Words from 2010 Year of the Seafarer winner

The maritime industry has an image problem, according to Michael Grey, who recently won the 2010 Year of the Seafarer Award in London. In this speech given in October 2002 on the Gold Coast in Australia, Grey addresses the ferry industry, looks back at his past experiences and talks whimsically about life on the water. Above all, he recalls the how the industry has slid from public view and what needs to be done to rectify this.

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, it is a great pleasure to be here in Australia at this Interferry event, here in the celebrated Gold Coast, which seems to have come a long way since my seagoing days of the 1960s when it was just a sort of louche bungalow settlement – where Brisbane folk went for weekends of illicit delight, mostly, from the tales we heard at the Breakfast Creek Hotel, with other people's wives.

You cannot conceive how much pleasure it gives me to be invited to such a meeting of what might be described as the maritime aristocracy. We are a sort of specialised crew on Lloyd's List and the ferry and passenger ship beat has always been somebody else's responsibility. I spend most of my time trying to sympathise with bulk carrier owners whining about new construction rules and the unrealistic expectations of charterers who would like them to run their ships for free.

Just occasionally I move into the circuit of tanker owners, who are slightly more upmarket; they wear neckties and know which knives and forks to use, (although the Americans can't use them simultaneously) but all they do is complain about being persecuted by the greens, who accuse them of polluting the world, and carry that stuffed cormorant around to be photographed eagerly by the press every time they spill a little oil.

But here I am among ferry people, who mostly run very posh ships with passengers who pay money for the privilege of travelling on them, and are said to enjoy the experience. Mind you, it wasn't always like that.

I am old enough to recall ferries which, as far as I could determine, were solely run for the convenience of their crews, providing a sort of test for the hardihood and resilience of their passengers, who had to endure an ordeal something not unlike the experiences of competitors to Celebrity Challenge if they wanted to eat anything while on board, or get a drink.

They are beginning to fade now, but as a frequent traveller on the English Channel ferries, I used to have scars across both knuckles, caused by the bar staff slamming down the shutters just as I got to the head of the queue, with the ship 20 minutes into a three-hour passage. It was also an extraordinary challenge trying to guess which sole currency the ship actually accepted, because you knew that if you offered sterling it would be a French ship, which would only accept francs, or if a British boat you would not be able to hear yourself think for the catering crew shouting in English at uncomprehending Frenchmen about the unacceptability of their currency.

I can remember discovering to my rage and indignation some years ago in the bad old days that there was a ferry that left the Belgian port of Ostend at the precise time that a long passenger train from Brussels and beyond arrived at the adjoining station. The ship was timetabled to leave deliberately to ensure that no train passengers could catch it. I rang up the ferry operator and was told that the ship had to leave at this time to ensure that the crew could get home without running into overtime payments. Happy times.

But then, probably because of the influence of Scandinavians, who had made the astonishing discovery that more people travelled on ferries if they could enjoy, rather than merely endure the trip, we entered the golden age of ferry transport. It took the Brits a bit of an effort and no little training, as our definition of a smorgasbord buffet was indistinguishable from that of a trough, but we persisted, and I have to say this heralded an era when heaven to me became a long continental rail journey, culminating in a ferry crossing to Britain, a beautiful ship lying on the berth, with a fine smell of cooking and a welcoming staff. And of course, because of economics, public demand, and dare we say it the malign pressure from bridges and tunnels, you ferry people have smartened up your respective acts all over the world.

You have spent fortunes on your ships, ordering vessels indistinguishable from cruise liners, filling them with shops and boutiques, restaurants and children's adventure playgrounds. As somebody who has to be marched down to the shops with a gun in my back by my wife, I sometimes wonder whether we have taken all this comfort and convenience rather too far.

Sometimes it seems a bit pointless going to sea to experience the charms of a combined shopping mall and nightclub. Where is the old romance of standing on the afterdeck and smelling the funnel smoke, watching the white cliffs recede, tasting the salt spray, clutching one's sick bag as the little ship plunges into a westerly swell?

But I am sure you know exactly what you are spending your money on. You have done your market testing and you know there would be precious little return trying to satisfy the wishes of an elderly ship-nut like me. That would be altogether too much of a challenge!

And talking of challenges, it is remarkable just how many obstacles ferry people have to overcome, just to be allowed to operate their ships in a profitable manner. You have to confront the enthusiasms of the civil engineers, who like to build bridges and tunnels over and under all the best ferry crossings. And this is of course no ordinary commercial challenge, where there are accepted rules and concepts like "level playing fields" to consider. You are up against powerful commercial and political interests who have other dimensions to that of transport, mostly to do with the pouring of concrete and the profits of civil engineering companies, assisted by traffic projection statistics that ferry people know full well to be works of science fiction.

