March 29, 2012

Bad attitude

This is not the first time something like this happened.

Conducting a practical seamanship session for wannabe ratings and cadets the other day, I found almost the entire group trying their best to shrink- or slink- into the shade and away from the summer sun. I know from prior experience that this is not because of the heat alone, and many trainees are actually quite concerned that they will tan and their skin will get darker. A cadet in an earlier batch had even gone as far to tell one of the seamanship faculty that he 'could not work in the sun' for fear of becoming darker.

I call these kinds of trainees the 'Fair and Lovely' crowd- and make sure they stay out in the sun longer, but that is beside the point. The reality is that this behaviour is just another nail in a pattern that adds up to a temperament that makes these kids close to unfit for a career at sea. At last part of this is due to a mismatch between expectations and reality and part of it is due to the way the profession is sold to the young (You will be living free in an air-conditioned ship!). Whatever, it all ends up with a bad attitude and a disappointed, frustrated and eventually incompetent or less safe worker.

Knowledge and skill are basic requirements in any profession, and are relatively easily measured, but the intangible yet vital factor- attitude- is much more problematic to gauge. True, there are all kinds of suspiciously snappy sounding 'tests' out there. Behavioural theorists have gone to town with objective personality testing, validity testing and "gamification" (why don't they just call it a scenario-based game play- which is what that really is- is beyond me) and many other models that try to take reactions from respondents and translate them to measure attitude.

I have little confidence in these tests as applied to mariners- these are usually poorly tinkered versions of tests designed for other industry that do not have the extreme requirements of safety, environmental protection or critical regulatory compliance that shipping has to deal with. A more rigid and less than democratic on-board structure- with the crew staying together for months at a time- also makes for some unique issues and renders some of these tests somewhat less than useful.

Then, these tests are often 'open' in other industry, which is to say that the person being evaluated is aware of who has said what, and is usually given a copy of the entire report. I have always been against any open system of evaluations at sea on principle; in my opinion, many sailors, managers, officers and Captains do not have the maturity to handle open evaluations, and shipboard hierarchical structures do not promote this form of testing anyway. More than twenty-five years ago, I tore up my own copy of an evaluation report that the Captain gave me without reading it; I feel as strongly about all this today.

A slightly different version of the open test system is the open 360-degree evaluation where opinions are sought on a person's attitude from his seniors, juniors and peers. This- when properly collated and analysed- is a system that just might work on ships, provided it is not kept open; do crew who have to sail together and trust their lives to one another really need to know who said something negative about whom?

Which is not to say that the evaluation of attitude is not important at sea. The vitality of a good attitude- or indeed, its immense contribution to team spirit and work ethic- cannot be overstated. Efficiency, professionalism, ethics, conscientiousness and initiative are all dependant hugely on a worker's attitude; this single attribute can often make the difference between a poor worker and an excellent one- and between disaster and safety.

The problem is that shipping is needlessly following evaluation models that are ill suited to it. The reality is that almost every crewmember on every ship knows instinctively which shipmate has a bad attitude- and with much more certainty than any of these models ever will.

Instead of making the evaluation of seafarers more complex and jargon oriented, we would do well to devise a calibrated evaluation system that can be both simple and useful. It appears to me that the 360-degree system can be modified to fit, and fit well, requirements at sea, because the simple fact is that the true character or calibre of a shipmate cannot remain hidden for long. By seeking input from all those who come into contact with any crewmember- from the Captain to the lowest ranked rating on board- raw data fed into such evaluation systems can end up doing much to improve attitudes and enhance professionalism and safety at sea.

And of course, we should test the 'Fair and Lovely' crowd too.

March 22, 2012

Inside Indian shipping: No return of the native

The last time I sailed on an Indian registered ship was almost three and a half decades ago; the experience left me so underwhelmed that I never thought of sailing on another one for thirty years. When I did think about coming back to the Indian fleet, a few years ago, some friends who know better dissuaded me. Fortunately. One Chief Engineer, in particular- we have sailed together often and are friends, so he knows me both as a person and as a Master- was categorical. "Captain Saab," he told me more than once in his typical, deceptively mild, way of talking, "Don't join an Indian company. Either you will quit or you will be kicked out".

