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Why Port State Control is like toothpaste

Why Port State Control is like toothpaste

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Rod Johnson, a former Port State Control officer, laments news the Paris MoU is likely to make its data harder to access.

You can’t put it back in the tube.

I’ll declare straight away that I spent five happy years as a Port State Control officer. Although it was only a part of my job as a flag state surveyor for the UK, it was for me the most rewarding. I am reluctantly ashore so I enjoyed the ambience of shipboard life. Most of my inspections were routine. My rewards came from those few occasions when I made seafarer lives better by calling out sloppy and unsafe ship management. Many of the masters I had to break the news of a detention to were actually relieved that something was finally being done to extract them from an impossible position. Mind you, I was lucky to be working for the UK Flag. The UK approach to PSC has always been rooted in common sense and delivered by seasoned mariners with the odd naval architect thrown in (some of them were very odd). It made it easy to use my discretion to get a result that would actually achieve something.

PSC inspections have two valuable functions. By capturing the current documentary state of a ship they provide one source of validation of who owns and operates ships which at the shallower end of the gene pool can be a moveable feast. The other one is that they monitor the health of the world fleet, shipmanagement, classification society performance and crew competence and that monitoring evidences itself in the deficiencies identified onboard. Any ship is not just a ship, it’s a part of a system.

Those deficiencies form a valuable data set that has, over time, grown to the extent that viable insight can be drawn from it.

The first modern Port State Control organisation was the Paris MoU, and that body has set the international standard for state-based ship inspection that the rest of the world has emulated. The ethos of the Paris MoU was to drive substandard ships and shipowners out of European waters by exposing them. Paris has never been afraid to name and shame, and publishes all of their findings and insight on their very entertaining website. They even provide some analytical tools to help the reader understand the messages that the data set is sending. Even better than that and in a demonstration of what world leading transparency looks like, they provide their inspection data at source for other data providers to incorporate into their products, multiplying the positive impact of all those hard working Port State Control officers. These providers include well-known brands such as Rightship.

That might come to an end next March. Under pressure from shipowners, the Paris MoU member states have agreed to stop providing data at source to industry and publish only via parismou.org and equasis.org.

Why? Because ratings providers like RightShip are causing owners some difficulty with prospective charterers and traders. A poor vetting score can mean less work for the least well-run ships. Ironically, just as the Paris MoU has realised its original ambition to an extent incomprehensible before the Data Age, it plans to take a giant step backwards. It’s probably going to do this alone, as none of the other MoUs are indicating, at least privately, that they are going to follow the Paris example. The irony that the data shared at source between PSC MoUs is visible on Equasis to enhance its effectiveness has not been lost on me.

I can’t imagine why the Paris member states have signed up to this. Perhaps the residual oil pollution from the Erica and the Prestige is now outside the environment. Politicians have short attention spans and bureaucrats have no imagination, which may explain why this course of action has been agreed. In circumstances like this I favour Hanlon’s Razor, which states: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”.

So if you are reading this in The Hague, here’s perspective on transparency. It was the right decision to provide PSC data at source to industry. Doing so pushed the Paris ethos further and faster than if this had never been done. Doing so multiplied the effect of thousands of inspections carried out by people who genuinely care about safety at sea and the lives of seafarers. If the unintended consequence was to create a ratings industry that is causing shipowners commercial difficulties then the solution is to engage with the ratings industry to help them use the data fairly. Shutting off the data feed whilst at the same time declaring that the Paris website and Equasis satisfy the transparency agenda is disingenuous. Worse than that, it’s selling out PSC inspectors, seafarers and the fine record of the Paris MoU by giving succour to a minority of shipowners who see safety as an overhead and not an enabler.

Toothpaste doesn’t go back in the tube and you can make a real mess trying it.

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6 Comments

  1. Andrew Craig-Bennett
    November 3, 2017 at 12:35 pm

    Port State Control, like toothpaste, comes in several flavours. Some are nicer than others. A PSC inspection by a competent and experienced seaman like Rod, backed up by the resources of an honest and efficient organisation, should always be welcomed, but at the other extreme we have the “PSC inspection as shakedown” and somewhere in the middle we have “PSC inspections by insufficiently experienced people, with an agenda”.

