October 31, 2009

The seven-year itch.

I subscribe to a group on the internet, one that I visit once a fortnight or so. Most of its members are merchant naval officers from India. Many are very senior and experienced, both at sea and ashore.

A youngster joined the group recently with some questions: he had an offer in hand to join an Indian company for his initial apprenticeship and sought informed advice on, amongst other things, what he could do ashore after about seven year's experience at sea. He obviously wanted to quit sailing after around that time and enquired about his career prospects at that stage, either in shipping or in another industry that had potential. He asked which other industries would be relevant, given his assumed experience.

The reactions, with a few notable exceptions, crystallised for me the main reason why we fail to attract the young to a career at sea today: this is because many of us are almost delusionally out of touch with reality.

The youngster (who remained polite throughout in the thread, to his credit) was ridiculed and the sorry state of the industry was put firmly at the doorstep of his (and such) attitudes. He was advised to, alternately, take the apprenticeship offer immediately and stay away from shipping because, by implication, people like him would not be able to cut it. He was mocked for signing up with a moniker that was not his real name. Many replies were sarcastic and others were condescending. Exasperated terms like 'spoon feeding' and 'here we go again' were used. Except for a small handful of members who tried to bring some reality into the proceedings and one or two who even offered to meet the guy to help him out with his questions, other senior Masters and Chief Engineers on the forum seemed to be on the usual nostalgic ego trips, alternately bemoaning the fate of the industry and the commitment of the young today.

Almost nobody answered his questions in a systematic or mature manner. Nobody listed the pros and cons of his suggested course of action or gave him advice on later career alternatives, which is what he had requested. The youngster wanted information; instead, he got derision. In his place, I would have gone away with the impression that the merchant navy was staffed by unhelpful and cantankerous fuddy duddies. I would have carried this impression to my friends. Maybe I would have abandoned any plans of joining shipping at all.

Times have changed, gentlemen. The prospective new recruit is looking far beyond what we looked at when we were his age. He is examining options and determining exit strategies. He wants to make some money and quit for greener and otherwise more satisfying pastures before he is thirty, or as soon as possible thereafter. He has a lot more information at his fingertips, much of which is inaccurate or otherwise lopsided because it does not come from sailors like us: however, by giving him the reception we did, we blew our chances of correcting the imbalance. We did not give him what he was looking for: an informed opinion. He will go elsewhere and get uninformed opinions instead: we know how distorted those are likely to be.

The problem is bigger than the feelings, or the fate, of just one prospect. The posture that this industry is doing a favour to any new entrant remains a universal one in Indian shipping circles and is a huge reason why we cannot attract suitable talent anymore. This same attitude was faced by us when we came out to sea as sparkling new Cadets many moons ago; the sparkle has gone long ago, but the attitude remains like fading memory. Unfortunately, the world has moved on since those times that look, as usual, rosy in retrospect.

Other industries visit campuses to identify and lock in to promising talent; we hang a shingle and wait for talent to walk in through the door. Other businesses spend time and money trying to recruit and retain their present and potential workforce; we retire with a gin and tonic and berate the young who ask questions. Other industry projects manpower requirements into the future; we work on supply and demand decisions made by the seat of our pants when they are on fire. Other sectors rate their chances of growth impossible without robust HRD departments; our HRD departments are a joke and a byproduct. As if excellence can be achieved by chance.

I say this: If this generation desires to have a shortish seven or ten year stint at sea and shift out, let us make it easier for them to do so. Let us modify our moribund gasping for air policies to better suit the requirements of present day talent. Let’s face it, if they want to leave in seven years they will do so anyway; if we do not offer them an attractive option we will lose them for good to other industry. Let us retain this talent within the industry at the end of their sailing lifespan with well thought out career paths; as things stand today, and with the kind of treatment and respect we give seafarers, they will leave in disgust and to escape, and we will be left with the dregs, not the best and the brightest.

As for old cantankerous and stagnant attitudes, it is not as if these really worked even thirty years ago: the abysmal growth of the Indian shipping industry during this time cannot be all blamed on unsupportive Government policies. Some of the blame lies at our doorsteps, too; we did not attract the right people and we did not retain them long enough.

We can't seem to attract the requisite people in the requisite numbers even today, and we certainly can't, in future, run our ships with people who are unemployable everywhere else. Not at a time when the engine control room and the navigating bridge are getting more complex by the day. Regrettably, I have no doubt that if we continue with present attitudes it will soon come to that.

Gentlemen, the world has changed. Deal with it.


