October 24, 2013

Captain Phillips and All is lost

I don’t know enough about either, but it is still a no-brainer; I know which of the two movies I am going to see.

In the much hyped corner is ‘Captain Phillips’, billed as the true story of the 2009 Maersk Alabama pirate hijack, and which portrays the Captain- Tom Hanks in the movie- as the quintessential all- American hero. The problem is that too many of the crew say that Phillips is a villain instead, and that the ‘true’ screen story is actually riddled with lies. 

In the understated corner is ‘All is Lost’, a movie that has just one actor in its entire cast- Robert Redford- and which is shot completely on the water. He has no name in the movie, and he is the only visible human in the viewers’ sight throughout the film. The story is about a man whose boat hits a shipping container in the middle of the Indian Ocean (yep, the same one as with Phillips) and who tries to stay alive thereafter. I did not read too much about the movie and risk spoiling it for me. It will have no dialogues, I think. It also promises to be infinitely more interesting. 

To be fair, I had decided to avoid “Captain Phillips” like the plague anyway.  I dislike hype and hyped movies. (I walked out of the ‘Titanic’ less than halfway, and you don’t learn anything the second time you are kicked by a mule).  

Also, this sticks in my craw: the seaman that is taken hostage today is more likely to be Asian, not American, and movies like “Captain Phillips” do nothing except repeat Hollywood stereotypes while downplaying reality. I find it distasteful that- like in movies about the Vietnam war- there is an overdose of ‘white’ heroes when a sizeable number of combatants are actually of a less sale-able colour. Unlike Bollywood, Hollywood’s tinkering with the truth is usually very subtle, but it angers me anyway that the world’s perception of seamen, Somali piracy and the perception of who the victims and heroes really are is going to be determined by “Captain Phillips” from now on in. 

(Will anyone even remember Korean Captain Seog Hae-Gyun, who was awarded the IMO Award for Exceptional Bravery at Sea in 2011 after pirates had taken over the ‘Samho Jewelry’? For six days he and his men fooled the pirates on board, zigzagging in the Indian Ocean, contaminating fuel and secretly communicating with the outside world, despite Seog Hae-Gyun having been beaten, legs and shoulder fractured. He was then shot four times when rescuers boarded the Jewelry, and was in a coma for a month after being transferred ashore. Now there’s a movie begging to be made.) 

To boot, “Captain Phillips” seems to promote the wrong hero. Amongst the numerous crew allegations against him- something that has created sufficient controversy in the US to enhance hopes of cash registers ringing loudly at the box office- are some that Phillips has directly or indirectly admitted to. For example, that he took the ship too close to Somalia despite repeated warnings on email. That he continued to hold a fire drill (changed to security drill in the movie) even as pirate boats approached the Alabama. That the media stories that claimed at the time- and now, in the movie- about his offering himself as a hostage to the pirates were actually lies. 

But there are other, equally serious allegations, about Phillips longstanding reputation for being arrogant and ignoring the numerous attacks on ships that had been reported in the same waters he was taking the Alabama into. Allegations that there were two attacks on the Alabama in eighteen hours, not one.  And that, as the pirates finally boarded, many of the crew decided to lock themselves in the engine room- a clear indication, if true, that the heroic Captain was not calling the shots on board anymore. A crewmember claims that Phillips had no real plan except to throw up his hands and surrender.

Chief Engineer Mike Perry seems to have been the hero out there, not Phillips. It was he who led the crew downstairs and locked them in. It was Perry who disabled the ship, then attacked the pirate-in-Chief and seized him, later trying to get the rest of the pirates to exchange the man for Phillips. The other heroes in my mind are the US naval men of Seal Team Six, who took out the pirates in the lifeboat leaving Phillips untouched. 

So pardon me if I seem underwhelmed by the Captain Phillips hype. 

