July 25, 2013

The MLC and flexible responsibility

President Borromeo of InterManager- the trade association of ship managers- asked Flag States a few weeks ago to exercise ‘maximum tolerance’ and ‘flexibility’ in the implementation of the MLC. Intermanager claims to represent the management of almost 5000 ships and to be ‘responsible’ for some quarter of a million seafarers, as its website says. It feels that, ‘as the MLC requires total commitment from its global stakeholders, restraint and a common interpretation of the rules needs to be seen from inspecting authorities.’ 

Apprehensive about disruptions to ship’s operations and schedules post the convention coming into effect, Borromeo says that “InterManager welcomes the entering into force of MLC but remains concerned that many of the world’s major ports which our members’ vessels visit, lie within the borders of countries which have yet to ratify the MLC such as the US, Korea, UK, Italy and Japan”. 

I can understand Intermanager’s angst; the words in shipping legislation often have a habit of running away with themselves, sometimes being interpreted- as in the Port State Control regime- in a dozen creative and unintended ways by lazy, arrogant or corrupt officials. The MLC has the potential to be pretty draconian unless common sense is applied. Which may explain some of Mr Borromeo’s concerns; there is scope for mayhem until everybody ratifies it and the dust settles, after which we can all presumably live happily ever after. 


My memory is poor; which is probably why I can’t recall such apprehensions being expressed before with, for example, the implementation of the useless ISPS convention, which has done little except add a layer of daily drudgery to a seaman’s life without adding an iota to a ship’s security. (Ask the hundreds of seamen that are still being taken hostage every year.) I don’t recall such public misgivings before the ISM Code was implemented either; that was the one that started the conversion of seamen into clerks, running around the ship with clipboards and checklists; that was the one that contributed immensely and directly to fatigue at sea. That was the one that asked ship’s crews to lie in writing. It still does; nothing has changed. 

No concern has been expressed, as far as I know, about the need, effectiveness or usefulness of the new courses that the STCW regime has slapped on seamen with every amendment for the last twenty years. As we speak, for example, hundreds of seamen are running around trying to get a certificate for the ‘Designated Security Duties’ course, another one in a long line of piffling courses that should have been aborted with extreme prejudice before it was born. 

The problem with selectively expressing concern, as Intermanager has done, is that organisational credibility takes a toss. People wonder about who is actually being sought to be protected. People know what the real agenda is. People suspect that asking for flexibility may be another way to wiggle out of the financial cost of responsibility.

Which reminds me. I take exception to Intermanager’s claim that the organisation’s members are ‘responsible for some 250,000 seafarers.’ 

With a small handful of notable exceptions that actually value their seamen, the driving force for most ship managers’- particularly  third party ship managers- is the retention of old clients and the addition of new ones. Other major forces include penny pinching, blinkered short term outlooks and the covering of the organisational backside. Responsibility for seamen is very low down on their agenda. I can tell you, from first-hand experience, that some of these managers- including many considered blue chip- care two hoots about the seamen working aboard their ships. But then you know that already.

Had I suffered from the misconception that these managers were ‘responsible’ for me in any way whatsoever, I would have died at sea long ago. 


July 18, 2013

Imbalanced scales

Frankly, I am not too excited about the possibility that 22,000 or 24,000 TEU containerships will be out there soon. With accountants driving the economies of scale bandwagon, pushing bigger and bigger ships in a mine-is-bigger-than-yours game, there still remain too many questions that are being ignored. Critical questions.

Research done by Lloyd’s Register, along with a couple of shipping outfits, says that 22,000 TEU ships will be coming in a few years; Drewry says maybe by 2018. Not far behind will be 24,000 TEU behemoths, Lloyd’s says. These will be almost half a kilometer long- twenty five present longer than the biggest 18,000 TEU boxship of today- and sixty odd metres wide.  Figures say that the ‘per slot’ daily cost of running an 18,000-TEU ship is $10.96 per TEU; for a 22,000-TEU ship, it is almost a dollar cheaper, at $10.04. A 24,000-TEU ship breaks the ten dollar barrier, at $9.57 per TEU per day at sea. 

I couldn’t care less about the per slot numbers. I also don’t give a rodent’s behind about stories of how these behemoths will change the entire shipping landscape and revolutionise everything from ports to supply chains, except to point out, somewhat snidely, the many Valemax-business-model fiascos that are still ongoing. Bigger is not always better.

Owners and charterers can either make fortunes with their ten dollar slots or go bust straddling white elephants, if the giant container ship model falls on its face; I am mainly concerned about how seaworthy these ships are going to be and the impact of their size on their crews’ work-lives.  

I reserve judgement on my first concern, even though I know that the shipping industry is not the airlines industry- or even the automobile industry. Tens of new planes may be grounded and thousands of news cars recalled after a single accident or incident that smells of a design fault; shipping, like amnesia, recalls nothing. For example, we continue to kill our sailors in lifeboat drills despite being fully aware- for many years- that the design of their launching and recovery apparatus is faulty. 

