April 24, 2014

No decency

“And yet I have known the sea too long to believe in its respect for decency,” says Joseph Conrad- a Master Mariner himself- in ‘Falk’. “An elemental force is ruthlessly frank.”

Those two lines play repeatedly in my mind whenever some new snippet on the disappeared Malaysian flight 370 comes out. And, although I believe that we will never hear the whole truth there, I probably speak for many seamen when I say that it is only a landlubber’s surprise that such a thing can happen. For the world usually forgets that three quarters of its surface is water- much of it thousands of feet deep.

I wonder if I am the only one who wonders why it is that when ships disappear nobody seriously looks for them. Those bulk carrier disappearances of the eighties come to mind, of course, but ships- many ships- sink even today. The initial search after a disappearance or sinking- usually conducted only by other ships in the area if mid-sea and additionally by aircraft or other assets sometimes- peters out very quickly.  This may be because rescuers know that continuing the search is pointless, especially in cold waters. Everybody is presumed dead and there seems to be no point in trying to locate the wreck. What for?

What for then, is the world trying to locate the wreck of MH370? Why are the families of the casualties of the Malaysian flight more important than the families of seamen who disappear every year? Why are billions of dollars being spent? Why the multinational search- reportedly the largest in history? Why the underwater submarine?

Why am I asking so many stupid questions?

Perhaps the security angle has something to do with it. Regardless of whether it was a terrorist incident or not (like I said,  we will never hear the whole truth), I bet you that a bunch of guys is  sitting around with their AK47’s somewhere in the world right now and saying, wow. An entire 777 can be made to disappear without a trace from one of the busiest airspaces in the world, and for weeks nobody even knows where it is. Nobody knows what happened. Imagine the possibilities. Wow.

It is about five weeks since MH370’s disappearance as I write this. The pings from the downed aircraft’s black box batteries are now reported to be dead. The tragedy’s impact on the families of the flight’s passengers and crew continues. Many will be hoping that the plane never went down in the Southern Indian Ocean; that their loved ones are not dead and that a miracle will happen. Every seaman can imagine that feeling without much effort. Even the most hardened sailor’s heart will go out to each of those families. There, but for the grace of god, go I.

But even the most hardened sailor will wonder why a ship’s disappearance is reduced to just mystery and marine folklore and tales of Bermuda triangles and excuses of rogue waves. Why it is that a ship’s disappearance is rarely described as a tragedy. Why it is that a ship’s sinking- actually, even the possibility of a ship sinking- spews out fears of pollution, liability and commercial losses, with the crew’s deaths more or less ignored. Why it is that the families of dead seaman have to- so many times- even fight for the niggardly financial compensation that is their due after the death of their breadwinner.  

Even the most cynical sailor will wonder why he is the child of a lesser god.  

April 17, 2014

The wrong history

History is usually written by the victors of human conflicts. On rare occasions it is written by the victims instead. With stories of piracy, some rule somewhere seems to say that the victims have to be of the right colour or nationality, though.

American Capt. Wren Thomas seems to be trying to go the Capt. Phillips way. Ransomed after 18 days of being held by Nigerian pirates in October last year, he has given an account of his ordeal back home in the US. Maybe the idea is, as in Phillips case, to graduate to a book, then the talk show circuit and a movie that is nominated for the Oscar- and to make a bucketful of money.

I don’t know if that conjecture is true and I don’t really care if Capt. Thomas skews the truth, like Phillips’ crew claims he did. What I care about is that the history of modern day piracy is being written inaccurately, because it is being written by victims who do not represent the typical seafarer hostage. It is therefore a false history.

While fully sympathising with Capt Thomas and his trying experience, I must point out that a typical modern day pirate story invariably involves Captains and crews from the third world. The typical hostage is not North American. A representative piracy story from Africa’s East coast includes seamen spending months- sometimes years- in captivity wondering whether the owners are going to break off ransom negotiations and abandon them, something that has been done often enough. It means daily torture and occasional death. It means seamen’s families running around from pillar to post back home, traumatised and effectively abandoned themselves by their governments, shipmanagers or owners. It means reconciling to the fact that nobody is going to pay a ransom in a hurry, and that nobody is going to come to rescue you.

The Phillips story- the Maersk Alabama hijack and rescue was all over in four days- is hardly representative of what Masters and crews suffer from piracy. And neither is Thomas.’

So far it isn't, anyway. Remember the Phillips story was embellished as time passed, when the book came out and the movie followed- and the crew took Maersk and Waterman (the owners and charterers) to court, claiming, amongst other things that Phillips was a villain of sorts and not the hero portrayed.

