June 27, 2013

Cold comfort

This wasn’t some old small junk built by some dodgy shipyard and run by some third rate outfit. The MOL Comfort was a five year old, 90,000 tonne boxship built by one of the best known Japanese shipyards and operated by one of the best known Japanese companies. Her breaking up into two big pieces at sea, less than a thousand miles from Mumbai, should be a big mystery. Or perhaps not.

I am disregarding the rumours going around that the Comfort was carrying arms in 4000 odd containers meant for Syrian rebels; even if true, this is not material to her breakup. I am also disregarding, for lack of any evidence whatsoever, one or two oddballs who are saying that the Russians torpedoed the ship.

In the absence of the other usual suspects- weather, collision or grounding, I am willing to wager that unknown stresses caused by under declared container weights over the Comfort’s short working life – which is a routine occurrence in the trade that everybody knows about and winks at- has much to do with her snapping into two. 

Decades after the realisation that under declared container weights can have disastrous consequences on the stability or integrity of ships- causing them either to fracture or capsize or both- the IMO has been finally ‘seized of the matter’ (as the bureaucrats say in India). There may well be, in another few years, amendments in the pipeline to SOLAS that call of verification of container weights. Not that that by itself will solve the problem; IMO regulations rarely do.

Those of us who have sailed on container ships- feeders or larger- know the life threatening consequences of false container weights well. I hope the trumped up Operations Manager in a very well-known shipmanagement company is reading the Comfort story and remembering his veiled threats to me when I shut out two dozen containers in a port because we were fully loaded long before we thought we would be, thanks to the unknown under declared manifested weights of the boxes. I hope that alleged ‘logistics specialist’ in another top rung shipmanagement setup is reading the story too- he was spouting half-baked stability theories to push me to load beyond my margin for safety, until I politely reminded him that the number of years of my experience at sea coincided approximately with the number of his years of experience on mother earth.

(Pardon me for not naming people, companies or ports involved. Just following the old shipping tradition of not embarrassing the guilty.) 

Experienced Master’s and Chief Officers on container vessels get used to keeping a hawk’s eye on the GM, the stability curve and the shearing forces of their ship. All are critical. A low-ish calculated GM can capsize you if enough containers that happen to be loaded high have their weights under declared. (So can, on feeder vessels with low displacement, picking up two 40 tonne containers on two ship’s cranes simultaneously at the discharge port.) Too many container ships have simply rolled over in port, either alongside or when they are pulled off by tugs after loading; I had the misfortune- and an invaluable learning experience- of seeing this happen to another ship in port. 

However, although one can try to keep the calculated shearing forces and bending moments low (with a margin of safety for misdeclaration) during each stage of each cargo operation, this is often far tougher to do in practice, and is often given lower priority. Because usually nothing dramatic happens.

Maybe, with the MOL Comfort, it did. The only way we will know is if each of the containers aboard is salvaged and weighed. And even that will not tell us much about the cumulative effects of loading and discharging containers- many undoubtedly with weights substantially under declared- over the preceding five years. Maybe forensic or other tests on the steel can tell us more.

No doubt the IMO will accelerate the formation of its committees and sub-committees after the Comfort. Closer to the action, the CYA operation will undoubtedly accelerate too, with classification societies, owners, operators, shippers and insurers obfuscating facts to ‘protect their interests.’ 

Maybe some of the better operators will try to push shippers and their organisations to do something immediate to address the issue, although I don’t know how far they will succeed in the present market conditions. Scores of emails must be already flying to and fro between all the container ships on earth and their managers who sometimes appear as if they are on another planet.

I hope that prudent Masters and Chief Officers tighten up even more after the Comfort, re-examining their loadicators and calculations for probable errors and reassessing their earlier comfort levels of minimum GM levels, maximum stresses and such.  And, tongue in cheek, maybe the industry will realise that the under declaration of container weights can cost more than (yawn) crew’s lives.  It can also cost (gasp) big money.

Yeah, regardless of the real reason why the MOL Comfort broke up- underdeclared box weights or not- maybe some good will come out of all this.


June 20, 2013

Isle of Caprice.