I presume that classification societies in particular and shipyards in general will have safe structural designs and safer construction practices uppermost in their minds when they construct giant ships. But history is not so presumptuous. Concerns about structural failures on large bulk carriers first surfaced after the Derbyshire sank in 1980. Amongst many others, the Kowloon Bridge sank due to structural failure in 1986, after grounding. The IMO kind of addressed the issue with new regulations a full seventeen years after the Derbyshire sinking, in 1997. Meanwhile? Seamen died.

This is an industry with low accountability. Classification societies, owners, managers and shipyards escape relatively unscathed after an incident and individuals ashore are rarely held accountable for professional failure that may have cost lives. Crew, on the other hand, certainly die- sometimes conveniently, because then they can be more easily blamed for the sins of those ashore. 

My second concern is actually suspicion. Suspicion that the industry will not change its attitude to its seafarers simply because the ship is bigger. And suspicion that daily work related issues have not been thought through much so far, and that these will impact safety much more on a half kilometre long ship. 

Not an idle suspicion, this; I have not seen a change in attitude in the biggest ships I have sailed on, and some have been big enough. We were run ragged there even when things were normal; the level of organisational importance given to safety was hysterically laughable. 

I know shipping doesn’t think much about the men and women who will actually work on these ships that accountants push, designers design on computers and testers test in ship model basins. And I suspect that shipping’s economies of scale models do not foresee any great changes in the numbers of crews that will operate these half kilometer long ships. Or, indeed, spend anything except a cursory thought on how fatigued these crews are likely to be working on these goliaths; conditions exacerbated by the additional vagaries of navigation on huge ships, vastly reduced response times and additional complexities on ships that size- or the exponentially heightened financial and environmental consequences of an accident. 

I suspect all that because I know shipping and because the scales fell from my eyes years ago. And those had nothing to do with economies.

July 11, 2013

No country for Old Men

(Author’s note for landlubbers- A ship’s Captain is often referred to as the ‘Old Man’- perhaps a throwback from the times when the Old Man stayed long enough at sea- after getting Command- to be called so)

After twenty years of living in one place, I moved house a few months ago, and was shocked at the cost of things today. I am not talking about the cost of the dwelling itself, which we all know is absurdly high in big city India. But costs of labour and material both have gone through the roof as well; buying and installing a middling-quality granite kitchen counter, for example, costs, per square foot, more than half of what I paid per square foot for my last entire apartment, kitchen granite included. Curtains, woodwork, electricals et al seem to cost six to ten times more than the early nineties. And so does everything else.

In the seventies, the generation of senior officers before me included many who sailed till near retirement age, managing to buy homes in swishy areas of big cities where they spent their twilight years in genteel upper middle class comfort. Although inflation was often even higher than it is today, good salaries ashore could not normally compete with a Master’s seagoing wages, and, consequently, demand- particularly speculative demand- for apartments was muted. In contrast today, even a sailor such as I, who has sailed only on foreign ships as an officer- and therefore on much higher wages than if  I had worked for a domestic company- cannot really afford to buy or live in those same swishy areas today that my seniors then could. The cumulative effect of inflation, exploding shore salaries and stagnant wages at sea has taken its toll. 

I wrote about the myth of seagoing wages in Marex in November 2010, (in Calculated mistake )so I won’t repeat myself, except to restate that Indian seamen working for foreign companies have managed to do okay only because the rupee has depreciated by seven or eight times since the late seventies, and not because seagoing wages have even remotely kept pace with inflation. In dollar terms, a Master’s salary has gone up just about four or five times since the early eighties; in the same period, housing in urban India has sometimes gone up a hundredfold, and the cost of living has gone up many tenfold. On land, executive salaries and fees for services have kept up much, much better with the exploding cost of living. Not seagoing wages, though. So, as has happened in other parts of the world, the socio-economic status of the sailor is dropping with each passing generation.

This is no country for Old Men. Or, for that matter for anybody who wants to sail for most or all of his working life. The situation is getting worse for the new generation of seafarers. 

It is critical for the industry to realise this as a big reason it cannot attract better talent. For many, sailing today is akin to taking a high interest loan to buy a depreciating asset. This also explains almost completely why any officer who has the calibre to move out of sailing does so within a decade or so of first going out of sea, to a career ashore with better long term financial prospects. Usually as soon as the officer gets to be called Captain, or Chief Engineer.

The problem arises only for sailors like me, who love the sea but not the way most of its shoreside industry functions. Additionally, we are incapable- not because of calibre, but because of our mental makeup- of “going along.” We will forever be misfits in what we see as the decaying air of shoreside shipping. Although we have a strong (and, dare I say it, proven at sea over the long term) faith in our capabilities, we can’t change ourselves. And we can’t (or won’t, because we don’t care enough) change the system. Although some of us will qualify themselves in affiliated disciplines, as I did in chartering twenty five years ago, we will not seriously seek positions ashore. Although we could make more money doing so, we are simply not willing to pay the price. Instead we will happily spend, as I did, a decade and a half in command, moving ashore much later in life, happy to have little to do with that part of mainstream shoreside shipping we were always disdainful about.

