April 29, 2010

The recovery position.

Economies across the world seem to agree that the worst is behind us, although the regular sceptre of countries on the verge of financial meltdown is worrying. The impact of the Greek fiasco, with its owners controlling a large chunk of the global shipping fleet, is likely to be more deadly than earlier ones like Dubai, Iceland, Ireland and others, one would have thought. Not so, say recent reports, saying that the Greeks may have spent up to $2 billion dollars this year on newbuilds. Their economy is in a mess but not shipping, apparently. Other reports say that Maersk has 64 vessels on order. The savvy Evergreen Lines, with no tonnage in the pipeline, may order up to a staggering hundred ships over the next couple of years, we are told.

Chinese and Korean shipyards are seeing renewed interest and an uptick in business. (Pipavav shipyard, on the other hand, faces a possible cancellation of a dozen ships ordered by Greek owner Alba Maritime because the yard has ‘technical problems’- a euphemism for manpower, crane and dock commissioning issues, says Motorship. Fears of the yard losing other business worth millions of dollars have been expressed).

Worldwide, container ship layups are down, which is another good sign, even as some analysts warn that these figures should not been taken in isolation and that there is still some pain left in the system. So too for tankers and bulkers, although conflicting opinions bristle here too, with some saying that no real recovery can be expected until 2011. The encouraging thing is that not too many people are talking about a double dip meltdown any more, and neither are there many voices predicting a prolonged multi-year gloom and doom scenario or even a snail paced and L shaped recovery. Big hiccups aside, things are looking up. The zillion dollar question is, of course, looking up for whom?

It appears to me that at least some operators are simply chasing low asset prices, treating a ship like a stock market scrip that will be bought cheap and sold when prices rise, sometimes without even taking delivery of the tonnage. These souls are most dangerous for the industry: they either are bankers or controlled by bankers who often have a streetwalker’s commitment to shipping. If their numbers or their money is high enough, they can easily create an asset bubble with disastrous consequences, as we have seen in the last couple of years. Even major shipowners who are looking long-term can contribute to a crash. We have seen that too: asset prices crash also because there is, simply, an absence of buying by major shipowners. Evergreen, again, is a case in point. This is, to an extent, a function of demand and supply; my contention is that a skewing of the matrix is more easily possible when there is unconfirmed underlying strength.

This fundamental strength has to be sustainable freight rates, for the mathematics of an enterprise must make sense for it to thrive. An explosion of orderbooks, as an example, will mean nothing if shipowners cannot make a profit out of delivered tonnage; the same yards jumping for joy today may find their very existence threatened if a bubble is first formed that later bursts. I must say that I am not convinced that large shipbuilding orders are a good idea when a significant amount of existing global tonnage is still underutilised; it seems too risky. It is a sad commentary on the times that people with no commitment to the industry- those who will take the money and run at the first sign of rising tonnage prices - are the only people who benefit from any asset bubble.

One result of all this is that many shipmanagers, including some of the largest, have resumed their litany on officer shortages; these voices were muted in the last year or so, though the right noises were always made. Most of these folk are very smart and should know what they are saying; a few are even committed to the industry. However, I would advise caution to my colleagues who are either sailing, or potential freshers working out their cost benefit analyses based on present salaries and projected shortages.

This is why I say so: First, any projected shortages and future tonnage figures are just what they claim to be: projections. Second, a shipowner cannot pay you wages (high, low or none) unless he is making an appropriate profit; he is not running a charity. Third, an asset bubble, if at all formed, can hit your job directly; laid up ships do not require the same levels of staffing. Fourth, even excellent shipowners and managers have a stake in flooding the industry (if they could) with officers, for the simple reason that they can then lower- or at least control- wages. Additionally, they do not really pay you when you sit at home, rejoining bonuses et al notwithstanding. (That said, find those excellent setups, and perform so you can stick with them! Good for you, good for them, and even good for an industry that thinks poaching is HRD.) Finally, realise that many Indian cadets and trainee ratings are routinely paying middlemen for training berths on ships today. Disgraceful reality, but there it is: the only industry I can think of that tom-toms officer shortages while asking for money from recruits to address the same deficit.

