June 30, 2009

Dire Straits

Starting almost a year ago, I have been trying to periodically spotlight the strategic, logistical and financial partnership that exists between terrorism and Somali pirates and why that relationship can easily become the greatest organised threat to commercial shipping in living memory. I am sure professional security analysts have been beating this drum for much longer; what continues to alarm me is that, so far, there is not even a public acknowledgement from either the IMO or any other apex maritime body that this threat is even real. There is not even a hint of a counter strategy from the community. The heads remain in the sand. Meanwhile, the situation on land in Somalia has gotten worse with jihadi organisations expanding geographically and clearly linked to piracy: indeed, getting a cut from it. But that is not all.

Across the water, in Yemen, the Al Qaeda released an audiotape last month. Called ‘To our people in the South’, the tape encourages Southern Yemenis to secede from Yemen. Abu Bashir, the Al Qaeda leader in Yemen, said in the tape that only the Islamic Sharia was the way out of oppressive government policies, and that Yemeni President Saleh was an infidel apostate supporting the US.

Yemen, as I have said earlier in this column, is much like Pakistan. An unstable and poor Islamic country with longstanding proven links to Al Qaeda, the country had, at one time, even a ‘peace pact’ with it. Like Pakistan, Yemen has been a haven for jihadis for a long time; training camps similar to Pakistan’s are supposed to be in existence there still, although much reduced after US special forces trained local law enforcement. Yemen is also the ancestral homeland of Osama Bin Laden. (In fact, I once took a taxi in Mukalla and found OBL’s photograph displayed prominently on the dashboard, strikingly akin to how Indian Hindu cabdrivers sometimes display pictures of their gods). Yemenis, like many Pakistanis, see the war against terror as a US war and not a Yemeni one. Like Pakistan, it did a hypocritical volte face in the aftermath of 9/11 and in the ‘you are either with us or against us’ era of ex President Bush. Like Pakistan, it has been subject to US drone attacks targeting terrorists.

It has also been the country of the US embassy and the USS Cole bombings, and the country from where at least some of the arms and personnel that end up in Somalia pass through. Yemen has also been a traditional and major supplier of fighters and suicide bombers for jihadi organisations worldwide. A former Guantánamo Bay detainee, Said Ali al Shihri, is the deputy leader of Al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch; almost half of the existing detainees at Gitmo are of Yemeni origin. Shihri has been trained in Afghanistan where he went, like so many others, through Pakistan.

The US has blamed Yemeni authorities in the past for letting terrorists escape from prisons there. And, just last week, as many as nine foreigners, some working in a hospital in Yemen and earlier kidnapped, were killed; these included three children. Although the government has said this was the work of rebel Houthi militia, experts abroad say that the modus operandi doesn’t quite match, and the killings may be the work of Al Qaeda in Yemen.

To add to the murkiness, Yemen shares a long border with Saudi Arabia, another country that has more than its share of links to terrorism, and which has, in fact, supported one side over another in the civil war that has raged intermittently in Yemen over the last many years. Sea borders with Somalia are porous; human and other trafficking remains commonplace despite the coalition presence in the Gulf of Aden. Yemen is also a natural bridge to Africa for the Al Qaeda. In any case, many North African countries, with large Muslim or Arab populations, have major elements within that have traditionally supported hardcore ideologies including Al Qaeda’s: Egypt with its Muslim Brotherhood, Sudan which sheltered Al Qaeda at one time, Somalia with its civil war and its Al Shabaab; the list is extensive.

However, all this is hardly unknown, so why am I getting worried now?

This is why: One, the Bab el Mandab Strait is around twenty miles wide, and, as we well know, is the only entrance into the Red Sea (and the Suez Canal) from the Indian Ocean. With Somalia on one side and Yemen on the other, it is the chicken’s neck: get a grip on it, and you control access to the entire Red Sea and westwards to the Suez Canal. The portents for commercial shipping and the oil trade could be cataclysmic if these critical straits were to become a war zone, or if the Strait was to be choked by militancy or terrorist attacks. This has already started happening. More later.