October 25, 2009

Bleeding on the Styx

We do not build ports of optimum sizes at optimum places; we build them for political and commercial patronage, election gains and kickbacks. We extend this sickness into every aspect of maritime life. We do not train enough seafarers and we don't train them well enough because some of our institutions are riddled with what we Indians love to call 'vested interests'. We don't build road and rail connectivity to ports appropriately because the status quo suits the transport contractor who gives us nice Diwali presents. We plan to build a huge canal of the wrong depth and for the wrong reasons against sage advice.

We blame a former Shipping Minister for a lot of rotten behaviour that is still ongoing and hamstrings progress even today. In addition, our maritime security has been repeatedly compromised because some of the people in the institutions that are supposed to protect us allowed material and trained terrorists to land on our shores in exchange for thirty pieces of silver. I bet some still do. Astoundingly and along with the rest of the commercial world, the shipping industry does not seem bothered about the malaise of corruption that continues to rot our commercial and spiritual soul.

Amazingly, we continue to ignore the true cost of our pussyfooting around the 'c' word. That the economy hemorrhages by such behaviour is a given; that this bleeding gives rise to gross injustice and consequent frustration, despair and anger is dismissed; that the Naxalite violence now affecting almost a third of our 604 districts is a direct consequence of more than a half century of corruption and consequent frustration is discounted. This violence, or social unrest, depending on one's prism, can easily bring our economy (and our shipping infrastructure along with it) to a grinding halt pretty quickly. As I write this, the government is planning to send in 35,000 paramilitary forces over 11 'theatres of operation' across a vast swath of the country; they say this will be a two or three year operation. Nobody can tell me movement of goods, trade and shipping will not be adversely hit, particularly on the East Coast 'Red Corridor' (see map).

I would like to see the maritime fraternity doing less fraternising, for once, and take the lead in fighting corruption wherever it occurs within it. This is not a utopian pipe dream but a prerequisite for survival: the natives are already restless, and they are armed. We ostriches are running out of time.

What would really happen, I wonder, if industry bodies and associations representing shipowners and others issued a joint statement appealing to their members not to cough up speed money? What would really happen if individual shipowners in India advertised in the newspapers of their decision to stop paying up at almost every industry/government interface? What if, in addition, a part of this industry made the cause of fighting corruption public? What would really happen? It would be tough for the honest, at least initially, yes, but somehow I doubt that shipping would grind to a halt or be cripplingly targeted, especially if full media glare is actively solicited.

Not easy, sure. Requiring individual commitment, certainly. Assuming an industry wide integrity and homogeneity where none exists, yes. Tilting at windmills, perhaps. Critically required? Absolutely. Imagine, in my utopian delusion, what would happen if we actually made sufficient headway in cleaning up the industry and the government bodies associated with it. By showing the country the way to start ridding itself of arguably the biggest festering sore on its body, we will, like the Information Technology industry, acquire a progressive persona at one fell swoop. We will have contributed colossally to changing the face of India, and we would have leapfrogged our industry into greatly enhanced efficiency and profitability.

 A little math before I end. Since large numbers usually blind me to their impact on real people, a reminder: a billion is a thousand million. A trillion is a thousand billion. (Those, folks, are a lot of zeros after the one). Statistics, as Michelle Pfeiffer will undoubtedly tell you, should conceal more than they reveal. Pamela Anderson will probably disagree, but it doesn't matter. Indian vital statistics are staggering on both counts; besides being in your face, they often require to be reduced and put into perspective to be understood.

Consider this one: Although numbers as high as 1.7 trillion are bandied about by many others, the Economic Times says that wealth stashed away by Indians in offshore banks could be as much as US $1 or 1.5 trillion. That is 1.5 thousand thousand million. United States Dollars. All of this money is undeclared; much of it is cached, we can guess, by corrupt babus and politicians, although it belongs to you and me. More numbers: Indian Gross Domestic Product (the total market values of goods and services produced by workers and capital within a nation's borders) stood at $1.2 trillion last year. Then, the Reserve Bank of India pegs the Indian external debt at $227.7 billion as of June '09. India's internal public debt (including market borrowings, external debt and other liabilities like small savings and provident funds), on the other hand, is approximately three times this number, at roughly $600 billion. I have totalled up and rounded off both external and internal debt, for the sake of simplicity, to $830 billion.