At first glance, the report of the UK’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch on the Turkish owned, Antigua and Barbuda registered short sea trade vessel ‘Coastal Isle’ almost beggars belief. A feeder container ship with a Safe Manning requirement of 7 crew, although ten were aboard when she ran aground on the Isle of Bute in the Firth of Clyde a year or so ago. The vessel’s bridge at the time was unmanned, since the ‘Chief Officer’- whose Panamanian Certificate of Competency was actually fraudulent, bought in connivance with a shady setup in Turkey and some corrupt Panamanian Maritime Authority employees- had, after knocking off the lookout, disappeared from the wheelhouse a full two hours before the incident with ‘stomach cramps’- he was found after the grounding in his cabin two decks below the bridge, presumably asleep. The Captain, German, nineteen years in command on the same ship but unable to operate the watch alarm. A Second Mate who was, probably for reasons obvious to his shipmates, not allowed to keep independent watch even in this flaky setup- the Captain and Chief Officer were keeping 12 hours out of every twenty four, including one killer seven hour stretch each. Every day. 

After the grounding and extensive hull damage, the Chief Officer was busted to AB. His reliever soon arrived, complete with his own fraudulent Panamanian certificate obtained through almost identical means in Turkey. Hilarious. Unbelievable. Beggars belief again. Could never happen to you or me.

Well, in a way, it could. It did.

I spent many years, until the late nineties, in Command of roll on- roll off feeder vessels, each about a hundred metres long. Total complement was seven; twelve hour watches every day- in port or at sea- and twenty hour workdays was a basic given. Fatigue was a nagging mistress for each of us every day of our working lives. And pressures multiply when, for example, you are alone on the bridge berthing a ship. 

Like the Captain of the ‘Coastal Isle’, I had pilotage exemption for quite a few places, including for berthing at Singapore. I don’t think I would be physically capable today of doing what I did in those years- manoeuvring a ship singlehanded, without even a helmsman or a lookout. Running out of hands and brains to operate everything from the main engines to the generators (controls on the bridge, including frequency matching) to the bow thruster to the wheel, the VHF, walkie-talkie and everything else in between.

And, although none of our certificates was fraudulent- at least as far as I know- I had to be rushed to join a ship because the flag was being changed from a European open registry to a Panamanian one, and the existing European Master there was disqualified by- hold your breath- the Panamanian authorities from being issued a Master’s certificate because of his lack of suitable experience for a certificate equivalent to what the European Flag had given him. (Similar situation on the Coastal Isle with the two Chief Officers, apparently, except that it was Panama that was the offender.) 

Surprisingly, given its past history with pinpointing fatigue as a major cause of accidents, the MAIB report did not stress on the manning levels aboard the Coastal Isle as a major contributor to the incident. It should have. Since he was not drunk, I will bet my last clean underwear that the Chief Officer on that ship- properly certified or not- was instead punch drunk fatigued. And so was, probably, everybody else on that ship. (Why did he send the lookout man off? Could it be that the man was fatigued, and that tomorrow promised to be as hectic as today and yesterday?) 

Short sea trades with stripped manning levels in congested waters on feeder vessels are killers, plain and simple. They are bad enough even with ‘normal’ manning levels seen today on oceangoing ships; they are lethal on short sea vessels.

Actually, what really beggars my belief is that nothing is ever done to solve the manning problem and the fraud that the Safe Manning Certificates widely perpetuate. It can’t be ignorance- everybody knows what I am saying is true. I can only presume, after a lot of head scratching, that it is simple myopia; short sighted ship owners and their lackey managers do not want to see the woods for the trees.

Seemingly unconnected, my reading of the MAIB report coincided with reports quoting the  Chairman of the International Chamber of Shipping Masamichi Morooka bemoaning impending new environmental legislation would cost the industry more than half a trillion US dollars between 2015 and 2025. Trillion. That’s a lot of zeros after the one.

