A friend spent a year as chief engineer of a North European ferry. The friend in question says that I can use his name, which is Duncan, and he says that I can name the very, very, well known outfit who owned that ferry, and owns an awful lot of other sorts of ship, too, but I feel that perhaps I had better not. You may like to be the judge of this, as you read on.
This particular ferry was, in accordance with company policy, a ‘dry’ ship. As so often happens with ‘dry’ ships, not everyone in the crew was quite as dry as the company might have liked. (At this point a vision rises before my eyes of almost the entire crew of a ‘dry’ containership standing in the bar of the Kwai Chung branch of the Hong Kong Mariners’ Club as sailing time drew nigh, all of them getting just as ‘wet’ as they could manage, and then weaving their way over to the waiting minibus.)
One of Duncan’s colleagues aboard this ferry was so notably un-dry that he managed to report for duty onboard, having left his documents in the taxi. He discovered this some little time later.
Now, Duncan is not without a sense of humour, so before he paid off himself he carefully wrote, printed off, and bound a spoof section of the company SMS entitled, ‘Conduct when Socially Disadvantaged’, using the same type face and formatting as the actual SMS, and left it lying about.
When he re-joined the ship, he found that his spoof had been incorporated into the real SMS, and circulated round the fleet.
From this, Duncan draws three conclusions:
- That ferry company is deficient in sense of humour (but we all know that anyway)
- That company’s SMS, like most companies’ Safety Management Systems, is unreadable, so nobody reads it
- In this day and age, any ship carries with her the equipment needed to forge any document that her officers may feel they are in need of, so why on earth do shore inspectors, be they Port State Control folks or any other variety, insist on paper documents?
Anyone disagree with Duncan?
At this point, I have a confession to make. Once upon a time, a very long time ago now, a younger, brighter, and far more bushy-tailed version of myself looked at his then employer’s fleet instructions and was horrified by the thought of what a good barrister might make of them. Indeed, this bushy-tailed young man wrote a note to his managing director which summarised the fleet instructions as:
- Thou shalt not carry unmanifested cargo
- Thou shalt not appear in a passenger space out of uniform
- Masts shall be painted mast colour.
And with that he volunteered himself and a couple of others for the task of writing a new version.
This was about a decade before the ISM Code came into effect, but I think I can, to my lasting shame, confess to having been aboard that particular band wagon. I have since jumped off it, because I cannot think of anything in shipping, not even time charter clauses, that has generated quite so much boring, unreadable, garbage.
I have not the slightest doubt about what a good barrister can do with almost every company’s SMS; he will be able to demonstrate that hardly anyone has actually read it, because it is unreadable. It is written in Quality Management-ese, a very special language used for programming, not computers, but people.
There is a large and well established cottage industry built on Quality Management-ese, and the ignoble thought occurs that the late Douglas Adams might have had some fun with this, had he not died in 2001, at a time when the whole racket was just getting into its stride.
So, what are we going to do about it?