Of course, he was referring to ships on short sea routes around India or on the coast. He had tried out some and walked away from most, including a couple of times when he refused to take over after he stepped on board for one reason or another. He knew what he was talking about; he also knew that the attraction of domestic shipping- for me and for many others I have spoken to since- is short contracts, being close to home and not being subjected to numbing levels of paperwork, accounting, inspections and regulations that are the bane of Captains and crews sailing on foreign ships on long international routes today.

Those advantages are known and are largely intact; unfortunately, the disadvantages overwhelm Indian sailors who have worked in foreign companies of even foreign standard. The result is that most experienced senior officers choose not to sail for domestic shipping- at least coastal and short sea shipping. Things may be better on longer routes mainly because those ships are exposed to greater international regulations and scrutiny, but many accounts tell me that they are not all that much better. 

The popular think is that it is the difference in wages that keeps Indian sailors abroad, as does the fact that salaries are tax-free on foreign ships. Perhaps this is why the Indian government periodically promises to waive the income tax liability that Indians on domestic ships suffer. A substantial wage differential will still exist even if the tax-free salary thing goes through, but I guess something is better than nothing.

In any case, they miss the point. The money is actually the smaller reason - or just one reason- why Indians do not return to domestic shipping. One of the many bigger reasons has to do with the often abysmal level of maintenance- especially maintenance of machinery- that so much of domestic shipping is plagued with.
Many senior officers - who are more responsible for safety- choose to walk away from a setup that does not supply even minimum spares or stores. My Chief Engineer friend is one of them. Domestic shipping seems to specialise in such setups; a short walk around the engine room is all the indication one needs to determine the state of affairs. Mindless cost cutting in domestic shipping impact safety in many ways- from machinery to safety equipment to cargo gear to paint. More than a few of these ships are little better than floating rust buckets. 

Quality of crews and the dreadful on-board work ethic is another reason. This is a vicious circle- substandard ships end up with low calibre officers and crews that cannot get better jobs, or want to just sit out their contracts. These unmotivated crews simply do not work to any acceptable level- the system seems to have decided that they are paid for holding STCW or competency certificates and not for the actual work that they do. Stories abound of how officers will simply not do anything except very basic watch keeping and how crews won't do even do any cleaning without haggling beforehand over how much overtime they will be paid. 

Add to this the fact that owners do not supply adequate spares and the result is a downward spiral in maintenance and safety- the ship will become substandard very soon. No self respecting Master or Chief Engineer of any decent calibre- especially one that has come from better managed ships- will want to work there. It is simpler for him to quit rather than bang his head against a wall to try to change this loser's paradise.  It is easier for him to work for a month or two on a foreign ship- even paying his fare to return-than to work for three months here.

Then, too many Indian ships have threadbare, broken and dirty accommodation. Cabins and mess rooms are ill maintained, poorly lit and ventilated- sometimes even cockroach and bedbug infested. Some coastal or short sea ships have illegal labour sailing aboard- in addition to the crew- doing assorted repair or cleaning jobs while sleeping in alleyways and eating gruel for food. Some companies and Masters seem to disregard even basics like lifeboat capacities, by some accounts. Too many cut corners. Too poor quality of food. Too much corruption in everything from stores to cargo to dealings with port officials or regulators. Too much sleaze for people like me who have better options.

The final nail in the coffin is the fact that shoddy organisations always treat their employees badly, and so do too many Indian companies. Sometimes two contracts are signed- we all know why. Living and working conditions are often terrible. HRD is unknown. Communication is rude, derogatory- sometimes even abusive. The 'take it or leave it' culture of some of these companies is actually not that different from that found in many foreign companies, it is true; the difference is that these firms and their ships are unacceptable to begin with, and they only get progressively worse. 

Income tax waivers will get Indian shipping near-nowhere; at best, they will attract a few more sailors for a while on the relatively better managed ships. However, Indian shipping will remain a poor second choice unless large parts of domestic shipping overhauls itself completely and addresses these other issues. I am afraid it will never get many officers of decent calibre back into its cheap fold under present circumstances. They don't need this kind of nonsense.