I am not a fan of the way environmental regulation is going, but I can’t help speculating that perhaps shipping’s manning crisis can only be solved through similar- seemingly draconian- regulation. It appears that many Flag States, avaricious ship owners and short sighted shipmanagers cannot see beyond their noses, and have to be dragged screaming and kicking to do what is actually in everybody’s interest, including theirs. They appear, so far, to be perfectly happy entrusting their multimillion dollar ships and cargoes to woefully insufficient numbers of tired, poorly trained and unmotivated crews, some of whose certificates seem to be forged. (12635 reported, according to a 2001 IMO report.) 

If shipping is unable to regulate itself, then it must be forced to do so. Major decisions cannot continue to be dishonest, or subject to the avarice or caprice of clueless shoreside individuals. Unfortunately, the international regulatory regime is party to this nonsense. And so is the IMO, which is as ill equipped, as short sighted- and, ultimately, as incompetent- as any of its members to meaningfully address this crisis.

It is ironic, actually. Shipping is asked to spend half a trillion dollars over the next decade to protect the environment.  In contrast, almost nothing is mandated to be spent on improving the chances that the crew of a ship is sufficient, competent and properly rested to reduce the chances of that environmental disaster from occurring in the first place. 

Bravo, shipping. Bravo. 


June 13, 2013

The shaky fourth pillar: Reneging on the MLC

One of the bedrock tenets of capitalism is that the capitalist investor bears the financial risk of the enterprise, and that workers’ wages are never on the line. This is only fair; after all, the capitalist does not share windfall profits he makes in good times with his workers, so why should labour share his losses when times are bad?

The Maritime Labour Convention- which, I have said before, will fail its stated intentions, since a piece of paper will not change attitude- was, amongst other things, supposed to formalise that capitalist tenet. It was going to ensure that seafarers’ unpaid salaries were protected in the event of financial default by a ship’s owners. Seacurus had even rolled out an insurance policy recently - CrewSEACURE- that covered wages, repatriation, medical and personal accident liabilities if owners defaulted.

In a singular gesture of bad faith, it now appears that shipowners and their P&I Clubs want to reinterpret the MLC regulations to wriggle out of their basic responsibility. They say that, in the event of an owner abandoning the crew, crew repatriation is covered under the MLC but wages are not.
In short- owners need not spend money buying insurance or making provisions for financial security for crew wages, since those poor suckers are going to be on their own for ‘several years’.

The UK P&I Club claims to insure 'over 200 million tonnes from more than fifty countries across the globe’. This is what the Club says, in a ‘clarification’ to its members:
“This Standard (they mean MLC and its guidelines) does not include a provision on outstanding unpaid wages following abandonment. Liability for unpaid wages following abandonment is a feature of the principles agreed in the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in 2009. These principles are not applicable at this stage and there is no requirement in the MLC 2006 to provide financial security by way of insurance cover for unpaid wages.”

They further claim, attempting to snidely pass the buck, “It has been suggested that that the MLC introduces an obligation on owners to maintain financial security for unpaid wages. As noted above in the context of insolvency this is incorrect. The MLC does not introduce a requirement on owners to provide financial security for the payment of wages. It does, however, introduce obligations on States Parties and in turn States will require owners to ensure seafarers are paid. This does not require owners to meet their obligation to pay wages through the provision of financial security”. 

Apologists for shipowners will undoubtedly claim that it is the provision of financial security that is a problem for cash strapped owners, many of whom have never- and have no intention of- defaulting on wages. They will add, no doubt, that P&I Clubs are in the business of addressing the collective risk their members are exposed to, and so obviously do not want to accept liability if they can wriggle out by claiming that none exists.

As the UK P&I Club happily claims in the same clarification, (after dismissing the MLC and saying that wages come under ILO rules instead): “The ILO principles (on unpaid wages, they mean) are subject to further discussion and negotiation and to take this forward ILO has scheduled a meeting for April 2014. It will then take several years for the principles to be considered in ILO, finalised and implemented in MLC Member States” (Italics mine).

In short- owners need not spend money buying insurance or making provisions for financial security for crew wages, since those poor suckers are going to be on their own for ‘several years’. 