Will Thomas go the same way? The language coming out of US based media suggests so; some build up and dramatisation has already started, and a book deal or a Hollywood producer may soon emerge from the woodwork. Listen to this (out of Thomas’ article)- 

“Soon, 7.62-mm bullets from an AK-47 were spraying in, ricocheting off the walls, and sending the crew scrambling for cover. The jig was up, and Thomas knew it. He surrendered, and opened the door”.
And, “They treated us like animals. “It’s about as close as a person could get to being a POW.”
And, “I found my training as a Marine kicked in and provided me with survival skills,” Thomas said. “I knew not to piss off a Nigerian. Or worse, a Nigerian pirate, or even worse, a Nigerian pirate on drugs.”

Lots of drama. I wonder if Tom Hanks is free. 

Like I said, I sympathise with Capt Thomas; more, I feel solidarity with him. The pressures on him and his crew must have been tremendous. I also do not believe that his story- or that of Phillips- should be downplayed just because they are US citizens or because they cashed in- or may be planning to cash in- on the horror they must have gone through. I also do not believe their stories are less valid just because the US rescues- or ransoms- its pirate-hostage citizens quickly (I must point out that although the US State Department has not confirmed that a ransom was paid in Thomas’ case, and neither have Edison Chouset, the owners of his supply boat, it probably was).  Finally, it is hardly Thomas’ fault- or Phillips’- that other countries, owners and administrations treat their seafarers abysmally. (Note that I do not even waste my breath appealing that the industry in these countries ensures that a typical hostage seafarer story is heard, at least). It is not the United States of America’s fault that other countries abandon their citizens to torture and worse.

But the connection I feel with Capt Thomas is drowned out by the angst I feel at the fact that the overwhelming majority of pirate victims have no voice even after their horrific trauma. And that, with maritime piracy, the stories the world will hear today and the histories the world will read tomorrow will be, simply, the wrong ones. And that even the tragedies of most seamen will be forever discounted in a warped atmosphere of make believe.


April 10, 2014

Statistics and risks

A graph put out by Clarkson’s says global trade has more than tripled since the time I first went out to sea. (Actually, it has tripled since 1984- I went out to sea in the late seventies- and has doubled since 1995). The research firm adds two other interesting statistics; that seaborne trade will touch the 10 billion tonne mark this year. And that ships today carry, every year, 1.4 tonnes of cargo for each person on earth.  “At 4% growth (a number we don’t feel is unreasonable for scenario planning on the basis of continued globalisation) we reach 15 billion tonnes by 2024 and 20 billion tonnes by 2031,” Clarkson’s says.

Those are remarkable figures, indeed, and worth remembering.  However, it will be premature and ill-advised for long term industry players to sit back after a self-congratulatory pat on the back and assume that the next thirty years will be a repeat of the last three decades. Or that shipping’s long term profitability is a given, or that the return on investment figures will justify the risk maritime enterprises are exposed to, over the next three decades.

Beyond the present preoccupations of the maritime industry lie particular long term risks. The assumptions today include the widespread opinion that China will continue to drive trade despite current problems. That freight rates will improve dramatically soon because global economic recovery is underway. That the overtonnaging and reckless ordering of newbuilds will sort itself out in a few years, and that profits- handsome profits- lie around the corner of this recovery.

All of these assumptions may well be true; shipping is cyclical after all and has weathered many ups and downs in the past. We have the experience. We can forecast decently how trade will behave and what kind or size of ships we will need. We can see changing trade patterns- in energy for example, as the US in particular exploits shale, or as the Chinese start consuming more of everything.

We can control costs and source cheaper crews and all that. We can even predict and factor in new environmental regulatory costs. We have done it before. We can do it again. We don’t have to make a thirty year plan now, after all; we can change with the times.

I do not disagree with any of the above. I only wish to point out a couple of unique risks here that we in the industry do not normally factor in. Understanding these are critical because, as we are finding out today once again, getting stuck with the wrong kind, size or speed of a ship can kill your profitability pretty quickly. 

The biggest risk, to my mind, is the possibility that global consumer consumption will stagnate even if the global economy improves dramatically. What if Americans (in particular, but others too) act on the realisation that their personal consumption levels are unsustainable? The dominoes will start falling immediately if US consumers do something stupid, like refusing to buy what they don’t need or curtailing discretionary spending drastically.

I am a believer in the theory that it is consumers who are job creators, not businessmen, as is commonly thought. I think consumers create investors who start or expand businesses that employ more people who, in turn, consume and complete the cycle. Trade is, therefore, dependent largely on consumption.  The big consumers of the future, it is hoped, will be the Chinese and (to a lesser extent) the Indians. What if they, too, see the light?

Then there is, for want of a better term, energy risk. What if shale gas or LNG is not the next big thing by 2020? What will it do our fleets  if trade, trading patterns and our propulsion costs- not to speak of ability to compete- if our new ships today become uncompetitive within  a decade?

