February 18, 2009


Navigating can be a bit like making love, sometimes. One often does not know what the hell is going on, which just adds to the fun. Usually.

I swear on all that I hold dear that these events are true. As for the embellishments and dramatic poetic licence, well, as Ken Kesey and the Talmud say, some things are true even if they never happened.

Middle of the night on the M.V. Hysteria, at outer anchorage at South Asian port, pilot boarding time 8 hours away, engines on half an hour’s notice.

0200, Voice on VHF: M.V. Hysteria, this is the pilot boat. Pick up anchor.

2nd Officer: “Pilot boat, Hysteria. Is the pilot boarding now instead of at 1000 as scheduled?”
“Hysteria, Pilot Boat: Yes, yes. Call Captain immediately and proceed full speed for pilot”.
2nd Officer: “Pilot boat, Hysteria. Waking up everybody, getting engines ready and picking up anchor”.

(Usual chaos on board. Crew going from 0 to 100 in 3.8 seconds.)

0208: “Pilot boat, Hysteria, Captain speaking. What time do you want me at the pilot station 5 miles away?”
“Captain, pilot waiting for you. You must go Full Ahead now!”
“Pilot boat, there is the small matter of six shackles down in the water...”
“Captain, you must hurry or you will miss the tide”
“Pilot boat, better the tide than the anchor. I am picking up anchor ASAP and will proceed at maximum safe speed to the pilot station.”

Chief Engineer, who has come up sleepily to the bridge: “Cap, please remind the pilot that this is not a Ferrari”. Cap keeps quiet, because the Chief is a burly man.

0215:”Hysteria, this is the pilot boat. Full Ahead!”
Captain: “Pilot boat, Hysteria. Picking up anchor. Will call you back after anchor is aweigh”.
“Ahh, Captain, maybe we have to berth you at the next tide.”

0237: “Pilot boat, Hysteria. Anchor is aweigh and proceeding to pilot station at full speed. ETA 25 minutes. My course now is 070”.
“Hysteria, this is the pilot boat. Two three five.”
“Pilot, this is Hysteria. What???”
“Captain, Turn around and steer 235. Your pilot is coming from another outbound ship now at a position three miles astern of you”.
“Pilot boat, Hysteria. Am now turning around to starboard and reducing speed. Will keep clear of anchored ships (six of which are bearing between 225 and 265 a mile away) and pick up pilot”.

(Another voice on VHF): “Hysteria, this is your pilot on outbound ship”.
“Yes, pilot, Hysteria”
“Stop Engines!”
Captain: “What??”
“Stop Engines!!!”
0239: “Pilot, Captain from Hysteria. There is a five knot current here and I am less than a mile from ships at anchor, have just started turning around on full helm as advised and you want me to stop with the current on my beam in the middle of my turn?”

“Yes, Captain. Stop Engines. Pilot will board you in fifteen minutes.”

(Silence from the Hysteria, which is brought around stemming the tide until the pilot boat approaches a good forty five minutes later and then turned again to make a lee for the boat. Pilot boards. Colourful Master Pilot Exchange of information. )

Location, the North Sea, in the Traffic Separation Scheme off Texel, one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. “Hysteria” overtaking a small coastal vessel on her port quarter slowly, about six cables off. Master shaving on the bridge, Chief Officer on watch.

Chief Officer raps and throws open bridge toilet door. “Sir, please come quickly”
Small coastal vessel is now four cables off, has altered course and is heading straight for the Hysteria.
Her name is M.V. Cuckoo, the Chief Officer informs the Captain.

Captain goes to VHF wiping the lather off his face. Rattles off instructions to Chief Officer en route: Sound five short rapid blasts. What are all these other ships closeby doing? Tell engine room we may be reducing speed suddenly. What course are you steering? (this, to the helmsman). I have taken over watch now, 0528. How far is she now?

Picks up VHF handset. Cuckoo, Cuckoo, this is Hysteria. (Voice drowned by first flatulent blast of foghorn)

Chief Officer: (second F Blast) You have taken over, aye. Four (third FB) ships crossing, 045 (fourth FB), calling ER (last FB, thank the Lord). Three cables.