As an example of this I offer you the new bridge across the Sound from Copenhagen to Malmo, which is an elegant structure that cost the equivalent of the GNP of many medium-sized countries and that was opened last year. As an exercise in applied engineering it is worth going to look at, but I went over it about a month ago, in the evening rush hour, and counted approximately one car every half mile in each direction.

But why should anyone be surprised? I used to catch one of the three nice little ferries that took about an hour to do the journey in the past, and while they used to be full enough in summer, on a February night I have shared the ship with exactly half a dozen lorry drivers.

I just wish that those pushing the idea of fixed links would be more honest. One imagines a corner of an exclusive restaurant where the chairman of a civil engineering company is entertaining a transport minister. As the Cognac is poured the conversation goes very much like this:

Chairman: "Look minister, Grey Construction is in a bit of a spot. The property market means we can't give our newly constructed office blocks away, we're up to our ears in steel rods and cement which we bought when they were cheap, the share price has zonked and the shareholders are looking for blood. And you're in a mess too Minister, with unemployment rising and oblivion awaiting at the next election. Let's work together. We build a 25 mile bridge and its supporting road and rail infrastructure, it doesn't really matter where, getting 10,000 people off the unemployment register and using up all our cement and steel rods, and giving you, in the fullness of time, a seat on our board. It makes more sense than dishing out dole money. It just needs imagination and nerve: imagination to dream up the financial case for the bridge, nerve to make that case to the banks and the public, without actually laughing out loud."

Is that too far fetched a picture of what ferry folk have to contend with? If they could just admit that this actually goes on and why it is they want to build their bridges and tunnels, you know, I think we might respect them more!

So you end up with playing fields that are as level as the stadium where they play the Nepalese Cup Final. You have the inquisitors of various competition commissions examining your pricing structures at regular intervals. If you operate ferries in Europe, you have had to contend with the overseers of that great European Commission chocolate teapot factory in Brussels, doing away with the duty free sales you depended on for a quarter of your revenue, in an act of what can only be described as illiberal spite.

You have technical regulators bearing down on your ships with gleaming eyes, anxious to fill the ferries with more buoyancy, more stability, more damage resistance, infinitely more paper; all worthy and useful no doubt, but driven by attitudes that are simply intolerant of any form of risk.

There is nothing new about this. When I came ashore I worked for a few years in the technical and safety department of the UK Chamber of Shipping, from where I used to sally forth to battle with regulators on a regular basis. This took me occasionally to what is now the IMO and I well remember a session of the fire safety sub-committee in about 1969, when we were considering fire protection on what they delighted to call Dynamically Supported Craft, which in your language meant hydrofoil – fast ferries.

We had spent half the day happily loading up these hydrofoils, new and existing craft, with sprinklers and smoke detectors and tonnes of A-60 bulkheads and insulated steel, when an extremely angry looking person on the Italian delegation held up his card. He identified himself as the proprietor of a prominent hydrofoil builder – probably the only significant fast ferry constructor in the free world in those days and in a voice shaking with emotion, he told us that we had loaded so much fire safety equipment and construction onto his fast ferries that if they were ever to become foil-borne, they would have to make the engines so large that there wouldn't be any room for the passengers.

"May I ask, through you, Mr Chairman, if any of the distinguished delegates here have ever seen a hydrofoil?" he cried.

And of course, apart from a vague looking chap on the Soviet delegation who thought that he might just possibly have glimpsed one through the fog when he was second mate on a Caspian Sea ferry, none of us enthusiastic international regulators had ever been aboard, or even seen a hydrofoil. It was a salutary lesson, and one that just sometimes we need to consider in today's circumstances when we try and relate regulation to reality, and the reduction of risk to what is reasonable.

I actually believe that as both an insulator against these risks, and a producer of profit, we don't give sufficient credit to the provision of well trained people ashore and afloat, and I don't think that the ferry sector is any different to any other in this respect. And if I can be briefly serious at this light-hearted occasion, I don't think the industry does itself any favours as it racks its brains trying to run its ships with cheaper and cheaper crews, employing manning agents to scour the world to discover unknown tribes of hill farmers who are prepared to man our ships at 10% less than the crew we are paying.

