July 30, 2009

Sympathy with the Devil

By all accounts, Capt. John Cota, the pilot on board the Cosco Busan sentenced to a ten month jail term last week, is an irascible and hot tempered man. Whatever, in the foggy morning of November 7, 2007, he boarded the outbound Cosco Busan at Oakland Port, a mere five minutes after a Company Superintendent had departed after a voyage with the crew where they were briefed on company policies, amongst other things. The Superintendent was Indian and had language difficulties with many of the Chinese crew, so the Master translated for him. One of the policies that the crew was told about, as it came out at John Cota’s trial, was the requirement of ‘berth to berth’ planning.

Nevertheless, no outbound passage was planned from the berth at Oakland by the Master Even worse, there was no proper Master/Pilot exchange of information and the Bridge Team had clear communication issues with Cota as many spoke Mandarin or broken English. To add to what would become a series of coincidental events resulting in catastrophe, the 59 year old Cota had just ten hours of sleep over the previous two nights and was on his seventh consecutive day of pilotage duty. In addition, he boarded under the influence of performance inhibiting prescription medication at a time when fog had reduced visibility to about a couple of hundred metres at best.

Capt. Sun of the Busan and the pilot unberthed the 65,131 ton Hong Kong registered ship container ship in thick fog even as six other ships (or their pilots) in the Oakland/San Francisco area refused to do so for safety reasons. Cota, a veteran pilot with twenty seven years experience in the area, planned to take the Busan through the Delta Echo span of the Bay Bridge.

This pilotage would be marked by a noteworthy tragedy of synchronous errors, as the investigation found. The crew were tired, having spent hours checking container lashings just before departure. The Chief Officer and the Bosun were on lookout at the foc’le, but the Mate left for breakfast just before the accident without informing the Master. Cota had repeated problems with the Radar. Though later investigations proved it was working normally, he was so frustrated with the Radars that he gave up looking at them and relied only on the electronic chart on the Busan. A major lack of understanding of the symbols on the electronic chart and language difficulties with the Master and the Third Mate on the bridge ensured that conical buoy symbols were mistaken for bridge spans. No paper charts were consulted or positions marked for the two hours or so it took the Busan to make its way to the Bay Bridge, and, eventually, crash into it. The VTIS monitoring the Busan called up Capt. Cota on the VHF a minute before the accident, confirming his intention to use the Delta Echo Span, but failed to warn him even when they saw the vessel was off course.

In the end, Cota thought he was going under the bridge when he was heading straight for one of the towers, doing ten knots in thick fog. Capt. Sun, the ship’s Master, seems to have been a not so innocent bystander throughout this disastrous piece of navigation.

Much was made, later, of the fact that Cota was on medication at the time, medication that had been prescribed after dental treatment. The medicines apparently contained drugs that effected performance. In addition, Cota’s alleged alcoholism was repeatedly brought up by the media leading up to the trial.

Back to the Busan. By the time the Bosun saw the tower ahead and screamed a warning into his walkie talkie, more than two hours after unberthing, it was already too late. Last minute attempts by the pilot to sheer the vessel away from the tower were only partly successful. The 900 foot Cosco Busan scraped past the tower for sixteen seconds, gouging a 200 foot gash in her hull and rupturing two fuel tanks. The discharge of about 53,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil from the ship fouled 26 miles of shoreline and killed more than 2,400 birds of about 50 species, some protected. Inexplicably, the Coast Guard waited until dusk to activate its complete contingency plan, by which time much of the oil had sunk or dispersed. They then spent $70 million cleaning up what was left.

Inevitably, as any mariner will tell you, the circus kicked in immediately thereafter. American media vilified the pilot, mocking his almost three decades of experience and pointing to the sixteen other accidents he had been allegedly involved in. One said he was “tripping on drugs” at the time of the disaster. The Master and some crew of the Busan were detained: later, six would spend more than a year in the US, kept back on draconian ‘material witness’ warrants with passports impounded (serving a sentence longer than Cota’s ten month jail term handed down recently). The crew would be later granted immunity in exchange for their testimonies. As for the VTIS officers who silently watched as the tragedy unfolded, they were sent for ‘retraining’.

The operators of the Busan, Fleet Management, were in the line of fire as well. Today the company faces criminal and civil lawsuits related to allegations that its crew were inadequately trained, contributed to the accident and doctored documents later to mislead authorities. It may be liable for hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines after offering to plead guilty to environmental misdemeanors. If found guilty on felony charges that its officials forged documents to mislead spill investigators, it could be liable for fines of millions of dollars more. In addition, it may also be billed hundreds of millions of dollars for cleanup and environmental restoration costs.

It is clear to this mariner, at least that Capt. John Cota seems to have exhibited an appalling amount of negligence in the saga of the Cosco Busan. Nonetheless, this tragedy could not have occurred without contributory negligence from almost all parties involved. Therefore, I cannot help but wonder:

• If Capt. Cota was so incompetent, and if he had a history of involvement in accidents, why was he still allowed to pilot ships in the Bay? Why was his licence not revoked?

• Was Capt. Sun as incompetent as the pilot was? It certainly appears so. Why, then, was he spared? Why were he and some of the other officers and crew granted immunity when at least some exhibited abysmal standards of competence and discipline? The Captain clearly left everything to Capt. Cota, not even bothering to monitor the ship’s movement in thick fog for a couple of hours after unberthing. The Third Mate did not put down a single position. They failed to communicate properly with the pilot. The Chief Mate deserted his station at a critical juncture. There was no plan, no Master/Pilot exchange of information and, effectively, no Bridge Team.