Captain: (to helmsman after quick look around) Zero five five. Cuckoo, Cuckoo, this is Hysteria. Please go back to your original course and maintain your course and speed!

Lazy guttural voice on VHF: Hysteria, zis is Cuckoo. I am altering course towards you since I am bound for Port Chaos.

Cuckoo, this is the Hysteria. The alteration for the TSS for Port Chaos is eight miles away. Right now, I cannot go more to starboard since there are other ships very close by. Please go back to port and maintain your course and speed until I overtake you and am well clear!

Angry guttural voice: “Hysteria, this is Cuckoo. Why should I alter course? You are overtaking, YOU keep clear of me. I cannot change my destination just because you are overtaking me.”

After a fair amount of zigging and zagging, collision with the Cuckoo is avoided. Post this close shave, Master hands over watch, and goes and completes another close shave in the loo in three minutes. Returns for a post rattled coffee. Takes over and alters course to cross a traffic lane to head for the Hysteria’s destination, a small Belgian port.

More zigging and zagging between other ships and fishing boats.

VHF crackles. Sexy female voice.

Sexy Female voice: “Hysteria, this is Raising Heartbeat Coast Guard”.
Captain: “Sexy female voice, this is...” (pause) “Correction, Raising Heartbeat Coast Guard, this is Hysteria”
SFV:”Hysteria, are you crossing the traffic lane?”
“Yes, ma’am, I am, as reported to VTS five minutes ago.”

SFV: “Roger, Hysteria. Be advised that you are in contravention of Rule 10 of the Collision Regulations which require ships crossing traffic lanes to do so as nearly as practicable at right angles to the general direction of traffic flow”.

“Raising Heartbeat Coast Guard, this is Hysteria. I am well aware of that rule, and have altered course momentarily to keep clear of a fishing vessel on my bow. At the moment, I am seventy eight degrees to the general direction of traffic flow instead of ninety. Will be altering again in three minutes to comply fully with Rule 10. Meanwhile, am complying with Rule1, which states that a ship shall not collide with anybody or anything”.

Undaunted SFV: “Hysteria. I cannot see any fishing boat. Be advised that you are in contravention of Rule 10 of the Collision Regulations which require ships crossing traffic lanes to do so as nearly as practicable at right angles to the general direction of traffic flow”.

Raising Heartbeat, Hysteria. The fishing boat is like God. Just because you cannot see it does not mean that it doesn’t exist.

My favourite? Brand new Third Mate, with Certificate of Incompetency hanging in cabin for ink to dry. Hysteria exiting TSS off Horsburgh, Singapore Straits, approx time 2100. Master hanging around bridge, although the averred Third Mate has the Conn. Third Mate chain smoking Marlboros, dropping ash everywhere.

Master idly sees VLCC in ballast crossing from port to starboard some miles away. Third Mate is cool, displaying a Zen like calm not unusual to many seafarers when they do not know what they are doing.

Hulk gets closer. Bearing does not appear to be changing. A bright, cloudless, moonlit, star studded night and the faraway loom from Singapore almost convert night into day, so the bulk of superstructure of the VLCC, along with her navigation lights, are all very clearly visible.
Master checks ARPA, VLCC is 4 miles off, will pass ahead of the Hysteria but by less than a half a mile when right ahead. Subsequent CPA is 2 cables. Third Mate remains in Zen calm mode. He must be really good.

Master knows he will have to take over. Fortunately, he also knows that the Hysteria is just clearing the TSS, has huge sea room and there is no other problematic traffic for miles.

Therefore, he asks the Third Mate, pointing to the VLCC which, by now, is close enough so that her navigation lights, her superstructure lights as well as the entire hulk of her silhouette can be seen clear as a wall. In fact, the considerable distance between her forward and after masthead lights is clearly evident, and is perhaps ten degrees apart in bearing at this close range.

So, the Master says, Third, what are you planning to do about this one?

Third Mate, still unconcerned, explains patiently to the Master: “Cap, these lights are two fishing boats. That one (pointing to the forward mastlight of the behemoth) is one boat, and that one (now pointing to the VLCC’s accommodation, aft masthead light and starboard sidelight all bunched one atop another) is another boat.”

