up unless given refuge, but France and Portugal refused or dithered, and Spain went about its illegal- or should it be criminal- actions, forcing the vessel out to sea and to her grave. With the ship listing twenty five degrees in a storm, the lifeboats inoperational and some of the officers and crew panicking, Mangouras’ conduct- by all accounts- was exemplary. He remained on board and organised the crew’s evacuation by helicopter even while the ship was breaking up from under his feet.

"In the midst of the panic, with the tanker listing at a speed that would sink it, and in a fierce storm, Mangouras kept a cool head," said Spanish Captain Joan Zamora-a staunch supporter of the Greek Captain- when Mangouras was nominated for the Nautical Institute’s ‘Shipmaster of the Year’ award after the incident. "Some officers were paralysed with fear, other crew members were weeping. But Mangouras never lost his calm, and his example meant that the Chief Engineer and a few crew members were able to follow his orders and organise the evacuation… Many of us would never have had his courage or shown such cool."

Mangouras used ballast to stabilise the ship and control the list- a crewmember was almost washed overboard opening some valves on deck.  If Mangouras had not done this, the Prestige would have continued to list and would have gone down close to the Spanish coast, undoubtedly creating an almost unmanageable environmental disaster. In an impossible situation, Mangouras did what he had to do, and he did it even as rescue helicopters hovering overhead were advising him to evacuate the ship along with the rest of the crew.

Then, at night, Mangouras and Chief Engineer Argyropoulos went out on the heaving deck with torches, struggling to reach the forecastle to secure a line from a salvage tug. They took twenty minutes to gingerly go forward, one step at a time, on a catwalk- and the ship- that threatened to give way below their feet.

For these ‘crimes’, Mangouras would eventually be arrested the moment he stepped on land in Spain, interrogated despite his pleas that he hadn’t slept for days while surviving on just coffee and cigarettes. ‘My treatment in the police station was harsh,” the laconic, solitary Captain said later. “I pleaded repeatedly to be allowed to rest.”

Mangouras would be charged and would spend two and a half months in jail before being released on a 3 million Euro bail bond. He would not be permitted to go home thereafter; he would live in Barcelona in a rented flat, feted by local ship captains who knew- as anybody who has tasted sea salt on his lips knows- that Mangouras was the victim of a crime and not its perpetrator.
Ten years later, he would come on trial, seventy seven years old and threatened with jail till he is almost ninety.

Nothing shows up the sea-shore split, in shipping and without, more starkly than the Prestige affair. A brave Captain, victimised for ten years and counting. A- literally and figuratively- dumb industry with impotent industry bodies within, all clamour and noise but no teeth. Criminal governments that give a damn about the seafarer, the environment- or about international and legal obligations.   An uncaring general public. Ex seafarers, now captains of industry, that could make a difference but choosing to remain silent; the salt has diluted so much in their veins that they have just water left in there.

Everybody looking for scapegoats. The stoic seafarer. The wrong people behind bars. The insane running the asylum.

We should have honoured the man. We should have used his courageous actions as an example in our textbooks and case studies. We should have stood up. We should have dared the corrupt, the criminal- or the plain stupid- in those European administrations to take on all of us on- and risk grinding global trade to a halt. We should have said what so many of us feel- that we wish there were more Captains like Mangouras out there. That all of us seamen know he did nothing wrong, and that he did much that was right. That we are proud he is one of us.  That we wish we have the courage within us when our time comes out there.

We should have stood by him as an industry, righteously united for once.




November 22, 2012

Watching the dust

Karvan guzar gaya, gubaar dekte rahe- Neeraj
(The caravan passed, we just kept on watching its dust)

A new survey of shipowners and managers by Moore Stephens says that the expectation is that lube costs will rise the maximum- about 2.8% a year- within operating costs. The next biggest increase will be in crew wages- 2.3 per cent this year and 2.4 per cent in 2013.

One respondent claimed, “The biggest single factor in operating cost increases these days is the scarcity of Filipino and Chinese seamen.” An unremarkable statement, perhaps, except for the confirmation of the fact- long forecast by some of us- that the Chinese seafarer will seriously threaten his shaky Indian counterpart sooner rather than later. Has that time arrived? Is that statement being echoed by enough managers out there? Is the Indian seafarer not even fit to be mentioned in the same breath as his Filipino or even (gasp) Chinese colleague? Is the Indian mariner not even a serious contender anymore?

Ignoring for a moment the contradictory propensities of the average shipowner, who wants -above all else- cheap but competent crews happy to serve long contracts, statements excluding Indian seamen from a company’s long term plans are becoming less guarded and more commonplace. Sure, shipowners who have their eggs- figuratively speaking, of course- in different manning nationality baskets do not want to antagonise or panic any one nationality by indicating preferences or trends; they will continue to proclaim their commitment to Indian mariner right up to the time that they show him the door. 

To be fair, many managers have, both privately and publicly, expressed severe reservations about the competence, attitude and cost effectiveness of increasingly substandard Indian officers and crews currently coming out of the Indian seafarer factory. I share their angst, but I do not absolve them of culpability in the dismal state of affairs. The decline- or decimation, more accurately-  of the Indian seafarer’s  has more to do with the corruption and complete disarray within the country’s maritime establishment- both in government and the private sector- than with the motivation or seriousness of the youngsters entering the profession. Or even the lack of professionalism shown by more established seafarers, whether officers or crew.

