May 29, 2014

Recognising sovereignty: The EU-Philippine derecognition affair

The perpetual threat by the EU of derecognition of Filipino seafarer certificates is a story that has gone on for far, far too long. And, contrary to some reports that are headlined otherwise, the threat of a ban has just been postponed, not lifted.  

The Philippine Star says that the Europeans now agree that progress has been made by the Philippines in addressing issues of seafarer training but that further European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) inspections will be due in October this year. The Philippines will also have to give to the EU, before the end of July, ‘evidence to demonstrate that all outstanding deficiencies have been resolved.’ And, critically, ‘Failure to resolve any remaining issue may result in the loss of EU recognition.’  

In short, Filipino certificates are valid to work on EU ships today, but they may not be in five or six months. 

So what is new? This situation has remained unchanged for many months. For the young Filipino seamen that a ban will hit the hardest, the perpetual threat of a ban has become a nightmarish time-loop that never seems to end. 

The fact is that European shipowners need Filipino seamen as badly as the seamen need them, which is why many believe the ban will never materialise. Some, like Andrew Guest, indicate that there may be other reasons for the EU dragging on with its threats. “The European bloc is in talks with The Philippines government on strengthening economic ties,” he writes. “Fewer restrictions on EU imports from the Asian country might see the latter smoothing the way for foreign direct investment, moves that could lead to a free trade association. It was, perhaps, coincidence too that at about the same time the EU also lifted a ban on Filipino airline, Cebu Pacific, from flying in its skies (a similar ban on Philippines Airline was lifted a year ago).”

Countries like India that supply significant numbers of maritime professionals to the global fleet have one or two things to learn from the EU-Philippines narrative. For one, they need to adopt a stance that makes it clear that although the competence of its products- crews- may be open to evaluation or scrutiny when employed abroad, any foreign entity cannot officially audit processes that impinge on sovereignty, as has been done to the Philippines. As I wrote a few years ago when this circus started, would a European country allow an Indian audit of its flying schools just because some European pilots fly for Indian airlines?

And, our nations should realise that threats of derecognition may be linked to broader economic negotiations that have a long term impact on their countries, so responses to unseemly threats and pressures should be comprehensive and calibrated to our own objectives. We should make it clear to those who threaten: amend your rules to say that Indians or Filipinos cannot work on your ships; that is your prerogative. But do not interfere with our administration or processes; that is ours.

All this is not to say that falling standards should not be a cause for concern or that corrective actions should not be taken. We should, in fact, actively seek input from owners, shipmanagers and administrators of other countries as to where our nationals are being found wanting and find solutions to our own shortcomings. A mistaken belief in our own infallibility is not the issue here.

Actually, all I am saying here is that my Master’s Certificate of Competency is issued by the Government of India and not by the European Union or anybody else, and only the Indian Government should be able to derecognise it. 



May 22, 2014

Then the wine drinks us

To add to a long line of similar incidents that have been going on for far too long, helicopters were scrambled from Sweden to alert a ship that was about to run aground; authorities later said the drunk Polish Master had fallen asleep on watch.

The regularity with which European crews are found to be drunk almost beggars belief, even amongst those of us who have sailed with them. That the phenomenon continues in this age of supposedly strictly policies against drugs and alcohol at sea underlines the double standards that are applied both by Port States and shipmanagers; the colour of the skin of the crews seems to determine who is allowed to have a drink at sea and who not.

In the last few years, there have been many accidents and near misses in European waters because solitary navigating watchkeepers have fallen asleep, drunk or not. Ships have run aground because of this. An F16 fighter aircraft was scrambled in late 2011 to alert a ship when a drunken Norwegian Captain left the bridge to go his cabin to sleep; the Mate was found drunk too. In another incident three months later, a Danish Navy helicopter had lowered a rescue worker down to a ship’s deck to wake up the drunken Russian Master. These are just the high profile near misses that made the news; other incident reports, investigative reports from the British MAIB post accidents and anecdotal evidence all point to a problem that is considerable more pervasive than believed and shows no sign of letting up. And it is still being largely ignored, though it appears to me that shore based traffic systems in Europe are monitoring ships much more closely to detect if they are running erratic courses and running into danger because bridge watchkeepers may be asleep.