Next, structure and quality of manpower. I am afraid that the degradation in the quality of crews, if left unaddressed, will spread ashore; it is inevitable. The impact on safety and the environment will be considerable, not to speak of impact on financial liability. Besides, shipping is not structured right; it doesn’t have enough numbers of the right people ashore. What tomorrow’s industry needs is a multidisciplined approach, when most of shipping’s luminaries and organisations are one-dimensional today. Where are the scientists and the lateral thinkers? Where is the R&D investment required?

Finally, the Chinese risk. China drives global trade today. Chinese companies will control the largest tonnage in the world within the next decade or so. It is a significant player in shipbuilding; it will become a significant player in other maritime disciplines as well- crewing, maybe hull and machinery insurance and shipmanagement, for a start.

I am not saying that the Chinese government will collapse tomorrow or that the Chinese State is under some kind of existentialist threat today, but there are more than a few pressures- even fissures- within the Chinese system.  For the most part they remain hidden from the outside world, much like the schisms in the Arabic world were hidden- or ignored- before the end of 2010, just three years or so ago, and which have caused upheavals in many more than a dozen countries, resulting in crippling economic disruptions in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria. Like the quick collapse of the Soviet bloc all those years ago, nobody saw this coming either.

Therefore, one question for shipping pundits: What will be the impact on shipping if, in the next ten years, we see a ‘Chinese Spring’?


April 03, 2014

Out of touch.

The KnowMe project is a three year European Union project examining ways to improve shipping’s image, its training and R&D, and to make seafaring more attractive. Their budget is 1.5 million Euros. Part of the money has just been blown up in discovering what many would have told them for free- that poor communication with family, social isolation, poor living conditions and insufficient rest hours are the most likely reasons that seamen stop sailing. And that availability of affordable communication was a critical factor for seamen in deciding which company or ship to join.

The project has produced some statistics after a sailor poll of 500 seamen over 20 odd nationalities. I reproduce these briefly for the academically inclined:

Almost half the respondents said they felt discriminated against- when it came to communication home- because they were seamen. More than 97% of seamen said communication facilities were crucial for their well-being. Half of those polled said they communicate with their families at least once a day. Only a third had access to the internet, only about half had access to email and only two-thirds had access to expensive sat phones.  More than a quarter of seamen polled had no email access at all.

And, finally, one-third of seamen spend between 10 and 20 per cent of their salaries on communication; a tenth of them burn more than 20%.

I will, however, downplay these statistics (500 seamen polled in presumably European ports is not a good enough sample) and make some bald statements of my own:

  • ·         Considerably more than half of all merchant ship crews suffer from poor communication facilities, counteracting which (because- fancy that- we seamen want to talk to our families) end up costing them a significant portion of their salaries. Using the ship’s satellite phone in the absence of email, for example.
  • ·         One barometer of the importance of communication to crew: Approaching the coast, the news of the availability of a ‘phone signal’ (when a cell phone coverage area is reached) spreads faster than fire on a ship.
  •        On many ships on regular runs, areas where this signal is good is marked on charts by officers for future use.
  • ·         Like many Masters, I have plotted the passage and modified courses to get this ‘phone signal.’ Yeah, yeah, I know about the safety implications.
  • ·         Unlike many Masters, I have often hung around after dropping pilot, sometimes for an hour or more, before a long open sea passage to give the crew adequate time to call home using their cell phones- something many could not do because they were being run ragged in port. I did this because a happier crew works better; also because I consider us seamen to be human, something that shipping seems to have forgotten.

 I will not dwell on shipping’s hardened disregard for the welfare of its sailors here, but only point out what is obvious. One, that the generation younger than me is not satisfied with just an email or a phone call home. They want social media- the facebooks and twitters- and want to be in touch with their friends and acquaintances as well. This is a good thing, because it reduces the social isolation all sailors tend to suffer from.

Two, it is in shipping’s paramount interest- not just the crews’-that it provides internet and VOIP- free or dirt cheap, as is ashore- as a tool to attract and retain talent, even if it means subsidising personal internet use somewhat. This is because good officers and crews do not grow on trees.

Before I end, a comment on the Maritime Labour Convention that is in force. The nth pillar of whatever and all that is remarkably sanguine about the importance of communication to seamen, only saying- as a guideline- that "consideration" should be given to include "reasonable access to ship to shore telephone communications, and email and internet facilities, where available, with any charges for the use of these services being reasonable in amount".  Keep in mind that the MLC is a 2006 thing; social media has exploded since then, and so have the expectation from young sailors.

Like I said, that is a guideline. Which means it isn’t going to be enforced, much less followed, by an industry that believes in selective implementation of guidelines. (If it suits the owner, follow it; if it costs more than a penny, dump it.)

Anyway, is being forced to spend 10 to 20 per cent of your basic salary calling home a ‘reasonable amount’? There would be flash strikes and general mayhem if shore employees in ship operating companies were asked to pay a similar percentage for personal calls made from work, I bet.