• Why were so many of the officers and crew unable to comprehend English, the working language of the ship and one in which all the manuals were written? More importantly, why is this shortcoming, common and universal as it is, ignored by Owners, regulators, auditors and managers at sea? The entire industry is in the dock on this one, as far as I am concerned. Is it really all that expensive to fix this problem? Is it easier to imprison a seafarer or two and go back to sticking our heads in the sand?

• Why were the VTIS officers not implicated for failure to warn Capt. Cota that he was dangerously off course?

• Was the pilot sufficiently rested when he boarded the Cosco Busan? There is a question mark on this one.

• Why was the Coast Guard not held culpable for contributory negligence in not tackling the spill with overwhelming resources immediately? Why did they wait until dusk?

• Why, to begin with, did the port not declare that it was closed to all navigation because of thick fog?

• Why does the port not give laptops laden with charts and GPS connected, as many do, to Bay pilots? The single most important cause of the crash seems to be Capt. Cota’s failure (along with Capt. Sun’s contribution, of course) to realise that the symbols on the charts represented buoys and not the bridge span. Familiarity with his own system would have pre empted this glaring and tragic error.

• Why were laws meant to detain terrorists and such used against the crew? ‘Material witness’ laws have been criticised as being against human rights by many in this case; the crew could have very easily deposed and gone home. Material witness laws can turn bystanders into prisoners. Why is this allowed? By many accounts, lawyers for the Owners and managers are as much to blame for this as are the prosecutors in the case. Would the US accept similar treatment of its own citizens in, say, China?

• It seems that at least some of the deck crew were fatigued in port. Did they have sufficient rest as mandated when they went for their departure stations?

• We need to consider the wider implications of seafarer medical treatment if taking prescription medicines can lead to a situation where a crewmember’s performance is seriously impaired. Besides causing an accident, there is precedent now for him to be jailed as a direct result of this. So what happens, if, for example, I visit a Company approved dentist while in Command and later am involved in an accident? Am I a criminal now regardless of whether or not I had criminal intent and just because I took prescription medicines? If so, this is a truly abhorrent and unacceptable state of affairs for any seafarer. And so is being called ‘a junkie tripping on drugs’ in such circumstances.

• Where does the Cota trial and imprisonment leave the already nuanced legal division of responsibility that exists between a Master and a pilot? The verdict against Cota rubbishes the notion that the pilot is just an “advisor”. Therefore, after the Cota trial, I ask: who is in charge in US waters? The Captain or the Pilot? This is a huge question, and, like Pontius Pilate, I am not expecting any worthwhile answers anytime soon.

This circus will continue for a while yet; Fleet Management is to go on trial in September. No doubt, many issues will be raised and precedents set at that circus.

Nevertheless, for me, the biggest issue will still be this: Outdated and over the hill regulators make laws in shipping without, usually, a clue to the real situation on the ground. Owners and managers protect themselves the best they can and blindly pass on instructions and procedures to crews, many of whom do not even have a working knowledge of the language they are written in. No attempt is made to ensure that the crew can even understand the language the ship’s operating manuals are written in. Crews, pilots, port navigational authorities and other key personnel are often not familiar with English, the international language of communication. Crew training in basic communication, understanding and language is abysmal across the board. It becomes very clear to everybody in the industry that this is a game in which the only objective is not to be caught. Because if it were not, people would take their own rules, and their own manuals, more seriously.

In any event, accidents at sea become much more likely because of the manner in which regulations are made and implemented. When catastrophes inevitably occur, everybody lawyers up the best they can. The hapless seafarer (or the pilot in this case) with the least protection at the end of the food chain, is then the convenient villain. In Capt. Cota’s case, he is also the only one. He is drawn, quartered, and fed to the lions. The curtain comes down on the circus and the show ends, at least until the next disaster. The blind return to leading the blind in our industry, content that the law has taken its course.

Maybe it has, but this isn’t justice.



July 24, 2009

Bad Press:

MEPC session attracts criticism of Shipping Industry.

The recently concluded fifty ninth session of the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) saw delegates agreeing to proposals aimed at cutting carbon emissions from ships. Environmental groups, however, were critical of the MEPC proposals, saying that strong legislation was required instead of the voluntary proposals that resulted from the MEPC session. In any case, they said, the proposals fell way short of what was needed.

The run up to the MEPC session saw media criticism of the maritime industries coming to the forefront. Many environmental campaigners accuse the maritime industry of dawdling on climate change issues for more than a decade. International environmental groups have long protested that shipping and aviation are the only industry sectors unregulated by the Kyoto Protocol that targeted greenhouse gas emissions starting 2008. The BBC reported last week that, “since 1990, the Kyoto baseline year, global shipping's emissions have risen by 85% (Second IMO GHG Study 2009)” and that shipping now emitted more CO2 (870 million tonnes each year) than UK's entire economy. Obviously, if the maritime industry were a country, it would rank amongst the culprits emitting high greenhouse gases.

The shipping industry is responsible for three percent of global CO2 emissions today. Critics have long argued that this percentage would rise by 150 to 250% by 2050, given increasing trade, unless steps were taken urgently to improve emissions from ships. Pressure is now growing on the industry to make changes, and soon. A critical climate change summit is due in December in Copenhagen, and the present MEPC session is seen by many to be a precursor to that conference, which is part of a broad UN proposed climate change agreement.

