February 01, 2013

Wag the dog

Norwegian Kongsberg Maritime announced, some time ago, a ‘new’ ECDIS Instructor Training course some weeks ago. Ship Captains and “senior personnel”- which means the Chief Officer, I presume- will now be able to train ‘other officers and crew members’- which means the Second and Third Mates, I presume- in familiarisation of Kongsberg ECDIS systems aboard. Kongsberg will test officers before issuing STCW compliant ECDIS competence certificates to people trained this way.

"The course enables Captains to train their own officers and crew, which significantly reduces training and travel costs compared to each crew member attending separate ECDIS training courses," says Kongsberg’s Product Manager, Training.  The company says that the course has been booked by ‘several’ clients. Cheaper alternatives usually will be, in shipping, even if they are inferior alternatives.

The degradation in maritime training that started in the nineties, thanks to STCW 95, continues with each amended STCW regime, because the object of the exercise appears to be to cater to the business of maritime training at the cost of quality of training. The Kongsberg course is another small step down this slope. Its drivers are purely commercial- savings for the owner. As automation increases at sea, I have no doubt that other manufacturers of navigational, safety, automation or engine room equipment will be tempted to roll out such training. I have no doubt that shipowners will welcome such training if it means saving some pennies here and there.

And therein lies the danger. While one can argue that an ECDIS course involves few personnel (so what is the problem doing this on board, they will say), the fact is that Captains, officers and crews do not have the time aboard the ships of today for any kind of equipment ‘training’, mandated or not. At a time when normal operations aboard many ships leave crew severely fatigued- hang those other STCW regulations that are supposed to address this- we need to reduce shipboard workload drastically, not increase it.  I can think of other, smaller, reasons why this trend is a bad idea, but quality of training and fatigue are my biggest objections.

Like most seamen subjected to second rate training conducted by fourth rate institutions in third world (oops, developing) countries, I have become deeply cynical, over the course of my career, about the whole shebang that is alleged to be maritime training. Look at India. There was a time a generation ago when maritime training was largely ship based, and followed a usually loose but overall pretty good mentorship ethos. This is not a nostalgic statement justifying the ‘good old days’ – the proof of its efficacy was the quality of the product that spoke for itself in the marketplace; Indian mariners of my generation did not blast through the glass ceiling because they were second rate.

Shipping then took this decently working system and systematically destroyed it. The advent of STCW 95 was the first stumble on the slippery slope. Compromised international regulators and corrupt domestic systems in countries like India and the Philippines together ensured continued decline. Backed by these gentle folk, Maritime Training Institutions blossomed like weeds. Dubious certificates became more important than competence. This trend has only accelerated with each STCW amendment, never mind that many of the courses that are forced on seafarers of developing countries- at their cost and time, I might add since this is my pet refrain- are absent in much of the developed world. Look at the Indian versus the British revalidation system for certificates of competency if you don’t believe me.

All this happens because everybody- from international regulators downwards- looks at maritime training as a milch cow instead of something that is indispensable to the maritime industry. The Kongsberg initiative, if it becomes a trend that I suspect it will, is the thousandth nail in the same coffin. The objective is to make mandated training cheaper for the owners; the objective needs to be, instead, that regulations are mandated carefully and any training required be executed in the best way possible.

That objective will not be met unless everybody down the line puts the training needs of the industry above the vested interests of manufacturers, the inflated egos of bureaucrats or the greed of ship owners, corrupt functionaries and training establishments. Unfortunately, changing this entrenched culture will not be easy to do.

Shipping’s training needs must be put first. All the others- from regulators to MET establishments- exist because of shipping and not the other way around. Their needs or interests- even the survival of some- is secondary. Unfortunately, as things stand today, these other interests control the entire universe of maritime training. Unfortunately, today, these inmates are in control of the asylum. Unfortunately, today, the tail is wagging the dog.

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