Getting more confident by the minute, the Third Mate goes on, “I altering course to port soon. I going between the two sets of lights. Right in the middle.”



February 12, 2009

Letter from Africa: A double-edged sword

Why piracy will reduce off Somalia

President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed’s return to power in Somalia at the end of last month may once again raise the fears and the hackles of Western nations and their media, although first reports from Washington appear to be less strident than they were under the neocon Bush administration that had dismissed his first government, literally and militarily, as henchmen of Al Qaeda. Regardless, I am willing to bet Ahmed’s second Presidency will do one thing: put pressure on Somali warlords and reduce attacks on merchant ships in that region. In fact, Ahmed has vowed to fight pirates on land, calling for international assistance to help rebuild the Somali army to effectively do so.

Regrettably, the same Somali developments, coupled with those in Botswana not very far away, point to a resurgence of radical Islamist groups, including Al Qaeda, in the region. The news is not all good; the sword has two edges.

Ahmed, a former schoolteacher, entered politics after warlords kidnapped one of his students in Mogadishu in 2003. Eventually elected Chairman of the Union of Islamic Courts which came to power after driving out US backed ‘anti terrorism’ warlords from the capital, his government lasted just six months in 2006 as US backed Ethiopian troops toppled him; they claimed that Ahmed was linked to Al Shabaab, a militant Al Qaeda linked group. Part of the African Union also played along with the United States. Ahmed fled, eventually to Djibouti. Bush and the neocons were probably just ideologically opposed to the UIC and there was no real evidence directly against Ahmed, because two and a half years later, Washington calls Ahmed a ‘moderate‘today.

It is important for the shipping industry to realise that during the few months the UIC was in control of much of Somalia before being ousted, there was a marked improvement in the number of attacks on ships around Somalia as the UIC cracked down on the warlords. We all know what happened in 2007 and 2008 after Ahmed’s ouster: an escalating eruption of violence and hijackings against merchant ships by the same warlords, whether backed or not by the Ethiopians (and by proxy, the US)

The international community has remained suspiciously silent on US involvement in Somalia over the last few decades. The demonisation of the UIC by western media has contributed to the support successive US governments (especially under Clinton and Bush) have given to warlords in that country. Unfortunately, Western media has a disproportionate hold on world opinion. My truth is bigger than yours is, you see.

In many ways, the anarchy in Somalia is a direct result of the war between the US and Al Qaeda, with the Ethiopians and many warlords on one side and Al Shabaab on the other. That some of the warlords were kingpins in the pirate business was ignored by everybody. The US tarred all Islamic groups with a broad brush; the result has been the rise of militancy and lawlessness and a defeat for the US. Collateral damage: ships and mariners passing through the region. Piracy flourished, with many fishermen claiming that the decimation of their fishing grounds by foreign trawlers and the dumping of toxic waste (including nuclear waste) in their waters by western interests forced them to take to piracy. Meanwhile, the crimson tide swept to sea and rocked us all in the business, whether ashore or afloat.

All that should improve now. Make no mistake, though. Piracy will not disappear tomorrow. The Al Qaeda linked Al Shabaab is very much alive and kicking and controls large swathes of Somalia. It has always been linked to pirate groups. Al Qaeda has admitted, even boasted, of their plans for the Gulf of Aden. And don’t forget that the Defence Minister in the 2006 UIC government, Sheikh Yusuf Indohaadde , allegedly appeared in Al Qaeda propaganda tapes, and that terrorist training camps are widely believed to have existed in Somalia way back (and since?) in 2002.

Interestingly, reports have emerged out of Botswana this week linking events there to Somali piracy. Besides the existence of sleeper cells of the terrorist organisation in that country, scores of suspected Al Qaeda operatives being detained for deporatation and worldwide passport fraud highlighted by a number of people being arrested across the world in recent times while travelling on Botswana passports confirm this. The target for the sleeper cells? The FIFA World Cup next year in neighbouring South Africa. Equally alarmingly, there are expressed fears that Somali pirate money is being money laundered by these operatives in Botswana. The link is getting stronger and wider.

