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Nautical Institute Hong Kong Branch 24 November 2017
Safe Manning aboard ships – chairman’s introduction
Good morning and a warm welcome from me to this timely and topical conference. Mind you, over the last forty years or so I cannot remember a time when the number of seafarers required to safely operate a ship was not a matter of argument and controversy. Over the years we have tried, usually in vain, to rationalise the discussion surrounding numbers – we have talked about “efficient” manning or “adequate” manning. We have over-complicated things by focussing on numbers versus qualifications, competence or experience, but there is no escaping the prime consideration of safety, is a ship is not to become a casualty or menace life or limb and the environment, because of an inadequate number of seafarers available.
So today, the emphasis is very much on safe manning, which we might think of an overarching term, because if you don’t have enough people to operate a ship safely in all circumstances, all the other terms, like adequate or efficient, probably cannot apply.
Over the years, I have spent an awful lot of time writing about the importance of people in the safe operation of ships. I started because it seemed than in just about everything else I was reading, the emphasis was on hardware and equipment, systems and just about everything other than people.
But people are more important than hardware and when we start talking about marine safety, this is demonstrably the case. Everyone here knows that good people can keep a deficient ship – even a rust bucket – safe, while an absence of this crucial component of maritime competence will, in contrast, make the most technically advanced ship into a potential death trap. It is obvious, but why has it taken so long for such a message to properly register with regulators, with operators, with insurers and others of influence?
But even if you have good, competent, experienced people aboard your ship, if there are just not enough of them, and they are run ragged just to keeping the thing operating, safety is obviously compromised. It is hard to believe it sometimes, but there is such a thing as job satisfaction, and this isn’t increased by stress or downright exhaustion. Numbers of people, with the right skills and experience, really do matter.
But during most of my working life, those who design ships and devise new marine equipment and systems have made it a priority, often the principal selling point, to emphasise the way in which their ship/design/equipment/system or software diminishes the need for the skills of the seafarer and encourage crew economies. Says the shipbuilder with a new design to sell and empty berths in the shipyard – our 20,000teu containership can be run with a crew of 14!”
Says the manufacturer of navigational electronics –“our supercalifragilistic integrated navigational system enables an idiot to navigate like Vasco de Gama!”
Says the machinery manufacturer – “our new engine is maintenance-free and overseen 24/7 by a gigantic computer in Finland!” There is not exactly the encouragement to an operator to ship a large crew of expert seafarers when faced with these claims.
The depopulation of the maritime workforce has been going on for a very long time. A very fine article in the current issue of the Naval Architect by my old friend Willem de Jong places this date as far back as 1960 and the Mitsui ship Kinkasan Maru, which had the very first independent engine room control fitted. Manpower reduction gathered pace throughout the 60s but was a marked feature ten to fifteen years later.
It has been facilitated by automation itself, by labour saving equipment, by obliging flag states looking to drum up business, but the main driver has been the need to control the operating cost of ships. Apart from a few peaks in demand, when owners have been properly rewarded, the whole industry has struggled with over tonnage and depressed rates since the middle of the 1970s. It has become almost institutionalised, with the industry’s best known economist Dr Martin Stopford declaring that shipping has become like the UK social services, with its customers demanding that it is free at the point of use.
I came ashore, from conventional cargo liners with crews seldom below 70, in 1967 and within ten years such a ship, or one of its containership replacements, was down to 25-30 and falling fast. People were a luxury one could not afford, and they were offloaded in armies. And in very short order, in maritime world of ferocious cost-cutting, people themselves became something of a commodity. Humans became a “human resource” to use a rather nasty term that has permeated industrial relations and which I don’t like to use.
We heard for the first time of the “unit cost” of a crew and ship managers charged with the manning of vessels would compare sources of seafarers rather like supermarket shoppers review the special offer. Tables were published to enable the daily cost of a Ukrainian manned capsize to be compared with one manned by Europeans or Chinese. And if you found yourself in the top half of the table, you should beware, because somewhere there would be an expeditionary force of manning agents, who had discovered some exciting new source of amazingly cheap seafarers and they would soon be communicating urgently to your employers.