By the way, don’t forget the Costa Concordia in that list, whose officers were reported to be ‘regularly’ drunk- and snorting cocaine to boot.

Asian crewed ships, especially if they are run by third party big-brother management almost always have a strict (misguided, in my opinion) ‘no alcohol on board’ policy today. Stated penalty for any breach is summary dismissal. It is not uncommon for Asian crews to be subjected to random breath analyser or urine sample tests at sea; some setups even send an email to the Master listing who all have to be tested at once.

Different rules seem to apply to Europeans, in my experience. I am not talking about thirty odd years ago, when I sailed for a European company and where beer flowed more freely than water from before breakfast to after dinner, and where at least some of the officers seemed to be at sea only because booze was dirt cheap on board compared to back home. I am not talking even of 2005 or so, when I sailed on a fully European crewed ship as an observer, and where schnapps flowed freely during lunch and dinner and where everything else flowed freely in between. (That crews could still do this on a US run was an eye opener and a revalidation of the discrimination that Asian crews face. That the European flagged ship could get away with other glaring shortcomings- no ISPS watches, no ISM, few SOPEP or Garbage Management measures in place, amongst others- was unbelievable. Ah, the advantages of the right skin colour.)

No, I don’t talk of then. I talk of today, when a drunk Asian Master or watchkeeper is- for whatever reasons- a rarity. Unfortunately, a drunk European watchkeeper is not.

Which is not to say that all watchkeepers who fall asleep are drunk; we know differently. Many short sea trades- including in high traffic density Europe- have ships that are severely undermanned and crews that are severely fatigued. Having sailed for many years with a total complement of just seven (including me, the Master) on extremely hectic runs (20 ports a month sometimes), I can well empathise with the plight of many European seamen. Even a relatively short tenure aboard some of these ships can take you to the edge of your physical and mental resources; the pressures can be tremendous.

The fact is that the industry will continue to do nothing to address these massive factors that directly impact safety and the well-being of their crews. The fact is, also, that drunk watchkeepers or crews cannot be tolerated. The only solution seems to be to man ships appropriately and to have pragmatic alcohol policies that apply to all seafarers regardless of nationality. Only after that is done will we be in a position to show no mercy to drunken crewmembers that endanger lives because of- to put in mildly- their irresponsible behaviour. 


May 15, 2014

Overstating the case: The Maritime Maisie affair

One is not really surprised that shipowners and insurers decried the denial of a port of refuge to the chemical tanker ‘Maritime Maisie’ for over three months before South Korea took her in. Even the International Chamber of Shipping claimed to be dismayed by this.

But honestly, what does anyone expect when maritime incidents threaten the health of large populations in port cities or coastlines? As far as I am concerned, the fact that the vessel was finally given refuge by South Korea after the situation stabilised a hundred days or so after she first caught fire should be the end of the story.

Quick rewind. At the end of last year, the 44,000 dwt ‘Maritime Maisie’ collided with the car carrier ‘Gravity Highway’ and caught fire just outside the South Korean port of Busan. The ship was carrying 29,337 tons of inflammable chemicals; 4,000 tons of paraxylene and acrylonitrile burned in the fire, according to media reports. The crew were evacuated and port authorities sent the ship out with tugs into the Sea of Japan, where she drifted, eventually for a hundred days, even though the fire was put out relatively quickly. Lloyd’s surveyors could only board her in March to assess the damage. She was eventually brought into Ulsan towards the end of April and her cargo successfully transferred.

So why did the Maritime Maisie spend three months adrift at sea?

In one word, acrylonitrile. Not only is it highly flammable and toxic, it undergoes explosive polymerisation. Burning acrylonitrile gives off hydrogen cyanide, which is why it is classed as Class 2B carcinogen- it causes lung cancer. This is some of the stuff that was burning on the Maisie, out of the almost 30,000 tonnes of inflammable chemicals that she carried.

Can you blame South Korea, in whose waters the incident took place, or Japan- into whose waters the Maisie drifted- for refusing refuge? Which politician will want to be blamed for exposing his country’s population to carcinogens when the alternative- a ship drifting offshore- is safer, both health-wise and politically? Not that- despite some panicky reports during the three months- the ship was ever in imminent danger of sinking; she was under tow and being monitored almost constantly.