March 15, 2012

Controlling interest- Sea Traffic Control?

One of the regulatory changes being pushed for, in the aftermath of the Costa Concordia incident, is a continuous monitoring of cruise ship positions and navigational data by management ashore. The pressure to do this is coming largely from the United States so far; from high profile lawyer John Arthur Eaves Jr, amongst others. No political lightweight- he ran for Governor of Mississippi a few years ago- Eaves will seek, in a lawsuit against Carnival where he represents 70 Concordia passengers, massive changes in the industry, including  "more responsibility on the part of cruise ship operators and the implementation of a tracking system for ships that would be similar to the flight control system found in aviation." 

Managing partner of International Registries Clay Maitland implies that the implementation of continuous shoreside oversight of cruise ships is just a matter of time. “I think we are going to see the underwriters and others insisting that the management of a ship [from shore] is a 24 hours a day, seven day a week affair, regardless of the training of the crew," he writes, resulting in  “even further restrictions on the declining independence of ships’ Masters”. 

I don't know if an Air Traffic Control kind of setup- with managers monitoring ships instead of a State owned ATC, as happens in civil aviation- is in the offing. What I do know is this: There will be new regulations after the Concordia. Chances are these will be the usual knee jerk, ill thought out and poorly implemented (also poorly implementable) regulations that are shipping's bugbear; although the disaster-regulation-next disaster-next regulation cycle is not unique to the industry, its record is uniquely awful when it comes to using regulations to meet stated safety objectives. Relatively new cases in point, the STCW, ISPS and ISM regulations.

That aside, there is an inherent problem with civil liability lawyers pushing for maritime regulation, as Mr Eaves is doing, simply because they are not qualified to do so. More bluntly, they don't have a clue about what their knee jerk responses will mean on the ground or whether they will atually enhance passenger safety. Besides, the Concordia incident did not happen because the owners did not know what route the ship was taking. Quite the contrary; management had long successfully pressurised Costa Masters to take the 'touristic navigation' route, according to all reports. Even the boy selling peanuts on the beach probably  knew that cruise ships came close to that island and hooted and stuff. 

Of course, what a ATC like control function (lets call it STC, for Sea Traffic Control, shall we?) would do is shift greater responsibility - and therefore, greater liability- ashore. Owners would find it much harder to play the 'rogue Captain' game as in the Concordia. Errors of management would become glaringly obvious, greatly hampering a shipmanagers blame-the-Master-and-limit-liability manoeuvre that is a Pavlovian reflex today. 

In addition, I have, quite apart from issues of liability and oversight, more practical concerns with all this. The last thing a ship Captain needs is a remote-back seat driver, not because of his fragile ego but because the onus for safe navigation lies with the Master alone. We may deny it, but a 'Super Captain' monitoring the ship sitting in an office will feel obliged to give his input to the captain or navigating officer- after all, the purpose of any STC will be to monitor the ship's position and avoid accidents. If so, this Input- given remotely in real time, and especially when given to a junior navigating officer, will be an instruction at worst and interference at best. In any case it will be confusing and is likely to create conflict and indecision on the ship- and will probably result in less than safe navigation. 

I have no problems with the 'declining independence', as Maitland says, of the ship's Captain. I do have problems when his authority is eroded and his responsibility confusingly diluted- while his accountability remains unchanged. 

The ATC instructs aviators to change course, speed and altitude as a matter of routine. Do we expect the STC to give similar instructions to the Captain if, in their opinion, the ship is heading into danger? Keep in mind that, unless recently experienced Masters are used in an STC, we may find out of touch Masters- with little Command experience  to begin with- are instructing well experienced Masters at sea. This would be ridiculous except that this is already happening from many managers' offices; a formal STC will only make things worse. Master's will find the phrase 'overriding authority' ringing even more hollow if the STC degenerates into a 'Super Captain' scenario; chances are that it will.

The bottom line is that- pressures of 'touristic navigation' or not- most everybody at sea and ashore knows very well, most of the time, what is safe and what is not. An STC can probably help if the bridge team fails to appreciate enhanced risk or is situationally less than fully aware; however, it is hard to see how a sea traffic controller will see a looming disaster faster from the swivel chair in his office than the Captain will from the bridge. 