    The point that I would like to make in support of Rod is that the best practice in Port State Control has always been accompanied by the highest levels of transparency; the really good national PSC organisations, many of which are in the Paris MOU, take the view that the highest levels of transparency are always good because it is in everyone’s interest to learn what really goes on.

    At the other extreme there are PSC operations who would not like me to name them or to give examples of their practice but whose approach to Port State Control might be summed up in the expression “Marlboro Country”. These organisations absolutely loathe transparency, because what they are doing is dishonest.

    The Paris MOU has been, quite simply, the best thing to happen to safety at sea in my lifetime, because of the wealth of reliable data that it has provided, and continues to provide.

    I urge the Paris MOU to reconsider, and ideally to name those who are behind this retrograde move.

    1. Alan Knight
      November 3, 2017 at 5:42 pm

      Well said, Mr. Craig-Bennett. The first time I detained a ship under the Paris MoU, back in 1990, I was expecting the Master to be angry. He said “Thank you very much; I have been telling the Owner of these problems for months. He will not listen to me, but will have to listen to you”. 27 years, and several Detentions later, the reply is always the same. On my office wall, I have a photograph of the crew of a truly appalling ship which I had detained. As I lifted the Detention (after several weeks) the entire crew shook my hand, and one said “Mr. Surveyor, we did not think that we would see our families again. Thank God for Port State Control”. I have told my wife that that photo is to be placed in my coffin.

  2. Mark Rawson
    November 3, 2017 at 6:49 pm

    There is no doubt that PSC has been a tremendous force for good and has been effective at driving an improvement in standards.

    Back in the day when PSC started it was about detaining ships that were unsafe and unfit to go to sea, and it really did a good job, but the toothpaste is out of the the tube and PSC is now not only about detaining unsafe ships, but Code 17’s, Code 16’s, Code 15’s Code 99’s etc. etc. all used for analysis, judgement and public criticism of ships, managers, owners Flag States and Class Societies.

    So where are we going? Are all PSC’s the same – No of course not, 2 inspections of the same ship but by different inspectors in the same port at the same time could produce different results. For many organisations PSC is not about identifying a small percentage of bad ships and stopping or banning them, it is about raw data to feed algorithms and data bases about the other 97% or 99% of ships.

    In the land of the blind the one eyed man is King and when you want data on ship quality PSC data is all there is in some sectors.

    I agree with all the comments above and I would also argue for more transparency. Is it a co-incidence that probably the best and most professional PSC regime at the moment is the USCG? (we used to have our moments with the USCG didn’t we?) but aren’t they good (clear, consistent and professional) now? and the USCG PSC data system is the most transparent of all.

    More transparency please! and why not let the owner or manager comment on the deficiencies reported on the same web site – wouldn’t that provide us with some useful insights and information about the whole process as well?

  3. Seafarer
    November 3, 2017 at 11:46 pm

    ‪PSCO must always have a shipboard experience in senior ranks. Otherwise the inspection is a mere paper exercise. ‬ How on earth do they expect a naval architect to carry out a CIC on safety of navigation with ECDIS??

  4. Robert Gordon
    November 4, 2017 at 3:13 am

    I am a huge fan and promoter of PSC as a truly effective barrier against the incompetence and ‘flexibility’ provided by FOC’s and their non-IACS RO’s. I see the USCG getting a round of applause for their capabilities. I am therefore both shocked and concerned that members of the Paris MOU appear to be capitulating to shipowner lobbyists. For the benefit of myself and my MSc Maritime Affairs students at NTU, I would be very pleased if Rod Johnson or other knowledgeable readers could expand on the details of the actual restriction to information that will occur if the current information available at attending PSC websites will only be available at the Paris MOU and Equasis sites. In short, what could be missing and therefore hidden to public gaze? Thanks for your help.

  5. Antonio Gordo
    November 4, 2017 at 2:30 pm

    The excess of procedures and guidelines for PSCO are limiting the action of surveyors on board and that’s why you will see more and more reports with zero remarks.