November 28, 2013

Protesting castration

My generation of Indians was, with some exceptions, proud of the image of seamen at the time we went out to sea. Seamen were seen by everybody as tough and reticent mavericks that worked hard and played even harder. That the image was often- but hardly always- removed from reality was irrelevant. Especially on foreign ships, we were earning very good salaries, were young, often brash, usually blew up money ashore like there was no tomorrow, worked our behinds off on the ship and cursed like sailors wherever we were. We were proud of what we did for a living; we were proud we were different. I still am.

That Indian seamen have over the years been emasculated by a combination of factors serious enough to make seafaring a low priority career today is undisputed. Now comes another daft idea- this one from a parliamentary panel that is amending the Indian Merchant Shipping Act- that will continue their slow castration. The panel has recommended- if media reports are to be believed- that the word ‘seamen’ should be replaced with ‘sea-persons’ in the Act to make the entire shebang gender neutral.

With that, politically correct hot-air has now wafted through Indian shipping’s door, and it smells worse than undigested food.

Pardon my French if you must, but this flipping politically correct nonsensical tinkering with language has gone too far.  ‘Happy Holidays’ has always been a tame (and inaccurate) substitute for ‘Merry Christmas’; ‘sea-persons’ is similarly tame and inaccurate - most seamen are men even today, and those that are not can be called seawomen, can’t they? I mean, why do men have to disproportionately suffer loss of masculinity for the sake of gender neutral language? We already use words like chairwoman and businesswoman, don’t we?

Meanwhile, I vote that that old word for a cargo ship- ‘merchantman’- be replaced by ‘merchantperson.’ That would be funny, at least. Sea-person is just pathetic.

I have been- and to considerable extent still am- a proud seaman. I have ignored recent attempts to classify me as a ‘seafarer’- another term that I find distasteful because it seems to tend to negate my sex and tone me down to some acceptable, rubbishy idea of what is acceptable. I am proud of my scars, warts and my sailor’s temperament. I am proud of my profession. Years later, I want my grandchildren- if I have any- to use the word seaman to describe what I did for a living. Not seafarer, and certainly not some namby-pamby sea-person; I was never a sea-person and I never will be one, thank the Lord for small mercies.

I would like to ask Mr Sitaram Yechury- head of that august parliamentary panel that is tinkering with what they cannot know- to leave my identity alone. I remind him that a country is still either your fatherland or your motherland. Not personland; not yet, anyway. And I remind him that he is not performing a yeoperson service to my profession (which is not his) by mutilating the English language in a desperate and misguided attempt to be gender neutral.  In fact, and pardon my French again if you must, his committee seems hell bent on screwing it up.

Use the words seamen and seawomen, please, if you must differentiate between the two sexes for the sake of some legal document or some cuckoo notion of correctness.  Those two words celebrate gender; ‘sea-person’, on the other hand, sounds like some dainty creature found on the ocean floor. Maybe a sea anemone or a sea horse. Or even a merperson.

Stop this nonsense at once, please, Mr Yechury, because sea-person sounds like some seaman is sporting an ear-ring in the wrong ear.

November 21, 2013

Typhoons and bubbles

Naysayers will insist that the intensity of typhoon Hainan, like the mini-collapse of the economic world order today, is a black swan event- unprecedented, unusual, random and unexpected. Do not believe them. Both these disasters are man-made and both should have been expected. Alas, both types of events will become more commonplace and less unprecedented with each passing year, because mankind will do little to deviate from its self-annihilatory course. 

Even politicians like David Cameron have begun to acknowledge that climate change ‘could’ be the cause of Hainan. The Philippine government has already blamed that for the severity of the typhoon; Yeb Sano, the head of its delegation at the climate change talks in Warsaw, made an impassioned and tearful speech, calling for an end to what he called ‘madness’ and others said was the cost of human inaction. That is actually inaccurate, because we are where we are because of positive prehensile action, not inaction; we are not some dawdlers sitting under a tree waiting for the apple to fall. Mr Sano got a standing ovation in Poland at the end of his speech, but he is not likely to get much else out of the summit.

Hainan has been billed as one of the biggest storms ever to make landfall. The staggering devastation it has caused, and the thousands it has killed, seems to have put the climate change deniers on the back-foot for the time being. Scientists are being allowed to say, without contradiction for now, that climate change warms oceans and so feeds more energy to tropical revolving storms - typhoons, hurricanes and cyclones. Rising sea levels- another climate change fallout- makes the resultant storm surge even more powerful.  Climate change may not increase the frequency of these storms, but it certainly makes them much more powerful simply because the oceans are warmer today. 