I’d much rather watch ‘All is Lost.’ That seems to be more true to what a sailor’s life is all about- solitary, under pressure, sometimes battling to survive.  Then, it seems to be a thinking man’s movie; it promises to be understated and subtle, not melodramatic and obvious. It does not appear to be a movie where they can lie and get away with it. It is tough to lie to the ocean. 

“All is Lost” does not claim to be a true story, but I will bet that it will be more real than “Captain Phillips.” It will, I bet you, show the reality of life at sea more believably. The nationality of the protagonist will not matter, because all sailors will identify with him- this much I can tell without having seen it. It will also probably portray, to me, a truer and more authentic American hero; if we are lucky, a hero of the Hemmingway-isque mould.  It will tell us why true seamen treasure true solitude. 

And it will do so without all the drama I expect from ‘Captain Phillips.’   


October 17, 2013

Locomotive Breath

The arrogance of mankind in assuming that it can survive the destruction of the environment is spearheaded by the short-sighted actions of its politicians and businessmen, who don’t much care for a future that will arrive after they are dead and gone. They target those who oppose destructive activity: autocratic regimes like Russia arrest thirty people- mainly Greenpeace activists- and absurdly charge the ‘Arctic 30’ with piracy because they protested oil exploration in the Arctic; supposedly democratic regimes like India and the US will or downplay the environmental impact of human activity- greed, actually- and collaborate with big business to circumvent their own environmental laws. 

It is inevitable that, as natural resources grow more scarce, confrontation between governments and industry on one side and environmentalists (or villagers whose livelihoods or way of life is being destroyed, as in India) will only increase. Shale oil exploration promises to be one of the new flashpoints. 

Environmentalists in the US- where shale oil is seen by many as an economic messiah in an energy guzzling country- are now expressing increasing alarm at the operation called hydraulic fracturing- or fracking. Environment America, a non-profit advocacy group in the US, goes a step further in its just released report; it calls for a complete ban on fracking. 

Fracking involves injection of massive amounts of fresh water- mixed with sand and chemicals- into the earth during the extraction of shale gas. The main problem is that there is massive contamination of ground drinking water as a result, besides air and noise pollution and the release of chemical waste- including, critics say, carcinogenic waste, into the environment. Environmentalists say that there is also fear of earthquakes.

The full impact of fracking- a decade old process- has still to be completely studied, but, says Environment America’s attorney John Rumpler, “Fracking has taken a dirty and destructive toll on our environment. If this dirty drilling continues unchecked, these numbers will only get worse.” The organisation says that people living close to fracking areas are already showing symptoms connected to fracking pollution, thanks to some 280 billion gallons of toxic wastewater that was generated in 2012 alone.

The momentum against fracking is picking up in the US, where federal policy makers are to decide on rules for fracking soon. And, although some countries or local administrations have banned fracking around the world- mainly in Europe, but in Australia, Canada, and Argentina too- there is tremendous pressure to allow fracking even in those nations; the UK overturned its own ban last year. That ban, incidentally, was put in place after two small earthquakes occurred in Lancashire where a company was exploring for shale gas.

The problem is, of course, that businessmen and politicians use terms like sustainable development, energy security and economic security to brush environmental concerns aside or to dilute attempts at regulation. That is rubbish- they are only interested in the electoral or economic pay-outs that come their way. The temperament does not change even after a major disaster like the Deepwater Horizon. Three and a half years later, nothing has changed, except that we now charge- with piracy- those who protest drilling even in the pristine Arctic. As for sustainable development, my understanding of that term would include something that is anathema to big business- an acceptance of lower- even much lower- profits as environmental protection costs increase. That is simply not going to happen. 

I speak mainly of the US here, but other countries- particularly those energy deficient ones in Asia like India- will be even more uncaring when it comes to shale gas deposits and their exploitation. The fight against fracking will be another lost cause; it will go the same way as the Arctic 30 have gone. 

And so goes mankind- like the all-time loser in the impending train wreck of Jethro Tull’s ‘Locomotive Breath,’ it plunges headlong to its death. The shale gas train will just not slow down; there is simply too much money involved for that to happen.

