Many years ago, sitting aboard a ship in Brisbane and loading for the United Kingdom, I was asked by the master, just for the sake of argument, to work out the distances and passage times from the Queensland port to the chops of the English Channel by all the routes that were available to us. We could shape course north or south of Australia, we could run across to Panama or through the Suez, and even around the Cape Horn and Good Hope.
I remember this exercise, not for the several hours it took me, crouched over the chart table (no computers in those days), but for the surprise in discovering that if we ignored the weather factor, there was under two day’s difference between the longest and the shortest route. The master was surprised too, but elected to go home “the conventional way,” through the Bass Strait and Suez, although nobody in the company would have batted an eyelid if he had chosen an alternative (I had been quite keen to see the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait).
I recall this illustration of the freedoms of the seas that still prevailed in the 1960s when I hear of yet more attempts to circumscribe those that still remain. The proposal before the International Maritime Organisation’s Sub-Committee on Safety of Navigation to establish a recommended route for all ships in the Mozambique Channel is a case in point.
The Mozambique Channel is more than 1,000 miles long and some 200 miles at its narrowest point; an ocean passage through international waters, yet the proposal by a bunch of regional
states (and France) would establish one of the world’s longest routing systems, effectively forcing shipping running north and south down the same proposed tracks. There are no Vessel Traffic Services in the area, and while there have been the occasional collisions and groundings, there seems no compelling evidence that mere lines on the chart will make shipping or the environment any safer.
There are also principles and precedents to be examined. There is a sort of bossiness abroad that cannot bear the idea of shipmasters being able to employ their own experience and discretion as to the conduct of their ships. You can see it manifested in the suspicious minds of charterers who pore over logbooks to make sure that the master has not gone a mile longer in his voyage than “the computer says.” And there is the “command and control” attitude, which would like to see a sort of ‘Sea Traffic Control’ centre, with people in front of screens barking out directions to those in charge of ships all over the world’s oceans.
We can see the consequences of the pressure put on the masters of ships by charterers and the bean counters ashore and it is wholly negative. As a navigator I always asked the master of a ship I was joining what distance he liked to be off the land. Some liked to be close enough to see the colour of the lighthouses, while others preferred to be further out to sea. So if you took a bird’s eye view of the traffic off Finisterre or some other popular cape, ships would be well spread out, with plenty of sea room between them.
Today, as the navigators feed their questions into their computers, they are all given the same precise answers, which will direct their ships down exactly the same geographically “shortest” route that
will be approved by the charterers, who will kick up a fuss if it is
You will see this also manifested in the crowding and constriction of shipping on coastal and even sea passages, and daft VHF exchanges between incompetents who would rather not divert from their computerised course, whatever the collision rules might dictate.
Today, of course, the availability of GPS and AIS make
it possible, in theory, to operate a system of Sea Traffic
Control. Don’t get me wrong, traffic separation and routing
works well when there is both competent supervision and a density of traffic that will justify it. It is also justified when the consequences of maritime accidents upon the marine environment are so awful.
But a channel 200 miles wide and 1,000 miles in length is a route too far and too long. If you treat navigators as incompetent, you should not be surprised when only incompetents want the job. If you gather such incompetents together in a small sea area, it would not be surprising if they bump into each other more often. It is that ‘Law of Unintended Consequences’, although national shipowner organisations and the International Chamber of Shipping have pointed these problems out – so we can hardly say the proposers of the scheme had not been warned.
Also lurking around the borders of this issue is the shadow of piracy, with the operations of these criminals extending further from the shores of Somalia all the time. Clearly, if all the shipping running up and down to and from the Mozambique Channel is to be funneled down a narrow track, kindly marked on the charts, it would make the lives of piracy planners a good deal easier.
Somehow, when contemplating regulatory constraints on the movement of shipping, we have to take into account the reality of risk and the cost of such measures. And also, in considering this ambitious bar to free navigation, exactly who is likely to pay!