Michael Grey reflects on the Prestige tanker disaster and its culture

Reflections on the Prestige

Authored by: Michael Grey, Lloyds List

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No one could be surprised about the row over this pollution, but I sometimes wonder why we don't make anything like as much fuss when it is some ore-filled bulker sliding into the deeps, taking 25 poor seafarers
with her.

I don't want to sound like the famous post-Freudian psychobabbler-in-chief Dr Heinz Kiosk, who could clear a room in seconds by his loud expostulation that "we are all guilty". But the fact of the matter is, we are.

We are all guilty because of our natural expectation that the cost of sea transport of any kind should not appear on any balance sheet. We don't want to notice the cost of shipping , whether it is the petrol we
pour into our cars or the Chinese-made electronic gizmos we will stuff into the kids' stockings.

We pay less in real terms for this important commodity of sea transport in 2003 than we did in 1945, and about 900% less than we did in 1845. Furthermore, we just cannot tolerate the prospect of the sort of freight rate increase that shipowners really require to enable them to ratchet up quality a few notches. These owners should stop whingeing, we snap. It is all their fault for building too many ships in the first place.

And if they try to form conferences to reduce the supply of tonnage to something more sensible, we scream like fury about unfairness and rush off to competition commissioners, demanding fines of mega-proportions.

Shipowners wish to provide safe transport in robust, well-made ships. But it is all relative, and there can be no argument that this predeliction for the lowest possible freight rate, with shippers always benchmarking on the bottom line, has cast a grim shadow over the whole industry, and it will not go away.

We sign pledges about "quality" shipping and we have armies of auditors and inspectors gainfully employed, but in their heart of hearts those old enough to remember real "quality" recall that standards then and now are so very different.

And why on earth should this not be the case when there is just no money available in the system to build ships of the standard to which they were once built to and operate them in the way they once were?

But how do you ever reverse this trend? When you have enjoyed something that is so cheap you hardly notice it, you will just not accept a sudden rise in the rates.

Besides, in a world honed to the cult of the cheap, even a minuscule rise in rates causes pain.

A couple of years ago at a dinner I sat next to a man who shipped chocolates all over the globe who maintained that, in the world of global confectionery he inhabited, all the profit he ever made came not from his delicious soft centers but from being able to get containers shifted at ludicrously low rates.

Like chocolate itself, cheap shipping is habit forming and no one can kick the habit.

Cheap shipping is "under-engineering" , in that there is no money at all available to build a ship that will last without desperate maintenance by its crew, and vast acreages of steel replacement, when this maintenance proves impossible for the three men and a dog appointed for this unequal task.

Should we not be questioning this when even people who run classification societies speak of the need for more "robust" ships and worry that too much steel has been optimised out of present designs?

Who on earth are the good guys in this battle between quality and expediency? On the one hand we have Basil Papachristidis' great white tankers and Concordia's V-Maxes, built like battlewagons for a 30-year-plus
life - ships with big crews to maintain them and their owners determined that preventive maintenance is 50 times better than steel replacement.

But these superships are the toys of but two eccentric owners, worlds away from the bog-standard ship churned out by shipyards which struggle to make ends meet with present prices for owners who will get shot of them with alacrity after their second special survey has confirmed their worst fears.

There is not an ounce of "over-engineering" to be found in the average ship, no matter where it is built. And why would there ever be when those who use ships bleat like cast sheep at the thought that they should pay for bunkers to drive extra weight through the water?

Is there not something terribly wrong in an industry where ships will make money for their owners only during the last five years of their lives? But of all the reductions in margins that have been forced on the shipping industry by the awful economics of the past 30 years, none has been so influential on "quality" than has the erosion of the human contribution.

There is really no argument about the fact that properly trained and well motivated seafarers in the right numbers can make the difference between quality and "substandardness", almost regardless of the ship they sail in.

And yet for years owners desperate to make ends meet have scoured the world looking for cheap seafarers, with the right bits of paper these days, but above all cheap, knowing they are barely competent at best.

Remember the ship managers rattling on about "minimum maintenance", which effectively meant almost no maintenance? You never catch up on those years of neglect.

Remember the daft promises made by people who suggested that if you stuck a couple of anodes into an uncoated ballast tank it wouldn't rust. And, when that was proved to be a tall tale, the battle was on with the repairers and the emergence of a whole new class of superintendent, whose reputation was made by how little replacement steel he could browbeat the class surveyor into accepting.

Lack of reward was at the root of this climate of minimum standards and bare compliance and its legacy is with us still. With minimum manning, and everyone aboard exhausted, there are still black marks given to a master who insists on a pilot when it is not compulsory and folk ashore will nag him for his temerity in demanding an extra tug.

"This is the voyage profit you are personally eroding, Captain," they would say, the rougher elements pointing out that if he couldn't run his ship more economically they had half a dozen applicants who could oblige. The curse of the cult of cheapness is itself corrosive and has rotted away the whole fabric of our industry.

We have started to become quite analytical about this issue of quality, but this year I attended high level conferences when we spent time arguing about the definition of "substandard".

People at the sharp end of shipping, whether they design, build or operate ships, recognise quality when they see it. But they do not sight this elusive element very often these days down at the cheap end of town, where it is a very relative term.

"Can't pay, won't pay!" they screamed at Maggie's Poll Tax. It is what we all shout when we are invited to pay a little more for the quality shipping we would so like to flourish. But there is no prestige in this business.

AREN'T we really missing the crucial point of the Prestige affair as the nations rage so furiously together about why this elderly tanker sank into the Atlantic, leaving such a mess on the Galician coast?

Original article first published in Lloyds List, December 16 2002

Comments...

"as a Chief Engineer who has been sailing with of the best Tanker Operators in the world, I must agree with your comments on the direction the shipping industry is taking. Over the 30 years I have been sailing with my present company (my total sea time is over 37 years) I have seen the money spent on the vessels in periodic overhauls slowly reduce.

30 years ago we fixed everything need or not, then only what was needed to be done. Then only what was required by class for the next 5 years, eventually doing only enough to get the vessel in class long enough to leave the shipyard. The only good sign is that in the last couple of years we have set higher standards for our overhauls, mainly because we wish to avoid out of service time.  The other problem has been in the reduction in manning, one VLCC I sailed on had only 60% of the crew at 25 years old that it had on delivery, with smaller numbers of skilled machinists."

Submitted by email March 12, 2003