We in shipping love the International Safety Management Code; we like to think of it as the mother of all codes that could well have come down from Hammurabi himself. We pretend this Code is an all-encompassing solution that makes ships and crews safer. Unfortunately for us, this pretence does not wash. In reality, the ISM Code- like so many of our Codes and regulations- is hardly worth the paper it is written on. It has repeatedly failed in theory and in practice. Worse, instead of becoming the instrument to find and fix loopholes in safety as it was meant to be, it has become a convenient instrument to fix the blame on the ship, to crucify Masters and crews and to allow shipowners and managers to escape moral, financial and legal liability. Most of the regulatory and commercial entities in the world of shipping are complicit in this charade.
The same charade is playing itself out in the Costa Concordia disaster. The much vilified Capt Francesco Schettino has raised some important issues recently, and that some sensible voices are agreeing with some of what the devil incarnate is saying. Schettino says he takes responsibility for the Costa Concordia sinking, by the way, but has also said, in an interview with Lloyds List, that his officers were not trained properly, there were major language difficulties- including with the Indonesian crewmember steering on that fateful night who may have put the helm over the wrong way- that the officers used the ecdis (Was it really fit to be used as an ecdis- were the right types of charts installed? There are, amazingly, questions about that too) like a ‘video game’ without being properly trained on it, and that he had not taken over command of the vessel when he went up to the bridge for the ‘salute’ on the night that we all know about. Equally surprising is Schettino’s claim that “that neither the defence nor the prosecution had put up experts in maritime technology, ship construction, bridge manning and navigation” on the stand. If true, that looks suspiciously like a conspiracy.
Basic questions, these. Basic problems that the ISM Code was supposed to have fixed twenty-seven years ago. Basic problems, each of which most Masters sailing on ships today face on a daily basis. I have used the ‘video game’ analogy myself for years, including with the use of radar, an even more basic piece of equipment than the ECDIS that many officers are still unable to operate properly or correctly. (Remember that it is the manager’s responsibility to put equipment-trained crews on ships. But that is on paper. The practice is a joke.)
The crew of the Concordia have struck plea bargains and escaped. The owners and managers have escaped too. Schettino has been awarded 16 years in jail, a sentence he is appealing. Business as usual. The charade has played out as usual, never mind that others should have been keeping him company in prison.
The immediate reason for the capsizing of the Herald of Free Enterprise- which spawned the ISM business- was that the bow door of that ill-fated ferry had been left open because a fatigued crewmember directly responsible for closing the door was asleep. Justice Sheen’s enquiry went further, though, and said that shore management was just as blameworthy, and a culture of ‘sloppiness’ was evident from top to bottom. Sound familiar? If the ISM Code was supposed to address these issues, then- twenty seven years later- it has spectacularly failed.
The ISM manuals are a joke on ships. Often a copy and paste job, they are codified in a language- usually English- that many crews cannot even read properly, leave alone comprehend or understand nuances. In any case, the regulations underpinning the heavy, impressive looking manuals that are placed on board are formulated by people who would probably struggle to keep a paper boat afloat in a bathtub. Class rubber stamps the documents without much enquiry. And, in the end, the ISM procedures that look good on paper are often useless in shipboard emergencies. Small wonder then that it fails again and again. Its only value seems to be in placing the entire blame for every accident on the ships Master, officers or crew. That appears to be the ISM Code’s sole purpose.
The solution to this? There is none, I am afraid, because there are basic questions about the integrity of the powerful players in the game. The ISM Code works for them, you see. So, unless we can solve the integrity issue, I am afraid the charade will continue. Shipping will continue to behave like a skeleton with a sword in its hand fighting shadows in the twilight.