MEPC Delegates approved non compulsory measures to reduce greenhouse emissions from ships. The steps are both technical and operational and include modification of designs in new ships to make them more environmentally friendly. The IMO statement that these were interim and voluntary guidelines sparked off protests from many environmentalists. The WWF’s head of transport policy, Peter Lockley said that the IMO proposals should have been mandatory with set targets. "This does not meet our demands or what is necessary to protect the climate and we are going to call on the UNFCCC to set targets and timelines and guiding principles," he said. The UNFCCC is the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Peter Hinchliffe, marine director with the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) told Reuters that the proposals were an important first step and indicated that shippers wanted these formalised into law. Other industry bosses agree, in private, that given shipping's global nature, any solution must be directed by the IMO. Analysts agree that the IMO has been slow to come up with a workable framework to curb emissions from ships because of obfuscation by Member States. IMO Secretary General Efthimios Mitropoulos disagreed when he told MEPC delegates last week that they should avoid the temptation to seek "overly ambitious results we cannot deliver." The IMO is facing additional pressure from developing countries who say that they should not be penalised as heavily as rich nations who have contributed disproportionately to greenhouse gas emissions.

Nevertheless, some countries have already proposed legislation: France, for example, has called for curbs to ship emissions to be mandated at Copenhagen. Australia has often expressed frustration at the slow pace of change within the shipping industry, and the EU has threatened to make their Emission Trading System more stringent and in line with the MEPC proposals. Environmental groups within the US back their government’s proposals that seek to reduce ship emissions by improving efficiency in order to meet targets within designated time frames. Oceana, one such group, said recently that “a levy on shipping fuel and the participation of the sector in an emissions trading system were potentially effective ways of reducing emissions”. (The ‘levy’ funds to be used for adaptation to climate change in developing countries).

In an indictment of the industry, BBC's veteran Environment Analyst Roger Harrabin, after a quarter of a century of reporting on the environment, gives the example of Tributyltin (TBT), an anti fouling compound commonly in use until recently. He says that, fully twenty four years ago, TBT was causing “female dog whelks to grow penises”. Even after the IMO agreed with scientists on TBT findings, its anti fouling convention “drifted in the Doldrums” and was only ratified in 2008, fully 23 years later. “It doesn't fill you with confidence about the industry's level of concern for the environment in which it makes its money”, he says.

Lockley from the WWF puts the problem in perspective. "The IMO has got the technical expertise," he says. "But this is a bigger political issue and we need to see some movement in Copenhagen if it's going to progress."



Of ECDIS and that

It is quite likely that when the sextant was invented a few hundred years ago, a purist Captain on the bridge of a galleon somewhere wrinkled his nose and declared that the astrolabe was better. He may have even commented, Cassandra like, that there would be now a torrent of ‘sextant aided collisions’ at sea. In the last thirty years or so, every technological advancement in navigation I have seen at sea has resulted in similar doomsday prophecies. The imminence at sea of the Electronic Chart Display and Information System, ECDIS, is the latest now causing apprehension amongst some of us.

First off, the ECDIS is not all that imminent. Anybody who reads the IMO schedule for phasing in of the system sees this quite clearly. Timelines for installation will undoubtedly vary, but the window is large and the ECDIS is hardly likely to be ubiquitous on ships for quite some time. Which gives us in the industry a unique opportunity to set things up properly this time.

Technological advancements have the capacity to improve navigational safety enormously. Those of us who remember the days of when all we had was a single and often unreliable non ARPA Radar will agree that modern Radars and ARPA systems have contributed hugely to safety, and so have VHF/DSC systems. This is irrespective of the fact that there have been more than a few ‘VHF aided collisions’ at sea. I daresay the VHF has saved many more lives than it has taken, and even when it has contributed to casualties, the reason has been the misuse of the VHF, usually in an attempt at collision avoidance, rather than the equipment itself.

I will ignore the unnatural resistance of many senior Officers at sea to new technology. I never did understand, back in the eighties, why many Master’s insisted on sights being taken regularly when a perfectly good satellite navigator was installed on board. In their place, I would have mandated a sight once a week to keep one’s hand in and left it at that.

Obviously, the biggest factor working against the correct use and the realisation of the full potential of any equipment is officer training; this is especially true of new equipment. Unfortunately, what usually happens is that training is lackluster and so officers who are poorly trained in vital ship specific equipment are placed in positions of critical responsibility. To add to this now systemic risk, poor practices are followed or the equipment is used for purposes it was not intended for (AIS in collision avoidance). In the absence of Company and Master oversight, such unsafe practices flourish. An accident then becomes a statistical probability. I draw your attention to all the issues we continue to have with the AIS, and fear that the introduction of the ECDIS will magnify these manifold.

What is required today is not a debate on the pros and cons of the ECDIS itself, not least because the time to do that is long past. What is required, instead, is for us to realise that there exist major systemic deficiencies and lacuna in our training and modify those accordingly. Many are not ECDIS specific, but I believe that the introduction of the ECDIS, the integration of systems and the distinct possibility of officers facing information overload requires that they be absolutely familiar with not just each equipment that is feeding into their ECDIS workstations but be also familiar with the integration system itself.

