Is there intelligent life in shipping?

“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.

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. Interesting stuff, although I would suggest that the sort of office staff who would ask a Master to do something absurd will not last long in the business. In my experience, virtually all owners’ offices have shore superintendents who will soon tell them what is absurd and what is not.

    And if you’re going to criticise the P&I Clubs, then maybe you should add shipping bankers to the list. They fall over themselves to lend money when the market is high, often relying on period charter rates anyone with an ounce of sense and experience knows won’t be sustainable on an ordinary market. When the market was low until quite recently (talking of dry cargo here), they should have been falling over themselves offering to lend money to finance assets of which the downside was minimal.

  2. Tony, you are quite right about the shipping bankers, but lately they seem to have become almost extinct, at least in the Atlantic economies, for the very reasons you give, so I gave them a break.

    Whilst there are good former seagoing people ashore in owners’ offices, there are also a lot of people who are less good, and who see their best chance of feathering their own nests as toadying to toxic bosses, because the people on the ships that are unfortunate enough to come under them are far away and have limited power to hit back.

  3. What a refreshing ray of light into the world that we witness daily as port chaplains.
    Well said.
    It is indeed amazing how the morale, work rate and wellbeing of everybody on board is affected by two factors – captain and cook. I can often guess from my initial contact with the ab on gangway watch whether all is well in those two departments. Good captain – happy ship, good cook – even happier ship. Good captain, good cook – wow.

    1. Thank you, Peter.

      You work for the only wholly admirable organisation in the shipping industry, and I have sometimes thought (and I hope my old friend Martin Crawford-Brunt is reading this!) that ship vetting organisations and P&I clubs could save themselves a lot of grief by putting some money in your direction and listening to what you have to say!5

  4. Many thanks and a very nice one. Serious but fun and agree that “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.”

    1. Thanks, Jan.

      It really ought to be fun, and if we make our colleagues lives miserable, be they ashore or afloat, we need not wonder if we are left to man our offices and our ships with people who are not the best and the brightest, or even the reasonably good and not hopelessly stupid!

  5. A great article Andrew – can I put a link to it in my web blog?
    So much could be said here; it is an industry that is struggling in many ways.
    Here in Aberdeen, where much of the shipping is related to the North Sea oil rigs, wind farms and research/diving support vessels, have endured a downturn for the past three years.
    This has resulted in ‘tightening of belts’ all round with reduction in crew wages, longer contracts and ever decreasing moral of the crew that man the thousands of vessel visits to port each year.
    Having visited many ships over the past 17 years I have seen a real demise in the “fun of seafaring’ and the joke of ‘Hours of work’ that is flaunted and often made up. One MCA inspector told me of a vessel that produced the necessary paperwork on hours of work – completed to the end of the crews’ trip, when only half way through the 6 week trip!
    I feel for these chaps that have to ‘pretend’ to comply with company policies.
    I could widen this to many issues of crew welfare, but anyone in the industry knows that this is widespread – despite the adoption of MLC 2006, which did nothing to prevent the crew of the Malaviya Seven who were detained in Aberdeen for over 18 months! It’s captain told me that many other seafarers are in the same boat, but at least they were in port and being looked after by the Aberdeen Seafarers Centre and the wider community of Aberdeen.
    All in all, I am amazed that seafarers continue to work in this very dangerous industry, suffering great isolation from loved ones and the many unseen hardships of a life at sea!
    Like my good friend and colleague, Peter Donald, I serve these men and women of the sea, endeavouring to bring a little light and laughter to a harsh world that is modern seafaring.
    Howard >

    1. Thank you, Howard.

      I cannot say “yes” to your request for a link, as copyright belongs to Splash 24/7, but I recommend asking Sam and/or Grant and they will probably say “yes” to a link, “no” copying the article (we need page hits!)

