“Is there intelligent life on Earth?” read a graffito on the wall of the Old Schools Building, Downing Street, Cambridge, circa 1972. I walked past it on my way to lectures. One day, the rhetorical question was answered. Under it was written, much smaller, in a different hand, “ Yes, but I’m only visiting…”
“My lads are all in favour of the unmanned ship!” So speaks the mate of a bulk carrier, who was expected to clean holds from coal to grain during a two-day passage up the Baltic in January, without breaching the hours of rest, of course. The chap whose hours of rest precipitated this outburst was of course the cook, who had ‘run out of hours’ and therefore left the lads with cold food as they knocked off, in -1 degree temperatures, so the magic hold cleaning gunk didn’t work, and yes, there are hatch cleaning guns, but they are hidden behind manhole covers too big for anyone to risk dislodging them. This is a modern ship owned by a much admired shipowning company.
As the market surges back, no thanks to us, let’s take a moment to consider just how we got ourselves into our current predicament. Bulk carriers have been around for half a century. You would think that the annoyances listed in the paragraph above could have been sorted out by now, and indeed I was happy to confirm that 30 years ago we had sorted them all out, but along came a couple of recessions and a generation who knew not Joseph, and it’s all to do again.
Likewise the matter of who goes where at mooring stations. Thirty years ago, Joe Shell pointed out, rightly, that sending the mate forward, the second aft and leaving the third on the bridge to write up the bell book was a practice that dated back to sailing ships, which had two mates, no bridge, and complex anchoring arrangements, so whilst it made perfect sense in 1880 for the mate to go forward and do the ‘Todd and Whall’s Seamanship for the Merchant Service’, stuff, catting and fishing the anchor, leaving the master on the poop, this makes no sense in a motor ship, where the sensible thing to do is to have the second forward, the third aft and the mate on the bridge to shadow the master and pilot and to get some practice, because you don’t want newly appointed masters to take command with zero ship handling experience.
That was fine until hours of rest, which gave the unthinking traditionalists who abound in shipowners offices, all claiming to have 20 or more years experience, when in fact they have three years’ experience, repeated a few times, and then forgotten after 20 years ashore, a chance to revert to sailing ship practice, on the grounds that “It was good enough for me!”
And the IMO are just the same, happily presiding over a set of Collision Regulations drafted in the 1860s for sailing ships, which required the concept of the ‘stand on’ and the ‘give way’ vessel (think about it, and yes I know we can use other words, but it’s not the words that matter, its the concepts!) and imposing them on every power driven vessel on the high seas. We have Collision Regulations which ignore AIS, VHF and ARPA, but when we consider that they are intended for sailing ships we see that they are not just 40 years out of date, but 140 years out of date. And still killing people.
The P&I Clubs are busily cutting each others’ throats by reducing rates and in some cases even giving money back to their members, because claims have reduced, just at the moment when the recovering freight markets are increasing the frequency of claims, so the P&I insurance business cycle, which, as everyone has known for two generations at least, lags the freight cycle by two or three years, so the clubs call for more money at just the moment when owners haven’t got any, is doomed to continue.
One could multiply these examples. Ours is a very, very, stupid industry.
Not only do we carry on making the same mistakes, but when we have corrected a mistake, we go back to making the same mistake a few years later.
This is odd, because in recent years ‘shipping’ has been taught in universities, from Dalian to Liverpool, via Gothenburg, as an academic subject, and many people have degrees in it.
One is bound to wonder what the students have learned from these courses. The answer seems to be, ‘all the wrong stuff’. Students seem to acquire the same bad habits that my generation learned by ‘sitting next to Nelly’ in owners’ and charterers’ offices and (more of this shortly) brokers’ offices, but because they have learned them in a lecture hall, and been examined on them, the stupidities have acquired the status of religious scripture. The bad habits have been reinforced, because the people entering the business have been taught them, not by Nelly, who might be fallible, but by university lecturers, who have given them pass or fail grades not on what they can do, but on how accurately they regurgitate what they have been taught.
We will pass gently over Bernard Shaw’s unkind observations about those who can, and those who teach, and move on to the growing power of shipbrokers who have ceased to be shipbrokers.
Shipbroking is in the twilight zone; it is one of those skill sets which is all too easily replaced by information technology, and the crew in the opening paragraph (and, by the way, I approve of any ship’s officer who calls his crew “My lads”) will not be replaced by automation before the shipbroker. The crew actually do stuff, like cleaning holds, mooring up and, most importantly, mending stuff, which require physical dexterity as well as situational awareness, skill and knowledge, whilst all the broker does is to sit at a desk, pass social pleasantries and do rather repetitive deals, based on the market information that she or he has been able to accumulate. This is a job that an algorithm can do 90% of, even now. But the exponents of this decreasingly necessary skill set have infiltrated themselves into owners and charterers’ offices, and so far as the tramp bulk trades are concerned, they call the shots every bit as much as naval architects call the shots at today’s classification societies. The sad thing is that in general they have not cleaned a hold, changed a crane wire or stripped a tank, and in consequence they very often ask the ships that they ‘control’ to do absurd things, quite ignorant of the practicalities and dependent upon those mariners who have made it to the office job to tell them what is or is not practical.
So, have we made the life of everyone involved in shipping better or worse? The answer, sadly, is that despite all the technology available to us, we have made it worse. Merchant shipping ought to be fun, fun for everyone involved in it, and it can so easily be fun. Give a ship’s crew good food, good senior officers, nice cabins, wifi and an occasional decent run ashore, and they will be happy, they will work better, and you will make more money. There has been many a truly dreadful ship held together by a happy, motivated, crew, and there are even more ships that look like a charterer’s dream on paper but which are floating hells manned by demoralised people, fighting bad detail design, abused by their employers and just wanting to get off.
The very last thing anyone in the – let’s face it – quite pressurised world of merchant shipping needs, is a toxic boss, but the bad effect of over documenting processes, over reporting and setting procedures in stone is to encourage the toxic master, the toxic chief, the toxic DPA, the toxic superintendent and the toxic general manager, because it has become so easy to find fault.
Shipping ought to be fun for everyone. It can be. If it isn’t it’s our fault, now. Unless we are really, really careful, we will encode all the things that make it not fun, and which are driving the keen and capable people away, into algorithms that will rule us as permanently as the social media algorithms are ruling our politics.
We can do so much better.