The solution to the recurrence of a Concordia type incident is not yet another layer of iffy oversight or another back seat driver breathing down a Captain's neck, especially if he is an accessory to the crime of touristic navigation. A Sea Traffic Controller advising a Captain in clipped tones about dangers and non conformities in navigation sounds like a sexy idea, but- like most sexy ideas usually are- it is likely unworkable.

Besides, aren't existing VTS systems-essentially State run marine traffic monitoring systems  that use radar, CCTV, AIS, VHF etc- designed to do just that? 


March 09, 2012

GPS and ECDIS- two warnings and a funeral.

Two stark warnings caught my attention recently. These were not new, but there are new reasons why we should take them seriously.

The first came from Bob Cockshott of the British ICT Knowledge Transfer Network, which is a setup funded by the UK's national innovation agency. Referring to the spoofing of GPS signals at a London conference, Mr Cockshott said that there were now serious concerns "that we are going to see a disaster" in the English Channel within the next decade. "We have moved on from a potentially threatening situation to a real danger that we must address now," Cockshott said.

The second caution was on the implementation of the ECDIS regime, but it was no less blunt, coming as it did from somebody who  helped design the ECDIS back in the 80's and early 90's. Saying that ECDIS implementation was suffering from "political interests", this is what Master Mariner and computer scientist Gert B. Büttgenbach is quoted in Marine Cafe as saying: “Tear it down to the fundamentals and start fresh before it causes chaos", adding, “The sclerotic organisations ruling international shipping dislike reviewing the standards that I once helped to establish.”

I think that the spoofing of GPS signals- creating fake GPS signals that change user perceptions of time or location- has resurfaced now because an Iranian engineer claimed last December that he had spoofed a US drone into landing in Iran. The engineer said that false coordinates had been fed to the drone that fooled it into thinking it was close to 'home.' in Afghanistan instead of over Iran. It is immaterial to civilian maritime navigation that many scoffed at this claim, pointing out that military hardware- including GPS guided missile systems or smart bombs- use robust encryption code. The fact is that civilian GPS systems do not; they are supposed to be freely accessible by all users in the coverage area.

Spoofing a GPS signal is an insidious step ahead of jamming the signal, of course, and that is bad enough. In 2010, an experiment with low-level jamming in the English Channel saw ships going off course without operator's knowledge, sending out false AIS signals and communications systems failures. Jamming is akin to a virus on your computer shutting it down; your GPS receiver just stops working. Spoofing is akin to somebody hijacking your computer and feeding you compromised data without your knowledge. Your position- in time and date- is whatever the spoofer wants it to be. "It looks exactly like a real GPS signal," says one expert. "Everything looks completely normal, but the spoofer is controlling your position in time and space." 

Satellite navigation systems have been at risk from criminals, terrorists, criminals or even bored teenagers for a long while, but any incidents have involved jammers that are available even off the internet at sixty dollars apiece, give or take. Criminals have hijacked vans carrying high value goods after jamming their GPS and cell phone systems. Signals at traffic intersections have been jammed in the US. However, jamming is old news; spoofers are the new kids on the block.

Although built and tested by researchers three years ago, spoofers were hitherto bulky and expensive to assemble. That has changed;  Todd Humphreys, a specialist in GPS technology from the University of Texas, told Reuters not long ago that he had developed the first GPS civilian spoofer, a "very powerful" device that cost under $1,000 to assemble. "It's not outside the capability of any other smart graduate student in GPS or GNSS across the world," he said. "And it's not outside the capability of any kind of sophisticated terrorist organisation." 

I think we are going to see a serious spoofing attack on GPS systems eventually. It may happen in a seemingly unrelated space. Perhaps in a stock market trading platform, where experts warn that a criminal can, by spoofing the displayed time by a few microseconds, make a killing in a trade. Perhaps it will be a terrorist attack instead. Life, especially in the West, is dependent on GPS systems to an extent not even dreamt of by ordinary  folk, medical, power and water infrastructure included. The future easy availability of GPS spoofers- and their illegal use- is a foregone conclusion. 