We must, therefore, correct the holes in our training, some of which are:
• Lack of stress on the normal and time tested practices of navigational seamanship. Chief amongst these: lookout and enhanced situational awareness in close quarters situations or in the proximity of hazards. Our present syllabus of training, heavily tilted in favour of equipment, assumes that common sense is common. It is not.
• Incomplete industry realisation, so far, that the present generation is generally overly reliant on electronics. Youngsters more used to sending SMS’ on mobile phones, for example, are more prone to sending short messages on the AIS to other ships in close quarters situations or relying absolutely on radar CPAs alone (regardless of stabilisation) when risk of collision exists. Training must counter this mindset at a basic level, and indeed at all stages of a navigator’s career.
• Incomplete industry realisation that some senior Masters are not technologically inclined, and tend to use modern equipment in a limited way, sticking to functions they are familiar with and no more. Whether it is the training that is inadequate or the attitude becomes moot. The fact is that technological advancement invariably results in reduced manpower, so not using a system to its full potential has escalating safety implications. Incomplete familiarity with equipment in use, and, critically, with its limitations, is not uncommon with junior officers either. Many seem to be more familiar with the gimmicks manufacturers install on systems rather than the hard core functions essential for navigational safety. Training must address this.

Two final thoughts. One, although I am against standardisation of human beings, I am all for standardisation of equipment. An example of how this standardisation makes my life easier (and more importantly, makes the ship safer) is the Radar/ARPA. On every ship, regardless of the manufacturer, a Radar will have standardised controls and displays. The controls for gain, clutter, tuning, range, rings, VRM, EBL et al will be usually intuitively placed, and in similar locations. The terminology used: CPA, TCPA, Head Up, True Motion, Trial maneuvers, Trails, Vectors etc., will be identical regardless of whether the Radar is Japanese or American or European. We must have a similar system for the ECDIS. The IMO must mandate, in detail, that the controls and terminology used in the ECDIS be standardised for ease of use and navigational safety, and that manuals be comprehensive. Some of the other existing navigational equipment does not follow this standardisation and we manage fine, but then much of this equipment is not as critical as the ECDIS is likely to be.

Two, at least some of the onus for ECDIS training should lie with the owners, who must be required to give their officers generic and type specific training in the equipment. I am sure that we are looking at an ECDIS STCW course in the future; an IMO approved course already exists. However, generic training is not enough. Regardless of the levels of standardisation, training must be specific to the equipment that the officer will be using when he takes over on board. I am a little apprehensive, given Owner practices of compliance with ‘ship specific training’ I have seen thus far, of how this will turn out.

The introduction of the ECDIS will give us an opportunity to start correcting the formal and informal practices in equipment use that have crept into our systems. The ECDIS’ potential for enhancement of safety can only be realised if we excise the additional risks unfamiliarity and poor training tend to generate. We must standardise equipment, and train officers in the complete and proper use of the ECDIS and its limitations. A failure to do this will only result in introducing new risks in the art and science of navigation at sea.




July 17, 2009

The Niger Delta: The next Somalia?

Abuja, July 11: A few days ago, the Nigerian Joint Military Force (JTF) recovered the Chemical Tanker ‘Siehem Peace’ that was seized by armed militants belonging to the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND). However, the crew remain hostage with the guerrillas: amongst them, Cadet Banjit Singh Dhindsa of India. The Nigerian armed forces have launched an extensive manhunt; a spokesperson for the military said at the weekend, "We're hunting for the hostages but we have to be careful. Meanwhile, we have arrested 3 suspected militants.” Meanwhile, a MEND representative said that the seizure of the ship was a warning to oil, gas and chemical tankers to keep away from the Niger Delta waters. The militant group wants its leader Henry Okah, on trial for treason in Nigeria, released.

More than 200 foreigners have been taken hostage in this region since 2006; most are oil company employees and are usually released unharmed after a ransom is paid. In the past, MEND has also claimed sabotage of oil facilities belonging to foreign oil companies extracting oil in the unsettled Niger Delta region. The big ones: Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell and Italian energy company Agip.

The latest hijack occurred 20 nautical miles from Escravos. At least four attacks have targeted oil industry interests in Nigeria in the last two weeks, despite a two month amnesty offer by the Government of President Umaru Yar'Adua. Meanwhile, Nigeria has lost billions of dollars in oil revenue in the last three years since it can pump oil up to only around two thirds of its installed capacity, thanks to the militancy.

Focused on Somali piracy, the international shipping community has so far ignored the steady increase of militancy in the Niger Delta. Somali piracy started after the government collapse in 1991 and drew the world’s attention only a couple of years ago when it escalated alarmingly; history may well repeat itself in the Niger Delta. There are other similarities between the two regions as well: Depending on one’s point of view, hijackings in this delta, like off Somalia, are the work of criminals in it for the ransom or cornered citizens protesting against the exploitation and degradation of their resources and environment by foreign interests.

The region where oil exploration takes place in Nigeria has been marked with unrest in recent times. MEND is a loosely knit movement that says it is dedicated to armed struggle against the exploitation and oppression of the people of the Niger Delta and the degradation of the natural environment by foreign multinational corporations that it claims are supported by the Federal Government of Nigeria. Its goals are to seek local control of the Delta’s resources and to seek compensation for the degradation of the environment by foreign MNCs. One of the leaders told the BBC last year that MEND wanted ‘total control’ of Nigeria’s oil wealth. The Economist has described the organisation as one that "portrays itself as political organisation that wants a greater share of Nigeria’s oil revenues to go to the impoverished region that sits atop the oil. In fact, it is more of an umbrella organisation for several armed groups, which it sometimes pays in cash or guns to launch attacks."

MEND has warned foreign companies in the past to “leave our land while you can or you can die in it.” Industry watchers say, off the record, that postcolonial murky deals in Nigeria have resulted in the country’s dictators de facto handing over of oil resources to multinational oil companies, most notoriously Royal Dutch Shell. The result, as elsewhere in that resource rich continent, is continuing economic colonisation, scant regard for the local population or the environment and consequent social unrest. People living in the Niger Delta say that they see none of the oil revenues that are milked from their land. Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, condemns the oil companies’ and government’s ‘crude attempts to suppress dissent’. MEND enjoys widespread support among the 20 million Nigerians indigenous to the region. On the other hand, critics of MEND allege that it outsources terror, hiring mercenaries for operations against oil companies.