If we were operating a fleet of buses or a rail company, we wouldn't be permitted to pay off our domestic drivers and employ Romanians who were prepared to do the job for one third of the wages. I can remember a British fast ferry operator who was proposing to precisely do this, and the only thing that stopped him was the fact that the Department of Transport wouldn't either give the poor Rumanians visas, or permit them to live aboard the ship, sleeping on inflatable mattresses (or it might have been hammocks) when the ship laid up for the night.

Good people who are well motivated and properly trained will keep your ships and their precious cargo safe, and they can be a huge lever to prise money out of the passengers and into your tills. You need enough of them, to offer slick, friendly service, with something rather better than a fierce injunction to "have a nice day!" as the plate is slammed down. They need to be able to speak some known language, and identify with the ferry company they are working for.

The same thing goes for the staff you are employing in your terminals, sales staff who sell tickets on the telephone, and even by e-mail – you have to offer something special.

You replace people with systems and software at your peril, because like most things that emanate from the area of information technology, it only gives you half of the story. Who recalls all the half-baked tales sold to us a few years ago by the dot-com prophets as they stamped about promising the earth and raising colossal sums of other people's money with their spiel of gibberish and jargon?

Data, communications and functionality are important, but they are just the tools. It is worth remembering that systems engineers and IT folk are functionaries, mechanics with attitude who know no more of the world than a man who makes gearboxes for combine harvesters in Birmingham knows about the nuances of agriculture. It is professionally and properly trained and motivated people that make the difference to ferry businesses, just like any other.

I don't want to labour the point too much, but it is the judgement of people, fired by experience, that will be even more important in an era ever more intolerant or error, and ever more prone to liability. Management and decision-making skills will remain at a premium, even if the amount of information available is greater than ever.

It you have doubts, cast your mind back a couple of years to the collision between the cruise ship Norwegian Dream and an Evergreen container ship in the North Sea.

There was the cruise ship officer surrounded by the sort of gear that Captain Kirk uses on the Starship Enterprise, plotting about 15 converging echoes on the radar, when some twit turned up and shoved the garbage reporting form under his nose. As anyone who has ever communicated with a tax office will know, you just don't ignore a summons from bureaucrats accompanied by threats and advertising heavy criminal sanctions. The poor chap, according to my loose interpretation of the Bahamian casualty report, was feverishly scrutinising the garbage returns and the tonnage of what is euphemistically called "grey water", when his beautiful white ship collided with the jolly green giant Evergreen containership.

If I have any other message to impart, it is that ferry people are on the front line and can do a great deal in your beautiful ships to address the enormous ignorance and apathy of the general public about shipping, an industry that to all intents and purposes has been removed from public consciousness. This is plainly obvious. You will have met plenty of people otherwise intelligent and well informed, who confuse shipbreaking and shipbroking, chambers of shipping are always being mistaken for chambers of shopping, and everyone thinks that bananas arrive not in banana boats, but supermarket trucks.

But is it not extraordinary that an industry that handles 97 percent of world trade, carries nearly 6 billion tonnes per year, and employs some 45,000 seagoing trading vessels and the same number of non-trading craft is, to all intents and purposes, invisible? If you will pardon such an allusion, when we are digesting our excellent dinner, shipping – this essential industry we are engaged in – has become like the water, gas or electricity or the drains that run under our streets. We have a vague idea they are there, but only when they stop, or spill over, do we ever think about them seriously.

There is a message to get across about the fascination and facts of this essential industry. We need to encourage journalists, broadcasters and opinion formers to become more interested in the magic and mystery of ships, and the industry that runs them. It is a challenge to international organisations, like your own, to get the message to the public, and particularly the young. That way we might just counter the insidious effects of the environmental fanatics, who have insinuated their way into the media and schools and whose only teaching revolves around pollution. In this industry, we may have a problem of invisibility, but the reality is not bad at all. Goodness me, we have a shipping industry that we can be proud of and into which we can welcome good people.

I have often thought that we need to reactivate the ancient concept of the hero – think of the cult of the celebrity ashore. I think we would be doing our industry a great favour if we did just that, honouring our heroes rather more, because we have plenty who own and operate ships, who design and build them, who run great ferry companies and who deserve more recognition than they ever get. There are some in this room tonight, but I better not ask them to stand up. I'm afraid they are too modest.

Maybe when we get some heroes we can celebrate them, and Madam Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, we might just be able to get over to the public, to a new generation something of what this great industry is all about.

–    Michael Grey: Interferry Conference, October 2002 (Gold Coast, Australia)

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