It is amusing really, like a Spy vs. Spy page out of Mad magazine. The US backs an old Somali enemy, Ethiopia, and warlords, against Islamic groups. But many warlords are pirates who are linked to Al Qaeda, the Enemy No. 1. An Islamic government that fights piracy is toppled, radical Islamic groups spread their tentacles in the country and beyond, piracy hits the roof, the ousted Islamic Group is back in power and is now called a moderate government by the US. Net result? Al Qaeda or its allies controls large areas of Somalia today and the anarchy has expanded into Botswana. Piracy flourishes still, as is evidenced by the record ransom payment for the ‘Faina’. And Western navies are almost stepping on each other’s toes in the Gulf of Aden trying to control the monster that some of them helped create. Amongst them, that of the United States.

Strange world, this. And getting stranger by the minute.


February 06, 2009

Arrested development

The last few years in command have been a time of general mental stagnation in many ways for me. This is not because I know it all and am perfect; far from it. I have hardly learnt everything and all my professional mistakes are unfortunately not behind me. Every ship, and many officers, have taught me something new, and I have survived on luck as often as any of us. This feeling is not about a superiority complex, which Freud told us does not exist anyway; it is about a general feeling of dissatisfaction at the fact that, in many ways, professional and personal development seems to have estopped for me at sea . The feeling is more ennui than inertia.

One of the things that leap out is the fact that a big reason for this kind of unease is that seafarers are often disconnected from the larger industry they work in. There is no great measure of give and take of new professional knowledge through our entire contracts akin to what there is in many other professions. We feel disconnected from the wider industry because we actually are.

I stress on the ‘new professional knowledge’ bit in my last paragraph; recycled knowledge is there aplenty. Unfortunately, the dissemination of knowledge of what is happening in our industry worldwide, new initiatives and international trends, news, legal, technical, professional and human interest developments are just some of the information a seafarer is starved of.

I will ignore, today, the feel good company information that comes through. I will even ignore, on the same grounds, in house magazines that the larger management companies usually publish. I will also ignore voyage specific information that is sent across by default and contains information relevant for just the one voyage. This does not enable a seafarer to get an overall view of, say, regulations, procedures or intentions. The big picture is missing, unless it is mandated that it be hung on board.

Many officers and crew at sea are not interested in continuing to learn. Some have seen it all; others do not want to see any more, still others want to go through professional life just totalling their bank balances. They prove one of Newton’s laws. They are the bodies at rest that continue to be at rest. The problem is that these gentlemen are in large enough numbers for many ashore to generalise and say that there is no demand for new information or knowledge on ships, unless it is relevant to the task at hand. These seafarers are mentally inactive because of choice. At the opposite end of the spectrum are others, interested in new ideas, but forced inactive because they have no choice. Despite wanting to explore, these others are starved of even basic information in this information age.

There has been some attempt to redress this knowledge deficit in the better shipping firms. Many companies subscribe to emailed news now; some even send quality professional magazines on board. Unfortunately, the industry component of such news is usually insufficient, superficial and poorly presented. Even more unfortunately, many magazines sent on board are old and dated; they have obviously done the rounds in manager’s offices for a month or more before being sent on board. This is annoying, because dated news is no news at all. Besides, at least I need no reminding that a low ranking clerk ashore is more equal than the highest ranking officer on board.

Regardless, the end result is that tepid and old information tends to bore people who thirst for new knowledge. A wag friend of mine would undoubtedly say that updating seafarer knowledge is not part of the contract between the shipowner and the mariner and therefore not mandatory. True, my good friend, but this lack of information also dulls technical and professional growth and therefore efficiency on board, all of which is more in the employers’ interest than anybody else’s.

I do not count company seminars as acceptable substitutes here. For one, upgradation and professional mental stimulation is a continuous process and not an annual or semiannual affair. For another, company seminars typically have themes and are therefore narrow in scope and execution, and they cater to the lowest common denominator as far as coverage of the subject is concerned. Thirdly, the collateral advantage to an employer of a mentally sharp crewmember is maximum when said crewmember is on board and not when he is ashore. If I were an employer, I would want my seagoing employees to be sharper at both land and sea. The present lot of employers seems to use seminars as a marketing exercise.