Which reminds me. A small question for those that have tonnage on order, or are planning ship acquisitions. How many of these ships, may I dare ask, have training berths for officer and rating trainees? Do they even have provision for trainee cabins, leave alone appropriate certified safety capacities?

Shipping, can you speak a little louder, please, because I can’t hear you.


April 23, 2010

Reef Grief

The grounding of the Shen Neng 1 in the Great Barrier Reef threatened, at one point, to become the greatest environmental disaster in Australian history, but that is not the real problem. The incident will undoubtedly result in tougher regulations, perhaps compulsory pilotage around the reef and thus increased costs for ship owners, but that is par for the course.

The Shen Neng 1 is either owned or not by Cosco directly or indirectly, but that is not the real issue either, even if Cosco has had three pretty major disasters in the last four years to its credit, including the high profile Cosco Busan case. (Initial reports said Cosco were the owners of this ship too, and then Shenzhen Energy was named, with some suggesting that that itself was actually a Cosco subsidiary).

The Great Barrier Reef is a World Heritage Site, but that is not the issue either. Neither is the fact that that the world’s largest reef is bigger than the United Kingdom and extends over 344,400sq km. I can even ignore, with some difficulty, the wonderful fact that it is, as the Guardian says, “home to 30 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises; six species of sea turtles; 125 species of shark, stingray and skate; 5,000 species of mollusc; nine species of seahorse; 215 species of birds; 17 species of sea snake; 2,195 known plant species and more than 1,500 species of fish.” No wonder it is considered on par with the Galapagos Islands by conservationists. No wonder the Australian Prime Minister called the incident “an absolute outrage”. No wonder that the Master and Chief Officer of the Shen Neng 1 have been arrested, as also the officers of another ship taking a similar short cut. (The court was told the first mate of the Shen Neng had never navigated through the reef before, and due to fatigue had not reprogrammed the GPS navigation system after a course change.)

"This is the $60bn-a-year, largely foreign-owned coal industry that is making a coal highway out of the Great Barrier Reef," says Bob Brown, leader of the Australian Greens party," but that is not the real issue either. Neither is the fact that many ships seem to regularly take dangerous shortcuts as they sail with Australian coal to that country hungry for raw material, China.

I do not know what will happen to the Shen Neng 1 as I write this piece a few days after the incident; it is quite likely that its story will have run the course by the time this appears in print. It is clear, thus far, that the Captain of the bulker took a short cut through a prohibited area and was miles from where he should have been. He did not have a non-compulsory pilot on board. His first mate on watch may or may not have been sleeping when the ship ran aground near the Douglas shoal and started leaking oil. By all accounts, the salvors have done an exceptional job, pumping out oil from the vessel and working her free from the reef without little environmental damage and just four tonnes of oil spilled. (In contrast, the reported oil slick off the Orissa coast in India a couple of days ago, one that threatens the delicate ecology and the Olive Ridley Turtle there- and where an Essar owned vessel was involved, will not be cleaned as quickly, or at all).

Whatever. Those are not the real issues either.

To me, the biting issues thrown up by the Shen Neng 1- issues that should matter to the entire regulatory and commercial shipping industry- are blindingly clear. Foremost among them is the immediate need to answer this question: “In an era of officer shortages and in a future where staggering officer deficits are forecast, how do we ensure competent crews?”