Ships, ports, coastlines and congested waterways will face extreme risk. This is not the turn of the century, when the Y2K scare (or the Y2K fraud, depending on your point of view) could be tackled with thoughtless drills and other nonsense. (Aside, my humour remained unappreciated in the office when I suggested on a ship that the drill involve only one step- switching off the damn GPS for a month) Today, however, we are in an era of integrated systems. The GPS feeds, amongst others, the ARPA, the AIS, the GMDSS and other communication systems- and the new rabbit out of the old hat- the ECDIS. 

Which brings me to Büttgenbach again. Unfortunately but expectedly, the rollout of this game changing and vital equipment has been chaotic, to put it mildly. He has many workable suggestions on how to fix this- for a start, he says, make electronic charts free, standardise equipment and user interfaces, purge IHO/IMO standards that stifle innovation- even one that says we should put the ECDIS on an IPad and make it intuitive.  

Equally unfortunately, I have zero faith that any of this will happen. The implementation and training of ECDIS has long degraded- again expectedly- into a confused and ill-calibrated commercial exercise; safer or more useful suggestions be damned because less money will be made. Nonetheless, I am aghast at the degradation. 

Also degraded in the new generation of mariners: basic position fixing and collision avoidance skills, thanks to a culture- both ashore and afloat- that promotes almost complete reliance on electronics during watchkeeping. We continue to go down this slippery slope with new proposals on COC examinations that, if implemented, will require lower skills from future navigators, especially lower celestial navigation skills. I disagree with this philosophy- the sextant is not the DF. 

Which is why nine out of ten navigators today will run and fuss over the GPS if there is a generator trip and a temporary loss in power; to hell with the immediate threat of a swinging ship in a busy lane that has temporarily lost its steering and gyro input. Which is why taking a visual bearing or using parallel indexing is a monthly event on many ships. Why double checking of the GPS position while coasting is non-existent. Why the course and speed of a target, and even its CPA , are sometimes read off the AIS. Meanwhile, paper charts are disappearing, encouraging a further disconnect with traditional navigation, so guess what will happen if somebody spoofs a modern navigator's GPS and the ECDIS becomes- unknown to him or her- an expensive piece of junk giving his ship's spoofed position in colour. 

What happens is this: In the absence of the habit of constantly double checking electronic positions with traditional means, today's navigator does not have the tools, temperament, experience or situational awareness to realise that something is wrong. He does not have the instinct to switch instinctively and comprehensively to non-electronic basics even after such a realisation. His basics are rusty in any case; some of them are even a mystery. 

You know, if I was a terrorist, I would load- on a foggy winter day - a briefcase sized spoofer on a fishing boat and take it near, say, off Texel in the North Sea.  I would prefer bad weather- there are enough days with near gale force winds and rough seas out there. On a busy day there would be close to a hundred vessels- ships and boats- in a six mile radius there. Many will be crossing or joining the many traffic lanes- fishing vessels too, heading for business in the many TSS' around.  The crews of most of these ships would be fatigued; coasters and others alike- Europe can be a killer run. Regardless of the COLREGS, ISM, and stuff, most will be proceeding at maximum speed in zero visibility; many will not have even doubled watches. In a few, the Captain will not even have taken the trouble to stay on the bridge.

So, if I were a terrorist, I would take my spoofer there. And I would switch it on. And- right up to the time disaster struck- most of those vessels would never even know what hit them. And this would happen because the pursuit of obscene profits has long overtaken any considerations for safety.

Rules of enragement- the Enrica Lexie affair

I am flummoxed by the usually smug, often bigoted and always sanctimonious Indian media coverage on the Enrica Lexie affair. 

This is why. 