Finally, widely available figures tell me that India's population stands (or staggers, depending on your point of view) at 1.15 billion. Therefore, unless I have botched up the calculations again, all this means is that a) Indian iffy money held in offshore banks was worth around a year’s total of all goods and services produced by the entire country in 2008; b) Indian money stashed abroad could pay off the entire Indian external and internal debt and the country would still be left with some loose change. c) Each Indian is indebted to the tune of (dividing 830 by 1.15) more than 720 dollars, or 30,000 rupees, give or take. Given that our per capita income is only about 37,000 rupees, this statistic (that an average Indian is in debt for up to ten months of his full wages) is almost the most astonishing of them all. Almost, but not quite.

Public indifference, the confederate of corruption, tops this list, the same as it tops so many other infamous ones in this great (and greatly plagued) nation. Time to change that?

At least I think so; some utopian dreams are worth blood and sweat, especially when the alternative is continued existence on the banks of the river Styx. Right between the Earth and the Underworld, or between Earth and Hell, depending on which mythology one follows: Greek or Christian.


October 21, 2009


The perception that modern ships are crewed by a bunch of hard headed, hard bodied and hard drinking womanising sailors who are more than a little thick in the head needs to be thrown in the garbage; that is where most stereotypes belong anyway. With its alcohol policies, overworked short manned crews, short port stays, increasing operational requirements and throttled shore leaves, modern shipping has no room for such a sailor.

All the same, I am not sure that all of the relatively recent change is progress. For one, part of the now evaporating charm of sailing for me had always been, before the accountants and the clerks took over my life, the sheer physicality of a sailor's existence. As a cadet, the memories of the breeze in my face (and the sting of freshly chipped metal hitting my neck) are still vivid. Even years later, as a Mate, much of my day involved 'being on deck': a term which could mean anything from cleaning the holds to maintaining deck machinery, or sometimes just taking a round at the end of the working day. As a Master, too, few things are more invigorating in the open sea than a round on deck with the salt whipping one's hair.

Unfortunately, at sea today, a Cadet is more likely to be handed over a clipboard and a checklist in the morning rather than a chipping hammer. A Chief Officer is more likely to be bringing the paperwork up to date in his office instead of taking a round on deck. The fewer crew that are free in the evening are more likely to be watching a movie in the smoke room rather than having a beer. The Master is more likely to be sitting at a computer than roaming around on deck. Such changes have increasingly made Jack the sailor a dull boy: all work and no play, or play that deadens the senses (a movie) instead of bringing them alive.

It is not surprising, therefore, that most of the memorable characters I sailed with seem to be on ships at least ten years ago, that most of the remembered good times are sometimes a decade or two old, that fewer people are attracted to sea today because it has no huge alternate lifestyle to offer, a clerk at sea being not greatly different from a clerk ashore.

It is also one of the reasons why many senior officers hesitate to sail again. 'Management level' certification may seem exciting to some, like visiting cards with high sounding positions printed on them do to the uninformed; but to many it just means more paperwork and less real life. A real life that should have a senior officer concentrating on safety, operational and maintenance issues, by the way, not roaming around like Bob Slocum (the hero of Joseph Heller's 'Something Happened', who went around the workplace with a clipboard and a piece of paper for years before anybody realised he wasn't doing anything at all!).

Anybody who has sailed will tell you that it is very cathartic for seamen to let their hair down occasionally. Release of tension purges the system and refreshes the psyche. Long ago, stuck on a ship in Liverpool for three weeks, a bunch of us were taken to the British countryside by the Flying Angels club on a couple of day trips; drinks in the evening at the club optional but welcomed. Thirty years later, I still remember how refreshed I felt at the time. Change does that to you.

Sailing with one's spouse is another experience that is largely denied (or curtailed drastically) to many mariners today. However, it remains a part of my career that I enjoyed the most: almost a paid holiday, actually. Whatever the reasons that make this unattractive today (visas, cost, short port stays, piracy et al), the end result is that sailing with one's family is an additional source of tension nowadays rather than a source of enjoyment. I actually feel sorry for officers that do so; there is little opportunity or time to even step ashore even with all the requisite visas in place. The best one can expect is a run that allows the family to go ashore alone, and safely. Sad.

If I were more maudlin I would say that the seafaring career is destined to be taken up by people, in India at least, who have no expectations other than those of a labourer migrating to a construction site in Saudi Arabia. He will have no family life. He will have little social life. His movements will be restricted or severely curtailed. He will have no social status. He will not be able to listen to music at a club, or have a drink or two once a week, or do a zillion things normal human beings take for granted, and which were possible, albeit sporadically, a generation ago at sea.

