July 18, 2013

Imbalanced scales

Frankly, I am not too excited about the possibility that 22,000 or 24,000 TEU containerships will be out there soon. With accountants driving the economies of scale bandwagon, pushing bigger and bigger ships in a mine-is-bigger-than-yours game, there still remain too many questions that are being ignored. Critical questions.

Research done by Lloyd’s Register, along with a couple of shipping outfits, says that 22,000 TEU ships will be coming in a few years; Drewry says maybe by 2018. Not far behind will be 24,000 TEU behemoths, Lloyd’s says. These will be almost half a kilometer long- twenty five present longer than the biggest 18,000 TEU boxship of today- and sixty odd metres wide.  Figures say that the ‘per slot’ daily cost of running an 18,000-TEU ship is $10.96 per TEU; for a 22,000-TEU ship, it is almost a dollar cheaper, at $10.04. A 24,000-TEU ship breaks the ten dollar barrier, at $9.57 per TEU per day at sea. 

I couldn’t care less about the per slot numbers. I also don’t give a rodent’s behind about stories of how these behemoths will change the entire shipping landscape and revolutionise everything from ports to supply chains, except to point out, somewhat snidely, the many Valemax-business-model fiascos that are still ongoing. Bigger is not always better.

Owners and charterers can either make fortunes with their ten dollar slots or go bust straddling white elephants, if the giant container ship model falls on its face; I am mainly concerned about how seaworthy these ships are going to be and the impact of their size on their crews’ work-lives.  

I reserve judgement on my first concern, even though I know that the shipping industry is not the airlines industry- or even the automobile industry. Tens of new planes may be grounded and thousands of news cars recalled after a single accident or incident that smells of a design fault; shipping, like amnesia, recalls nothing. For example, we continue to kill our sailors in lifeboat drills despite being fully aware- for many years- that the design of their launching and recovery apparatus is faulty. 

I presume that classification societies in particular and shipyards in general will have safe structural designs and safer construction practices uppermost in their minds when they construct giant ships. But history is not so presumptuous. Concerns about structural failures on large bulk carriers first surfaced after the Derbyshire sank in 1980. Amongst many others, the Kowloon Bridge sank due to structural failure in 1986, after grounding. The IMO kind of addressed the issue with new regulations a full seventeen years after the Derbyshire sinking, in 1997. Meanwhile? Seamen died.

This is an industry with low accountability. Classification societies, owners, managers and shipyards escape relatively unscathed after an incident and individuals ashore are rarely held accountable for professional failure that may have cost lives. Crew, on the other hand, certainly die- sometimes conveniently, because then they can be more easily blamed for the sins of those ashore. 

My second concern is actually suspicion. Suspicion that the industry will not change its attitude to its seafarers simply because the ship is bigger. And suspicion that daily work related issues have not been thought through much so far, and that these will impact safety much more on a half kilometre long ship. 

Not an idle suspicion, this; I have not seen a change in attitude in the biggest ships I have sailed on, and some have been big enough. We were run ragged there even when things were normal; the level of organisational importance given to safety was hysterically laughable. 

I know shipping doesn’t think much about the men and women who will actually work on these ships that accountants push, designers design on computers and testers test in ship model basins. And I suspect that shipping’s economies of scale models do not foresee any great changes in the numbers of crews that will operate these half kilometer long ships. Or, indeed, spend anything except a cursory thought on how fatigued these crews are likely to be working on these goliaths; conditions exacerbated by the additional vagaries of navigation on huge ships, vastly reduced response times and additional complexities on ships that size- or the exponentially heightened financial and environmental consequences of an accident. 

I suspect all that because I know shipping and because the scales fell from my eyes years ago. And those had nothing to do with economies.