In the end, my cynical advice to shipping today is this: shift enough of your business from crude oil to gas tankers. Forget the fact that you are also in the speeding locomotive. Like everybody else on the train, maximise profit instead of concentrating on stopping the inevitable wreck.


October 10, 2013

Getting away with sucking.

So here I am, sitting with a screwdriver and some peanuts and wondering why shipping sucks for seamen. (Incidentally, I am also slowly veering to the hazy conclusion that while alcohol may not be the answer, it often helps provide a few.)

The cynical will say that I make noise about nothing- that shipping is just another industry, and that it is no different from all capitalist structures around that are predicated on the eventual exploitation of labour. And that seamen are just that, labour, regardless of rank. The optimists- and the deluded- will say, as always, that all is hunky dory in shipping and that a recovery is just around the corner, after which seamen will be kings of the realm. The realists will point out the cyclical nature of the industry but ignore the clearly unsustainable economic business model it operates under- where big money is to be made by buying and selling ships and not in operating them except in boom times, and where seamen are to be short-changed at every opportunity. (It sometimes seems that the entire shebang will become unsustainable and collapse if they are not.) 

But there are many cyclical industries, and the capitalist structure- unfortunately a universal given today- extends across all of them. Exploitation or not, I don’t see labour elsewhere being treated in such a cavalier fashion as shipping treats its seamen. What gives here; what is so special about shipping? Why is it that shipping treats its professional workers so badly? Why is it that shipping- a suited and booted international industry supposedly regulated by the IMO, a UN agency- behaves like a grimy middleman in a remote hamlet that supplies labour to some shady sweat shop in a nearby town?

Okay. My vodka and I will now tell you why shipping treats its seamen badly. It does this because it can get away with it. 

And it gets away with it because every single industry body colludes with it.

Shipping needs to be forced to learn many things, but the main thing it must realise- for its own good- is that it is answerable to its workers at sea. Unfortunately, as things stand today, there are no consequences for a shipowner if he doesn’t pay wages to his seamen- or pays them months late. Hell, there are no effective consequences even for breaching the basic legal duty of providing a seaworthy ship to the crew, forget the nitty-gritty of one sided contracts or other decaying international regulations. There are no consequences of circumventing or breaking even major clauses in maritime law, IMO regulations or the contract of employment. 

There should be. Owners and managers who break the laws that are supposed to protect seamen should be heavily fined or jailed, as the labour laws of many countries from where they operate allow; they should be made to pay for their crimes if these are proven. 

I am convinced that shipping needs an international policeman with a big stick if seamen’s working lives are to be improved- and incidentally, this is something that will make the profession attractive once again, raise professional standards and therefore result in safer ships and cleaner oceans- that old IMO refrain. It needs a new policeman, by the way- the existing ones are too emasculated. As things stand, shipping has no real international infrastructure that could allow this (IMO? Don’t make me laugh). All shipping has are grandiose sounding acronyms that are actually industry groups that do nothing except look after their own narrow interests. From international and national regulators to shipowning or shipmanaging bodies to unions, insurers et al, shipping is awash with the self-obsessed, narrow minded and the corrupt. 
In the absence of a real policeman, humans will do whatever they can get away with. And so shipping does.And so its seamen pay the price.

Should this be published, I expect many to come down like a ton of bricks on me, accusing me of many things, including of tarring everybody in the industry with the same brush. In my defence, I claim beforehand that I do not imply that shipping has no honest or well-meaning people; I claim with absolute conviction, however, that these are too few in number and are too powerless in the face of the odds stacked against them and- therefore and eventually- do not matter, because they fail.

I will also say, with the same conviction, that shipping will pay the price for its high handed, callous- and often downright illegal- treatment of its seamen sooner or later.  Some of it is being paid already, with the declining quality of crews. Some will be paid with each accident- and there is no doubt in my mind that there will be more of them in future than we are used to today.  