This state of affairs would be fine if the industry could manage ships with a crew that had a labourer's knowledge or initiative, but it cannot. Unfortunately, we require officers to manage increasingly complex procedures, equipment and legalities at sea today. We expect them to perform understaffed and under pressure. We expect them to be responsible for millions of dollars of ship and cargo and the lives of their colleagues. For all this, we offer them not much more than an expat construction labourer's lifestyle, albeit with much better wages, and we think that will do the trick. Sorry folks, it won't. The fact that people are quitting sailing at almost the first opportunity, not to speak of the fact that people are joining the industry planning to quit asap, should tell us that it isn't working already. The spark has gone out of the marriage; a new diamond ring does not work anymore.

Everybody knows the issues; everybody knows what can fix them. It should not be so difficult to reduce ridiculously senseless paperwork or guarantee shore leave: why aren't airline crews similarly restricted? Short port calls are here to stay; crews need to go ashore anyway. The solutions are obvious. What? They cost money? So spend it. Alternatively, get those research teams cracking on crewless vessels, or don't crib that you are not getting the right people at sea today.

That would be another form of catharsis, wouldn't it? An acceptance that the present state of affairs is the best we can do, or want to. I strongly recommend that course of action, or, actually, inaction. We should do this and, while we are at it, shut down our nonexistent HRD departments. Save a lot of money, too.

And let the ships fall where they may.


October 13, 2009


I went to a jazz club the other day to watch my son play the piano, but the evening turned out to be about more than just good music.

Sitting on a barstool with an overpriced vodka, an undervalued wife and an unlikely friend, my thoughts turned to the thousands of sailors who were at sea at that very moment, far from their families and close to God. And so I asked myself that old and banal sailor question that some of them were probably asking themselves at the very moment, "Is a sailing career worth it?"

Proper contemplation of this question evidently required a refill. Many, in fact. As you know, vodka favours the prepared mind.

“When you become a seaman, you sacrifice your freedom for your family", is a Ship Captain’s quote I read recently, and which resonates along with Karthik’s drums in the bar. True statement, that, and getting truer every year, although, when I once compared a ship to jail, a Norwegian manager told me quite pointedly, “But a well paid jail, Captain, and one you can leave anytime!” Nevertheless, a seagoing career today seems to me a bit like Hotel California; you can check out anytime you like, but you can never get shore leave.

I remembered meeting an interesting Ship Master recently: Besides sailing occasionally, he is a registered and practicing lawyer, runs a school and a farm, teaches and is planning to enter politics (I told him that I thought I was the only one who did weird things). Curious, partly because somebody like me would never contemplate politics, I asked him why. His reply, paraphrased, “I have to make up for having spent thirty years in jail”.

As my son produces a breathtakingly smooth version of ‘Summertime’ (when did he learn to play like that! When I was at sea?), and as Indu’s singing draws huge applause, I remember my father and mother who escaped Pakistan during Partition with not too much more than the clothes on their backs and the education in their heads. Two generations later, their grandson can afford to pursue a passion that is an uncertain career choice, to say the least. I like to think that my sailing has been responsible for some of that. My being at sea has set him free.

Life, the vodka reminds me, is all about quid pro quo, but it is not a zero sum game of Monopoly. So, at sea, after a certain point one is playing the game just for the “Get out of jail free’ card. Meanwhile, the game is tough but rewarding. It teaches you about life and yourself. It strengthens you as a person and it clarifies priorities. As distasteful as some of the players in the game are, they are the sideshow that cannot be allowed to take over one’s life. Difficult as it is increasingly becoming to enjoy sailing, there is still charm to be squeezed out of it. The slice of lime in the vodka is getting drier by the day, though.

Thirty something years ago and on a training ship, I was asked by an All India Radio interviewer why I wanted to go out to sea. My flippant reply (which earned me a really hard pat on the back from the Captain) was, “To get away from civilisation.” As you can see, I was still precocious at 17, but that was undoubtedly one genuine reason. Adventure and Money were others. As it turned out, the sea met all my expectations and more. It made a man out of me. I am grateful, today, for the experience and the opportunity.

Sometimes I feel I must return. I miss the wide open expanses, the salt on my lips and the wind in my hair. Still and all, I am glad that I have returned to civilisation. Like Chief Bromden in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, I been away a long time.



October 02, 2009

The death of safe speed.

Does anybody reduce speed automatically in zero visibility anymore? Not on the evidence, surely. Does anybody reduce speed automatically in dense traffic anymore? Unlikely, unless one is approaching a port, in my experience.