Some shipping experts- mainly those with commercial interests- seem to be keen, now that the story is almost over, to express disgust and dismay at what they see as another case of the refusal by coastal authorities to grant refuge to stricken ships. They see this behaviour as against international conventions or law. They are already comparing the Maritime Maisie to everything from the Prestige to the Stolt Valor to the MSC Flamina incidents.

Part of the industry would like to pressurise governments to push the obligations coastal states have towards stricken vessels. Some will play politics with the Maritime Maisie. But the fact is that no lives were endangered by the South Korean or Japanese hesitation to grant refuge to the ship. The immediate danger to large populations was averted and the only risk was environmental damage- surely the lesser evil here. In any case, no environmental disaster occurred; the calculated risk paid off. 

So, although I agree that some countries have acted extremely irresponsibly- even criminally irresponsibly- in some cases in the past when it comes to granting refuge to stricken ships, I am convinced that the Maritime Maisie affair is not one of those cases.


May 08, 2014

Changing the tanker game

The oil tanker industry is in for a bit of a shakeout in the next decade or sooner.

The first reason is the likelihood that the United States of America will be likely swimming in oil on the back of the shale boom during this period. With the highest reserves today since the Great Depression (400 million barrels, excluding strategic reserves), US oil imports will be the lowest in two decades in 2014. They are still significant, though; the US will still import 42 percent of the oil it needs this year. Telling is another statistic- less than ten years ago, in 2005, the US imported 60 per cent of its oil.

This huge change is tempered by the fact that US laws (of WWII vintage, when oil was seen as a strategic asset) currently bar the export of crude oil, although refined products are not restricted- in fact, the US is already a net exporter of petroleum products.  Also complicating things is the fact that US refineries are built to handle the heavier oil it traditionally imports, not the lighter shale being produced at home. There is a move to reverse the export ban, though, and this may well happen if shale production continues to be on the ascendant and reserves become even healthier. I bet, also, that plans for new or modified refineries are already on the anvil. Resistance to the environmentally damaging fracturing process may put a spanner in the works periodically, though I am cynical enough to see that it will not make a significant impact on production.

Another very interesting news snippet that may change the oil game- the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory’s (NRL) says that they have developed a “game changing technology” for creating fuel from- hold your breath-seawater. This is not a pipe dream; the NRL has already flown a replica of a WWII plane using this fuel, which is extracted after removing the carbon dioxide from seawater while simultaneously producing hydrogen. 

Said the NRL’s Dr. Heather Willauer, “This is the first time technology of this nature has been demonstrated with the potential for transition, from the laboratory, to full-scale commercial implementation.” This fuel could be commercially viable (at 3 to 6 USD per gallon) within the next seven to ten years, the NRL says. 

It is probably too soon to herald oil from water as the next big thing; there may be many a slip along the way. But the oil industry will be stupid if it writes off the possibility that this can happen, or that this possibility is a huge threat that can change the game forever. 

What will all this do to shipowners?

Well, I am slowly getting convinced that owners of all kinds of ships are going to find it extremely difficult to identify, build and operate the kind of ships that will remain relevant over the next twenty years. This is because I believe that taking a long term call- on trading patterns, fuels, volumes, environmental regulatory costs, size of ships and a hundred other things- is becoming so complicated that it is already close to impossible. 

In the tanker market, this problem will be magnified manifold because it will not just be the traditional markets that will disappear or metamorphosise- the cargo itself might; to some extent, it already has. Added to this will be other variables to do with ships that cannot be predicted, some of which have been listed already. 

The possibility that new tankers delivered today are likely to be the wrong ones within ten years is real. The threat that a brand new ship costing tens of millions of dollars may be worth scrap within a decade should give tanker operators cause for concern, if it is not doing so already. Adding to the nightmare will be this sobering question- If cargoes and trading patterns cannot be predicted with sufficient accuracy any longer, will there come a time when the financial risk associated with long-term shipowning becomes unacceptable?

Is that time already here? 