Sailors have been feeling for years, without much empirical data to back them up, that storms at sea were becoming stronger, the waves higher and the risk bigger. Their instinct is probably as accurate as the projections and predictions put out by the army of experts out there with their axes to grind. Shipping should start re-examining its premises and its risk analyses right now; actuaries across insurance should throw away some of their old models and program in new ones, for there is a gaggle of swans on the horizon, and they are all black. 

The other threat that consumes shipping- and the rest of the world- is, of course, the global economy. The green shoots of revival that analysts strained to find a year or so ago - many optimistically declaring that the latter half of 2013 would see a turnaround in shipping- have withered and died. Some smallish segment of the industry celebrates sporadically, as chemical tanker owners seem to be doing today, but that is about it. 

I don’t get how the collapsing and self-destructive crony capitalist, bail-out-the-crooks system can continue to work indefinitely. Governments still think that printing more and more money will solve the problem that printing money caused in the first place. (This seems crazy, except if one holds the view that governments are made of people whose prime driving force is the perpetuation of corruption and greed. Then it all makes sense.) 

There are frightening parallels here with mankind’s reaction to the climate change issue- denial, greed and a hope that some messiah will perform some eleventh-hour miracle and save our souls. I am afraid that is not going to happen.

So the US, adding more than two and a half billion dollars to its debt daily, leads the rest of the world following the so called economic stimulus route, adding more and more powder to the keg that waits for the next spark to explode. Almost all nations are printing money hand over fist-some, like Japan, faster than others. This money is sloshing around, creating new stock market, commodity, real-estate and other bubbles and distorting markets across the world. Obviously, all this means there will be another economic crash sooner or later- nobody knows exactly when. I do know that the next fireball will be worse than the last one, because the bubbles are bigger. The giant Ponzi scheme that is the global economic order is turgid with inflammable gas.

I cannot see how shipping- with its big ticket investment costs- can thrive in this atmosphere. Like the global economy, shipping needs trade to thrive, which is why the Baltic Dry Index was considered a proxy for the world’s economy until not so long ago. But growth across the world is tepid today at best, and likely to remain so for a while.  Even China, that much hoped for saviour, has some pretty big problems of its own; it is slowing as it changes from an investment driven economy to a hopefully consumerist one. 

To top it all, shipping still has major overcapacity issues. 

There is another frightening reason that I am not optimistic and that is this: I think that the next two or three decades will see unprecedented social upheavals because of the clearly unsustainable economic and ecological paths we are on today. Some societies are going to be rent asunder as anarchy erupts because of a combination of factors-anger at corrupt governments and their fat cat coteries and despair at rising disparities will top that list. The fight for shrinking natural resources will be another major trigger. It is tough to see trade- or shipping- thriving in this scenario, because some of the societies these upheavals will take place will be either the biggest economies or the most populated societies on earth. 

Shipping’s experts may well believe today, as everybody else seems to, that any global economic or ecological collapse is far into the future. They may well hope that the mayhem associated with that black swan event will not happen on their watch- or in their lifetimes. I hope they are right and that their arrogance is justified. But even if they are and it is, there is little to cheer about. Quite apart from the question of the future of our children is the near certainty that - thanks to our debauched economics - the crash-boom cycles in trade are set to grow shorter and shorter as bubbles expand and explode, and expand and explode again.  

The nature of the beast means that shipping will always get hit first by each detonation. And harder, each time. 


November 14, 2013

Wasting time

I remain critical of shipmanagement companies on most counts; indeed, I believe that the third-party shipmanagement model much of shipping operates under is deeply flawed and negatively impacts a seaman’s working life and his career. A seaman- or a ship owner worth his salt- does not need a body-shopping middleman who is not interested in either of them long-term, lip-service aside. I understand the advantages the shipmanagement model offers an owner with no knowledge of shipping, but for seamen, shipmanagement companies are the places to be if you are mediocre. Owners will appreciate you and reward you if you are good and they are dealing directly with you. Shipmanagers, on the other hand, will reward you most if you are near incompetent. You will not lose your job; you will be shunted to other, less important, client ship owners in their pool.

That said, there is one thing a handful of big shipmanagement companies are doing right in India; their training and placement of cadets- engineering or deck- is far superior to those of individual training institutes. I am convinced that unless the body of individual MET establishments overhaul themselves drastically, and unless the authorities revamp completely the Pre-Sea training mould that stand-alone institutes follow, a time will soon come when the shipmanagement training model will be the only real game in town. 

