Standards are dead - from today’s Lloyds List
Racing to the bottom
15 Feb 2018
Flag states and registers seem to be competing to attract tonnage by offering incentives for minimum manning
Seafarers on a tanker
THE WORK TO BE DONE ON A SHIP WON’T DISAPPEAR WITH THE PERSONNEL NO LONGER ON THE SHIP’S ARTICLES.
AUTONOMOUS ships will clearly remain a fixation for many people in our industry for a long time yet, or perhaps until people work out that they are unaffordable, but the race to reduce crew numbers from “conventional” ships continues.
Indeed, you would sometimes think that there was some sort of international award being offered for the most adventurous crew reductions. Perhaps this might be thought of as incremental autonomy, with one day some owner revealing that the last human being had been paid off his ship and it was now running on automatic.
The facilitators in this race to the bottom would appear to be the various ship registers, which often seem to be fighting with each other to attract tonnage by offering exciting incentives on manning arrangements.
It is not a competition we ought to be encouraging, especially if you actually speak to those on board ship who are working harder and harder, as the jobs don’t disappear with the personnel no longer on the ship’s articles.
It is sometimes argued that well-designed and highly automated ships really don’t need much human intervention, with the crew assumed to be just sitting around overseeing the equipment and waiting for things to go wrong. It might appear to be quite boring, really. Of course, it never works quite like that.
When a ship is very new, the first voyages are spent putting right all the things the shipyard didn’t and discovering new and exciting faults that require rectification.
With this all done, a well-found ship hopefully enters a sort of brief “golden age”, before things start to wear out, corrode, leak or overheat. People always used to say the Japanese system, which involved selling a ship just around its second Special Survey, had a great deal to recommend it, leaving the new buyer to pick up the accumulation of rising maintenance costs.
But it might be suggested that there are a number of guiding principles that ought to dictate the manning levels.
First, there is a direct correlation between the maintenance state of a ship and the manpower available to keep it all running sweetly.
Second, there should be an assumption that things will go wrong; people, like those ashore, take days off sick and the burden on those left should be reflected in the manning level. It’s not rocket science. Third, there is a social and human aspect to this level, with more to life than work.
But let us get back to our competition between flag states and registers for the most adventurous manning arrangements, as represented by the certificates of minimum manning. There is nothing even remotely new about this.
There have always been thoroughly disgraceful flags that have operated chiefly as revenue earners with no interest whatsoever in the safety of the ship or any other standards. They were the fall-back position for equally disreputable, or perhaps just poverty-stricken, owners who failed dismally to convince more quality-driven registers of their shipmanagement arrangements.
Oblivious to all the indicators of quality or respectability; the “Qualships” and “White Lists”, the useful league tables put out by the International Chamber of Shipping and others, these registers serve the down-at-heel and the ships in the autumn of their days, chiefly sailing in areas where port state control is non-existent or, let’s face it, “revenue-driven”.
But there are other flags, highly respectable ones, which enrage their competitors by their seemingly elastic interpretation of what constitutes reasonable minimum manning.
People operating ships in the UK probably still grind their teeth in rage at the sort of manning that is permitted in Norway, although the Norwegians always point to the role of advanced equipment as they issue certificates which appear to legitimise minuscule manning levels. They cite the role of science and technology. The arguments will continue.
But you sometimes hear of some remarkably rum cases in which flags you thought of as rather more particular have been excessively liberal with their manning certificates.
I have one in front of me as I write; a 20,000 gt general cargo ship, licensed to operate with a minimum crew of 13. This crew comprises a watch-keeping master (which is a disgrace) and two mates, three seamen and a cook, three engineers and three engine room ratings.
This is probably a ship of around 30,000 dwt, operating internationally, and you might think that the register accepted this manning proposal on the grounds of huge levels of technical sophistication.
If you thought that, you would be wrong, for this bog-standard ship doesn’t even a have an unmanned machinery notation. Here is a quite large ship, crewed by people who one might guess will struggle to keep their hours of rest legal, operating with the size of crew and with a system that would have been deemed not unreasonable, a few years ago, in a 2,000 dwt coaster.
If they can convince the administrators of this flag that this is reasonable, what are you complaining about? But this undermanned ship, one might surmise, will be competing in the markets with others that are owned by more particular folk, who man their ships to reasonable levels, but who will end up being thoroughly disadvantaged.
The flag that issued this certificate is engaged in this race to the bottom and ultimately does nobody — the more particular registers, the competing ship operators and of course, the suffering overworked crew — any good whatsoever.