Micawber’s Dilemma: part three

Micawber’s Dilemma: part three

“I’ve done my AMOS for the day!”

“If it’s Tuesday, it must be cargo pumps!”

“It is found that anything that can go wrong at sea generally does go wrong sooner or later, so it is not to be wondered that owners prefer the safe to the scientific …. Sufficient stress can hardly be laid on the advantages of simplicity. The human factor cannot be safely neglected in planning machinery. If attention is to be obtained, the engine must be such that the engineer will be disposed to attend to it”.

The first comment was made by a junior officer on board a ship that my son was serving on, a few months ago. The second is a joke, written by Michael Grey, in Fairplay, in the 1970s when Planned Maintenance was a new thing. The third was written by Alfred Holt, Shipowner, (capital ‘S’”) in 1877, and I’m obliged to Duncan Cameron for the reference.

The young man who announced that he had “done his AMOS” was of course letting it be known that he proposed to do no more work for the ship that day, beyond keeping his watch. This was not considered to be the ‘right approach to the job’, by those who heard it said, but it is certainly a common one.

There are people ashore in shipowners and shipmanagers’ offices who are not aware of just how prescriptively they regulate the working and resting hours of their colleagues at sea and how very inefficient this is. I am not alluding to the ILO Convention!

We have come to expect our colleagues at sea to deal with user-unfriendly, indeed downright clumbungy, IT interfaces, to waste time inputting data more than once, and to cheerfully comply with directions that require hours of wasted time on ‘work arounds’. The assumption seems to be that our colleagues at sea have nothing to do.

This shows the growing gap between those at sea and those ashore.

The standard form of document to be completed before entry into an enclosed space, as officially blessed by the IMO, can run to three pages. All very worthy, but if, as is so often the case, it is completed on the computer in the ship’s office, it is quite useless. It is in the wrong place – it should be on a clipboard at the entry to the space, and if it is completed in ballpoint and it has a few grease smudges in it, it is a far more convincing document. As Bob Couttie of Maritime Accident Casebook says, “If you don’t trip over the BA set on your way through the door or the hatch, something is wrong!”

You will notice that Alfred Holt, an eminent Victorian if ever there was one, a man who trained as a locomotive engineer, developed the compound expansion steam engine, and invented liner shipping, a man whose fleet was neither classed nor insured for a hundred years, as neither he nor his heirs wanted to lower their standards that far, a man who first set out many of the principles of ship operation that we use today , was more concerned about the ‘human interface’ – in 1877 – and showed more understanding of the realities of life at sea than many of us do today.

With the help of a few friends, I carried out an unscientific straw poll. I asked them to ask their shipmates, “Would you take a pay cut in exchange for broadband at sea?” The answer was overwhelmingly “Yes”. I’m not aware that any crew manager has asked this question – if someone has, can they let me know what they found?

Of course, in today’s conditions, pay cuts and rumours of pay cuts are the everyday talk of people at sea, so it may be that the people who replied that they would take a pay cut in exchange for broadband were just assuming that the pay cut was already inevitable, and grabbing the broadband along the way, so to speak.

But it does show just how much people at sea want to be like everyone else, and how much they resent the sort of patronising attitude embodied in this remark by a very old friend of mine, by no means a bad man, who is rather prominent in Hong Kong shipowning circles: “I won’t fit broadband – if something is wrong at home, it’s better if they don’t know!”

He obviously hasn’t looked to see how many smartphones his ratings – let alone his officers – each own – most will have at least two – or just how quickly they ‘tune in’ when they can get a signal and how savvy they are with SIM cards.

He’s no Alfred Holt.

I know of at least one ship where the crew, having spotted the ‘plumbing’ for the broadband antenna that the owners decided not to fit, are clubbing together to buy one and fit it… its running costs will be paid for out of the ship’s social fund, because, as they say, that is what the social fund is for!

We should recognise the reality of life today – people need access to social media. End of!

To read Andrew’s first two instalments in this trilogy, click here and here.

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  1. Capt manjit handa
    July 12, 2017 at 12:08 am

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading the trilogy.

    If a ship owner forces (i) a reduction on maintenance expenses (ii) and lesser and cheaper manning, it will translate into longer working hours ( due to frequent machinery defects attended to by less than fully competent crew). The ‘Preventive Maintenance System’ is degraded and from some point onwards it is just ‘breakdown maintenance’. That is a very dangerous situation which leads to ‘unsafe acts’ and ‘unsafe conditions’. The correction will require a one time infusion of money in terms of shore support.

    Most crew take pride in running a safe ship, and if they can’t, they lose enthusiasm for the job. I cannot fully address the inter-relationships of factors in detail in this comment.

    It is difficult to convince any shipowner that he could have avoided huge unplanned expenses if he had invested in OEM spares and a good crew. Any shipowner will succumb to pressures of the availability of cheaper spares, and to the claims of a new shipmanager offering very good crew from Uzbekistan ( since Myanmar has lost its shock value!)

    1. Andrew Craig-Bennett
      July 12, 2017 at 3:36 pm

      “Myanmar has lost its shock value!” haha!

      Exactly, Manjit – a lot of the trouble is that shipowners offices contain fewer people who actually like ships. They contain two or three sorts of people – the inevitable accountants, some shipbrokers, and if the management is “in house” they contain superintendents. None of these three species is able to communicate with either of the others and they exist in a state of turf warfare, in which the interests of the ships and those who man them are entirely overlooked. The result is that the owner is ripped off and so are the people on board.

  2. arvind
    July 12, 2017 at 9:53 am

    selective breakdown maintenance Manjit !
    but yes all that you and Andrew state is absolutely relevant ;-during Mr Holts days the shipowner and the captain must have treated the ship as their castle ; when i first entered the engine room my second engineer ; a majorily committed man , ( with possibly sado-masochistic tendencies which , at least my tender mind at the time seemed to think so ! ) first words to me were that the engine room was my temple and i bloody well worshsipped it every time i set foot on it .I am sure there are many officers and staff who still have the same reverence for the boat as was in the past but it seems to have lost its relevance over the last three / four decades but this may be a very generalistic view ( possibly the ranting of an old man ) ; in Mr HOlts days a liner shippping coy probably employed more persons on the ship than ashore ; these days a big liner shipping employs maybe five times the nos of persons ashore than those on the ship so the relevance of the existence of the ship and its crew can develop tendencies to the oblivious or even an aberance to people ashore but its exactly that fact which must be addressed by shipowners and managers everyday and which committed companies mst be doing –i am positive that with the passage of time an EXTENDED life at sea will be considered productive and beneficial for those who work on board which i dont think is the case these days especially amongst the younger generation

    1. Andrew Craig-Bennett
      July 12, 2017 at 4:08 pm


      You make a really good point about the numbers ashore and afloat in a liner company. Liner shipping always needed a small army ashore, but with containerisation only one tenth as many were needed afloat, then with the increase in boxboat sizes that one tenth became one fiftieth…

      When did anyone last take part in:

      … A Management/Directors’ Inspection?

      … a Shipper’s Party?

      The ships have almost disappeared from the mental furniture of those who work in liner shipping…