Synchronicity of events cannot be avoided, and neither can be managed completely the paradoxical demand for higher numbers of competent crews that exists today in a market that is otherwise haemorrhaging. The thing is that, despite high demolition activity, the supply of new tonnage will continue to flow for some time to come. Newbuildings will continue to be bigger, more complex, greener, more fuel efficient and technologically more advanced, and environmental regulation will increase. All this will mean an almost exponential increase in demand for greater numbers of more competent, better educated and better trained officers and crews.   

Given the overriding proclivity of the average shipowner to seek cheap crews, it becomes clear to me that something has to give in this matrix; in any case, the notion that higher wages always lead to higher competence is fallacious.

Within all these contradictions lies a window of opportunity for the Indian seafarer, that is provided the country’s maritime establishment- government, private sector employers and MET setups- get their act together, weed out corruption and regain focus. The Indian mariner proved, not that long ago, that he is capable of handling evolving technology. That he is cost-efficient. That he can be motivated and professional. That he can make money for the shipowner, and that his wages are justified.

He can well prove this again, but the decaying establishment has to stop getting in his way.

That window of opportunity is small, though, mainly because the Chinese have not yet focused on marketing their seafarers to the extent that they could have. They have internal issues, sure- including local industry demand, language difficulties and circumspection on the part of many youngsters about working abroad at sea. But all this can change quickly. In fact, in China, with its authoritarian form of government by diktat, this can change very quickly indeed. When it does, if China gets even half as efficient as the Philippine seafarer factory- riddled with problems as it is- that window will slam shut in the Indian mariner’s face. 

The caravan will have passed and we will be left watching the dust.


November 19, 2012

I don't like petitions

..but I have just signed my first one, at the MV Iceberg I Mariner's Action Group page HERE
I have also become a member of that group.

I have done so because the folk behind that group are seamen, a breed I instinctively - and unsurprisingly- trust, and they are trying hard to help the Iceberg I hostages- something almost all of us reading this are not doing.

I request you to give it some thought and sign the petition/join up there as a member. Many of us- seamen- are cynical about our industry, weary with the crap dished out to us, feel powerless to change anything, and feel that a petition will accomplish nothing. I know I usually do.

But this is not about you or me. This is about the crew of the Iceberg and their horror.

So please think about it. What if those good folk at the MAG get a million signatures on the petition? Something may be finally done then to save those hostages, innit?

In any case, you have nothing to lose if you sign except your cynicism.


November 16, 2012


Editorial by moi, published in the 'Maritime Matrix' last month

That confidence in shipping is at its lowest level in four years should come as no surprise. Nonetheless, shipping- much like life after a tragedy- will go on; trade is hardly going to stop next Monday. In fact, I tend to believe that the coming years are going to throw up interesting challenges and lucrative opportunities for ship managers. Competence, adaptability and nimbleness of foot will be rewarded handsomely, as will the critical ability to have the right people in the right place at the right time. On the flip side, the mediocre will perish in ignominy.

I say this because we sit at the cusp of a paradigm shift today. Regulatory requirements, especially environmental and human resource related, will continue to balloon, as will commercial pressure to shift to cheaper or alternate energy sources and low emission machinery. Consequently, navigation and engineering will both become even more complex, and so will the technical and operational demands on operators and managers, both ashore and afloat. Owners will ask ship managers to produce and retain a higher calibre of employees on ships and in shoreside offices to operate and manage the ship of the future safely, cleanly and cost-effectively.

Easier said than done, this, what with shipping struggling with issues of calibre and commitment of staff afloat and ashore. An existentialist threat, really, if one considers that alarm bells are already being rung because of insurance statistics that claim more accidents at sea are being caused by inexperienced or less than competent officers and crews. A tremendous opportunity, actually, for any ship management outfit that can get its ducks in a row and its basics right.

The thing is that- one glaring exception aside- we have done it all before. Over the years, transition from steam to diesel, incrementally complex machinery, computerisation in navigational and communication equipment, increasingly burdensome mandatory requirements and associated issues have been managed reasonably effectively by the industry. The exception is, of course, the management of our workforce at sea. As pressure mounts- it already has, for example in some developed specialist tanker trades- the imperative for ship managers to retain appropriately qualified, experienced and committed mariners will rise. Any organisation that cannot manage this effectively will probably self-destruct or become unprofitable. 

To thrive, ship management business models have to start moving beyond traditional revenue streams like body shopping. Forward thinking managers need to allocate resources towards aggressive and enlightened human resource development. Owners and managers that want to be positioned right must have a calibrated plan in place to find, employ and train suitable mariners for their fleets. There must be a transparent programme for their career development at sea- and, later, ashore. These are the first steps to motivation and retention. 

A firm that gets good employees to stay steals a march over the multitude automatically. Just putting warm bodies on flights will not do any longer, I am afraid, in a coming age when technical and operational expertise will be far more valued.

The ship manager that wants to take the future by the horns should quickly realise that a seafarer can be either a towering strength or a crippling weakness; by his own actions, the manager gets to choose which.

Thanks for reading.