Work Boat World Editorial – May 2012
In his Grey Power column in this issue Michael Grey raises the important matter of criminalisation of seafarers. He, very, tellingly, explains how that problem can be obscenely worsened by the decisions of land-based bureaucrats who unfortunately can be both incompetent and powerful.
A couple of recent incidents involving the ‘Erika’, ‘Heibei Spirit’ and the ‘Prestige’ off Spain, Korea and France provide us with chilling reminders of how these kinds of incidents can flick already over-pressed vessel masters out of the frying pan into the fire.
Mariners everywhere and operating vessels of all shapes and sizes are far too well aware of how vulnerable they are to the sometimes idiotic whims of bureaucrats and other authorities. Of course, with no risk to their own skins or careers, with one stroke of a pen or one word on a radio, those bureaucrats can cause the deaths of dozens and destroy the careers and lives of others.
This is obviously a condition that not only affects mariners. Small businessmen every where face the consequences of idiotic bureaucracy and political decisions on a frequent basis. Fortunately, however, damage to these land-based businesses rarely leads to loss of life.
Usually but not always, some kind of, often natural, justice prevails in the end. Meanwhile, the mariners involved can suffer unemployment, vilification, imprisonment or worse while the bureaucrats serenely sit on their shiny backsides knowing that their government employer will take care of all legal problems and costs.
Having “enjoyed” many battles with the bureaucracy in a number of countries over the years, I have considerable sympathy with mariners so involved. While almost all those battles resulted in victory for my company or myself, the unnecessary stress and time wasting that accompany such fights, not to mention the legal costs, are both wearing and time consuming.
The fact that “right is might” in most cases is barely enough to sustain you but, in most cases, the victim has no choice but to fight on.
I well remember an incident with which I was slightly involved that occurred in 1978. That has coloured my thinking on the involvement of incompetent authorities with maritime accidents.
In that case a small steel trawler capsized in the surf on the bar entrance to the port of Lakes Entrance in Australia. The vessel was inverted but largely intact with its bottom exposed in shallow water. The owner went alongside in a dinghy and is certain he heard tapping from inside the hull.
Unfortunately, the responsible “authority” was the local police sergeant who had no marine experience or, indeed, interest he declared the vessel a “crime scene” and forced the owner away. He was not in any way prepared to investigate the owner’s claims even though it would have been simple, safe and inexpensive to cut open the hull. A crew member’s body was later found in the compartment from which the tapping was heard.
In the real world it is impossible to prevent uneducated, incompetent and insufficiently trained people from rising to positions of authority. Regrettably, also, a large proportion of such people are employed by governments.
You would hope that modern high speed communications and constant close media scrutiny would reduce the frequency of such incidents occurring. Given recent history, it appears almost that the opposite has become the case.
Much needs to be done to protect mariners from the incompetence of governments. Perhaps this could be a joint project for the always excellent Nautical Institute and the globally powerful International Maritime Organisation which, fortunately, is under new management. An international approach is imperative for our globally operating industry.