The one major advantage these companies have over the institutes is that they can guarantee sea training berths for their cadets, of course. (That the rest of the industry needs to also go this way is a given, but nobody wants to kill the goose laying the golden eggs yet, so this will not happen in a hurry.) Whatever, the obvious and collateral advantages of a potential student knowing that he has an on-board training berth waiting for him are many- a much better academic calibre of intake, superior language and basic science skills, greater incentive to perform well during training and the like. In contrast, cadets at individual MET institutes are often found abysmally wanting in basic English and science skills, are generally academically poor and are less motivated- and that motivation nosedives further when they know that they will have to struggle to get a cadetship at the completion of their training even if they are willing to pay touts and corrupt personnel in shipping companies.

Other advantages that shipmanagement company owned training establishments have are smaller. I agree that many smaller MET setups will never have the deep pockets that shipmanagement companies enjoy and so will struggle as simulation based training widens or greater funding is required for infrastructure. But these smaller organisations can still afford, if they want, decently paid faculty (well, no maritime faculty is paid decently, but still..) and can offer individual attention to their (usually smaller) batches of students. That most don’t has much to do with the fact that producing excellent graduates seems less important than making a few extra bucks, and also because the small MET setup- unlike the bigger shipmanagement owned one- is not invested in the quality of output and has no stake in what kind of officers its cadets eventually become. It usually doesn’t even know how good they are at sea.

It would be easy to make the prediction that the smaller MET setups will close down because their output continues to be either jobless or substandard. However, I don’t see that happening too easily. Corruption or influence will keep the system going far longer than we think. Actually, I feel a little sorry for smaller setups, because they have to spend a fair amount of money on infrastructure and in following the regulator’s ‘guidelines,’ they have no control over training berth availability (except the tout route, and that is deeply flawed and downright criminal) and are pressured into spending, additionally, tens of millions on expensive simulators and the like today. I also feel sorry for them because it is not only their fault that the system is flawed or corrupt. 

Come to think of it, the only real advantage the shipmanagement company owned training setups enjoy is the guarantee, to their students, that they will be able to sail as cadets on ships. So, if the Ministry of Shipping wants to pursue its long term (and presently laughable) strategy of increasing the global percentage of Indian seamen with any seriousness at all, the way forward is actually quite simple: Push training berths at sea. And do not allow anybody to undergo Pre-Sea training that cannot be guaranteed one of these sea berths.

If we do this much, the rest will follow, as it did when I went out to sea. As it did, not all that long ago, when thousands of Indians replaced Europeans and others aboard the merchant ships of the world. And we did it without some big and complicated plan; it just happened.

Unfortunately, we need a clean system to do what needs to be done. What we have, instead, is exactly what we don’t need- a corrupt and self-interest riddled system at home backed by a corrupt and self-interest riddled international ‘STCW training’ regime promoted by the IMO. Unless we break these shackles- one with strict policing and by selectively training only those we can employ, and the other with thoughtful and selective implementation of ill conceived regulation- we will get nowhere except to that dark corner on earth reserved for hand-wringers. And for those who waste time reading and writing columns such as this.


November 07, 2013

Kissing toads

I would love to sail again.

I miss what is out there. I long for the sound of the water lapping the hull and the sight of the tens of flying fish that appear out of nowhere in a tropical calm, skidding together on the surface of the ocean like a dozen flat stones launched by a celestial schoolboy. I miss the zillion stars above me at night that remind me that I am no more than a speck in nature’s scheme of things. I miss the cold and bracing breeze of the North Atlantic as much as I miss the balmy Mediterranean. I long for the sight of the solitary seagull circling a ship. I pine for the first sighting of the cliffs of Dover or sunrise over Istanbul or the lights of Rio or the soul-cleansing appearance in the water of two whales- or twenty dolphins. I miss the million other things that I have seen and felt at sea, each of which is impossible to experience on land. 

I miss much of the work too, and the pride associated with it. That tired feeling of accomplishment after doing a dozen ports in as many days. The fatigued elation-after-stress feeling one gets after doing a difficult job decently. The discovery of internal reserves- mental and physical- that a sailor did not realise existed within him. I miss a hundred other things that are routine in a sea Captain’s job- and that I will never experience ashore. 

I even miss bad weather. Cautiously said, that, because this sailor knows enough to treat the water with wary respect. But the sight of the sea in its full glory can, as any sailor knows, shock and awe and arouse and create the kind of wonderment that can never be duplicated sitting on the sofa watching the National Geographic channel.

So, like I said, I would love to sail again. 

But I won’t. 

Let me tell you why.

Around the time I went out to sea as a Cadet, a Master looking to sail again after a long-ish break would have had to do little else except look for a job and pack his bags once he got one. If I want to sail today, however, I will first have to do two things I despise: a) go and suffer some more (new and improved!) useless ‘STCW training’ courses to add to the countless useless ones I have suffered earlier and b) deal with the kind of people- both in government and in the private sector- that I hold in more than a little contempt. Before I meet prince charming, I will have to kiss a lot of toads.