In this connection, we seem ignore the fact that it takes around a decade to produce a Master or Chief Engineer from scratch. We ignore, at our peril, the real issues of fatigue and short manning that have been around for at least two and a half decades. (We will gloss over the Shen Neng’s mate’s fatigue issues too, just wait and see.) We disregard the fact that much larger ships are being built today than ever before and even larger ones are being contemplated for the future; some of those will be monstrous even by today’s standards. We ignore the fact that hitherto closed areas, many of them pristine environmental ones like the Arctic, are now opening up for commercial shipping. We only concentrate on the commercial advantage of economies of scale; we disregard the realities of operating in a future that will be even more skewed, and so we disregard the potential scale of future disasters. Those will be monstrous too.

The second big issue is of course China, or rather the international management of an emergent maritime superpower. As things stand today, much maritime regulation and oversight in China is left to local bodies and is below par. Regardless, that country will have, in the near future, large tonnage built and registered under its own flag. That tonnage will carry Chinese crews. The fact that China is a superpower that is getting stronger every year coupled with its huge demand for raw material- including coal- will mean that the international community gathered under a somewhat irrelevant United Nations (and IMO) will not be able to put the required pressure on that country to clean up its maritime act. The consequences for maritime and environmental safety of this scenario will be massive. Flags of convenience have long been criticised for similar issues; the Chinese flag is likely to be far worse. Large numbers of substandard ships, managements and crews may well be let loose on the high seas.

The final issue here is one of economics. Stricter State regulation, cleaner fuels and ballast water, tougher emission and other controls and more expensive crews (the natural outcome of any shortage, more so in an industry that works on a daily wage demand and supply paradigm) will see ship owner margins being squeezed hard. Owners will need deeper pockets to survive any cyclical downturn. There will continue to be a chasm between regulation and compliance in the maritime industry; there always has. As always, there will be pressure to cut corners, whether in areas like the Great Barrier Reef or in management boardrooms. The combination of an upward spiral of escalating costs and a downward spiral of standards of safety is a very real possibility.

In the not too distant future, there will be more accidents on bigger ships with a larger number of less than competent crews (of any nationality) - and there are higher chances of catastrophe. Except for worrying about liability and costs, shipping is doing next to zilch about addressing the real issues.


April 15, 2010

No noose is good noose

I must admit that I have mixed feelings about the spate of maritime news that has hit the Indian media around the National Maritime Day this year. On one hand, and as is usual, the reports was not salutary, and therefore hardly conducive to making seafaring more attractive as a career of choice; they nullified somewhat the ‘Seafaring- Career for Opportunities’ theme of the NMD. Another usual negative: the mainstream media’s reporting was so sloppy that it was sometimes plain wrong.

On the other hand, some newspapers, at least, did highlight the importance of shipping to the global economy a wee little bit. Saddled as the industry is with an image of being dirty and seedy, every news item that says otherwise helps, however small it may be. In our case, no news is not always good news.

The hijacking of almost a dozen dhows (I thought initially that the number was smaller, but apparently not) and around a hundred Indian sailors off Somalia was the most widely covered piece of news, obviously. Everyone loves a train wreck. Unfortunately, the media coverage stopped there: the fact that at least some of those folk were engaged in illicit activity was not researched or widely reported, and neither was the fact that ship owners sitting in Dubai or Gujarat may well be culpable here.

The DGS’ circular barring dhows from sailing to some areas around Somalia got a fresh round of excited coverage; at least some mainstream reporters, not knowing port from starboard or a dhow from chicken chow mein, seemed to imply that all Indian vessels had been so barred. Case in point was an article in the Hindu. Headlined, ‘India bans vessels on hijack prone stretch’, the first line of the article read, “India has banned all motorised vessels from sailing south or west of a line between Salalah and the Maldives in a bid to stem the tide of pirate attacks.” One wonders how many readers mistakenly understood this to mean that all Indian traffic was now barred from the region; this dumb seafarer was confused for a while too.

