Paper, paper, everywhere

What is the point of issuing the master of a ship with bits of paper and requiring him to show them to people who turn up onboard and insist on their right to look at them?

The correct answer is, “To enrich corrupt port officials”.

I know a ship, which recently put into a Russian port for bunkers; the agent came on board and insisted that he needed to take the folder with the trading certificates ashore with him. Soon afterwards two gentlemen from Port State Control turned up and asked for the certificates, and on being told where they were – ashore with the agent – imposed a fine of $500.

There is only one sensible place for a ship’s trading certificates, and that is on the internet. If governments can keep their motor vehicle tax records on the internet, surely the same can be done for merchant ships? If the trading certificates are on the internet, national authorities, port officials, even charterers and underwriters can look them up when they first have to think about the ship rather than waiting until a ship arrives in port.

If the IMO cannot be trusted to keep a website up to date, no doubt IACS can do so, since most of the bits of paper are issued by its members.

This leads me to the most useless bit of paper yet devised by the IMO; the Nairobi Convention Wreck Removal Certificate, required as of February 14 this year. Like the other ‘evidence of financial responsibility’ certificates, this is issued by the ship’s flag state, against a fee and a ‘blue card’ (in reality, a PDF) issued by the ship’s P&I Club.

So why do we call a PDF, an electronic document, which is not blue, a ‘blue card’? Nobody knows. Some people trace an analogy with the US permanent residence certificate, which was green when it first appeared in 1946, while some people think it was because the paper used by early computer printers was sometimes blue. At all events, this system has been with us since the Civil Liability Convention of 1969, which created a system for paying for oil pollution from tankers which was indeed a wonderful thing in its day, and which created the system.

1969 was 46 years ago. The Vietnam War was at its height, the Beatles were still making records… and the IMO has not come up with a better system, but have just multiplied the old one with Bunker Convention Certificates, Athens Convention Certificates and now Wreck Removal Certificates.

Talking of certificates, the UK Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents, Captain Steve Clinch, says that it would not be a bad idea if anyone who holds a certificate of competency as officer in charge of a navigational watch should be required to undergo a practical exam in a simulator once every five years, to make sure that they are up to speed with the Collision Regulations. Can anyone think of a good reason why this should not be done?

For the avoidance of doubt, may I say that the reason given for not requiring oral examinations as a part of STCW, namely that, in many nations, the candidate will slip a wad of notes to the examiner, is not a ‘good reason’. Like many things in merchant shipping, that is a bad reason.

Bureaucratic inertia, as demonstrated by the IMO sticking with a 46-year-old idea, which was elegant when mainframe computers had less power than your phone has today, is always a bad reason.

Is there intelligent life at the IMO? There is very little evidence for it.


This article first appeared in the most recent issue of Maritime CEO magazine which readers can access for free by clicking here.

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.
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