COLUMN | Celebrating seafaring [Grey Power]

This is being written on the day being celebrated by the IMO as “the Day of the Seafarer”, which I suppose gives an opportunity to various maritime organisations to say how much they appreciate the work of those who earn their living on ships.

Outside the somewhat closed community of the maritime industry, the event will scarcely make a ripple on the great ocean of ignorance about what happens on the other side of the dock wall, let alone over the horizon.

Most people, outside certain parts of the Philippines, probably don’t know any seafarers, such has been their exclusion from mainstream life. They might meet some if they travel on cruise ships, but that great multitude of seafarers, who operate less exotic forms of marine transport, carry out their tasks quite invisibly.

I can’t remember a time when so many people and various bodies have been expressing concern about the “well-being” of seafarers, so perhaps this marks some form of recognition. This is driven by concerns about their health and mental stability, with attention being paid to the rate of suicide among the seafaring workforce.

And in addition to the religious welfare organisations, which have always showed their concerns in welcome and practical ways, P&I Clubs, academic institutions and various maritime organisations have all voiced their concerns.

Happiness Index

Studies have been carried out, like the Mission to Seafarers’ “Happiness Index” which polled serving seafarers and discovered a decline in measurable levels compared with earlier surveys, citing stress, workloads and isolation. All sorts of useful “self-help” advice is being produced to enable the stressed, fatigued and isolated workers to cope with their lot in life.

Well, three cheers all round! It is good that there is a more concerned management at home, helpful that the unsatisfactory elements of a seafaring life are being recognised. But will all these reports and studies on seafarers’ mental health actually make any difference. Or will they merely be added to the growing anthology of data that tends to show that Jack (and Jill) is not so jolly as was once the case?

There have already been fears expressed that if you are hoping to attract lots of bright young people to the world of commercial shipping, it is best not to be constantly harping on about how miserable a life afloat might be. That may be a good point to make. But wouldn’t it be better if the industry, in the shape of the seafarers’ employers, in acknowledging the problems, set out a sensible strategy for addressing them? Something, perhaps more constructive than advocating “mindfulness” or yoga?

People complain about loneliness more than they did in the past, it is said. You could argue that even ashore, in an era of mass communication, people are citing their loneliness as a reason for their lack of happiness. You might equally argue that both ashore and afloat, people seem to voice their complaints more they did in a more phlegmatic age.

Or you might agree that lonely seafarers have a point, and maybe we should not be surprised, if they are a member of a tiny crew rattling around in big ship full of people who speak every language but their own. They might be lonely, because they work largely alone, only meet people at mealtimes and then only two or three people, whose command of language might be to acknowledge a request to “please pass the salt”, but not much else.

They might be lonely, because they have nobody to talk to, and not much else to do at the end of a watch but to sit in one’s cabin, watching a film on an electronic device. They might be stressed, because of somebody giving them a hard time on account of an instruction being misinterpreted because of the lack of a common language.

They might be fatigued because of the ferocious schedule of the ship, with lots of ports, everyone screaming for the ship to arrive and shouting when there is an unavoidable delay. They might be miserable because of the shocking relationship between ship and shore, with the latter just not comprehending the reality of life on that particular ship.

Solvable problems

People often cite the length of tours aboard ship as a reason for unhappiness. It also cannot be much fun when the officers go home on leave at the end of a tour that is half as long as that of the ratings. There is no doubt also, in the minds of older seafarers, that accommodation standards have deteriorated over recent years, with shipping scratching around trying to stay profitable.

Then there is time in port, which was once a chance for a bit of shore leave and relaxation, but now is a time of added stress, with no shore leave, very short stays and everyone screaming for the stay to be further abbreviated.

It is no exaggeration to say that some seafarers actually dread their time in port, notably in those parts of the world where ships and their crews seem to be there to be exploited, tested and punished if they are found to be non-compliant in some way.

So, in addition to drinking a toast to seafarers on “their” day, maybe some of these very real problems could be looked at constructively. None are insoluble, given goodwill, better organisation and perhaps a modest increase in costs.

COLUMN | Split down the middle [Grey Power]

You cannot be unaware that the world seems increasingly divided into mutually hostile powers, using the amazing powers of modern technology to inveigh against each other.

In the US the rift between Republicans and Democrats is now so deep that members of the same family supporting opposing parties can no longer be civil with one another. In the UK, the rows between Brexiteers, who won the referendum, and the Remainers who wish the nation to continue to be beholden to Brussels, has become increasingly fraught. We just seem to get angrier and angrier about what divides us, assisted by what ought to be re-christened “antisocial media”.