They, in turn, use Western trained security operators. Notwithstanding government and private firepower, however, oil company operations have been obviously hit in the escalating violence. Bombed pipelines have spooked traders and hiked international oil prices. The kidnapping of foreign workers and the targeting of ships carrying oil forced Chevron to shut down a facility soon after a Nigerian seaman was killed in 2007 on an offloading vessel. A year earlier, a US oil company executive was shot dead in Port Harcourt and a Norwegian rig attacked and crew taken hostage, although MEND denied involvement. Foreign workers have been kidnapped from bars and offshore vessels. And, just last year, MEND ‘naval forces’ attacked and shut down the flagship Shell operated oil platform ‘Bonga’, shutting down a tenth of Nigeria’s oil production. This platform alone extracting a huge 200,000 barrels of oil every day.

Many claim that the Shipping industry can do little to influence the Nigerian government. The oil industry, which wields considerable influence in Nigeria, needs to push the government harder to come to a settlement with the militants. It is felt that unless a political solution is found reasonably quickly, the industry will continue to witness many more ‘Siehem Peace’ like incidents.



Groundhog Day

I have in front of me an article from Lloyd’s List that refers to a UK Department of Transport report on fatigue among seafarers. Michael Grey’s article is titled, “Fatigue facts jolt shipping’; the report Mr. Grey refers to is written by Professor Ivan Brown of the Medical Research Council.

The author comments on the report, “its recommendations on the control of seafarer’s hours will probably ensure that it will regrettably disappear forever in fathomless archives, to appear after a decent interval only for the enjoyment of researchers and academics.”

What’s new, you ask? What is new is that the article is almost twenty years old. It appeared in Lloyd’s List on March 15, 1990. I found it amongst the junk I have collected over time.

Some of the academics here will point out, of course, that we had a STCW convention a few years later that addressed this problem. Some may even forget to remind us that not only these (and such subsequent) reports have disappeared forever from our consciousness, even the STCW convention as it pertains to fatigue rears its ugly head only at decent intervals these days, and is otherwise largely ignored. Compliance is routinely fudged; the record of watchkeepers working hours and rest periods at sea is often unadulterated fiction.

In 2006, quoting a comprehensive survey approximately a decade after the STCW convention first came into force, the ITF reported : “One in four seafarers said they had fallen asleep while on watch. Almost 50% of seafarers taking part in the study reported working weeks of 85 hours or more. Around half said their working hours had increased over the past 10 years, despite new regulations intended to combat fatigue. Almost 50% of seafarers surveyed considered their working hours presented a danger to their personal safety. Some 37% said their working hours sometimes posed a danger to the safe operations of their ship.” Things did not get better over time; as we know very well, they got worse.

Two years later, in February this year, the UK’s Maritime Accident Investigation Branch took the unprecedented step, after an investigation into the ‘Antari’ grounding, of a) directly blaming the IMO for failing to address this issue even after a similar MAIB safety report (concerning fatigue) was forwarded to it two years earlier and b) asking the UK government to unilaterally take action to address the safety and environmental risks in British waters caused by seafarer fatigue. The MAIB ‘Antari’ report was scathing; unusually strong phrases like ‘Seafarer working hours are close to slavery’, ‘Watchkeepers routinely falling asleep’, ‘Ships are unguided missiles” and ‘Just a matter of time before there is a catastrophic accident” were used in the report: a sign, perhaps of the frustration the MAIB felt.

What had the IMO to say in reply? Well, as usual, not a lot. It confirmed that the UK had submitted a proposal to the Safety Committee, fully two years ago, asking that “an auditable procedure for establishing vessels’ safe manning levels should be introduced”. That was all the IMO did, though I am sure some impressively worded correspondence has been produced in the interim. I am also sure that the matter is being taken seriously by the mandarins at the IMO even today. We must realise that only six months have passed after the MAIB report, and that these things take time, as the twenty year old report quoted in Lloyd’s List and the 2006 report quoted by the ITF proves. I read these periodic reports with bemusement: all the regulators really need to do is to visit a ship to know what is happening on the ground, and how commonplace fatigue at sea really is.

When it comes to the resolution of the fatigue issue, the sailor may be forgiven for thinking that he is actor Bill Murray in the movie ‘Groundhog Day’, doomed to living the same day over and over again for eternity. Even worse, there is no Andie Macdowell on the horizon either; an event that would help considerably in keeping him awake on watch, I think.

Of course, many industry bodies have raised the subject sporadically and anaemically. Pilot associations, Cargo and Classification society surveyors have complained about tired crews unable to function effectively. Port State Control officials have mentioned seafarer fatigue in some of their reports, and so have individual Superintendents and the like. Some organisations even have online and offline forms for reporting fatigue. Accident statistics are legion too: the high percentage of accidents caused by human error and the alarmingly high odds that a chronically fatigued seafarer will make mistakes and cause accidents have been underlined ad nauseum in a plethora of seminars across a spectrum that seems to cover all points of the proverbial compass.

However, all this, again, is academic; because all of us, at sea or ashore, need no reminding that the problem exists. Compiling data is not an alternative to solving the problem. In addition and as far as the commercial industry is concerned, there is no real problem. A fatigued seafarer is the least of their concerns anyway.