To be honest, I feel for the shipowner of today; this is no time to look forward to additional high costs of compliance, whether it is in connection with the MLC, ballast water or environmental regulation. There is simply no money out there. But my point is that the MLC, the much overhyped Fourth Pillar of the maritime regulatory regime, does not subject shipowners to any additional obligation as regards crew wages. That obligation already exists- it goes way back to the birth of capitalism. The responsibility to pay crew their wages is a pillar of capitalism, and paying crew their wages, no matter what, has been a legal- and moral- duty forever. 

The formalisation- and the costs involved- of this basic responsibility are now being objected to. This absence of good faith underlines the propensity and ability of shipowners to disregard the much hyped ‘human element’ completely, and will be the undoing of shipping. For, if the MLC is today sought to be reinterpreted to dilute or negate the fundamental duty of paying wages, what are the odds that the other, lesser, elements of the MLC that hit owners’ pockets- pertaining to working conditions, for example, or fatigue- will be allowed to succeed tomorrow? 

I suspect that the shaking of this fourth pillar of maritime regulation will become a regular affair, as the industry seeks to dilute the MLC’s scope and short change the seafarer wherever possible. The problem is that, when pillars- whether of capitalism or maritime regulation- become shaky, they eventually collapse and bring down the entire house on one’s head. If you don’t believe me, ask Samson or the Philistines.

June 06, 2013

Reflecting morality

Occurs to me that I may have been wrong all this time, blaming the STCW conventions alone for plummeting seafarer standards and the mess that maritime training is in today. For, although each STCW amendment seems to have done nothing except widen and deepen the fraud that is perpetrated on seamen in the name of training, the law may not be the only ass in the room.  

Occurs to me that western countries- and a few others- have implemented the same STCW conventions without the associated corruption that we have come to take for granted in places like India. It is well known that many countries do not mandate unnecessary (and worthless) STCW courses for seamen. Even the euphemistically named ‘upgradation’ courses are deemed superfluous. So what is unique about India?

I think it is not a coincidence that the rot in Indian shipping- certainly in all aspects of training and the manning of ships, domestic or foreign- accelerated in the mid-nineties, around the same time as ‘economic liberalisation’ was forced on the country.( That the STCW conventions were amended around the same time was unhappy coincidence). As we now acknowledge, that liberalisation heralded, on a structure already weakened by decades of corruption, a new form of rottenness- crony capitalism. It also unleashed a depth and width of corruption never seen before in India, to an extent that today, twenty years later, a leader of the Indian opposition calls the present Indian government a ‘cash and carry’ one. 

It may not help to know this, but I think that the same thing that happened to the country happened (obviously, do I hear you say?) to its shipping establishment. I think that all participants there reflect today the collapse of ethics and morality in the wider Indian society. Some of these entities were corrupt (or corrupt enough, anyway) to begin with; the winds of the phony ‘liberalisation’ seem to have given them a kind of carte blanche to take their corruption to new, dizzying levels. The maritime training establishment has been just one of the many clear beneficiaries of this collapse. 

(Playing devil’s advocate for a moment: To those of you who are ready to buy my explanation as an excuse for the state of the Indian training and body shopping apparatus today, one question, please: Why has morality and ethics in shipping degenerated to an extent not seen in most other private industries in India?)

The STCW conventions (and others too, I bet. Watch the MLC after August) have always had just one major effect in India. Each amendment gives regulators and MET establishments another stick to beat the seafarer with. It helps little that the purpose of the exercise is not the beating; it is the moolah that is arranged to be made. The seaman sits through useless courses time and again, on his own time and paying with his own money that has been earned through blood, sweat and tears. If Pre-Sea, he is exhorted to show, now and when aboard, a level of professionalism and integrity that he does not see in the rest of the industry, ever. He pays a couple of hundred thousand Rupees for his first job or for an on-board training berth. Some of the people taking this money are ex-Masters now sitting ashore. Some of the middlemen are sitting in maritime training establishments; other touts abound in dusty streets across the country. 

We hear often- mainly and obviously, from politicians themselves- that a society gets the governance it deserves. Banal or not, that comment is true across the board. Perhaps a country also gets the kind of shipping- and the kind of seamen- it deserves.