In 2002, the French tanker Limburg was suicide bombed by Al Qaeda off Yemen; one crew died, 12 were injured and 90,000 barrels of oil was spilled. Care to imagine what would happen if this became a weekly occurrence? (Can’t happen? I beg to differ. Today, a quarter of all pirate attacks on merchant ships are successful. The number of attacks this year has already exceeded those in the whole of 2008. What if the pirates had blown up the Sirius Star instead of demanding ransom? What if Limburg like incidents become common?)

Two, and although I would normally not dare to try to underline geography to the marine community here, consider this alarming reality. Near Yemen are located the following countries: Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Iraq and Oman. A little further, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Israel and Palestine. Given the events of the last few years, a massive part of the world from the borders of India right up to the Turkish border seems to be close to going up in flames. I believe that Al Qaeda and other such elements have planned for quite some time to further expand the kill zone southwards. Somalia and Yemen first.

Three, and most importantly, the terrorists seem to be winning. Pakistan and Afghanistan may be on the global radar now as countries where the West is losing the war, but Somalia and Yemen are not too far behind. Not to speak of the quagmire that is Iraq, which will probably flare up as the US deadline for withdrawal approaches.

But don’t take my word for all this. Listen to what some experts are saying: that piracy threat perceptions should be enhanced (although it worries me that there seems to be a conspiracy not to mention terrorism and piracy in the same breath even now: one can draw one’s own conclusions why this is so):

And so, Hans Tino Hansen of Denmark’s security firm RiskIntelligence says that although there is more information available on piracy than ever before, the situation has never been as bad as it is today. Hansen says that there could be as many as 314 attacks this year; his firm’s figures are higher than the IMB’s which only takes reported attacks into account.

And so, the coalition Maritime Task force issues an updated Special Maritime Advisory message recently, which indicates that the pirates could be moving into the Southern Red Sea. This is not speculation: a ship has already been attacked and six attacks within a period of twenty four hours were reported this week from within this area. As if this expansion Westward were not enough, another ship is hijacked off Oman to the East for the first time ever; well outside hitherto piracy prone areas and alarmingly closer to the strategically critical and oil rich areas of the Persian Gulf. The Charelle was taken just sixty miles off Sur.

And so, another well known expert on Yemen says that Al Qaeda is bringing in Saudi fighters to Yemen and “They want to start to use Yemen as a base for attacks throughout the region, including Saudi Arabia and the Horn of Africa”

Yemen. A poor Muslim tribal country with a history of civil war, a weak government, easy access to arms (arms souks are very common), a history of jihadi support, the birthplace of Obama Bin Laden and with porous borders and a history of terrorist attacks against Western interests. Like Pakistan, it can easily fall into unstable anarchy. As in the case of Pakistan and Afghanistan, a stable Yemen does not suit Al Qaeda. It will do what it can to create civil war again in Yemen with the aim of controlling the Straits of Bab al Mandab from both sides: the chicken’s neck is to be choked between Somalia and Yemen. As in Pakistan, the extremists have already reportedly infiltrated the Yemeni security apparatus. Al Qaeda has now called for civil war in Yemen. With the expansion of its satellites within neighbouring Somalia, Al Qaeda is clearly winning the battle for the Horn of Africa.

If Al Qaeda remains unchecked, merchant shipping in the region will be a prime hostage. Combating piracy, which we do so imperfectly even today, will become a guaranteed and never ending nightmare for us.

Why the international community is not up in arms demanding action against this crippling and very real possibility is a mystery to me. Perhaps the shipping community needs to direct their focus on the problem. We should; we stand to suffer the most in this war.



June 19, 2009


In the information technology company with which I was associated once, an office wag had a Shakespearean ‘seven stages of a software engineer’s life’ theory down pat. According to his theory, some typical traits existed in software developers, and one could tell at what stage of their professional life they were in very easily by just simple observation of their behaviour. The first stage was a raw recruit, then a potential H1B emigrant, a typical engineer arriving on his first visit to the US at an airport counter shaking in his boots in fear of immigration officials: so much so that he had to be counselled by seniors in India before departure. Later, another stage was when he returned on his first holiday to India sporting Ray Ban sunglasses and an accent. The next stage was looking for a software engineer wife, then a car and a suburban house, a green card and so on.