The same sorts of division can be found in our industry, with a widening gap between those who believe that technology holds all the answers and those who wish they would shut up and let them get on with quietly operating ships, ports and the infrastructure upon which we all depend.

The adherents of the former camp are getting louder and louder in their insistence that our maritime future must embrace big data, ever-higher technology, autonomy, digitalisation, artificial intelligence, not to forget the rattling of the blockchains.

Embrace it all or your company is doomed, shout the prophets of what they see as progress, who now rack up at every industry conference to repeat their dire warnings about the fate of a conservative, stick-in-the-mud, maritime sector.

The rattling of the blockchains

The people who actually earn a living running shipping companies and the like, listen politely to these speeches, politely stifling their yawns and wondering how long it is to lunch. They would almost certainly deny that they are opposed to all this exciting stuff, but point out that most of the fiery propagators of our hi-tech future make a living selling the very equipment, systems and technology they are urging everyone to embrace.

And frankly, if I was being encouraged to buy something, I would be more inclined to make the purchase, if the salesman didn’t suggest that my reluctance to sign the deal proved I was lost in the Stone Age. You shouldn’t really spend your days insulting your potential customers.

If you backed these potential customers into a corner and asked them whether they were actually demanding that the scientists and technologists gave them these amazing products and systems, they would almost certainly answer in the negative. If you pressed them, they would say worthwhile technology would not be more sophisticated equipment and systems, the purpose of which they can barely comprehend.

What they really want would be simpler, more reliable ships at a price they can afford and which could deliver the shipbuilders’ promises of sustainability and economy. Let’s face it, most of the ship operators of experience will have filed away a list of items of advanced technology which promised the earth, but which once taken away on a rocking and rolling ship, just did not deliver. Scepticism in a customer may not appear attractive to a keen-eyed salesman, but there is usually a reason for it.

Call these people reactionary conservatives, but many of them would openly confess that they are frankly not interested in all the high-tech bells and whistles that will confuse their operating crews. They are unconvinced by the threats of technical redundancy, while the shouts of the high-tech high priests warning of Amazon building its own fleets and the future lying in ships controlled from ashore, leave them cold.

They would rather (and I don’t blame them for this negative sentiment) that the shouting prophets of progress would just go away and that the scientists and engineers got together and came up with simple, reliable systems of cleaning engine exhausts and fool-proof and practical ballast water management systems that will do what it says on the tin during the life of the ship.

They would much rather the boffins spent their time, and if necessary a lot of research funding, on the development of an affordable, green fuel that will help to save the planet and keep the industry out of the hands of snake-oil salesmen who want to make a killing with their “market-based measures”.

Steering the debate

The industry has been tasked by the International Maritime Organisation with the job of decarbonising the sector, which is an enormous challenge, As it has been pointed out, this is far greater than that facing international aviation. Cleaning up shipping’s emissions is a big deal and a lot more important than devising incomprehensible systems of shore-side control of shipping, developing autonomous ships or blockchain technology. There is, after all, a choice about the degree with which any operator can embrace technology. There is no choice about the agreement to decarbonise.

Don’t get me wrong. You should not dissuade clever technologists from inventing products that can benefit ships and shipping. But there is a sense that they are now driving the debate, in swaying the regulators to adopt their ideas, before they are fully formed or properly trialled.

The hours of debate being spent on the issues of regulating autonomous ship is a case in point. Aren’t there more important and pressing issues, like the safety of passenger ferries, or the resilience in case of damage to small general cargo ships, or fire protection, that needs the attention of the regulators?

So let us by all means have the debates, but it should be first of all centred on whether there is a need for all this clever stuff. Meanwhile, the divisions between conservatives and people who like to think of themselves as progressives will remain.

BOOK REVIEW | Polar Ship Operations – Second Edition


By Captain Duke Snider FNI

The author, a Canadian master mariner, is a very experienced ice navigator. This new and improved edition of his already excellent text offers the reader the benefit of that experience. For the ever-increasing number of mariners voyaging in arctic waters, this book will be of enormous value.

COLUMN | Fuelling uncertainty [Grey Power]

What on earth are ships and boats to put in their bunker tanks, ten, twenty or even thirty years from now? It’s a valid question, when you consider that there are vessels being designed today that will indeed, all things being equal, be earning money for their owners in the next half century.

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