A little more than a month ago, yet another Indian fisherman was reported to have been killed by the Sri Lankan navy while fishing off the Kodiakarai coast- Point Calimere- which sits at the edge of the Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka. He was the second to have been murdered within ten days. The fisherman, 28-year-old Jeyakumar, was on an Indian fishing boat that was boarded by the Lankan navy, after which he and two other fishermen in the boat were ordered to jump into the sea. Jeyakumar was frozen with fear- some reports say he remained traumatised by his experiences during the tsunami that struck the coast in 2004. Enraged by his apparent disobedience, the Lankans tied a rope around his neck, threw him overboard and dragged him in the water until he drowned. His body was found with the rope tied around its neck by his friends later.

About two hundred Indian fishermen have been killed by the Sri Lankans in the last thirty years.  And, although a few of these deaths have made it to the Indian media, there has been no large-scale indignation and no self-righteous screaming. No strident reminders about India being an emerging power that should act like one. No outdated outrage after pulling old colonialist rabbits out of a hat. Nobody has their knickers in a twist here: not the government, not the media, not shipping and certainly not the broader Indian society- outside southern fishing communities, of course.  Jeyakumar and the incident- that the Sri Lankans said was 'baseless'- was quickly forgotten after a brief mention in the newspapers last month. 

On another sea border, this time with Pakistan, the war of attrition (read 'Harami Nala', published HERE two years ago) - and of torture and worse- has gone on for decades. Thousands of fishermen have been arrested, their boats confiscated and sometimes auctioned. At least sixty Indian fishermen have been detained in Pakistan for fishing in its waters in the last month alone. Fishermen are kept in Indian and Pakistani jails without trial for years; sometimes neither side will even release their names, something that would let their families know whether they are dead or alive at least. Some presumably die in prison; we just do not know how many or who. Of those actually brought to trial, hundreds have completed their sentences and have not been released.  All this a result of a combination of stubborn antagonism, the absence of GPS on many fishing boats and nebulous, disputed borders that lie between two stubborn States. 

This has been going on for decades without media outrage. No screaming headlines even for a day, actually. I guess an ongoing atrocity is stale news- the old adage about a million deaths becoming just a statistic rings true. Or perhaps following a story for more than a week is too fatiguing for the apathetic folk in our newsrooms who claim to be journalists.

More than three years ago, on 18 November, 2008, the Indian naval vessel Tabar fired upon and sank the Thai fishing vessel 'Ekawat Nava 5' about 300 miles southwest of Salalah, Oman.  The fishing boat had a crew of 15 or 16. Only one survived- he was picked up by a passing vessel after six days in the water. INS Tabar had claimed it saw armed pirates on deck and the Ekawat was a pirate mother vessel; the survivor claimed that the boat had been hijacked but was not being used as a mother ship.  The owner of the fishing boat had reported to the International Maritime Bureau that his boat had been hijacked, a fact that the British Navy had then confirmed, adding that any military action could harm the crew of the fishing boat. The IMB sent an alert to other multi-coalition patrol vessels but IMB head Choong said it was unclear whether the Indian naval vessel had received it, as it had no direct IMB links. "The Indian navy assumed it was a pirate vessel because they may have seen armed pirates on board the boat which had been hijacked earlier," Mr Choong told the Associated Press, calling the incident an 'unfortunate tragedy'.

Not a squeak at that time, or since, in the Indian media, except for reports carried about the 'heroic' efforts of the Indian navy in counter piracy operations. Not a thought for more than a dozen Thai and Cambodian fishermen presumably killed by us. 

The Indian response to piracy was no less indiscriminate and trigger happy when piracy came to its own shores two years or so after the Ekawat incident. Rattled by insurance companies adding its west coast to the 'war zone' after a spate of attacks  close off Gujarat, Mumbai, Kerala and Lakshadweep, the Indian government seemed to have authorised its navy with shoot to kill orders at the time. There are many incidents that point to this, including that of the sinking of the mother vessel Prantalay off the Lakshadweep coast a year ago, in January 2011.  The Indian navy fired upon (and subsequently sank) the Prantalay disregarding its hostage crew, many of whom jumped into the water after a fire broke out on the mother vessel. Did any of the crew die in the Indian attack? It does not appear so, judging by reports, but if so it was providence, and not because of Indian actions. 

Of course, there have been incidents involving other navies- the South Koreans, the Russians and the Americans, who killed a Taiwanese skipper of a fishing boat- but we are talking, somewhat uncomfortably, of India here. Let us point our fingers at ourselves first.