Thirty years or so ago, most of us who went out to sea were typical too, although quite disorganised as to our long term plans. We worked hard, and, thanks to long port stays, we played hard. We blew up money and earned more. Eventually we passed exams, got promotions, bought apartments and houses and saved and invested, but even that was, in many instances, almost a sideshow. Still later, we started wondering how long we were going to continue to sail. If we did not quit, we worked and saved some more. The dollar rose. Our families sailed with us when they could. A time soon came when many fell into the ‘one last contract syndrome’, promising ourselves that we would quit after this trip or the next one. Tomorrow never came for some; others quit and took up shore jobs if age and beauty was on their side. Life was not too planned, which, as it turned out, was a mixed blessing.

If we generalise a bit and examine the mindset of a trainee entering shipping today, there are marked differences in outlook, and for very good reasons. He (let me say ‘he’ at the risk of being politically incorrect and in the interests of a smoother narrative) has come out to sea because, either for academic reasons or financial ones, he could not afford ‘better’ options. He may not have an exit strategy at the outset, but he is certainly less happier sailing than we were at his age and is thinking of quitting within a couple of years. He is, therefore, already well underway to becoming a disgruntled employee.

Dissatisfied, he continues to sail because he doesn’t have workable options just yet. And, thanks to the paucity of shore leave opportunities, he saves more. He invests more, too, and at an earlier age. Later, if married, the chances are higher today that his wife may be working or in a career of her own. In any case, smaller accommodation and lifeboat capacities, mixed nationalities, short port stays, reluctant employers and multiple visa requirements make it less likely that his family will sail with him much. Issues of internet connectivity are magnified in the information age. Piracy and criminalisation of seafarers are niggling irritants that can become life threatening ones quite quickly. Fatigue, depending on the ship and the run, can become a way of life. Meanwhile, he sees shore salaries for qualified and experienced people hitting the roof. He has money saved now. He wants out. An MBA or some such qualification gives him the option. Why blame him for taking this route out? I do not know about you, but his outlook seems logical and valid to me.

It is dismaying that ship managers sitting ashore, many of whom are ex Masters and Chief Engineers, do not seem to care enough to address this mindset and make it work to their advantage; perhaps their own contractual employment mindset and that of the mariner, coupled with the fact that out of the box thinking is a quality we in Shipping are not really known or rewarded for, contributes to the problem.

It is clear to me that it would be beneficial all round if one could manage the ship to shore transition of the seafarer better, mainly because an employee who knows that his professional and personal growth is headed in a desirable direction automatically becomes more efficient. Besides, he is likely to try harder to remain in the company’s good books. So I wonder: what if a company factored in, during rotational planning for shipboard assignments, the schedule for a good correspondence course based qualification that the mariner was inclined towards? There are already many, including good ones abroad. Just one example; I did my Institute of Chartered Shipbroking exams after a correspondence course before I appeared for my Master’s ticket twenty years or so ago.

If I were sitting in a management office in downtown Mumbai today, I would spend time trying to answer this question: “What will it take for selected and good officers to choose to stay with us till they quit sailing? Additionally, after higher qualification, what will it take for the best amongst these guys, (who, I might add, will get qualified at their own expense and time), to want to work with us ashore thereafter?”