We are part of what I call, with apologies to Tull, the ‘too old to rock and roll and too young to die’ brigade. I like to think we are the true sailors. I like to think, also, that the industry has lost something valuable because of its inability to persuade us to contribute, or to tap into our vast collective knowledge and experience.

As things stand today, though, the generations of the ‘brigade’ after me will find it near impossible to resist moving ashore. We are being strangled at sea anyway, thanks to the degradation of a sailor’s working environment, so it will make even greater sense for sailors to move ashore in future. 

So this will probably happen, but it will be a tragedy when it does.


July 04, 2013

Cookie-cutter cowardice

Ashore or afloat, shipping professionals- particularly Asian shipping professionals- would do themselves and the industry a lot of good if they displayed just a little bit of old-fashioned courage in their day to day working lives. I mean managerial, operational and professional courage at the workplace, of course, not the roll-up-your-sleeves-and-step-outside-the-bar kind some of us are more familiar with.

At sea, the ISM Code has contributed its bit to deteriorating standards of seamanship, initiative and the implementation of simple common sense at work; this is mainly because it has promoted a culture of paper instead of one of efficiency. Ashore too, managers are wary of challenging what a piece of paper says so, however hastily thought out and poorly drafted that paper may be. Combine this with the feudal outlook that still prevails in many Asian countries- where contradicting your boss or the system is inviting retribution- and you have a situation where mediocrity triumphs over progress almost every time. 

I have never understood why so many Masters and Chief Engineers- and other ranks, too- are afraid to speak their minds, or why they seem unable to unshackle themselves from the tyranny of the checklist. Or simply say no to unsafe or illegal instructions. After all, they are in an ideal situation to do so- contractual employees whose bosses and auditors work thousands of miles away can easily afford to be mavericks. But somehow it doesn’t work that way. Here again, Asians seem to have more of a lemming-like need to conform, to not rock the boat, to not stick their neck out for fear that it will be chopped off. 

Managers in shipmanagement offices too, particularly in Asia, seem to thrive on doing the same inane things over and over again, never mind how ineffective the outcome or how much sense it makes. The attempted standardisation in everything too often seems to result in the spread of mediocrity and the slaughter of initiative. Fear is the key here, again- we seem happy to work anonymously, living pay check to pay check like the filing clerks the system wants us to become, rather than make an utterance contrary to the thoughts of the majority or the system. Rather than use our brains, that the same system has hired. The malaise is spread not just at sea or in shoreside management; it is even more evident with national and international regulators and administrations that suffer the additional diseases of bureaucratic lethargy, cronyism and corruption.

As for industry, the use of the much hyped and much overused catch phrases – team and ‘team player’- do much to encourage conformists and stifle dissent. The common industry understanding of a team seems to be that of a group of people working together effectively towards a common goal. Inherently implied in this, however, is the notion that a ‘team player’ doesn’t make waves, does not express dissent and submits, instead, to the majority early in the game.

I vehemently dispute this. To me a team is a group of diverse individuals, often with contrasting ideas and ways of working, that come together to achieve something. Friction is welcome; that lubricant will make for better decisions and more effective outcomes. Also welcome are people who are different, because only those are irreplaceable; lemmings can be replaced instantly. Rebels are welcome too- they usually get things done faster and more efficiently, and bring an electric dynamic to the group. To view the team instead as some kind of homogenous outfit whose members are clones of each other is nonsense, but that is what is widely expected today of ‘team players.’ Even the suits are identical, like something out of ‘The Matrix’.

The problem with this kind of behaviour is that it promotes a decline in standards across the board- since nonconformist ideas are not really welcome, the tyranny of the mediocre majority rules- and weakens the system to a point where it is unable to cope with any change, let alone a threat. This is very evident at sea, today, where many Masters seem unable to make even simple administrative decisions without consulting ‘the office.’  One may think that there is no harm in doing so, given easy communications, and ordinarily there wouldn’t be. But seafaring is not an ordinary profession; the harm is evident when the same Masters are faced with life threatening situations that require immediate and affirmative action that only they can take. Decision making at sea is a habit of Command that atrophies when not used sufficiently. It is not a shirt one wears and discards at will.

Read your history. Shipping- seafaring or shipowning- has traditionally been a maverick’s domain. Whether at sea or ashore, rebels have been the ones riding the waves ever since the first man thought of floating a piece of wood in the water and sitting on it. Over the centuries, this is the brand of men that has forged change. They have risked their lives and their fortunes by making decisions, many of which were contrary to the established thought of the day. Progress in shipping- like most everywhere else- has come from rebels, dissenters and out-of-the-box thinkers; people who were not afraid to be different. People who were confident, and did not feel an overwhelming need to toe the line. 

Shaw said that all progress depended on the unreasonable man. Shipping would do well to remember this, and to rein in its relatively recent propensity to embrace abstruse management concepts that belong more in the classroom than at sea. To move ahead, we need more unreasonable men out there. We do not need cookie cutter managers or seamen afraid of their own shadows, for that is an open invitation to decline.