May 01, 2014

Self Interest: the way to professional pride

It is trite to blame the collapse of professional pride amongst Indian officers- even those in their late twenties today with nearly a decade of experience behind them-on the longstanding atmosphere of distrust between sailors and employers. That is just one reason. And, while industry instigated practices (corruption during intake, the cavalier treatment of seamen) undoubtedly chip at a sailor’s self-esteem and therefore, chip at his pride in the profession- they do not tell us the whole story.  They do not explain, for example, the low professional pride even amongst those who have had an easy career path thus far.

Other acknowledged reasons for this collapse include the fact that sailing has become a low priority profession in India and is usually taken up when other avenues have failed. The added misconception amongst many youngsters that I see every day is that they expect to, somehow, make a crapload of money and quit sailing in a few years. The much higher commitment required for a career at sea is in scarce supply; chances are, therefore, that the officer will be substandard and uncommitted. The outcome is predictable; how can a disinterested youngster who knows he is substandard have high professional pride?

It is obvious that any industry- more so, an industry like shipping- needs high professional standards. How, then, do we convince our officers to become more committed, more capable?

The following is one way that I know.

First, the industry must treat all seafarers with respect, fairness and dignity. Filter this down the line to the clerks and juniors in your offices- that they will be evaluated by the treatment they mete to seagoing personnel, whether at the time of joining, signing off, in-house events or on email.

Second, discard the notion of ‘loyalty’. No officer joins a company with the aim of displaying loyalty to it. Or indeed, finding an alternate ‘family’ there.

Thirdly and most importantly, realise that people act out of self-interest and that is what needs to be addressed. Shipping needs to devote more time figuring out what drives its people who are at sea instead of going down the well-worn platitude route (loyalty) that has proven to be a failure.

So tell your sailors that higher professional standards and higher professional pride go hand in hand; one cannot exist without the other. Tell them why they need higher professional pride. Because it benefits them. Because it translates into faster promotions and more money (Tell them to calculate the difference between a Second Mate’s and Mate’s salary, for example, or the difference between a Mate’s and Master’s).

If senior officers are looking to move ashore, tell them that higher competence alone will make them stand out. Tell them that shipping is, barring some exceptions, a clean meritocracy. And act, in your organisation, to ensure that it is.

Above all, tell your seamen that higher professional pride and efficiency is good because it makes one feel good about oneself, one’s capabilities and will make them more confident, more successful people.

And then tell them again. And again.

This is what I do, once in each class, with the youngsters I teach who have still to go out to sea.  I work out their potential savings over the next seven years or so on the whiteboard. To do this I take the numbers they give me (gently modifying to more realistic figures if required). I factor in what they think they will earn, how long they think they will stay unemployed between contracts, what their tickets will cost them, what they will spend on ships and ashore- everything is taken into account. I find that, at the end of the exercise, everybody- almost without exception- is surprised that the amount of money they are likely to have in their hand at the end of seven years or so is not all that large. They expected to see a much higher figure. 

I then tell them about inflation and what a house or a car cost when I was their age and what they cost today. I tell them what a well to do household spends today, every month- a fraction of what it spent fifteen or twenty years ago.

I push the fact- based on the figures we have together worked out- that they will not be able to quit sailing in five or seven years. Not with a lot of money they won’t.  That they have, therefore, no option but to sail longer or to earn more money. That sailing, therefore, is not a one-night stand but a longer commitment.

I let it all sink in for a day or two.  

Then I tell them how doing their job well at sea will be financially and personally much more rewarding, making much the same arguments I have made here. I tell them that their careers, their self-esteem and their financial prosperity are all in their hands. That professional superiority is what will make the difference. That it does not matter where they have come from, only where they are going. That at sea, nobody cares what how rich or powerful one’s father is; only what you do matters.

I tell those who want to quit in a few years how much more money they would make if they were promoted faster. I tell those who claim long term commitment to shipping how their lives and careers will be better if they were more professional, more efficient. I tell everybody how lousy seamen will not just get paid less- they will probably get lousy and unsafe ships with lousy Captains in lousy companies. I tell them how badly this can impact safety; I tell them how they will put their lives on the line if they are professionally substandard.

Then, finally, I tell these youngsters- many of  whom come from families that are not that well off and most of whom have been academically poor students suffering from low self-esteem all their lives- how sailing can transform their personality and their confidence.

I do not, even once, mention the word loyalty. Loyalty- as I wrote in a letter to this same magazine maybe twenty years ago- is for dogs, not seamen.