Bridging the gap between ship and shore
29 October 2007 Lloyds List
HOW, asked some thoughtful person the other day, can we do something about the yawning gulf that exists between ship and shore?
The ‘them and us’ attitude which decrees that everyone aboard a ship is in some way intellectually inferior to those higher beings ashoree — there is nothing new about any of this.
Indeed, one would not even be the slightest bit surprised if undersea archaeologists diving on the wreck of some Phoenician galley discovered fragments of waxed tablets from some impatient shipowner in Tyre, criticising the master for his choice of course around Cape Malea, shortage of cargo lifted and the overtime payments to the crew, marked ‘we fail to understand’.
Who knows, it could have been the ship-shore gulf of understanding that so drove the wretched master to carry so much canvas on his amphora-larden bark, that he was overwhelmed before the Etesian gale and offered the archaeologists such a treat several millennia later.
But, surely, several generations beyond the age of enlightenment in the 21st century, this gulf of incomprehension should have been bridged?
Evidently not, and it is a perennial cause of complaint from senior officers who have decided that enough is enough and there are more fulfilling ways of earning a crust. In their exit interviews, amid all their other complaints about criminalization, overweening bureaucracy and being treated as an alien from outer space in too many ports these days, it is the ship-shore gulf that comes up, time and time again.
“No one ever asks me what I think about some dictat which comes winging its way down the email from the office, or the charterers,” they say.
And if it is about the operation of a ship, or the use of the ship’s equipment, you might think that the people who do the business every day might have some sensible views on the subject.
But do they ever get asked? On the contrary, they are told what they should do, regardless of whether it is even remotely sensible.
There is a little more analytical thought about these matters today as the dreaded issue of retention raises its ugly head throughout the shipping industry. You may not actually show you appreciate these salt-encrusted seafarers in terms of fulsome praise, or even a well done, after a difficult voyage but you are certainly waking up to their imminent absence when they tell you that they are not coming back next trip and no amount of money, better food, refurbished accommodation or even an amnesty on sarcastic remarks from the office will persuade them otherwise.
There are a lot of very experienced seafarers disappearing at present, some due to anno domini, but many because they are simply fed up with the increasingly unpleasant job they are asked to do.
And it is not just the old grey-haired sages who have driven ships successfully for 40 years you are going to miss. Their general unhappiness communicates itself throughout a ship, and even the junior officers, who are polled for their opinions when they undertake college courses are showing their poor opinion of the career they have chosen.
They will not be hanging around, either, transferring into the shore side infrastructure or seeking a career with less grief attached just as soon as it is feasible to do the same.
You, Mr Shipowner, may, while wringing your hands at the growing manning crisis — which is inconveniently occurring when you are making so much money — reply that it is not altogether your fault. It is not your responsibility that some slate-eyed, pistol packing bossyboots shoulders his way aboard to deny the crew any shore leave after a 40-day passage from the other side of the earth.
It is not your fault that the number of regulations cascading on to the ship from every conceivable type of authority are making life aboard a misery.
The disappearance of fun attached to 21st century seagoing may not be within your power to remedy.
But there is a great deal, I would suggest, that the shipowner can do about the general malaise and lack of morale aboard merchant ships, and many of them closely attached to the baleful presence of the ship-shore gap.
I would suggest that at least some of the distance between ship and shore is caused by the shipowner distancing himself from the operation of ship through the employment of middle men, managers and agencies, many of whom treat the crew as a commodity, like a brand of paint or a drum of luboil.
“This crew is too expensive, find us another brand” the department which pays the bills is told. The message filters down the system and eventually a cheaper crew appears, trying to make sense of the sophisticated machinery and what the departing crew might have told them.
“This manning is far too generous, cut a few hands off the scale” is a signal to the fearsome cost-cutters who pay the pipers and the chaps left behind find themselves having to fill up the gaps left behind. Might this be in some way responsible for the fact that the master and chief engineer, people who can be trusted, are for the off?
It is significant that a few perspicacious shipowners are realising that if loyalty is to be promoted and motivation fostered, not to mention morale raised, the relationship between ships and shore needs strengthening through direct employment and the close interest of an employer to the career development of the individual.
There are good managers who have realised the same, noting that casual labour is doing no one any favours and is singularly inappropriate in a high-liability business like ship operation. It is a change for the better, but one hopes that it is not all too late.