The solutions are so obvious that it is befuddling why they are not already widely applied:

• Identify your star performers afloat and talk to them regularly. What are they thinking of doing longer term?
• Research and provide alternatives to all sailing officers and engineers for further study in the maritime or management fields. Keep this information current in your office. (Won’t take much, although you can tie up with an educational consultancy setup to do so)
• Encourage correspondence courses of quality and proven international recognition.
• Do not limit yourself to correspondence courses. Can a two year programme be done over four years, the officer continuing to sail when he is not studying or attending classes?
• Facilitate this further education in all Company operations, including scheduling so that the officer is ashore for exams, sending material on board if required etc. Inexpensive, in these days of digitised information.
• Consider ‘time off to study’ as part of the officers rotation. We do that for professional examinations already, don’t we?
• Try and match Company projected requirements ashore to personnel on board and their plans. Everybody wins if this works out. Even if it does not, you have retained a good employee throughout his sailing life, which is the best you can do; he was probably quitting sailing anyway.

One last comment: It is shameful that we do not, in this industry, have any clue about the options each of our seafarer employees is looking at when he considers the future. Does he want to sail for another five years? Ten? One? What does he see himself doing five years from today? What will excite him? How can we marry the Company’s plans with each mariner’s so that everybody, including the firm, prospers and everybody is happy at work? It is worth remembering here that happiness is not part of a mariner’s contract, but it certainly does wonders for efficiency.

If we manage this transition well, we will automatically improve performance and retain competence within the company and industry. What stops us from doing this today? Is it inertia? Or is it that, like blinkered horses and trial marriages, our horizons are limited and we just cannot see beyond a few months at a time?



June 13, 2009

Losing the Plot

The determination of risk of collision is a basic navigational skill. Equally basic at sea is situational awareness and the ability to keep track of dozens of vessels in congested waters, including oftentimes numerous fishing vessels and to interpret information, all in real time. This is bread and butter stuff; a watchkeeper who cannot master this, and be right all the time, is simply unfit to keep independent watch.

It is therefore dismaying that this basic skill is found wanting in more than a few navigating officers at sea today.

To be fair to present day watchkeepers, there are some contributing factors at play here: Short manning, an explosion in tonnage at sea over the last few decades, hugely increased instrumentation and electronics requiring sporadic and diverting attention, an increase in VHF reporting and, sometimes, the location of at least part of commercial communication equipment on the bridge are some. All these require the watchkeeper to multitask to an astonishing degree. In addition, lookouts, even if available, may be unreliable or otherwise occupied.

However, all this does not fully explain lower standards. Paradoxically, a watchkeeping officer is required to be more efficient today because of these very reasons. He is also more likely to be in charge of an independent watch in congested areas: areas in which a Master may have been on the bridge twenty years ago but now is transitting trying to get some sleep in his cabin. Those of us who have been on short sea trades in the North Sea or the Malacca Straits know this very well.

It is my contention, therefore, that we must train officers sufficiently, and even overtrain them, to ensure that they can handle navigational watchkeeping with an acceptable level of safety. The industry has assumed that experience at sea along with the attendance of a few questionable training programmes ashore is the panacea for this problem. Masters who sail will tell you that the reliability of at least one of the three watchkeeping officers on the bridge is often suspect; in fact, many consider it a bonus if both the other two are good.

The first thing we must do, in my opinion, is to make simulator based examinations part of the Certificates of Competency at every exam. The simulations must be utterly realistic, conducted for highly congested waters with strong currents, and must, in addition, ‘stress test’ the officer. This examination must also have the most stringent standards and the highest passing percentage requirements.

Some other factors which need to be addressed include fatigue, location of unnecessary communication and other equipment on the bridge, ergonomics of the bridge layout including ensuring all round visibility and the banning of ‘paperwork’ during bridge watches. Some of these are in the Master’s domain, while others are not likely to be fixed during my lifetime, at least. Meanwhile, given that acceptability of an officer’s calibre is often dependent on the competence of the general pool available out there, a Master must usually sail with the officers he gets. So how does he augment navigational safety without holding classes to reinvent the wheel?