I am afraid that the maritime industry has become immune to this issue; Groundhog Day has played out too often. The repercussions of following the STCW convention on fatigue are seen as too expensive. The requirements of additional officers and crew, or even (gasp) an additional Master (or, perhaps, taking some administrative functions ashore) that would undoubtedly be required to fully comply with the rules is seen as unnecessary. I cannot see any Owner doing this unilaterally, raising operating costs and making his ships uncompetitive in today’s bloody marketplace. Which means that, as usual, additional requirements will have to be mandated from ‘above’. I do not see that happening easily either: the benign nexus between industry bodies and the commercial world is usually at the expense of the seafarer.

The only way we will get some traction to begin addressing this burning issue (that has been ablaze for two decades or more, as shown) is this: We need a series of spectacular and catastrophic accidents, the root cause of which is found to be seafarer fatigue. We need to see these well publicised in mainstream media, as they probably will be if beaches and seagulls coated with oil are a result. Only then will there be sufficient pressure put on the industry, including the regulators, which will make everybody act immediately. Remember the ISPS code that happened within weeks of 9/11? That worked. Something spectacular. Something that presses all the buttons in a way that a fatigued mariner never will, even if he suffers long term health deterioration as a result of chronic fatigue. We in shipping are famous for post disaster regulation: maybe that is the only way we know. Alternately, we can prepare to relive Groundhog Day for another twenty years.

In 1990, Michael Grey commented on Professor Brown’s report thus: “Perhaps the report is a signal to start off with a completely clean sheet and try to adapt the way of a ship to the working practices of a human crew rather than the other way around”.

Sorry, Mr. Grey, the cleanest sheet we have been able to arrange, after two decades, is the murky spreadsheet recording individual watchkeeping working hours at sea; it may interest you to know that not only are the figures routinely doctored, fudged sheets are sometimes even photocopied for use next month!



July 10, 2009

Et Two?

It is now three weeks since the Hebei Two were set free; the initial brouhaha seems to have died down. The impression one gets is that we are now back to business as usual, and that the protests from many industry bodies at the time of the liberation have now muted. Claims that justice had not been served even after the two were freed, and that action would be taken to clear the besmirched names of the two officers now ring hollow. Meanwhile, South Korea and India are in talks regarding the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) between the two countries; Korean diplomats say they want to sign the treaty ‘as early as possible’. The Hebei Two were never really a diplomatic issue between the two countries, so why start now?

The ICS and ISF had expressed “disappointment” that the Hebei Spirit officers had not been found innocent of the charge of causing pollution by the Korean courts. InterManager had vowed to work to clear the records of the two officers, with President Girogi saying, "We will work hard to exonerate these two professional men and to clear their career records." Meanwhile, ITF general secretary David Cockroft had said: “Like everyone in shipping, we find it unacceptable that the lesser charge against them was never removed”. That is a strong word, unacceptable.

Maybe I am just being cynical. Maybe these, along with other good organisations, are still as determined as ever to right a wrong and will pursue this issue strongly. Nevertheless, I predict that this sorry story will go the same way that Capt. Mathur’s story went after the Erika incident; precisely nowhere. I realise that Capt. Mathur is just another name and another high profile incident. Much like Capt. Apostolos Mangouras of the Prestige, he, like Capt. Chawla and Chief Officer Chetan, just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The history of mercantile shipping is replete with such names, known and unknown. The chapters of the stories are predictably interchangeable: an accident occurs, Masters and crews are made scapegoats and Port States behave in a manner unjust, unfair, and unethical and in defiance of all accepted norms of jurisprudence and the law of the sea. The rest of the industry just watches, making appropriate noises, more so when the crew in question comes from Third World countries. As for the mariners caught in this storm, their victory is usually Pyrrhic, at great cost to themselves. Their victory consists only of getting away from such incidents with life and liberty: the feeling of satisfaction at having received justice is a feeling a seafarer does not usually recognise, because he gets it so rarely after an accident.

I admit that my pessimism may well be premature. Three weeks is not such a long time, and wheels may well be in motion behind the scenes to put pressure on the Koreans. My disappointment may also arise from the fact that I expected more this time.

This is why I expected more: I believe that the Hebei Two would still be rotting in some jail in South Korea if so many in the industry and many of its bodies had not exhibited an unprecedented show of solidarity with the officers. I believe that the story thus far would be different if the managers had not stood strongly by the two; mariners are otherwise usually abandoned to their fate. Of course, greater pressure should have been put by the Indian Government on the Koreans, but the shipping constituency may be asking for too much if it expects a volte face from either the authorities or Indian society in general. We must find ways of correcting this unacceptable state of affairs. (There is that word again, unacceptable)

Nevertheless, my expectations from the Hebei Spirit incident are higher. I seriously think that this incident, and its aftermath, has the potential to become a watershed criminalisation case, mainly because it has already evinced global outrage and consequent support for the two officers. Therefore, my expectations are that we will pursue justice for the two officers with much more vigour than we have shown since their release. I hope that the Hebei Spirit case becomes a litmus test on how we will bring fair treatment to our seafarers in future.

In this context, recent legislation in the European Union and Canada worry me. Penalisation and criminalisation of the innocent seafarer is on the increase in these two huge and important regions; it won’t be long before other countries follow suit with draconian laws of their own. Penalties and jail terms for accidents are higher. The burden of proof in maritime pollution incidents is shifting from the prosecution, where it rightfully belongs, to the defence. Against all tenets of criminal law, an innocent seafarer in a foreign land (faced with huge litigation costs that he cannot afford) may soon be asked to prove his innocence instead of the authorities being asked to prove his guilt, as they should be required to do. The seafarer is a sitting duck in such circumstances. And, although there have been protests from some industry bodies in Canada, the legislation may well go through. Opposition to the EU legislation seems nonexistent anyway.