Back to the ship-shore gap again. Fundamentally it is a matter of relationship building, and of empowering people who have felt marginalised and excluded for too long.
There is no real excuse for it if we accept that the inexperienced or unmotivated should not be driving ships and that intelligent people need to feel both appreciated and involved.
There are a very few shipping companies that do it right and, for instance, have a close relationship with their seafarers who are welcomed as an integral part of the shipping company. They are asked to give their views about new ships or equipment, procedures and systems, and the owners make sure that their views count.
Senior officers are welcome visitors in the office, the directors and others who matter are welcomed aboard the ships. There is recognition of the physical distance between ship and shore, but also a genuine belief that this can be made insignificant by — that most misunderstood word — communications.
I recall reading the remarks of a master, who was able to see the deterioration of his relationship between himself and the office. A person of some years, he remembered being treated as a person of some consequence as he visited the office before taking a ship away, and at the conclusion of a long voyage when, on both occasions, he met the directors of the company.
The contrast with his present position, as he described it, was palpable as he was now received by some low-grade functionary who treated him like the man who had come to service the photo-copier and never permitted to meet anyone of any decision-making importance in the company. Somehow, if we are to persuade people of intelligence and initiative that shipping is a worthwhile career and the sea is an excellent route into this lifelong business, we have to make seafarers feel valued.
There is a very long way to go in this respect, but it is essential that we try because the alternative is appalling. And let us be quite clear about this. These are not whingeing mariners whose views are of no account, but people who are as important to the prosperity of the industry as those who work in shipping ashore. We are, quite simply, in a vortex of deteriorating manpower, with so many of the best people leaving in despair and bodies, to make up the numbers, being hired to replace them.
If we are to change the course of this particular juggernaut we really have to upgrade the seafarer’s lowly status in every country where he or she originates and every company where he or she works.
What about those areas beyond the pay grade of the shipowner to make a difference, in the shape of the ’authorities’ who often seem dedicated to make seafarers’ lives a misery in port.
But even owners and managers have a role here, as do their representative organisations, because they should energetically support their seafaring employees, making a huge fuss at the every highest level where their treatment leaves something to be desired. No one would reasonably expect a ship to enter a port where there was not an adequate depth of water alongside or the ship was physically endangered.
But why should a ship ever enter a port where the officials are corrupt and overbearing, and where the port is a nest of gruesome inefficiency?
These days we are great at publishing lists and grading our products into best buys and those you should not touch with an extra-long bargepole.
Why should not ports or even countries be so identified, named and shamed or publicly blacklisted for the disgraceful way they treat visiting seafarers? It strikes me that if a surcharge can be charged shippers for the high price of fuel or the congestion in a particular port, someone ought to pay for the wretched seafarers who are going to have to go there.
You have to exert leverage where you can and, my goodness, there is such a huge scream of pain when some sort of surcharge is levied that it is a proved and effective way of encouraging changes. Make the buggers pay, that is my prescription.
We are told, quite categorically, that an enormous disincentive to retention is the overbearing level of regulation which people at sea have to face. Every voyage there is a sheaf of fresh diktats, backed up with company advice and new requirements which must be obeyed.
At no stage, whether we are talking about international regulations at that fount of all global rules the International Maritime Organization or the regional, national or local equivalents, are those affected by the regulations, the mariners, properly consulted.
If the people on the receiving end of the regulations had ever been asked they might have suggested that new regulations were unnecessary or superfluous, and that there were better ways of arriving at the desired result.
At all these sources of regulations seafarers are conspicuous by their absence. Sure, there may be former seafarers on the national delegations or in the representative bodies or consulted in the shipping companies. But is anyone ever asked in the fleet? The answer is a firm negative, and the first that the ships ever hear of new rules is when they are put aboard with orders indistinguishable from that of a Mesapotamian despot — to tremble and obey.
Just contrast the systems for the International Safety Management Code that were constructed by seafarers themselves, and which tend to work, and those bought off the shelf and stuck aboard ships, which mostly enrage rather than engage.
Just think how much better, and how much more effective and useful the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code would have been if seafarers — and even some port managers — had been involved in its development.
One suspects that seafarers would have not ended up feeling like terrorists manque when arriving at some port.
Surely the foregoing is nothing more than common sense? But goodness me, someone had better see the light soon, lest we have to engage in a crash programme to devise the unmanned ship, because no one in their right mind will ever go to sea.