June 20, 2013

Isle of Caprice.

At first glance, the report of the UK’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch on the Turkish owned, Antigua and Barbuda registered short sea trade vessel ‘Coastal Isle’ almost beggars belief. A feeder container ship with a Safe Manning requirement of 7 crew, although ten were aboard when she ran aground on the Isle of Bute in the Firth of Clyde a year or so ago. The vessel’s bridge at the time was unmanned, since the ‘Chief Officer’- whose Panamanian Certificate of Competency was actually fraudulent, bought in connivance with a shady setup in Turkey and some corrupt Panamanian Maritime Authority employees- had, after knocking off the lookout, disappeared from the wheelhouse a full two hours before the incident with ‘stomach cramps’- he was found after the grounding in his cabin two decks below the bridge, presumably asleep. The Captain, German, nineteen years in command on the same ship but unable to operate the watch alarm. A Second Mate who was, probably for reasons obvious to his shipmates, not allowed to keep independent watch even in this flaky setup- the Captain and Chief Officer were keeping 12 hours out of every twenty four, including one killer seven hour stretch each. Every day. 

After the grounding and extensive hull damage, the Chief Officer was busted to AB. His reliever soon arrived, complete with his own fraudulent Panamanian certificate obtained through almost identical means in Turkey. Hilarious. Unbelievable. Beggars belief again. Could never happen to you or me.

Well, in a way, it could. It did.

I spent many years, until the late nineties, in Command of roll on- roll off feeder vessels, each about a hundred metres long. Total complement was seven; twelve hour watches every day- in port or at sea- and twenty hour workdays was a basic given. Fatigue was a nagging mistress for each of us every day of our working lives. And pressures multiply when, for example, you are alone on the bridge berthing a ship. 

Like the Captain of the ‘Coastal Isle’, I had pilotage exemption for quite a few places, including for berthing at Singapore. I don’t think I would be physically capable today of doing what I did in those years- manoeuvring a ship singlehanded, without even a helmsman or a lookout. Running out of hands and brains to operate everything from the main engines to the generators (controls on the bridge, including frequency matching) to the bow thruster to the wheel, the VHF, walkie-talkie and everything else in between.

And, although none of our certificates was fraudulent- at least as far as I know- I had to be rushed to join a ship because the flag was being changed from a European open registry to a Panamanian one, and the existing European Master there was disqualified by- hold your breath- the Panamanian authorities from being issued a Master’s certificate because of his lack of suitable experience for a certificate equivalent to what the European Flag had given him. (Similar situation on the Coastal Isle with the two Chief Officers, apparently, except that it was Panama that was the offender.) 

Surprisingly, given its past history with pinpointing fatigue as a major cause of accidents, the MAIB report did not stress on the manning levels aboard the Coastal Isle as a major contributor to the incident. It should have. Since he was not drunk, I will bet my last clean underwear that the Chief Officer on that ship- properly certified or not- was instead punch drunk fatigued. And so was, probably, everybody else on that ship. (Why did he send the lookout man off? Could it be that the man was fatigued, and that tomorrow promised to be as hectic as today and yesterday?) 

Short sea trades with stripped manning levels in congested waters on feeder vessels are killers, plain and simple. They are bad enough even with ‘normal’ manning levels seen today on oceangoing ships; they are lethal on short sea vessels.

Actually, what really beggars my belief is that nothing is ever done to solve the manning problem and the fraud that the Safe Manning Certificates widely perpetuate. It can’t be ignorance- everybody knows what I am saying is true. I can only presume, after a lot of head scratching, that it is simple myopia; short sighted ship owners and their lackey managers do not want to see the woods for the trees.

Seemingly unconnected, my reading of the MAIB report coincided with reports quoting the  Chairman of the International Chamber of Shipping Masamichi Morooka bemoaning impending new environmental legislation would cost the industry more than half a trillion US dollars between 2015 and 2025. Trillion. That’s a lot of zeros after the one.

I am not a fan of the way environmental regulation is going, but I can’t help speculating that perhaps shipping’s manning crisis can only be solved through similar- seemingly draconian- regulation. It appears that many Flag States, avaricious ship owners and short sighted shipmanagers cannot see beyond their noses, and have to be dragged screaming and kicking to do what is actually in everybody’s interest, including theirs. They appear, so far, to be perfectly happy entrusting their multimillion dollar ships and cargoes to woefully insufficient numbers of tired, poorly trained and unmotivated crews, some of whose certificates seem to be forged. (12635 reported, according to a 2001 IMO report.) 

If shipping is unable to regulate itself, then it must be forced to do so. Major decisions cannot continue to be dishonest, or subject to the avarice or caprice of clueless shoreside individuals. Unfortunately, the international regulatory regime is party to this nonsense. And so is the IMO, which is as ill equipped, as short sighted- and, ultimately, as incompetent- as any of its members to meaningfully address this crisis.

It is ironic, actually. Shipping is asked to spend half a trillion dollars over the next decade to protect the environment.  In contrast, almost nothing is mandated to be spent on improving the chances that the crew of a ship is sufficient, competent and properly rested to reduce the chances of that environmental disaster from occurring in the first place. 

Bravo, shipping. Bravo. 


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