Seafarers face injustice in many smaller ways too. Whether ashore or afloat, many of us are guilty of shortchanging crews during normal times. Wages are sometimes not paid. Insurances are delayed or unpaid if a mariner dies. Medical records are sometimes fudged to minimise legitimate dues to which a mariner may be entitled. Contracts are almost universally one sided. Contractual disputes are not addressed justly even when they are brought up and pursued. Contractual terms are intentionally made obtuse or subject to interpretation that is usually favourable to the shipowner. Working hours are usually against international conventions, and, as UK’s MAIB said recently in a report, are ‘close to slavery’. Moreover, whenever the excreta hits the fan with what are euphemistically called ‘crew problems’, the prime objective of some Masters, Managers and Owners is to sign off the crew in question with a minimum of fuss and a minimum of payment. We all know there is not too much he can practically do once he is home and not on the ship’s articles, especially if we threaten to ‘blacklist’ him. Even if he has the inclination, he does not have the time, energy or resources to stop working and instead pursue expensive and elusive justice.

In this duplicitous atmosphere and in the event of an incident, the affected crewmember will return home glad to be alive or free or rid of the ship. He will lick his wounds and try to put the experience behind him. The company will not call him back or he will not return to it. Life will go on.

You know, maybe the basis for this entire article is bunk. It seems to ask for a global system of ethical and just behaviour towards the innocent seafarer. It assumes that there is justice for all.

How dare a seafarer ask for justice from outsiders when his own colleagues will not give it to him?



July 03, 2009

Maritime Security: Refusing to learn from history

Two decades ago, in 1999 and a couple of days before it was due to dock in Kandla, Russian Intelligence tipped off India about the MV Ku Vol San, a North Korean ship bound for Malta via Singapore, Kandla and Karachi. Indian intelligence agencies put the ship under surveillance in the Arabian Sea, and she was searched by customs on arrival Kandla on June 18. At the end of a dramatic operation, with the Korean crew resisting, Indian authorities found nothing. They were about to call of the search when the Russians came up with specific information on the cargo last minute, when, found hidden amongst a consignment of sugar, were 148 boxes manifested as ‘machinery and water refining equipment’. In reality, according to a statement from the Ministry of External Affairs, the cargo included "special material and equipment, components for guidance system, blueprints, drawings and instruction manuals for the production of such (ballistic) missiles."

This cargo, of course, was bound for Pakistan, and constituted a part of the deadly barter system of nuclear material vs. delivery systems that have existed between North Korea and Pakistan and beyond for almost twenty years, thanks to the AQ Khan network. The fact that many ‘indigenous’ Pakistani missile delivery systems are actually North Korean was well known by RAW and DRI in India even before this incident. The Ghauri is a copy of North Korea's NodongI missile.

The United States knew this too, though they chose not to believe India before the Ku Vol San incident for their own blinkered reasons. Typically, the US ‘confirmed’ Pakistani nuclear proliferation only three years later, in 2002, when the New York Times reported that Pakistan supplied equipment to North Korea, including possibly gas centrifuges used to create weapons grade uranium, in deals that began in the early 1990s and continued well into the Musharraf regime and beyond the 9/11 catastrophe. The Bush administration, seeking nonexistent WMD’s in Iraq, ignored the fact that two Pakistani nuclear scientists were engaged with the Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden. “Despite copious intelligence reports, successive US administrations have been coy about bearing down on Pakistan,” one Washington think tank said.

Fast forward to today, twenty years later. Even as I write this, the US navy is shadowing another North Korean freighter, the Kang Nam 1. She left Pyongyang on June 17 and is believed to be heading for Burma, apparently carrying an illegal cargo of weaponry. Reports conflict as to whether the cargo includes nuclear material and missile hardware or is restricted to just small arms. The US Government has said, so far, that it will not use force to inspect the ship. Meanwhile, a provocative King Jong II, the North Korean dictator, says that North Korea will fire a missile ‘in the direction of Hawaii’ on the American independence day, July 4. North Korea has also said it would consider interception of the 2000 tonne Kang Nam 1 an act of war. A UN resolution post the recent North Korean underground nuclear tests bans North Korean trafficking in nuclear or conventional weaponry, and calls upon United Nations members to search North Korean ships if there are “reasonable grounds” to suspect that banned cargo is aboard.

If the US Navy destroyer shadowing the freighter asks to inspect the Kang Nam and North Korea refuses, the U.N. authorises that the ship must be directed to a port of North Korea’s choice for inspection.

In separate but related developments, amateur photographs confirm that North Korea is helping Myanmar with ‘tunnel technology’. Built secretly over the last ten years near the new Burmese capital Naypyidaw, these underground tunnels are large enough for trucks to drive through and can house and feed up to 600 people for several months. Although the purpose of these tunnels is unknown, analysts believe that these are bunkers for the Burmese generals to flee to in an emergency.

Myanmar and North Korea have had a stormy past; Myanmar broke off relations after North Korean agents attacked and killed visiting South Korean diplomats in 1983. However, criticism and sanctions against both countries for their belligerent intransigence over the last many years have brought them closer together; North Korea is said to supply arms regularly to Burma.