I will have to kiss toads later too, starting with managers who will try and drown me and my crew with a rain forest’s worth of paperwork, and who will want us to do-gratis- clerical work that belongs ashore. I will have to deal with the bean counters who can count pennies brilliantly but who couldn’t sail a paper boat in a small bathtub- but who still want to override my authority and responsibility by telling me how to move a 200 metre long floating hunk of steel. I will have to tolerate a system that loves to scapegoat the likes of me to hide its own shortcomings and an owner who wants me to break regulations and then take the blame for it. (I will also have to be willing to go to jail for doing nothing wrong). I will have to kiss an industry whose only response to systemic shortcomings, new regulations and dangers is to want me to pay with my own money and time for even more useless and euphemistically called ‘training courses.’ 

Once again, I will have to deal aggressively when dealing with almost everybody not from my ship- including owners, managers, inspectors, surveyors and the little boy down the lane- or else my crew would be exploited or at physical or mental risk. I will have to remind the toads once again- before their kiss of death- that it is my job to protect my crew.

That is why I won’t sail again- I am done with kissing toads. So I won’t go back to sea, even though I would almost give my right arm to do so.

I will lose something by not sailing again, I know, and shipping will lose too: it will lose a presumably competent seaman who has held command since the turn of the nineties. But that is not the main issue. Actually, the crux of the problem is that the men and women in shipping do not care if they lose a thousand sea Captains that still love to sail. They do not care that everybody loses, including themselves and including shipping.

Those men and women just want to be kissed, is all.


November 01, 2013

Pride and prejudice

I often hear prominent shipping personalities exhorting youngsters graduating from maritime colleges to cultivate ‘pride in the profession.’  This trite and much overused phrase ignores the primary fact that pride comes from within and is not something that can be slapped or urged onto the psyche of an individual. For a seafarer, pride in the profession is also something that is reinforced- or killed- by the respect and dignity society and the industry afford him. 

It is unsurprising that pride in seafaring has dropped incrementally with each passing year since the time I went out to sea. The downward spiral has been compounded- or instigated- by several other factors. 

Leave aside the lack of respect that broader society allocates to a seaman. The fact is that when I went out to sea more than thirty five years ago, broader society did not understand the criticality of shipping or knew what a seaman was all about. It does not understand those even today. The fault lies at shipping’s door; it has always failed in the public perception and public relations space. But this is a smaller fault; the bigger one is the cavalier way in which the industry treats its own seamen. If shipping treats them with prejudice, then it is farcical to expect broader society to show seamen much respect anyway. 

I will never forget the expression on a friend’s face as he told me the story of the time he- a senior general insurance executive completely unconnected with shipping – was sitting in a shipmanagement honcho’s office in India when a call came from a Master at sea. My friend was struck- almost awestruck- at the lack of respect shown to the Master on the phone. “I thought that Captains were respected,” he told me. (I did explain to him that there were Masters and then there were Masters, that many I knew would not have been spoken to that way- or that there would have been hell to pay if they were- but the damage had been done already.)

I do believe that even shoreside treatment of seamen is a smaller issue, because much of the fault for dropping professional pride lies with seamen themselves, and starts when they go out to sea for the wrong reasons. Because they didn’t get into courses they preferred. Because sailing seems like easy money (Ha!). Few go out because they love the sea or a sailor’s life; even fewer want to do a good job once they are there. Lack of commitment towards a profession does not do anything towards cultivating pride in it. This state of affairs is hardly a recipe for competence, pride or success.

Not just financial success; professional pride often comes independently of that. Usually, it comes at sea when you least expect it. It comes when you do a good job working long hours against all odds and under high pressure. It comes when two old and wizened Japanese pilots pat you on the shoulder for bringing the ship alongside in pre-typhoon weather, with no tugs available and with sleet cutting your face in bitter cold- after the two had given up. Pride glows in a deckhand’s eyes when he is chosen to throw the heaving line ashore because he can throw it the furthest. It comes to the tired engineer unannounced when he tells you that he has solved the lubricating oil problem that the ship has lived with for five years. 

It seems a travesty that many of the youngsters going out to sea today do not particularly want to experience that simple feeling of a seaman’s job done well. It is a tragedy that most will never really push themselves to see what they can accomplish against the odds and against the elements, and that they will rarely experience the feeling of pure exhilaration when they struggle and win. 

Or, come to think of it, even when they lose. Sometimes, just the fact that one tries one’s damnedest in a demanding job is enough. Sometimes there is no shame in losing, and great pride lies in the simple fact that you almost died trying.