And a hell of a lot will be paid on the day when quality seamen become extinct. They will, you know. The older good guys will quit or retire sometime or the other. The new good guys aren’t coming out in numbers anymore. We know why: because they have realised that shipping sucks if you are a seaman. 


October 04, 2013

Memories of Jahaz Bhavan.

The news that the Directorate General of Shipping offices have moved out of their office-‘Jahaz Bhavan’ at Ballard Pier - to Kanjurmarg in Mumbai leaves me with mixed feelings. Yeah yeah, I know the move is supposed to be temporary; that in a couple of years, once the old and unsafe Jahaz Bhavan is razed and rebuilt, the DGS will move back. Temporary events in India have a history of becoming permanent, however. I hope that doesn’t happen here.

Even though I was living in Bombay in the seventies (having studied, in fact, at two colleges each just a couple of kilometers away from Jahaz Bhavan) I had never heard of it. Like so many of us, I first entered that building for the combined interview for the DMET engineering and Rajendra (ex Dufferin) Deck Cadets pre sea training courses. I was all of seventeen years old. 

It was during that Jahaz Bhavan interview that I opted to join the deck side of the profession, even though I had selected engineering before the written test. (Why? Because a sailing officer I never knew earlier, and whom I met by accident on the road in Colaba, told me that the engine room was very hot, and I hate the heat. Such are the vagaries of life and the ease with which humungous decisions are made). 

Anyway. My decision was met with some typical Indian middle class disappointment by my parents, who were convinced engineering was a respectable pursuit but navigation was not. And, after the letter arrived telling me I had been selected for the Training Ship Dufferin/Rajendra, the home situation was not helped by my sister shouting gleefully to all and sundry that the “Duffer” (me, obviously) was “in.”

My next visit to Jahaz Bhavan was for my Second Mate’s oral examinations with the well-known Capt. Gill, who immediately started proceedings by locking me up in a room with a paper and pen after telling me to jot down the titles of all the hundreds (thousands?) of Merchant Shipping Notices I knew of. Then he went away. As time passed, I wondered if he would ever return; I had visions of my body being found days later in Jahaz Bhavan, dehydrated and starved, with urine and crap all over the floor and deep gouges that my nails had made in the walls. 

I remained rattled even later, which resulted in my inadvertently unscrewing the vernier drum right off Capt Gill’s sextant- he had asked me to take the horizontal angle between two cranes (one of them moving!) in the docks that Jahaz Bhavan overlooks even today. Capt Gill eventually passed me after two days, probably out of pity more than anything else.

I was meant to spend much more time at Jahaz Bhavan, something that became clear when I appeared at my Master’s exams some years later. My orals were taken by Capt Prasad, who was the Principal Officer then, I think. He was also without any doubt the principal terror as far as the orals were concerned; he had a terrible reputation of failing everybody, especially first attempt candidates like me. 

I still remember the look of pity I would get from all at the MMD and DGS offices every time he called me in for the exams, which was twice every single day for twenty two days straight, including Sundays. (In the mornings come to MMD, in the afternoon- Jahaz Bhavan, he announced on day one, in a tone jailors undoubtedly use even today when they inform prisoners about scheduled body cavity searches).

I lived half my life at Jahaz Bhavan for those three weeks; I knew that building better than my own house. A quarter of a century later, I still remember it all vividly. I still consider passing my Master’s orals from Capt Prasad one of the highlights of my professional life; I still get satisfaction from that.

Thousands of us have made the rounds of the MMD and DGS offices before, during and after our exams. We have spent hours sitting and waiting for Godot on those wooden benches. We have paced up and down, cursed like sailors and leapt with joy in those corridors. We have seen both the depths of despair and the exhilaration of victory within those walls. Irreplaceable memories reside there.

And so it does not matter to me that Jahaz Bhavan is going to be rebuilt. My real problem, I think, is that it is going to be razed at all. That those walls and corridors are going to be at all demolished seems to be the mini tragedy here. It is almost as if part of my history is going to be erased.