Annoyingly, those of us who are interested in new information know how easy it is to access it ashore. Many of us try to keep ourselves abreast of industry developments while off ships. We may not subscribe to trade magazines, because we know that the information is easily available on the internet and in professional and trade publications and literature brought out by statutory bodies. We see this literature, usually in passing, at managerial offices and reception areas, and we wonder why we are not part of the loop at sea.

We hope that lightning will strike somebody who will devise a way to feed the fleet with this material someday. In addition, we hope that there will then exist a system of sending fresh and widespread industry related information to us on a regular basis. We wish somebody would spend an hour a week sending us an email with this information. And we wish that so many people did not assume that so many of us at sea were so dumb.

Mental growth is not stymied by this lack of knowledge alone, although I do believe that this is a big factor. There are many other reasons: Tedium, lack of variety in shipboard life, overwork, drying up of shore leaves, which used to refresh a seafarer in many ways and a paucity of selectable social contact are other reasons that contribute to the stranglehold on human and professional development at sea. Some of these reasons are in the nature of the beast and have to be lived with; others, like shore leaves and overwork, will probably not be satisfactorily addressed at least in my lifetime. Skeletal manning certificates and an industry which is antagonistic to the seafarer, or at least uncaring, will ensure this. However, the dissemination of new information is an easier and cheaper matter to fix, and will undoubtedly help general satisfaction levels improve.

Many trade magazines are online. Many are interested in marketing their information in the form of emailed newsletters to subscribers, as many of us know. Companies could well subscribe to both of these on behalf of each ship. The emailed newsletter to be received on a weekly basis; the magazine to follow directly on board.

While on the subject, what would happen if companies opened, for mariners, reading rooms or libraries in their offices across the country? What if they stacked them with professional reading material and invited all mariners in the city to use them? Maybe they would even get a few new recruits that way.


The meltdown in the freight and charter markets and the inevitable decimation of the global merchant fleet will have far reaching consequences way beyond what many imagine. As industry struggles to come to grips with the magnitude of the crisis, one big issue is that nobody really understands the full extent of the spread of the disease, and so does not know how much needs to be amputated. Citibank was bailed out for an amount equal to a third of India’s entire annual economy. Madoff has made off with 50 billion dollars, which if five percent of India’s annual GDP. The gloom and doom pundits in the maritime industry, too, forecast years of recession in the industry. The mood has swung from the perpetual boom scenario to a long term bust one. Neither of these may be accurate, but we better be prepared for paying the piper for some of the excesses of the last few years.

Cynics may well argue, when I talk of the need to manage human resources in turbulent times, that the industry has always lurched from one crisis to the next and made some money along the way, and so does not really need a long term sustainable solution to manpower issues. I do not buy that argument for one reason alone: If we do not find lasting solutions in India that address global seafarer shortages, then, sooner or later, a large part of the shipmanagement industry in India will cease to exist. Only logical. Besides, which cheaper nationality, except perhaps China, can produce mariners in the numbers required?

Meanwhile, for those of us at sea, expect major downward salary revisions, more choosy employers, poor maintenance and other budgets and stagnant working conditions. Some of us have seen, in the 80’s, what this can exactly mean. I hope, for the sake of the industry, that owners and managers have learnt something from those years. Somehow, as those famous guys used to say during our competency exams at the MMD, I have a few doubts.

Everybody and his aunt, from the IMO to owners and shipmanagers, are making the right noises on recruitment and training so far, although I fear that these noises can become shrill and change very quickly, if, for example, the recession goes on for the next three years. The industry is sitting on recent record profits. It would do well to invest some of those towards fresh recruitment and training of its future crews.

Failing to do so will chase another generation or two of youngsters away, with disastrous long-term results. Trained mariners do not appear out of thin air when required or ride into the sunset when they are not. We have seen in recent years how mismanagement of human resources has choked the industry. Matching supply and demand is not a simple linear equation; if it were, we would not have be facing unprecedented officer shortages today

Some equations are quadratic and complex and require a measure of foresight to solve.