May 22, 2014

Then the wine drinks us

To add to a long line of similar incidents that have been going on for far too long, helicopters were scrambled from Sweden to alert a ship that was about to run aground; authorities later said the drunk Polish Master had fallen asleep on watch.

The regularity with which European crews are found to be drunk almost beggars belief, even amongst those of us who have sailed with them. That the phenomenon continues in this age of supposedly strictly policies against drugs and alcohol at sea underlines the double standards that are applied both by Port States and shipmanagers; the colour of the skin of the crews seems to determine who is allowed to have a drink at sea and who not.

In the last few years, there have been many accidents and near misses in European waters because solitary navigating watchkeepers have fallen asleep, drunk or not. Ships have run aground because of this. An F16 fighter aircraft was scrambled in late 2011 to alert a ship when a drunken Norwegian Captain left the bridge to go his cabin to sleep; the Mate was found drunk too. In another incident three months later, a Danish Navy helicopter had lowered a rescue worker down to a ship’s deck to wake up the drunken Russian Master. These are just the high profile near misses that made the news; other incident reports, investigative reports from the British MAIB post accidents and anecdotal evidence all point to a problem that is considerable more pervasive than believed and shows no sign of letting up. And it is still being largely ignored, though it appears to me that shore based traffic systems in Europe are monitoring ships much more closely to detect if they are running erratic courses and running into danger because bridge watchkeepers may be asleep.

By the way, don’t forget the Costa Concordia in that list, whose officers were reported to be ‘regularly’ drunk- and snorting cocaine to boot.

Asian crewed ships, especially if they are run by third party big-brother management almost always have a strict (misguided, in my opinion) ‘no alcohol on board’ policy today. Stated penalty for any breach is summary dismissal. It is not uncommon for Asian crews to be subjected to random breath analyser or urine sample tests at sea; some setups even send an email to the Master listing who all have to be tested at once.

Different rules seem to apply to Europeans, in my experience. I am not talking about thirty odd years ago, when I sailed for a European company and where beer flowed more freely than water from before breakfast to after dinner, and where at least some of the officers seemed to be at sea only because booze was dirt cheap on board compared to back home. I am not talking even of 2005 or so, when I sailed on a fully European crewed ship as an observer, and where schnapps flowed freely during lunch and dinner and where everything else flowed freely in between. (That crews could still do this on a US run was an eye opener and a revalidation of the discrimination that Asian crews face. That the European flagged ship could get away with other glaring shortcomings- no ISPS watches, no ISM, few SOPEP or Garbage Management measures in place, amongst others- was unbelievable. Ah, the advantages of the right skin colour.)

No, I don’t talk of then. I talk of today, when a drunk Asian Master or watchkeeper is- for whatever reasons- a rarity. Unfortunately, a drunk European watchkeeper is not.

Which is not to say that all watchkeepers who fall asleep are drunk; we know differently. Many short sea trades- including in high traffic density Europe- have ships that are severely undermanned and crews that are severely fatigued. Having sailed for many years with a total complement of just seven (including me, the Master) on extremely hectic runs (20 ports a month sometimes), I can well empathise with the plight of many European seamen. Even a relatively short tenure aboard some of these ships can take you to the edge of your physical and mental resources; the pressures can be tremendous.

The fact is that the industry will continue to do nothing to address these massive factors that directly impact safety and the well-being of their crews. The fact is, also, that drunk watchkeepers or crews cannot be tolerated. The only solution seems to be to man ships appropriately and to have pragmatic alcohol policies that apply to all seafarers regardless of nationality. Only after that is done will we be in a position to show no mercy to drunken crewmembers that endanger lives because of- to put in mildly- their irresponsible behaviour. 


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