With respect to the issue of the determination of risk of collision as well as collision avoidance, I have found the following useful:

• Push navigating officers to make a habit of keeping a proper lookout. I have lost count of the number of times I have come up on the bridge and seen, at close quarters, a fishing boat or sailing vessel (and sometimes larger ships) in good visibility and bad; vessels of which the officer on watch is unaware. This is mainly because he has been using the radar (usually on long range) as his lookout instead of his eyes.
• Push officers to realise that the change in a rough visual ‘bearing’, taken from a fixed point within the wheelhouse, is sometimes good enough to determine if any risk of collision is likely to exist. This beats running to the radar every few minutes and playing computer games there for each target. It also helps in keeping a good lookout.
• The track drawn on the chart is a guideline, not the line that Lakshman drew for Sita in the epic Ramayan. Do not hesitate to go off course for safety, and do not be in a hurry to bring the ship back ‘on the line’ before you hand over watch.
• Ships can hit us from behind, too. Keep an eye out.
• Make them understand that the AIS and the VHF are not primary (or even secondary) collision avoidance tools. Again, lost count of officers reading off CPA from the AIS or making a VHF call of ‘ship on my starboard bow’ in the English Channel in restricted visibility.
• Push officers to understand the characteristics of the Radar and ARPA completely. Special stress on blind and shadow sectors, inputs from other equipment like GPS and Gyro, use of controls and unique features, including quirks and issues with target swap. And, if intelligence permits, the use of ground and sea stablilisation.
• Special attention to anti sea clutter, anti rain clutter and gain. Don’t laugh; you would be surprised how many times targets are not seen because officers do not set these controls properly, or know enough to use optimum settings for the equipment, especially in poor visibility.
• Explain the use of appropriate scale on the radar, as well as the offset function. Used judiciously, these are good tools for enhancing target visibility. A six mile range with a 25 percent offset is often better than a 12 mile centred range in dense traffic.
• Make Parallel indexing standard operating practice. Although not a collision avoidance measure in itself, PI can tell you quickly where you are in respect to your course line and where more sea room lies when close to land. It also reduces the tendency to plot positions too often, and so leaves more time for collision avoidance.
• As far as possible and available, automatic acquisition of targets to be set on the ARPA. Again, this ensures that time spent playing ‘computer games’ is reduced. (See trails below)
• No guard zones. Unreliable, especially in bad weather and with small targets, and lull you into complacency.
• If intelligence permits, explain the use of Trial Manoeuvres.

A feature very common on modern marine radars that I find especially useful is the ‘trails’ function. Briefly, for those who may not know, this consists of a true or relative (depending on operator setting) ‘tail’ behind each target, and is usually in a distinctive colour. The length of the trail is dependent on time (again, operator setting). Most importantly, the direction of the trail gives you, at a glance, the true or relative motion of the target during the time period set.

I usually set the trails to automatic (all targets, including land, are trailed) and relative, with an appropriate and short time interval rarely exceeding 3 minutes. That is all one has to do, once every watch. Henceforth, anything the radar picks up will be trailed. Trails which are parallel or angling away from you can be ignored. Trails which are crossing your path may be a cause for concern. Plot or watch only those on the ARPA.

Relative trails are especially useful in large concentration of fishing vessels, where they will easily show one or two boats crossing you, while most of the others are going clear. They are also very useful generally; a quick glance is usually enough to tell you which traffic can be problematic. What’s more, a vessel altering course often shows a ‘bent tail’, and so the alteration of course becomes quickly known. Most importantly, the trail function, although no substitute for ARPA, does not require the operator to do anything once set. No time wasted acquiring targets, deleting targets and reading off superfluous information from the plot. More time available for lookout and other essential functions.

There are calculations one can do with trails, extending them and measuring CPA with the VRM and other such more esoteric calculations. I usually avoid those; I like to keep things simple.

One caveat with trails, though. Relative trails tend to clutter the screen, and are especially annoying when your own ship alters course, because bent trails appear everywhere. Therefore, the operator finds it useful, peridocially, to reset the trails (put off and on again, so the trail plot starts again). This can be more easily done by just switching momentarily to a higher or lower range on the radar, and returning to your preferred range immediately, when trails automatically start anew. Alternatively, use true trails for awhile; in any case, switching between true trails and relative trails (usually one ‘click’) gives you additional information, similar to switching between a true and relative plot.

