February 14, 2013

Maritime regulation: faking it

I have not sailed for a few years. If this goes on much longer, I will perhaps remain qualified to comment authoritatively- provided I have my ear to the ground- on many seafarer issues. However, I will be dangerously unqualified to participate in the culture of inept regulation that plagues shipping, because I will be outdated. I will not know, any longer, what happens on a merchant ship on a day to day basis. I may pretend to be an expert, but I will be faking it.

That is the first problem with shipping regulation- it is promulgated by outdated fuddy-duddies, many of whom have not sailed for decades, or by people from a non-maritime background. Or even by people who have a ‘fighting’ naval background and have no clue- their experience of international waters and ports being limited to exercises or goodwill visits, and perhaps war- as to what a merchant vessel is all about. These ‘experts’ are luminaries in regulatory bodies because of political patronage or because of over-rated academic credentials, many obtained through programmes paid for by the taxpayer; they are rarely there because of their ability to understand the practical issues involved, something that is essential before even one regulation to cross one road is made. 

There are many other problems that feckless regulation burdens the industry and its mariners with. Chief amongst those is the fact that we are today more concerned with the paperwork being in order than the seamanship being first rate. The ‘don’t get caught’ ethos overrides everything as it follows ill-thought out regulation that is either unenforceable or is enforced in an atmosphere of patronage and corruption. This impacts safety directly, and is therefore extremely dangerous. 

Another strain that seems to run through maritime regulation and its implementation is the ‘shore people know best’ attitude. This results in regulation and its implementation being thrust down the throats of crews in an atmosphere of absolute arrogance. Besides being dumb, this attitude can never promote safety or even simple efficiency. This hubris- whether displayed by shoreside shipmanagement offices, regulators or private or State inspectors-is stupid and paradoxical. We are prepared to trust crews with hundreds of millions of dollars of ship and cargo, but we are not prepared to listen to them. (We must regulate their every moment of existence, though, because those bad boys sure as hell can’t be trusted).  It is inevitable that this hubris leads to hostility, which is hardly the atmosphere in which useful regulation should be implemented. 

Of course, there is so much over regulation in shipping today, and more is coming, but where is the money to implement it? What do the fuddy-duddies think will happen, for example, to the implementation of the MLC in its totality, if cash strapped shipowners simply cannot afford it? Or the millions required to implement the Ballast Water Convention? 

The way in which what is to be regulated is decided upon is also highly suspect. Some critical issues are ignored- container weights and lifeboat release mechanisms, for example- even if they have cost tens, even hundreds of fatalities at sea. Useless regulation- ISPS, for one- is pushed through for the wrong reasons. This pandering to regional – usually Western- economic or political interests may not continue for too long, given that Asia is set to replace, or at least equal, Western dominance in shipping. Regardless, this does not promote good or fair regulation.  

Given history, it is no surprise that we are seeing, once again, an undermining of new regulations that have been thrust upon us. For example and from all accounts, the provisions of the Maritime Labour Convention, many unenforceable, some say, are being very selectively implemented- creative ways of fudging work hours and rest periods continues unabated. Another example: ECDIS courses have mushroomed with new regulations and requirements, but too many are not worth the paper they are written on. (And, sometimes in some countries, it is not necessary to even sit through them to get a certificate).

I can tell you with absolute honesty, as a sailor not yet outdated, that administrative overload was a pain in the unmentionables during much of the twenty odd years after I first got Command. It is close to agonising, this pain, when one is calling fifteen countries a month in Europe or six ports in different States in the US, as I sometimes was. The increasing mountain of paperwork connected with useless regulation- and with the propensity of cheapskate shipmanagers to pass on clerical work that belongs to their offices on to crews- is a major reason cited by many senior officers choosing to quit sailing. Do we really want experienced seamen leaving in droves, and the inevitable impact this will have on the industry, just because regulators or managers can’t get their acts together?

The fuddy-duddies are not part of the solution, as they would like you to believe; they are part of the problem. Please shoot me if you see me headed down their way. 


1 comment:

Reid Sprague said...

Dear Manu,

You've found the nub - and I know because I'm easing down the same road!

At 66, I last sailed full-time eight years ago. I'm still involved, of course - administering a small company - and since it's small, I've been able to remain close to the men who actually conduct operations. But as you point out, things are changing rapidly; and I see equipment that I never used, and hear conversations I sometimes struggle to understand, more and more these days. And yet, I'm in charge of these men.

I do get out from time to time to observe operations, and that helps. And I constantly solicit feedback on new procedures. But if you're not there, you don't really know. Good post! As long as you keep that perspective, you'll never need to be shot.