Abandonment issue gives shipmanagers a chance to shed ‘spiv’ image

The announcement by the eight big shipmanagers that they propose not to do business with owners who have a history of abandoning crew is a good start, but now let’s ask for more from these men.

There is only one reason why an owner ‘walks away’ from a ship, abandoning the crew, and that is because the owner has no money to pay his creditors with.

We all know that such an owner may subsequently discover some hidden resources, often in the property market, and buy another ship or ten, once freight rates improve, but competent shipping services providers, be they bunker suppliers, insurers, spares suppliers, financiers or indeed shipmanagers, are aware of our industry’s long standing tendency to ‘pay with the mainsheet’. They track people who don’t pay, and will be aware that their creditworthiness is suspect. To refuse to do business with someone who leaves bills unpaid is just common sense, and all the big shipmanagers carry out credit checks on new principals.

If you think about how our business operates, from the agent sending out his preliminary disbursements account, via all the forms of dry cargo charter party, through all insurance documents, to every shipmanagement agreement that I have ever seen, the whole of shipping, with the important exception of the tanker trades, is built on ‘In God we trust, all others, cash’ – and specifically ‘cash in advance’.

(Tankers and OSVs are different because Big Oil makes the rules, and Big Oil is not only solvent but understands the concept of cash flow and the benefits of using its contractors’ cash).

The very term ‘to pay with the mainsheet’, meaning to ‘forget’ to pay a supplier, obviously dates back at least 150 years, since merchant ships have not needed mainsheets for a while. The law of most nations puts the claims of the crew for outstanding wages ahead of other creditors, so this, too, suggests that seamen have been going unpaid for a few centuries now.

So the seeming magnanimity of the eight big managers is just routine business practice.

There is something that the managers can do, if they really want to help deal with the issue of crew abandonment, and that is to always do the decent thing and pay outstanding wages and repatriate crews themselves.

In fairness, some of the big managers already do this, on a case by case basis, but they like to keep quiet about it, perhaps because their shareholders would question the need to do so, or perhaps because they don’t want to look foolish in the eyes of their competitors. It would, I am sure, be very wrong of me to think that they only do so when their name might come out.

There is something undignified about large commercial enterprises with a global reach choosing to hide behind the law of agency, when confronted by an unpaid seaman, far from home, who thought, up to that point, that he was working for them.

Seamen who work for the big managers usually think – and will always tell you – that they work for the manager, not for Wideboy Shipping Inc of 80, Broad Street. It isn’t much fun for them, or their families, to suddenly find out that they have been working for Wideboy Shipping Inc after all, at the moment when they find their allotments haven’t been paid.

So I have a modest proposal for the big managers. These are companies who are very keen on being taken seriously and are anxious to finally shed the reputation as ‘spivs’* that they acquired around about the time that they stopped calling themselves ‘ship’s husbands’ – a term which disappeared at about the same time as the mainsheet. This can be another small step on the road to respectability that started with the late David Underwood.

I suggest that the Magnanimous Eight simply announce that they will, in all cases, follow the famous old rule of the KGB, and always get their men back. If the KGB, an organisation that enjoyed an even worse reputation than shipmanagement, could do it, I am sure the upright gentlemen in charge of today’s shipmanagers can do it too.

After all, in the case of a ship flying a flag which applies Regulation 4.2, Standard A4.2.1 paragraph 1(b) of the Maritime Labour Convention 2006, which is most of them, they can claim the cost of repatriation from the P&I Club.

Let’s see a statement by the eight big shipmanagers that they will always pay wages, including allotments, as soon as they are due, and that they will always repatriate seamen working onboard ships under their management promptly in the event that a ship under their management is detained by creditors of the owner.

That would be worth something.


*spiv noun, colloq a man who sells, deals in, or is otherwise involved in the trading of, illicit, blackmarket or stolen goods, and who is usually dressed in a very flashy way. spivvy adj.
ETYMOLOGY: 1930s. The Chambers Dictionary

Andrew Craig-Bennett

Andrew Craig-Bennett works for a well known Asian shipowner. Previous employers include Wallem, China Navigation, Charles Taylor Consulting and Swire Pacific Offshore. Andrew was also a columnist for Lloyd's List for a decade.


  1. Where did you get that “old KGB Rule”? If its “своих не бросаем” (we don’t leave our team members behind), then its got nothing to do with KGB, but its rather an urban legend motto for a Soviet paratroopers/spec ops.

    You have to be more careful with your sources

    1. Thank you for the correction. It has often been attributed to the KGB by western writers, perhaps because of the frequency of “exchanges” during the Cold War.

      1. Its pretty far-fetched to suggest to align actions of the secret intelligence towards its own planted agents – very few, mostly compatriots who worked for them for years with attitude of the generic shipmanagement company towards sailors they never seen or really cared about.

        In fact, even KGB “rule” is an urban legend – you may refer to the case of Emil Julius Klaus Fuchs, who delivered nuclear secrets to USSR and when caught, was sentenced to 14 years, while USSR denied that he was their spy. So he served 9 years in jail all right.

        Few “spy bridge” exchanges which were made public are only tip of iceberg of the lowly agents who were forgotten after them being busted as disposable.

        Suggest to find a better example

  2. I have been trying to see whether an agent for a principal who abandons one or more individuals without paying them or repatriating them commits “modern slavery” within the meaning of the UK Modern Slavery Act of 2015.

    Perhaps a lawyer might be able to offer an opinion.

    It is certainly a point that ship managers who operate in the UK should keep in mind.

  3. The Modern Slavery Act only applies to England and Wales, so I think it would be quite a stretch to use it in the case of a ship’s crew (query even on a UK flag ship or in British waters?). But who knows – maybe the ITF would like to try a test case?

    By the way, I thought that “Leave no man behind” is a policy of many military units worldwide, including the SAS and US Marines?

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