(Aside: We really must find a way of getting mariners involved in such reporting, whether in newspapers or on TV. I am a little tired of seeing retired admirals or academics waxing eloquently on fighting piracy when neither has a clue of what it means to even start thinking about fighting a dozen men doped to their gills and armed to the teeth with rocket propelled grenades and assault rifles, when all you have is fire hoses and other such esoteric equipment. I bet their doctorates would wet their pants if it were to happen to them.)

Other news was hardly positive. The Indian express carried an article on the third of April where the headline said it all. “Shore leave- Mariners feel like prisoners”, it said, echoing events that this magazine covered last week. Events that pertained to the atrocious shore leave rules that seem to apply to Indian mariners in their own country. I have mixed feelings about this report, too, but for other reasons; my gut says that this kind of news coverage is long overdue, and that the mainstream media reporting it has to be a good thing. My brain tells me, however, that the Express article may have cost us a few hundred potential recruits at least. (My brain also tells me, by the way, that this may not be such a bad thing after all: we should not be looking at making youngsters join the profession under false pretences; that is just short of hoodwinking them, I think).

As I write this, news about the great screw up around the Great Barrier Reef by a Chinese (Cosco owned) ship has not yet hit Indian newspapers or TV; when and if it does, that tidbit will be another small nail in the industry’s global coffin. Meanwhile, another bit of news has been reported by NDTV a few minutes ago: an Indian sailor from one of the hijacked dhows has died during a joint US/Omani rescue operation. It appears that the pirates were planning to use the dhow as a mother vessel; Kutch resident Sultan Ahmed Khijja jumped into the water, probably fearing that he would be caught in the crossfire. He ‘could not be resuscitated’, which is a polite way of saying that he tragically drowned.

Yet another report that I read in the Indian Express on the second of April was, if anything, even worse. Headlined “Shipping Ministry faces sailing community ire”; it gave a somewhat sensationalised but detailed report of the cases of numerous dead or missing crews of various ships. The Indian Express blamed the DGS, various ship owners and assorted ship managers for, essentially, either being downright callous or not caring enough about missing or dead mariners and their families. The 2005 Jupiter 6 reported sinking off Namibia was brought up as a case in point. Families of Indian crewmembers were being given the run around by unscrupulous managers and ship owners, Indians were told.

I did not get too excited by that article, I am ashamed to say, but then unscrupulous owners and ship managers are not really news to me. You can bet, though, that many a youngster read that newspaper and made his own inferences about whether seafaring was really as attractive as the National Maritime Day “Career for Opportunity” slogan seemed to suggest.

I have, unfortunately, saved the worst for last. Listen to what the Hindu Business Line, usually a pretty staid and conservative newspaper, has to say about National Maritime Day. “Reading the theme for this year's National Maritime Day celebration, ‘Seafaring —career for opportunities', the first thing came to mind is the story of Vivek Singh Bhist, a junior marine officer who died on board an SCI ship in 2007. Officially, it was an accidental death. But news reports had it that Vivek Singh, a junior engineer, committed suicide as he was denied leave even after working continuously for more than ten months.” The article is titled, “Make seafaring a more attractive career option,” and it goes on in quite some detail about what has gone wrong with the profession in India.

Time to wake up, people. The natives are not being fooled no more, and that is precisely why I am getting off the fence and saying that such mainstream newspaper reports are, overall, a good thing. Because we need to clean up the act to make seafaring attractive again. Because the beauty and the tragedy of the thing is this: Shipping is truly a career of great opportunity, except that too many of us, pardon my French, have messed it up.


April 08, 2010

White Noise

I am of the opinion that the vastly improved communication at sea today results too often in situations where the same communication is actually detrimental to the safety of crews and ships. GMDSS requirements have resulted in superior communications at the Master’s disposal, no doubt. This enhances safety of life at sea, but much what it gives with one hand it often takes away with another.