My ideal settings for radar include no automatic plotting, no guard zones and relative trails. I will then acquire and plot only targets of interest.

Of course, all this presupposes that some time will be spent by the Master initially with each new officer who may require ‘assistance’, besides periodic monitoring of their habits. It is time well spent. On one occasion that I did not explain the trails function completely to a chief officer unfamiliar with it, the following conversation took place when I came up on the bridge to find a ship overtaking us about six cables on our starboard beam:

Me, trying an impromptu oral examination, pointing to the trail on the radar: ‘Chief, what is that?’

‘Cap, that is the seagulls behind that ship’, came the confident reply.



June 05, 2009

The Logistics of Piracy

Despite strong denials from segments of the industry, reports that the pirates today have accomplices in countries in Europe, Africa and the Middle East persist. Recent reports on the aftermath of the Karagol hijacking suggest that the pirate gang involved was run by an ex General from Somalia and that the pirates were in extremely organised, had a negotiator that spoke very good English and were in constant touch with suspected partners in London, Dubai and Yemen. This was reportedly confirmed by Haldun Dincel, General Manager of Ayder Tankers, the firm that manages the Turkish tanker, who told the Associated Press that the pirates were taking orders or receiving advice over the phone.

It is widely believed by negotiators and those in the know that piracy is being run increasingly like a corporate style criminal enterprise these days; the percentage of the ransom that has to be paid to each accomplice or corrupt official in the chain is well fixed by now. Broadly, the ransom is split half and half between the pirates and the support system ashore, with some security analysts saying that a large proportion eventually finds its way to Islamic militant outfits in Somalia. The corporatisation of piracy is apparently a recent development; a year or two ago, pirates were disorganised, opportunistic and often did not even have a well thought out plan post hijack.

All that is changing now. Shipping experts say that four main pirate groups operate from Somalia. At least one of the groups seems to have prior naval or military experience, with some senior members having been trained in the former Soviet Union before its collapse. These groups are organised, and even share information with each other. It is believed that accomplices in Europe, Yemen and the Middle East are involved in either supplying information or arms, assisting negotiations or helping with the logistics of ransom airdrops and money laundering, where the infamous havala system is in much use. It is also believed that Somali immigrants in UK and parts of Europe are ‘hidden’ members of these gangs. Many fingers also point at corrupt officials and businessmen in Yemen, which is the transit point for much of the arms that flow into Somalia.

Also changing is the economy of Somalia and beyond, as new opportunities for shady deals across the globe arise. These are in addition to the lucrative and legitimate industry has sprung up in the region and in the West, with lawyers, security companies, hostage negotiators and others make a killing that is, by many reports, as lucrative as the ransoms themselves. There are also corrupt officials on the payroll that must be paid off in Somalia and elsewhere and money to be laundered in the Gulf States. The next hit has to be financed.
Although there is no ‘smoking gun’ linking Somali pirates to bankers and others running legitimate businesses, parallels are already being drawn with how drug money is laundered worldwide, where direct evidence of links between criminals and bankers is usually in short supply. Not surprisingly, the Gulf States and the London based shipping community has strongly denied these reports, claiming gross falsehood and exaggeration and an attempt by security consultants to drum up business for themselves.

In other developments, a BBC report claims that rumours are doing the rounds of some ship owners being involved in piracy as well. If true, this is quite alarming. Given the present economic climate, a few ship-owners may well be tempted to make a quick million or two by insuring their vessels against piracy and then arranging for them to be hijacked. One does wonder what is next. Crew involvement in piracy, similar to the persistent rumours of yesterday of crew involvement in the scuttling of some ships for insurance?

Another worrysome trend that, oddly, the international community continues to ignore, is the link between piracy and Al Shabaab, the Islamist organisation that many (including the US) say is linked to Al Qaeda. Although Al Shabaab, which in the last month or two is involved again in the war on the ground in Somalia and which already controls large swathes of that country, has publicly said that it is against piracy, security analysts remain sceptical. They believe that Al Shabaab and other Islamist fighters are getting much of the Somali ransom money; security consultant Bruno Schiemsky says as much as fifty percent.