But if crewing was commodified, how did it become acceptable to reduce manning to such a degree. There were, after all “minimum” manning certificates, which predated the term “Safe manning” but these were issued it seems, by well-meaning authorities who assumed that nobody would actually try and run a ship on such minima. To give you an example, I went up the Channel on a ULCC (and I forget what flag is was) which suggested that 13 souls would be a suitable minimum manning for the ship. The owners, bless them, were running with more than 30.
But I also recall, about the same time, when visiting this very port in the late 1980s, meeting a demolition cash buyer, who told me that he had re-activated a long laid-up VLCC in Norway , under a temporary certificate or registry and sailed it to be scrapped in Taiwan, with a very hard-working crew of eight. I had no reason to doubt him. It put the old tales of Tyneside tramp owner and their “one man and a dog” forward, into some sort of perspective.
Flag state certainly colluded in the de-manning that was going on. I can remember talking to British short sea owners furious that their hard-pressed little ships were having to compete with Norwegians of the same size, but with two fewer crew. For year the Nautical Institute has been raging about the manning of small ships with master and mate working watch and watch, with matchsticks in their eyes, being told that while respectable flags might disapprove, they were not willing to make their registers uncompetitive by banning the practice. We shouldn’t be naming names, but Danes, Dutch, Norwegians and Germans get very exercised when this proposed demand for additional mate is raised.
Who is it that makes the decision to scrap the 3rd engineer, 3rd mate or half the deck crowd of a ship? Is it following a careful bit of work study by professional experts, approved by the nautical adviser and technical superintendent, who know the ship well and have looked at the regular and peak demands upon the individuals and their respective skills? Or is it some corporate bean-counter, who has looked at the spreadsheets and demanded a 20% reduction in the costs per month of the ships in the fleet? I can’t give you an answer, but, like you, I can guess.
Who weighs up whether the survivors from all this pruning have sufficient skill and experience to cope with peak time operations, emergencies or other operations that might require all hands and the cook to be on duty? There may well be something resembling a formal safety assessment, but you sometimes wonder how these final numbers are arrived at. A 4000dwt chemical tanker, going through the locks in my local port with one man forward and one aft seems to me to be pushing the matter of safe manning to its limits.
I know you have ropes on the drums and don’t have to turn them up on the bitts and muck about with stoppers. But somebody has to supervise and you shouldn’t have, as sometimes is the case, cooks and stewards in a potentially dangerous environment of a ship mooring or unmooring. Pilots have told me of 6000 unit car carriers, with all that windage, and two hands on the forecastle to sort out the tug and moorings. If you read accidents reports you are probably aware how close the numbers actually aboard the ship are to the number specified on the certificate. There is very little leeway, as there was once, in more generous times.
Are there sufficient people available to unlash containers, as required by the charterer, before you get alongside? Or are you depending on the willing but unskilled to make up the numbers? Are there enough of the right sort of skills for the necessary maintenance, even though you depend on flying squads or repair yards, rather more than they did in an earlier era?
Who failed to notice the corroded wire rope that left people dead and injured, or the deck crane that fell down the hold for the sake of some regular attention and lubrication? And there is always the unexpected emergency, which, above all, requires enough people to sort it out, because it will surely happen in the worst possible place, miles from outside assistance.
Well, ladies and gentlemen, that is probably quite enough from me in this preliminary “warm-up” act. I hope I have maybe sown a few seeds for today’s discussion, which I now have the pleasure of chairing. It is certainly not a simple subject; if it was we wouldn’t be spending today on it, but we have some very expert speakers, along with an audience which I hope will be both responsive and participatory.
I would ask just a few things of you – that your mobiles are on silent, that our speakers endeavour to keep to the scheduled time and could I ask questioner to give your name and affiliation and keep your interventions as brief as possible, as our timetable is a busy one.
So let us begin with our first speaker, which is a keynote address, as it were from Headquarters, given by David Patraiko, who is, as I sure you know, Director of Projects of the Nautical Institute.