Not all that long ago, I was on a smallish Ro Ro vessel that blew a fuel line approaching the Western boarding ground (Sultan Shoal) pilot station in Singapore. With engine movements restricted to ‘Slow’ at best, I turned her around, cancelled the pilot and got permission from the port to anchor clear of the other ships and the TSS for repairs. Still underway to the anchorage in thick traffic and strongish winds that made the breadbox of a Ro Ro drift like a balloon at slow speed, I called the agents at Singapore and the Ship Superintendent to inform them of the fact that we were now delayed. That second call was a mistake and should have been made after anchoring, except that the company’s standing instructions were ‘inform asap and within half an hour’.

As it happens too often nowadays, the Superintendent first went into backseat repair mode, wanting to talk to the Chief Engineer immediately. He wasn’t too pleased when I politely insisted that I wanted the Chief in the Engine Room until we finished anchoring, because the engine needed to be nursed and he was the best guy to do it. The Superintendent then asked me to make a full report immediately on Inmarsat C telex. The conversation kind of stopped when I told him that if I did that, then I would in all probability have to make another report soon thereafter since there would likely be an accident in those congested waters because I was making reports instead of maneuvering the said breadbox.

Any Chief Engineer or Master will tell you that calls and messages to and from the office during any breakdown or immediately after an accident usually accomplish farcical dimensions very quickly. Besides back seat driving, shore office personnel often seem to want to be informed of developments even before they occur; this results in the Chief Engineer rushing from Engine Room to the Wheelhouse periodically to ‘update’ the office on the phone, with the office often pushing for alternate fault finding ways to what the Chief is doing. Sometimes Superintendents will ask the Master to update them instead, because they think that the guy is hanging around the bridge doing nothing anyway. This is slightly better, because now the Chief is only running up to the Engine Control Room from the place of work instead of to the bridge. Nevertheless, the amount of energy and time wasted in this exercise is something every sailor is aware of; my additional point is that this distraction is actually detrimental to safety and efficiency. If this distraction occurs in an ongoing emergency, as it often does, it may even be dangerous.

Another short story. With terrible weather and consequent damage on a just taken over old (and, in the Lloyd’s surveyors opinion, unsuitable) Ro Ro vessel in the North Atlantic in winter, we discovered almost all side doors and stern ramp leaking slightly. In addition, the stern ramp seemed to have a considerable play at the hinges and was ‘moving’ up and down and sideways a bit. After lashing and otherwise securing the ramp to try to stop this movement, and with the sea still battering us, I called the office to see if they could talk to the manufacturers and get an opinion on how unsafe this was (since I could not see the hinges from inside the ship I could not rule out the possibility that one may have given way) and if there was anything else (we thought maybe welding from inside) we should do.

My query was brushed aside with the clear implication that I was overreacting. (Incidentally, at that point, I had command of approximately fifteen Ro Ro ships and car carriers under my belt; I certainly knew more about ramps and side doors and their watertight integrity than the jokers sitting in the office brushing me off did).

Therefore this opinion: If the driving imperative of many managements is to minimise costs, cover themselves against criticism by owners later and minimise their liability in any situation, then much communication will logically be not only useless, but also often counterproductive. It takes up time and space and achieves nothing, like hot air. A Master or Chief Engineer does not always have time for these games.

Even under normal circumstances, the amount of time spent on replying to emails, making reports and managing normal MIS paperwork has reached farcical proportions at sea. A Master or Chief Engineer does not sit peacefully at his desk replying to emails; most of the ships I have sailed on have not had computers networked, and indeed many don’t even have enough computers or photocopiers for the load that is dumped on ship staff, not to speak of the fact that nobody trained is available for troubleshooting of systems or their administration. Then an officer has to usually collect files (which may be a deck or three below) and carry them to the radio room or bridge to compile any email. It takes time and energy. It takes longer if the seafarer is fatigued or the ship is rolling and pitching in bad weather. It annoys people on board. It annoys them more when they know that the value of the email they will send to the organisation is almost zilch.

I daresay that at least half of the communication to the office serves no real purpose except that ‘it is an ISM requirement’, which indicates clearly to me that the tail is once again wagging the dog. Adding to the already staggering amount of ISM, ISPS, MIS, PMS and port related paperwork, this additionally and unnecessary communication overload can result in many officers paying alarmingly little attention to their real jobs. Safety of navigation, deck and engine room machinery maintenance and the upkeep of LSA and FFA equipment are just a few of the critical tasks that tend to suffer. It is not just senior officers that are involved; when an office paper tiger wants something immediately, a quarter of the crew may be collating stuff to get it to him.

Then there are the mobile phones. Especially on ships on short sea trades, the practice of giving the Master a mobile phone (or, once, two. I threatened to dump them over the side, but that’s another story) and then expecting a response from him twenty four hours a day on matters related to cargo, ETAs, crew changes, stores, bunkers et al contributes immensely to his fatigue and is hugely detrimental to basic safety. It is common to have, in short stays in places like Singapore, a half dozen delivery drivers or such calling up the Master to ‘ask the crew to come down and receive stores’. Managements and agents encourage this practice; one that makes my blood boil. I have had major skirmishes with people over this; and I will often, despite senior managers asking me not to, simply switch off the phone.

There is, behind all this, the mentality of many ashore- from the lowest clerk to the highest CEO- that assumes that the Master, Chief Engineer and all on board are at the beck and call of everybody and their mother in laws ashore. Consider this: If a Master needs to calls a superintendent on an urgent matter, it is routine for him to consider time zones and delay the call if possible. Even during the daytime, a message that ‘the Superintendent is in a meeting’ is not too unusual when he calls, despite the fact that the guy may be just shooting the breeze over a cup of coffee with a colleague. However, reverse the situation and you can have some interesting anecdotes to tell: an incident with a Superintendent who was told by the Second Mate that the Master was sleeping after a few days in fog and would call him back had, shall we say, exciting repercussions.

I suggest that managements look long and hard at this problem, and realise that their behaviour sometimes contributes to an unsafe environment on their fleets; in their place, I would be much more concerned about this than they seem to be. I would be seriously thinking of having all office communications to the ship – emails or phones or snail mail- going through one DPA level manager who would sift the useless stuff out. In addition, I would schedule an annual paper audit with the clear intention of simplifying MIS systems and slashing duplication, rubbish emails and other paper garbage.

In my view, too many ships are on the verge of paralysis by communication today, and too many crews are fatigued partly because of this overload. Too many ships are consequently less safe because of the ‘when in doubt, communicate’ culture that is making data entry clerks out of our seamen. We need to stop this now, because after a certain point that we breached long ago, communication detracts from safety instead of adding to it. It is then just white noise.


April 01, 2010

Pilot Study

Many moons ago, when I was in college and Mumbai was Bombay, I bought an olive green T-shirt from a hole in the wall shop in Colaba. Emblazoned on it was the invitation: “Join the army! Go to exciting new places!! Meet exciting new people and kill them!!!”

Perhaps because I had flat feet and would have been rejected by the infantry anyway, I joined the merchant navy instead. At least I got to the exciting new places and exciting new people part. Unfortunately, pilots have added too much to this excitement in recent years.

Scene 1, flashback to about eight years ago. Japan Inland Sea. Daytime, good visibility, hundreds of fishing boats everywhere. Knackered feeder container ship. Knackered Master (me) and knackered crew. On last leg of a ten day, eleven port marathon in Japan and Korea. Inland sea pilot on board, as sometimes happens in Japan. Age of pilot about eighty five, as often happens in Japan. Or at least he looked it. Thick glasses, thicker three piece suit. Glued to Radar. Radar on 12 mile range. He is plotting everything he can see, which is the entire Japanese fishing fleet- or so it seems. The fishing boats are stretching the ARPA’s computer memory; CPA alarms are going off as if it is World War III. Binoculars slung around neck give the pilot the look of an Admiral out in the Pacific about to attack Pearl Harbour circa World War II.