In a bizarre twist to events, the BBC reports, in a separate article, that a group of around 200 pirates in Yemen have ‘renounced piracy’. “Pirate representative Abshir Abdullah told the BBC all the ships and hostages they were holding would now be freed”, the BBC says.

Change of heart? Or is it that ransoms have been received already? Or is it that the monsoons are coming, a time of rough seas and terrible weather and a time when boarding large ships from small skiffs will not be so easy?

'Compensation' scheme for pirates

The BBC quotes, on its website, a UN report based on information gathered from pirates in Somalia. This is what the report apparently says on how ransoms are divided; apparently, the loot is split so many ways that each gun toting crook is more likely get ten thousand dollars than a million. The businessmen ashore will get more.

• Maritime militia, pirates involved in actual hijacking - 30%

• Ground militia (armed groups who control the territory where the pirates are based) - 10%

• Local community (elders and local officials) - 10%

• Financier - 20%

• Sponsor - 30%

No one can say that the pirates are not fair. The report says that the first pirate to board the target vessel gets double share, or a car. In addition, compensation is paid to a pirate’s next of kin if he is killed in the attack.



Cowboys and Indians

For many years starting the end of the eighties, I sailed on ships that typically had a total complement of seven. A Chief Officer and two GPs on deck, a Chief Engineer and one fitter in the Engine Room, a cook, and a Master. That was it.

No, this was not a coastal ship tying up every night. Although the longest passage I made was from Malaysia to Suriname and then Trinidad (my very own Kon Tiki expedition with a hurricane thrown in, a story for another place and time perhaps), usual voyages were not longer than three or four days, and the average passage may have been less than twenty four hours. In addition, again on an average, we often touched two ports, or two terminals, every day. Busy.

These were ocean going ships. Typically around a hundred metres or a little more in length, with elaborate and specialised cargo gear and a fair amount of other equipment I have not seen before or since on normal ships, all of us were run ragged throughout the contract. Bow doors, side doors, car decks, forklifts and assorted gear had to be maintained; these were aging beauties. Small aging beauties, admittedly, but not all that small.

Did I mention that Singapore was our homeport, which we called around once a week? And had pilotage and tug exemption there, which meant the Master used to berth, anchor and shift berth without tugs or pilots? Almost all the Masters did that; the few new ones that joined got a little time to get used to it, also because the port did not give them pilotage exemption straight off.

Six on six off for the Master and Chief Officer from the instant they stepped on board to signing off. In addition to maneuvering and other work, of course. For those who wonder how we did what, a typical arrival or departure stations scenario in Singapore: Master alone on the bridge (including at the wheel), no pilot or tugs, Chief Officer and cook on forward stations (the cook sometimes running indoors for a few seconds to stir the gravy was quite common; fortunately for him the ships had forward accommodation), two GP’s on aft stations, and the Chief Engineer and fitter in the Engine room. In case of problems in the Engine Room, whoever was momentarily free would land up there to help. We did not have the luxury of job descriptions and set responsibilities.

Meanwhile, the Master, the sole person on the bridge, was steering, keeping lookout, ship handling, checking positions, operating the thruster and main engines (bridge controlled), communicating with forward and aft, communicating with Port Control, berthing or unberthing and doing a zillion other things that three people on the bridge would find stressful under normal circumstances. Not to talk of mobile phones ringing with everybody demanding immediate satisfaction, as is irritatingly common these days.

You thought all this is crazy enough? So did I. Then I did two stints on an oceangoing tug and specialised barge combination (with a complement of around ten) which blew me away.

The tug was around 35 metres long, the barge around 130. In the open sea, the length of the tow was around 200 metres, making your effective length almost 400 metres at times.