So why has the tragic killing of two Indian fishermen by Italian naval personnel on the Enrica Lexie precipitated such outrage in the Indian media that it has consumed headlines for days? Could it have something to do with the simple fact that the Lexie was brought to Kochi and- along with the crew and the armed guards- could be paraded, photographed and videotaped? Is the television coverage just a Costa Concordia moment or is it something more?  

Why the stridency and screaming? Why the derogatory and colonial references to Italians that smack more of bigotry than anything else does? I do believe that the Indian media is more interested in the story than the Indian nation is, for whatever reason. If you disagree, tell me the names of the two dead fishermen, please.

Who decides to ignore the atrocities committed on thousands of fishermen for decades and go to town on the killing of two others? Who decides to send out a call for India to disregard due process, legal jurisdiction or international law? Who decides that the saga of the Enrica Lexie is more important, or more tragic, than that of the fisherman Jeyakumar? Who decides to tell us what we should be upset about?

Who decides these rules of enragement?


March 08, 2012

Why Indian seafarer jobs are at greater risk today

The problem with trying to figure out how badly Indian seafarer employment is likely to be hit by the present slump in shipping is compounded by methodological issues with respect to the absence of any reliable, accurate or timely statistics on seamen of the kind easily available in most Western countries and the Philippines. That aside, Indian mariners face other existential threats today; a dwindling share of a job market that is likely to shrink considerably in the near to medium term is one of them. Likely moves by owners to cheaper nationalities and crippling structural issues to do with the education and intake of new seafarers in the country are others.

The global economic meltdown shows no signs- despite recent encouraging numbers from the US that hint of a recovery- of easing. The largest economy in the world, with its massive debt overhang, may have postponed the inevitable, but Europe's day of reckoning is here: the Eurozone will shrink by 0.3% this year, the European Commission now says- it had predicted a growth of 0.5% just three months ago. Not just Greece, but Portugal, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Cyprus, the Netherlands and Slovenia have now been added to the EC's list of countries that will see a contraction. 

Asia is far from immune. The World Bank's recently warned that sweeping economic and political reforms were needed in China. Said Robert Zoellick, World Bank president, bluntly, “As China’s leaders know, the country’s current growth model is unsustainable.” Analysts are warning that the world's second largest economy is running out of steam, and that, even if reforms were implemented, its growth will decline to 5.9% by 2021, and 5% in 2026. Despite this, China will be the world's biggest economy by 2030, but the 10% growth rate days may be over for the export-dependent and investment-led economy. 

Other less important countries- like India with its domestic consumption story of hope- are also slowing down. The Indian economy has just posted its slowest growth in three years, and may end the year closer to 6% than 7% GDP growth. That is more than a one percent drop from the forecast less than a year ago; analysts say that translates into a shortfall of over ten million jobs. With dozens of State elections and a general election due in the next two years, high chances of populist financial imprudence from a government that seems to be in a state of paralysis means that the economy is unlikely to be a priority. 

Amazingly, in the midst of this doom and gloom, some international ship owners seem hell b
ent on adding to their own woes. Despite persistent and universal warnings against newbuildings and seemingly oblivious to the existing massive tonnage overhang, many of them are still booking orders at shipyards to take advantage of present low prices. Small wonder that industry analysts expect more defaults with heavy debt and low freight rates combining to devastating effect. This, when leading consultancy companies are warning that the shipping industry will not see any respite for at least a couple of years. I think it will be longer. Even much longer, unless the present orderbooks for newbuilds suffer significant cancellation. Not good news for jobseekers.

Increasing Chinese domination of the global economy will be a negative for Indian seafarer job prospects, because this will likely be accompanied by a demographic shift of tonnage ownership to China. Chinese crews will dominate on those ships- they are already a significant source of manpower in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Owners have so far chosen, for many reasons, not to mix Chinese crews with other nationalities; As Chinese crew numbers go up, Indians will lose out on Hong Kong flagged vessels in the future.

