May 28, 2008

Certifiable Insanity.

I started sailing in the seventies. ISM, checklists and computers did not exist, and-though there were load line and SOLAS and all other regulations and certificates- these rules, regulations and procedures were at a twentieth of what they are today. Paperwork was minimal- and what little there was, the Purser, Radio Officer or Chief Steward took care of.
And the Master was rarely seen except at the lunch table, during pilotage or when going ashore.

Fast forward to today. A dirrhoea of paper, computers, emails, forms, checklists, surveys, statutory and State regulations, payroll, accounting and mandatory record keeping and filing is an everyday part of a modern officer’s job. So much so, that more time may be spent on this than on any other single task, with more regulations and trigger happy shore staff adding to pen pushing without reviewing old systems and reducing paperwork requirements.
The skills required from seagoing officers have gradually shifted over the years. A lot of my cadetship was spent with a sledgehammer chipping rusty decks of a thirty year old ship (and gleefully making holes in them). A cadet today likely spends more time with a pen or keyboard than with a chipping hammer.

I haven’t even started on the increased workload in cargo, navigation and other requirements yet. The reduction of manpower and the incremental increase in the crew’s involvement with cargo- including lashing, sometimes tallying and usually cleaning up before and after- has a cascading effect on fatigue and safety. Short manned ships mean that at a time when most crew need to be rested and sharp- post departure and pre arrival port- is when they are usually most fatigued.

It is obvious that we need differently qualified officers today. The old sea dog is giving way to the babu at sea. Be that as it may, the new seafarer must be able to manage computers and electronic equipment, have a higher fluency in English to manage the myriad manuals, checklists, forms and regulations- leave alone read the ISM manuals written by Shakespeare and copied and pasted by a half dozen companies into their own manuals. We need sharper people to manage all this and more on short manned ships- and we need mentally tougher people to manage the pressures of present day regulations and long stints with no effective shore leave. We need more appropriately qualified personnel.

So what does the industry do to manage all this effectively? Well, close to nothing, actually. For a start, it does not ensure most people on board are sufficiently qualified or proficient in English and it does not gauge their multitasking or computer skills. It does not even always know an officer’s proficiency in keeping independent watch before he joins! This is regardless of the IMO saying that “The resolution notes that safe manning is a function of the number of qualified and experienced seafarers necessary for the safety of the ship….”

It gets away with this because of one piece of paper, small but deadly: the Minimum Safe Manning Certificate.
I suppose it’s better to laugh than to cry here. So, this is one of the funniest pieces of paper I have ever seen. The Safe Manning Certificate, to my mind, is like safe sex. You have to be prepared for both long before you walk in the door. Once the action starts, the participants really can’t do anything much about it, except just stop. And then they will all have to go home, or will be sent home.

Issued by a Flag State that does not want too many people to be mandated on board else Owner’s may choose another flag, used gleefully by managers to attest to the fact that they are meeting requirements by appointing the requisite number of heads on board, ignored by all the crew but not the Master, the Minimum Safe Manning Certificate should be renamed the Minimum Manning Certificate- not much is safe about it.
It takes no account of the ship’s run, complexities in navigation and manoeuvring, the crew’s involvement with cargo or the myriad other functions taken for granted in today’s maritime world. Just a small example: it takes no account of the number of people required to be involved in simultaneous cargo, bunkering and stores- and ISPS- operations, which are usually undergone in almost every port by almost every ship, day in and day out.

The various parties involved will undoubtedly cover their various sensitive parts with various appropriate statements- Safe manning is not supposed to cover cargo- that is the Owner’s business. Or, what can we do if a certified officer is found incapable of keeping independent watch? Or, Captain, use your overriding authority. Or, apologetically, we can’t convince the Owners why we should exceed the Manning Certificate and place another third mate on board the ship which is touching twenty ports a month and is always in congested waters and fog. Or, finally, Captain, let us know if you can’t manage (and we will take till the end of your contract and beyond to reply).

There is only one thing to be done to correct this problem, and that is this. I urge Flag States to review their Manning Certificate policies, if they have any- and on a priority basis. Ship’s must be appropriately staffed for their at-sea and in-port operational complexities, including the run and also including the owners or charterers dictated cargo operational requirements in port. Present manning certificates seem more of a one size fits all solution- Pamela Anderson will attest to the fact that this premise is false, and so will many seafarers on complex short-sea trade cargo ships. A car carrier on a short sea trade has totally different requirements for manpower compared with a cape sized bulk carrier in port.

Ignoring this port requirement automatically ensures fatigued seafarers at sea, with lower safety and resultant higher casualties. Casualties that the industry is bemoaning now, by the way.

Even as I write this, the recent announcement that Indian Flag Bulkers will have their Safe Manning Certificate reduced by one deck officer is doing the rounds. Indian ship-owners will undoubtedly welcome this move. Once again, this sweeping reduction takes no account of the age, condition, complexities of operation or the run of individual bulkers; once again, one size fits all.

And, while on Safe Manning Certificates, time for one of my favourite rants:
It is very rare to find a requirement for a cook on a Manning Certificate. Though suited and booted mandarins in various Flag States will undoubtedly point to the fact that a cook has no critical function impacting watch keeping or operational safety, this attitude is precisely what gets my blood pressure up. It showcases- with alarming clarity and the usual regularity- the cynicism and callousness of the industry. Seafarers do not need food for safety, so why put a cook in the requirements? Leave it to the owners’ and managers’ goodwill and good sense. Maybe they will open a McDonald's franchise on board instead.

Or wait! Maybe more artistic owners will combine two functions once again, and- voila! A new rank- a combination "Master and Chief Cook"!

The mind boggles, seafarers groan, innocent bystanders laugh, and accountants in shipping company offices drool at this possibility.


No comments: