Captain Colin Smith was horrified last week on seeing the collapsed boxes strewn across the Japanese boxship, ONE Apus. For him, the sight of the destruction was illustrative of many woes facing the shipping industry as a whole.
Regarding the calamitous state of the containership ONE Apus pictured on Splash last week, the practice of loading containers far forward, and so high across the deck, is simply a matter of greed.
The various elements in the industry set up to arbitrate losses proceeding from that greed, insurers and lawyers, can be left to clean up the legal and financial mess themselves. But shipowners don’t own the oceans, the environment and the lives of the crews jeopardised by that greed, nor the lives of crews of smaller vessels who are equally jeopardised by it, especially ocean-going yachts for whom a collision with a drifting container can be particularity lethal.
It is high time that a modern Samuel Plimsoll stepped forward and grasped the nettle of dangerously overloaded ships. Plimsoll was a seamen’s champion from the Victorian era who campaigned against what were known as ‘coffin ships’, unseaworthy and overloaded vessels, often heavily insured, in which unscrupulous owners risked the lives of their crews.
The media should widely disseminate news of these box spill catastrophes and their causes, instead of colluding with the industry by covering them up or under-reporting the full story. An aroused public might well compel developed world governments to intervene again between the shipowner’s drive for profits and the rights of beleaguered masters and seamen to survive the voyage, bringing some sanity to a market that often seems entirely out of control.
The International Maritime Organization (IMO) should mandate limits on the number of containers carried above deck, their positioning and protective structures, and seasonal restrictions similar to the Timber and WNA Load Lines. The need for this initiative is rendered more urgent by the increase in average wave heights now encountered in the world’s oceans as a result of climate change. To the practiced eye the damage depicted on the 14,000 teu ONE Apus suggests a prolonged period of violent rolling. How severe were the sea and swell conditions that the master could not heave to, taking the weather on either bow? What schedule pressures was he subjected to that would force him to maintain an imprudent course in such violent seas?
It is high time that a modern Samuel Plimsoll stepped forward and grasped the nettle of dangerously overloaded ships
Some critics who reveal their fealty to the commercial aspect of the industry echo its totalitarian mentality by wanting to sanction a seafarer who takes a photograph of this disaster. Since all the key players inside the industry are entitled to photographs, the only entity he is concerned to keep ignorant is the general public, via the world’s media. This is probably the reason why the general public has so far been kept ignorant of such environmental threats.
Since the birth of flags of convenience, or open registers, the individual seafarer finds himself a helpless pawn in a Dutch auction of the factors of production in global shipping, in which all the benefits accrue to the shipowner and none to the seafarer, who is rendered powerless. Once he escapes the constraints of a modern democratically governed developed world register, the shipowner finds himself surrounded by an exotic cornucopia of flags, seafarers, management services, classification societies, and insurers to choose from, all competing with each other in a downward bidding market called a Dutch auction. This auction acts most cruelly upon the seafarer, who finds himself in a regulatory black hole, with only transient rights in the Port State Control regimes through which his ship passes, and none in his vessel’s flag state, whose only interest is tonnage money.
A developed world seafarer enjoying trade union and civil rights protection under a developed world flag could never be intimidated in the same way their developing world brothers on flag of convenience ships are intimidated. The abuses appear to be getting worse. Blacklisting is the norm for any seafarer courageous enough to raise his hand and demand justice and relief. Flagging out and employing cheap crews is merely another manifestation of the greed that infects international seaborne trade.
This inhuman state of affairs will continue until a global, pan-government body, perhaps emerging through the IMO, replaces the current antiquated, global patchwork ship registry system, with an all-inclusive, uniform and comprehensive ‘world’ register in which every shipowner will be compelled to treat his employees with dignity and humanity.
At this juncture it would be fitting to revisit the wisdom of one of America’s greatest judges, William Douglas of the US Supreme Court, who stated in 1949 that “if men are to go down to the sea in ships and face the perils of the ocean, those who employ them must be solicitous of their welfare”.