      The odd thing is that although, as Erik says, seafarers are at the end of a telephone, their employers are often rather too good at forgetting that they are therezz

  6. Andrew:
    Good to hear you, here.
    Hope things are going well.
    Best Regards
    Michael D. Storey

  7. As I understand present conditions at sea, seafarers are occupied most of their onboard time to cover ass industriously studing manuals and by-laws issued by desk people as replacement of today extinct common sence – they believe. I often wonder how we (the Crew)/I (the Master) – left to our own knowledge, experience and use of common sence – once could cross oceans delivering the entrusted cargo in mostly mint condition without hourly interferenceby desk people. In those days, not that long ago, the Owner was quite happy with an ETA sent for the Monday morning gathering in the office. That was the case in my reputable company.
    And then, all of a sudden, the Old Man could not give a straight Yes or No without consulting the head office or the Charterer via the mobile phone, the gadget that he never lost grip of.
    Instant communications, dear Whatson, is the problem why things are what they are. Those now in office are always connected and conditioned sit on the seafarer’s sholder. Quite sad for the remotely operated crews, the vanguard of autonoumus ships.

    1. Thanks, Erik, and I have to agree.

      I can remember, just over thirty years ago, coming into the office and thinking that, whilst a certain cruise ship wasn’t due to update her ETA for another three days, a typhoon had just crossed her intended track. I was young and bushy tailed in those days, and, whilst none of my colleagues gave it a second thought, as her Master and indeed all her officers were notably good seamen, I was just a tiny bit concerned, so I sent a Telex Over Radio, which read, “ How are things?”, and in very few minutes I got the reply: “Fine thanks, how are you?” . No position, no updated ETA, no mention of increased fuel consumption to avoid interesting weather…

      The Master concerned and I meet up at social events now and I still feel as I did when walking up the alleyway to his day cabin, which reminded me of being summoned to the Headmaster’s study at school…

  8. Excellent Andrew,
    The dumbing down of ships’ staff has been a major factor, it started with FOC’s and has continued to spiral beyond sensible limits for at least 30 years and has resulted in diminishing the resources needed to support the shore establishment and maintain the proper balance between the academics and the practitioners. I could go on but you make make the point admirably.

    1. Thanks, David.

      You make a very good point which I missed – “dumb down” your fleet and you inevitably “dumb down” your shore establishment. And then where are you?

      (I should “declare an interest” – DRE and I sat a few feet away from each other in the same shipowning company office for some years – he as Fleet Manager and I as Commercial Manager.)

  9. Andrew’s rather excellent rant on stupidity in shipping covers a lot of ground. At the heart of it lies the observation that shipping and the people who run it are not what they used to be in terms of passion, training and experience. Greed and the disruptive rise of the FOC, along with the IMO’s submission to special interest lobbying, have had much to do with it. Low interest rates and market distortions caused by economic development banks and fraud, such as Keppel have been involved in, have done the rest. Sorry Andrew, it’s all over mate. Shipping has become a numbers game for CFO’s accountants and investors. It’s never really going to be fun again, except in our fond memories of the rapidly disappearing past.

  10. This is an industry that is long on paperwork and short on execution. All the key elements, such as Training standards, Maintenance standards, Operating standards are being managed ….not in the pursuit of excellence but in the acceptance of the minimum.

    Look what happened after the sinking of the Iranian Tanker” Sanchi” and before that the “Stellar Daisy”. A total of 54 lives were lost in these two accidents, and we have learnt nothing about the progress of the investigations. Any industry that treats its people as cannon fodder cannot expect to remain an attractive profession.

    It is not only the P&I club that deserve opprobrium. To my mind, none except the Port State Control have really covered themselves with glory, and these include the IMO, Flag States, Classification societies, shipowners, shipmanagers and the charterers. The naked pursuit of profit over corporate responsibility is nowhere as evident as in shipping. Even if one of these pillars of shipping industry starts to grow a spine, we can see immediate improvement.

  11. As I think the author of the article has referred to before – “The Raft of the Medusa”.

  12. My questions is…..who is going to write the software for that AI ship? Is it the same “competent” body at IMO, which is writing down all the regulations? Or it would be the Brokers……..or the Charterers? Actually, no matter who is going to write the software, the program will never run. There is no algorithm which can deal with all the contradictive requirements in place. But they can do a very good and expensive on-line video game for Charterers and Brokers. Here is the completed level 1, after you spent 24 hour banging your head on “how to cheat the system”: “Congratulations! You managed to sail. Now you can chose your crew”

  13. Excellent article! Very rare that something can elicit a chuckle and consternation simultaneously, and you have managed to do this brilliantly!

Back to top button