October 01, 2008

Undermining Overriding Authority.

The International Safety Management Code mandates, in respect to the Master’s overriding authority that , “The Company should establish in the SMS that the master has the overriding authority and the responsibility to make decisions with respect to safety and pollution prevention and to request the Company's assistance as may be necessary.”

It goes on to say, importantly that, “If senior management's commitment to the system and the company's efforts to improve safety and environmental protection performance are to be translated into effective action on board, Masters should be given every encouragement and assistance to implement the system. Any system of checks and balances implemented by shore based management should allow for, and sit comfortably with, the master's overriding authority and discretion to take whatever action he considers to be in the best interests of passengers, crew, the ship and the marine environment.”

To complete this wonderful picture, it asks the Company to ensure that the master is, amongst other things, “given the necessary support so that the master's duties can be safely performed.”

How nice. They should have a preamble, “Once upon a time”, so we would know at once that this is a fairy tale.

The only thing that is well and truly established, in practice, is the sentence of death in a manual somewhere that establishes the Master’s overriding authority on paper. After that, everybody heaves a sigh of relief at having successfully passed the buck and goes home.

Not only that, this is often touted as a ‘trick question’ and used by many auditors. Like schoolchildren, senior Masters are asked, “Where does it say ‘overriding authority’ in the ISM manual?”

No lollipop for the wrong answer. It would be hilarious if it weren’t so pathetic.

In practice and in my experience, the “Master’s overriding authority” is often a hollow term selectively used by managements. Its use to them is restricted to finding a mandated patsy; other than that, managements often behave as if ‘overriding authority’ is insignificant, even irrelevant.

In atrocious weather on a damaged ship not that long ago, there was expressed consternation when I requested allegedly reputed managers, on the phone, to get me expert technical advice on the residual structural strength of one critical and weather damaged part of the ship. The clear implication, said in so many words, was that I was somehow overreacting, and that ‘we know best’ (even though ‘we’ have not sailed for a decade each and our sensitive parts are not in a sling right now, as mine was). The fact that I pointed out, having worked ashore, that this would require just one phone call to one manufacturer and that it would help me make an important decision, was ignored. Mommy knows best. Or, how dare you have any ideas? Or, what can you really do, now that you are sailing and due to sign off. Not come back to us? Don’t.

Wonder what happened to the ‘give the Master necessary support’ bit in the ISM, or ensuring that the Master can ask for assistance where necessary. Assistance, not control.

Forget the emergency. Egos must be fed regardless and bean counting must continue. Absurd and disgusting.

Then there is the instance where I rang up Operations with a cyclone in the vicinity and told him that many vessels had sort refuge in a nearby port, or not sailed out under advice. However, since I understood the commercial implications of doing so, I was steaming at slow speed in sheltered waters close by, waiting for the storm to blow over and postponing the refuge decision. (I have the bad habit of telling managers the truths they should know about. Some people never learn.)

Panic at the other end at the possibility that I might seek refuge. Did I know how many problems that would create? Charterers would kill him. Capt. Xyz on another Company vessel was in the same port refusing to sail out: Owner’s wanted to ‘sack him’. And finally, a veiled threat, telling me to seriously reconsider. (In a similar scenario, I was once advised by a Company Superintendent to make copies of log books etc. ‘for my own protection’. I told him I didn’t need any, though management might.)

On the flip side, one can imagine the respect I have for one Superintendent who told me, in an emergency, to “do what you think is best. I will back you. Let me know if you need anything.”

My point is that the very possibility of the Master making an emergency decision often throws everybody in a tizzy. The overwhelming response is to push him into continuing with business as usual, if possible, or to hide pertinent facts from other parties. Managements want to mislead owners to score brownie points (or to avoid having the book thrown at them), Owners want to mislead charterers and so on; it’s like Spy vs. Spy out of Mad Magazine at times out there.

Owners and managers will sometimes cajole, bluff, lie, haggle and blame each other to keep expectations low. Manage with substandard staff, these are tough times. The spares are arriving at the next port. Owners are not agreeing to an extra officer even though one is required, but don’t worry, we are pushing for one, or at least a cadet (I need an experienced hand for safe operations and you are sending me a trainee?). The shipchandler goofed up. Ask the Chief Engineer if he can ‘manage’ without Oily Water Separator spares for another round trip. Can you hide important safety related stuff from the surveyor?

With each of those common instances, the implication is that the Master, officers and crew are ever ready to continue to sail on that near substandard ship. At each stage, these kinds of managers are daring the Master to exercise his overriding authority and refuse to sail unless issues are safely addressed. They know most won’t; statistics tell them so, and so do spineless Masters. (I confess that, at times, I have been one of them.)

This is part of the game, too. Wear the Master down if you can’t control his predilection for exercising his authority. In normal times this is an irritant. In an emergency, this is life threatening.

You should realise, gentlemen, that this is an emergency, and listen to what the bozo with the four stripes is telling you. You found him qualified and experienced and put him there. He is not your enemy. He may even be on your side.

Realise also that all of you ashore, regardless of rank or ego, are a support function and no more. Expert opinions, including yours, are welcome. Undermining the Master’s authority by any overt or covert means is against the letter and spirit of the very same Code otherwise found convenient by you when passing the buck, and is not welcome at all.

If this is unacceptable to you, please take over part of the Master’s responsibility, if legislation lets you. Then, and only then, can you take away some of his authority too.

In industry everywhere, authority and responsibility go hand in hand. However, the Master’s authority at sea is being constantly eroded while his responsibility is actually increasing. This happens when countries legislate or criminalise on matters which are not in the Master’s control. This happens when companies don’t match talk with action. This happens when Master’s are overwhelmed in today’s fast turnaround times with regular legislative and other issues and no shore support. This happens when the ‘Master’s overriding authority’ is used as a vacuous phrase, like a politicians promise at election time, with no muscle behind it.

This happens so often that it smells of a conspiracy.



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