Like some other rules, Rule 6 (Safe Speed) of the COLREGS seems destined to be cited only after an accident occurs. Many P&I clubs regularly bring up the fact that the determination of safe speed is an ongoing process that should be evaluated by the bridge team, and that, as Steamship Mutual said in January this year, “The application of rule 6, with regard to determining a safe speed, will vary on a case by case basis and power driven vessels must remember that they are obliged to have their engines ready for immediate manoeuvre. In too many instances excess speed has been deemed to be a causative factor in the lead up to the collision occurring.” Hardly unsurprising, given that Master’s seem to proceed at maximum available speed until they pick up a pilot, I may add. In fact, even when approaching a pilot boat, speed is reduced later rather than sooner. I am sometimes struck by the fact that many Shipmaster’s behave like the terrible drivers we see on Indian roads, zipping along at unsustainably unsafe speeds without any regard to anything else, not even their own lives.

While too many of us continue to navigate and even approach ports with a singular deficit of common sense and with disregard to safe speeds ‘under the prevailing circumstances and conditions’, we also fail to take into account other factors. For a start, the limitations of our own ship are often ignored. Granted, the condition of the radar, ARPA and other navigational equipment is no longer a big factor on modern ships, although some navigators seem unable to even tune the radars properly, giving rise to some interesting situations in, for example, dense fog. Usually, though, the limitations of the Main Engine need to be taken into account. Are they ready for immediate manoeuver in, say, the North Sea and zero visibility? The answer is normally a resounding ‘no’, especially on many ships running on UMS and heavy oil. Additionally, many ships that are still sailing are not built for immediate (and prolonged) slow speed steaming on heavy oil; so many that I sailed on fall into this category. Asking some Chief Engineers to reduce speed on these can become an exercise that requires a Master to exhibit strong will along with an absolute commitment to safety, given that changing over to Diesel may well be required.

If one is in thick fog almost all the time at sea, as we were on one car carrier placed in the North Sea/English channel in winter, this can become a major source of friction with Superintendents too, especially with diesel or gasoil being more expensive or carried in limited quantity aboard. Even on ships that manoeuver on heavy oil, prolonged slow speed steaming and the resultant increased carbonisation can be greatly problematic for maintenance and operations, although pushing the engines whenever visibility improves can blow off some of it.

We seem to forget, also, that Rule 6 asks us to take into account the following when determining safe speed: stopping distance and the ability to take ‘proper and effective action’ to avoid collision. I defy the Master of the huge container ship that zipped a cable and a half past me at 28 knots off Texel (the busiest buoy in the world) in dense fog to claim with a straight face that his speed was safe.

Another situation. Six ships, about half a mile apart, were proceeding at full speed to pick up pilot at the breakwater at Kaoshuing a few years ago in heavy weather with a typhoon approaching. Four miles off the breakwater, sudden torrential rain reduced visibility to less than half a mile within minutes. Five minutes later, the port broadcast on VHF Ch. 16 that pilotage services were temporarily discontinued because of poor visibility. The resultant confusion and heightened risk of collision when all these ships started turning around to get back to open water would have been funny if it were not dangerous. I was in command on one of those ships.

Of course, commercial pressures continue to be the biggest reasons Masters take risks. I will be accused of preaching to the choir if I elaborate much more here, so I won’t, except to say that when all the ships, without any exception, are proceeding at full sea speed in dense fog and heavy traffic, the Master of a ship that reduces to what would be truly a ‘safe speed in the prevailing circumstances’ would be treated with ridicule, scorn, or exasperation by many including, obviously, his employers.

On a dark and stormy night, on that same car carrier I spoke of earlier, we came out of the Thames in thick fog, dropped the pilot and proceeded South East to join the main traffic lane. A couple of hours later, in torrential rain and fog so thick that visibility was zero, we entered the lane, one amongst a bunch of a dozen vessels within a three mile radius. Not one of us was doing less than 17 knots. I doubt anybody had reduced speed by even a notch. This is an area which is monitored aggressively by the UK’s Coast Guard, by the way, who will tell you when you are in contravention of most rules (especially Rule 10 on Traffic Separation Schemes, ask the Master of the ‘Storman Asia’!), but are always silent on the question of safe speed.

If you ask me, there is an urgent need to review Rule 6 and amend it if necessary. Once done, it should be followed and enforced by coastal states, using VTIS systems as necessary. While we are at it, pilot stations should be banned from advising multiple Shipmasters to proceed at full speed to pick up their pilots; this happens far too often, usually through poor planning.

Some rules are not meant to be broken.