One smallish fishing boat about four points on our starboard bow breaks away from the pack and heads straight for us at terrific speed. Range about two miles. Pilot still playing computer games with the ARPA; he is not programmed to see anything different unless the ARPA tells him so. In this case, it doesn’t, so he doesn’t.

Me, idly, picking up my own binoculars, “Pilot, fishing boat on starboard bow on collision course, I think.”

He looks at me and bows deeply. “Thank you,” he says, and sticks his head in the radar visor again. Boat is now maybe a mile away, still heading for us at full zip. I can see, now, that there is nobody on deck.

I curse. “Five short blasts,” I tell the duty officer, which, when they start, startle the pilot so much that he shakes violently and I wonder if he is having a cardiac arrest. (I can imagine the headlines, “Pilot blasted by blasts. Master arrested. Criminalisation of another seafarer!!”) The boat is perhaps half a mile away now; one of those constant bearing cases but it is still at full zip, and boy, those Japanese boats can be fast. Still nobody on deck.

“Pilot, I am taking over,” I tell him, and order the helmsman to go hard over to starboard. The ship starts swinging. Boat is now two cables away. Pilot finally looks out of the porthole. He finally sees the boat and immediately panics, but very smoothly, in the way that only Japanese pilots can. He is shattered too, as he realises that the ARPA, like a young wife, has betrayed him. He now goes out on the port bridge wing and starts screaming at the boat, which, by now, has just crossed our bow and is going clear.

Suddenly one person comes up on the deck of the fishing boat from God knows where. He sees the pilot screaming and bows at him. Deep bow.

The pilot stops screaming and bows back at him. Deep bow. They exchange more bows. And then some more. The ARPA is forgotten.

I put the ship back on course and hand her back to the pilot, wondering if these bows are similar to those made before Seppuku. You know, the Japanese samurai ritual of suicide by self-disembowelment. I think those guys bowed deeply too, just before they fell on their swords.

Scene 2. A couple of years ago. Departure Southampton Docks. Me with a coffee in the pilot chair waiting for the pilot. Filipino Third Mate fussing around lethargically on the bridge preparing for departure.

Walkie-talkie crackles. Excited AB, “Bridge, Pilot on board!”

Me, “Aye, Pilot on board. Please bring him up to the bridge. And everybody on departure stations now, please. Take in the gangway”.

Three minutes later the wheelhouse door swings open and a blue eyed blonde with wavy shoulder length hair sashays in. “Good morning,” she tells us in a breathless voice. “I am the pilot.”

And with that simple statement, she throws the ship into a paroxysm of masculine efficiency the likes of which I had never seen before and never saw again. Third Mate smartly at attention and efficiently plotting positions in the river without the GPS, a feat I never knew he was capable of. The Indonesian AB, hitherto well known for his indolence, crisply repeating helm orders and spinning the wheel with a panache worthy of the quartermaster of Star Trek. The Bangladeshi Second Mate landing up on the bridge freshly bathed, cleanly shaved, in crisp uniform and reeking of some godawful cologne, ostensibly to arrange the charts. Hell, even the Indian Chief Officer, on stand-by for’d and therefore disappointingly (for him) removed from the action, put on his (imagined) sexiest drawl on the walkie talkie, until I told him to cut it out because I couldn’t understand half of what he was saying.

Me? I was the quintessential professional, of course, as one would expect. I must confess, though, that I had a momentary pang of politically incorrect apprehension, absolutely misplaced as it turned out, at the idea of a female pilot taking a large car carrier out to the Solent in developing fog, a following current and a freshening wind.

I must also confess that I wondered, since this was a fortnightly port of call, whether a Master/Pilot exchange of information could legitimately include the pilot’s phone number. And I still like to think that when the pilot advised me, “We can single up now, Captain,” she was actually hinting that I get a divorce.