Japanese and European shipowners continue to show a marked preference for Filipinos over Indians. No doubt, the fact that the quality of product from India has declined has much to do with it; it is hard to justify higher wages with uneven performance. Nonetheless, increasingly strengthening links between countries in the EU and the Filipino maritime machine- despite the threatened EMSA boycott of Filipino certificates- is an ominous development for Indian seamen. It is clear that Europe is betting on Filipino officers in the near future; EU member States are putting resources in the Philippines to improve quality of their officers- whose numbers are growing, unlike in India. 

As just one example, 176 Filipino officers recently completed training in a joint project between their nodal seafarer agency DOLE and the Netherlands. In comparison, although quite a few shipmanagement agencies have set up their own training establishments in India, I remain unconvinced that the calibre of the output is significantly higher than that of the Philippines that is producing far greater numbers of tomorrow's officers.
Norwegian owners Gearbulk announced last week that they will lay off all European seafarers on their ships and replace them with Asian crews. This trend may well accelerate, and it will be interesting to see how many of these jobs will come to Indian officers and Ratings. I am guessing not the majority. 

A shrinking job market, the advent of giant ships and a paucity of training berths are factors that affect seafarer jobs regardless of nationality and contribute to a decline in overall demand.  (A Valemax carries twice or thrice the load of even a large bulker and 18,000 TEU boxships are coming out in numbers; remember 6000 TEU ships were considered huge not so long ago). Along with the consolidation and route collaboration between large companies as they fight market conditions, this will reduce the number of oceangoing ships in future, with a corresponding decrease in overall jobs. In this scenario, consistent preference for non-Indian crews (or East European and, who knows, the Chinese or even Nigerians tomorrow) may well strike another blow to an Indian seafarer's job prospects. 

No doubt, experienced senior officers will remain in demand for a while, but perhaps jobs will start drying up at the junior officer level. It is logical anyway- when Ratings and Cadets struggle to get training berths even after paying about a fifth of a million rupees to touts, where will the junior officers come from? Moreover, what will be the calibre of those who do?

That said, I think there is good reason to be cautiously optimistic about some sectors.  The Liquefied Gas market, for example. Rates for large LNG tankers have doubled or tripled than a couple of years ago, creating stellar profits for owners and making this the most profitable sector in shipping. Norwegian Investment bank Pareto recently said that an additional 352 LNG carriers could be needed- globally by 2020, because of the consequences of the Japanese earthquake last year and increasing regulatory and industry stress on the environment and cleaner fuels; Japanese LNG imports are up 28% YOY, and Chinese imports will be up 42% this year. Even in the short term, Stena Bulk has said that as many as 70 LNG tankers will be required by 2014. It looks almost certain that experienced gas carrier crews will be somewhat insulated against job uncertainties for sometime. I would advise any young officer to try to get good experience on these ships today.

The offshore sector will likely do all right too, including in India. With a sedimentary area of 3.14 million square kilometres where most of its hydrocarbon reserves lie, this oil thirsty country is already seeing much expansion into this sector from mainstream shipping companies and others as exploration is being intensified. The demand for oil will not go away in a hurry; new vistas are being exploited across the world, from the US Gulf to the Arctic, in Africa and from SE Asia to Latin America. Demand in the offshore businesses will probably dry up only before the oil does. It is possible that this sector will be more stable than the wet tanker sector that is plagued with its own problems.

I do hope that India does not make the same mistakes in the offshore space that it made with its main fleet, which has seen a steady decline over the decades and become, in the words of one commentator, a minnow in its own backyard.

Unfortunately and broadly speaking, though, what I see happening in India is that a weak regulatory authority, an unscrupulous Maritime Education and Training establishment and a corrupt seafarer recruitment apparatus will continue to stymie maritime job prospects. I believe that we are in a situation similar but much worse to the eighties' recession, when foreign owners felt- rightly or wrongly- that Indian ratings were just not worth the cost, effort or headache. I see the same thing happening- albeit to a lesser extent- with Indian officers in the present recession. I look at this possibility with deep sorrow, because the professional advantage Indian officers enjoyed for so long has been frittered away so quickly. Momentum was with Indian mariners a generation ago.  Alas, no longer.