To make port or even in very narrow rivers, the tug had to be maneuvered and tied up, often in strong current, port side alongside the barge, making it a composite unit. After that, a cable had to be connected from the tug bridge to the roof of the barge, which was essentially an inverted V. The barge looked just like a floating warehouse (I had another more derogatory term for it, one that rhymes with warehouse and involves women of easy virtue).

Anyway, after cabling up, the Master transferred himself from the tug to the roof of the barge, under a small makeshift shelter right on the starboard side. He took a pre emptor leak beforehand, because the barge roof had no such esoteric facility. On his port side under the shelter, he had about 30 metres of the width of the barge and then the tug width since she was tied up alongside. He then operated the two thrusters on the barge, the two engines on the tug and the helm on the tug from this location, bringing the unit alongside the berth from sometimes as far as six miles away. As an indication, I have done this on innumerable occasions all the way from Singapore pilot boarding ground to the berth, besides others. Pilots, when available, usually had coffee on the tug meanwhile, though a few did land up on the roof in shock and awe. Because, you see, while on the roof of the barge, the Master had no charts, no compass, no radar or other instruments besides binoculars. (The Chief Engineer stayed on the bridge of the tug to give clearances and communicate with the port on VHF). Besides, steering was a bummer, because the tug and the propellers were offset to the extreme port of the contraption. The thrusters on the barge actually did the steering and compensating for this absurdity.

Maneuvering the tug alongside the barge, in areas like the Singapore and Malacca Straits involved a similar exercise, only this time we went up about ten metres above the tug bridge onto a platform on the mast, and operated everything from there, including the towing winch, an independent engine. Unfortunately, we did this facing aft, which used to confuse the basics of port and starboard right out of me and tended to play havoc with dubious ship handling skills. (In Vietnam, a brave pilot who came up with me on this narrow platform got seasick within the port limits, and disembarked without waiting for his complimentary smokes)

We went towing up 200 miles of uncharted river in Indonesia in this contraption. We tied up to trees at night (one tree broke once, and I was woken up by a frantic foghorn in the middle of the night since a small vessel couldn’t pass us as we were right across the river in the strongish current). Once the barge hit virgin branches of trees overhanging the river, and snakes rained down on it. True phantom country. We had a great time.

There was remarkably low attrition in this firm, by the way, though many understandably did not want the tug and barge combination on their resume. Most officers and crew stayed on for years. I now wonder why we did so, and this is why I think why.

First of all, there were compensations. Short contracts. Decent wages. Good treatment. A close knit family feeling. Minimum paperwork and administration: storing required a phone call to the Superintendent or the shipchandler, the phone being handed over to the cook to dictate his requirements directly to the chandler. Excellent bosses who appreciated what we did. No ISM, though towards the end it was threatening to ruin our way of life, and it eventually did do so. Extremely low tolerance for non performers on board. The fact that all non essential peripherals were discarded, and core work related to safety and operations was concentrated upon. The fact that going back on board was like going from one home to another: with the low attrition, all of us sailed with each other many times. We knew each other. We did each other’s jobs: a Master helping in the engine room or operating or repairing a forklift was not uncommon. Many of us still keep in touch. Many respect each other, regardless of rank.

Then there was job satisfaction. I learnt more about shiphandling in a couple of tenures there than I did in ten years of sailing on normal ships, partly because of the extreme manning and partly because of pilotage and tug exemptions. We took pride in the desperate multitasking required by a Master and everybody else, under the circumstances, just to bring the ship alongside. There was the satisfaction of doing a job under extreme conditions. Never again have I been wary of shiphandling; I have taken over from the pilot without much thought when I have felt he was less than competent a few times since. I am sure I would have been more hesitant but for my experiences.

Did we follow all the rules religiously? Of course not. Were we cowboys? To an extent, yes. Could we operate the same way in today’s atmosphere of ISM, checklists, non conformity reports and a plethora of other stuff that threaten to make bureaucrats out of seamen? Of course not. Do I think we operated safely enough? Yes. Would I have liked a few more men on board and a little more safety? Yes.

Do I miss it? Hell, yes. Much like a cowboy misses the Wild West. It was fun in a way that sailing today can never be.