What is surprising is that, despite the potential repercussions on the nation’s security, the Indian administration and media have ignored the strange case of the Kang Nam. Not surprising, actually: we have paid the price of being too soft, over the years, on the Pakistani ‘death by a thousand cuts’ strategy. If we are not careful, we will pay a price in the future for the Chinese ‘string of pearls strategy’ too: a plan that wants to encircle India with elements hostile to it. Chinese links with all the usual suspects, including Myanmar and North Korea, are well known, recent Chinese tough talk to Pyongyang notwithstanding.

The Kang Nam can be, potentially, a grave threat to Indian security. The Indian Government needs to say so publicly and act sharply. We need to start acting tougher; a signal needs to be sent out that India, in line with its greater global status, will act appropriately and legitimately to meet the demands of its own national security, and that the Indian Navy will patrol our Oceans more effectively. If this involves being aggressively involved in the UN resolution against North Korea, so be it.

As events in Pakistan have shown, American self interest does not often coincide with ours. Why, then, do we refuse to learn? Why do we continue to outsource our maritime and national security to them?

It is time India become a player in the game and not just an innocent bystander.



Popeye Stress

“In the end, the reason my wife and I broke up was just that we were living in different worlds”, the Chief Engineer told me, draining the last of his drink. “Nobody ashore really understands what a sailor’s life really is.”

I had run into him in a small port in Canada where both of us were waiting for our ships to berth to sign on. We gravitated towards each other, as sailors are wont to do and enjoyed a couple of drinks and dinners together. He was just returning to sea after a year or two and after a life threatening experience on a previous voyage; the small container ship he was on ran into a typhoon off Japan. The crew spent a few days in lifejackets with engine trouble before they were providentially saved. Revealingly to me, the Chief was not too upset about almost losing his life; he was devastated, however, that nobody at home had really understood what he went through. I think he felt that he was entitled to some special consideration, particularly from his wife. A natural reaction; can’t really blame him.

This may well be an extreme, though not unusual, case. The reality remains, however, that even at the best of times, seafaring today is far more stressful than it has been in the last fifty years or so: the nature of modern shipping makes this inevitable. One could argue that safety standards have risen (not fast enough) and that the advent of advanced radars, GPS and communications has made life at sea easier in many ways. The counterpoint to this argument is equally valid, which is that extremely low staffing levels and operational and commercial pressures have nullified these advances; in fact, in some cases these advances have contributed to lower thresholds of acceptable safe clearances in many parameters of navigational and machinery operation. Whatever your own point of view, at least I believe, as I look back over about thirty years of sailing, that pressure today is much higher on the Master, officers and crew of any ship than what is was then.

There are very few organisations that research seafarer’s lives: most of our opinions on seafarer stress therefore remain just that, opinions, and are based on anecdotal evidence. One exception is the Seafarers International Research Centre, a part of the Cardiff University School of Social Sciences in the UK. Although it does research seafarers from across the world, it seems to me that the exercise, in the end, remains largely academic and is diluted by generalisation, because the handling of stress has a cultural element to it.

In any event, I do not see even the largest management company in India using SIRC’s findings as input to improving their own HRD policies, except at a very raw and rudimentary level. In addition, of course, the fact that there is no independent seafarer research of note done in India, a country that prides itself on its academic standards and that claims to supply more than a twentieth of the global seafaring workforce, is telling in itself. It becomes obvious, once again, that we do not really care enough about our seafaring community.

However, we should. Sailors on the path to burnout are less efficient, less motivated and more prone to making mistakes and causing accidents. Besides, higher stress levels are surely a contributing factor to shorter career spans at sea today.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorders, or at least the psychological after effects of a life threatening episode, will probably be experienced by every sailor least once in his working life. These may well cause him severe problems at work and in human relationships for a while. The Chief Engineer I met was probably suffering from PTSD, which is a recognised medical condition with approved medical treatment. He took a long break while he struggled to overcome PTSD; with proper counselling, he would have been back on his feet much faster, and would have been available for work sooner. And maybe not have been divorced.

The industry would do well, therefore, to support its seamen in whatever ways it can in its own self interest. There is a lot it can do. For example, Stress Management could be made an integral part of a seafarer’s training starting at the Pre Sea level. Many of these techniques, including Yoga, are universally known to be beneficial to physical and emotional well being; we in India do not need to be reminded of that. What stops our HRD departments from incorporating these into every seminar and every in house training programme? (Oops, I forgot, we normally do not have HRD worth the name). What stops our marine training establishments from doing the same? (Oops, they will not or cannot do anything unless the DGS mandates it). What stops our managers from arranging counselling to crews that have been through major life threatening experiences at sea? (Oops, it costs money. Barring the few of us who do this, usually in high profile cases, it is usually cheaper to risk crew walking away from the company). Clearly, a little will and a little thought is needed by many here. And a little concern.

I should mention here that many years ago, we were taught IRT (Instant Relaxation Techniques) at a Master’s revalidation course in Chennai. It was probably the most useful part of the course. However, such exceptions apart, all of us, whether at sea or ashore, approach the issue of ever increasing levels of stress at sea with typical bravado and machismo. Tough sailors are supposed to survive, to grin and bear it, to never complain and never explain. Stress is for the weak and PTSD is for the effete, don’t you know?

While there is some truth in the fact that a sailor must be physically and emotionally more resilient than many in other professions, we often take the macho spiel too far. In the process, we not only make Popeye caricatures of ourselves but we sometimes do ourselves, our families and our employers great harm. We must realise that there is a thin line between useful bravado and empty bluster, and that there is an even thinner line between being the strong and silent type and getting ulcers.

As Zsa Zsa Gabor said, Macho does not mean mucho.