The commercial maritime industry does itself a disservice when it complains, as it does from time to time, that the world is seablind. It also misquotes; the term was first coined a few years ago by Sir Jonathon Band, First Sea Lord of the Royal Navy, who was talking about Britain’s defence capabilities and cuts in military- particularly naval- spending. The mercantile marine, for want of a better term, has taken Sir Band’s term to heart but out of context. They think seablindness is supposed to mean that the general public everywhere is unknowing and uncaring about merchant ships and their crews and is ignorant of the fact that these carry, as everybody loves to say, 90 percent of everything.
I suspect that the public is not half as ignorant about shipping as we believe it to be. True, they may not know much about how a ship works or how many million tonnes of cargo is moved daily across the seas, or details about what a ship’s crew actually does. They may still not know that we carry 90 percent of everything. However, anybody living in coastal areas anywhere in the world would have to be physically blind not to notice the sea and the ships that sail on it. Or, indeed, the huge amounts of cargo- containers or bulk or oil- that nearby ports seem to handle. In many parts of the world, much recreational activity is centred around the water. Inland seas, waterways and rivers, particularly in Europe, Japan and the Americas, are the much visible arteries of commerce in those countries. The economic and strategic importance of the Suez or the Panama canals to these countries is well known to their citizens.
Entire civilisations have been born right next to the water. The biggest and most important cities of the world, almost without exception, have been born where the ocean has met land. To say, then, that John Q Public is blind to the maritime world is a trifle disingenuous.
Actually, turning the accusation on its head makes more sense. A case can well be made that it is shipping that keeps its distance from Mr Public. The industry is structured to do exactly that: It is secretive to the extreme- what can one expect when the ownership of a ship is often hidden from even Masters and crews?
But that is not all. Shipping does not engage with the general population in any way whatsoever; it does not apparently feel the need to do so. There are no outreach initiatives and no advertising of the critical importance of what it does. Across the world, there is little attempt at any public relations. It would seem that shipping likes to live in its small, incestuous world. The same old members of the same old industry bodies talk to each other and do business with each other, often complaining, as in India, that the politicians do not give shipping its due. That the general public is blind to their importance.
Nobody says that it seems to suit shipping to keep the general public in the dark, or that it chooses for things to be this way. And nobody says that it is shipping that appears to be the blind one here. Also, dumb. For, if it made sure that the general public was educated enough to understand the importance, in their daily lives, of ships and shipping, then it would not need to pressure politicians all that much to make those policies or to support those initiatives that would make the industry thrive.
But shipping does not want to realise that. It is shoreblind.