COLUMN | Smoke gets in your eyes [Grey Power]

More than half a century ago, with the ship alongside in Brooklyn, I witnessed a confrontation between a uniformed official, packing a side arm, and our Chief Officer. The Mate had been the first officer he had seen, on stamping up the gangway and he was angrily complaining about the plume of black smoke emanating from our funnel.

This heinous crime had broken a local byelaw and the official appeared to be anxious to march the Mate ashore, at gunpoint if necessary, to face summary justice.

It was eventually resolved, not least because the donkeyman, who had been blowing through the donkey boiler tubes in the engine room had finished this routine task and the air above the funnel resumed its clear complexion. The ship, which was a diesel driven vessel, was probably let off with a warning, and the donkeyman would have been told firmly by the Second Engineer to blow his tubes after dark.

It seemed somewhat ironic in what was then a singularly filthy part of the city, the air heavy with industrial smoke and diesel fumes from the trucks, to be picking on us. But I suppose a ship, and a foreign one at that, was an easy target. Some things never change.

Local restrictions

That was decades before the terrors of man-made global warming had been recognised and the Californian professor had given us the pleasantly alliterative “diesel death-zone”, but maybe said something about changing public attitudes to the air we breathe.

And now, all those years afterwards, the whole marine industry is gearing up to implement its own “clean air policies” as part of a whole range of environmental regulations clobbering us almost simultaneously. The vesting date for the sulphur cap requirements is only fifteen months away and there are still shipping company managers agonising about whether they should bite the bullet and fit scrubbers, or just simply pay the hugely increased bill for low sulphur fuel.

If they opt for the former, which sort of scrubber should they install and will it be possible to buy the things in time? Will it be possible to find a repair yard to do the work, with the ship out of service, with the shortest possible downtime? And if they read the technical journals assiduously, they may have been alerted to the various warning signals coming from various parts of the world about potential local restrictions being placed on various sorts of scrubbers.

China, for example is believed to be contemplating a coast-wide ban on open-loop scrubbers in their waters, which rather removes the justification for fitting them, if a voyage to that part of the world is a possibility.

Plenty of other countries will almost certainly be framing their by-laws accordingly; on the basis that clean water is every bit as valuable as clean air. These laws may all be different, providing people who manage ship operations with a sort of patchwork quilt of regulation that is almost impossible to reconcile.

It is also worth remembering that there are huge numbers of un-cooperative ports around the world which either refuse to receive a ship’s oily wastes, or charge unreasonable sums for their reception facilities. Are they going to be doing much the same for the wastes from scrubbers, in whatever form these materials are delivered?

So if you eschew scrubbers on the grounds of all these various unknowns, opting for low sulphur blended fuel, there are also clouds on the horizon, not, on this occasion, caused by polluted air.

It will not have escaped the notice of the observant that much of the clean-air policing is going to take the form of sampling of ship’s bunker tanks to validate their compliance, following an inspection of the oil records. That would be fine if we could be assured that the fuel that is supplied is always exactly that specified, and that sampling methods and testing can be relied upon.

Fuel blending, at least that for marine fuels, is not well regulated in many parts of the world. And while aviation and most fuel for landside operation (at least in the developing world) can be expected to be close to its specification, that for ships’ bunkers seems far more of a hit and miss affair, bearing in mind the numerous cases of engines being damaged by bad fuel, regularly reported by P&I clubs.

“It is a post-sulphur world the marine industry must embrace”

It scarcely seems to be a system that lends itself to trouble free ship operation, once the port state control officers (armed with new powers and wearing their sulphur caps?) come marching aboard.

It has already been suggested that these regulations will amount to a heaven-sent opportunity for administrations always on the lookout to levy fines on visiting ships, to generate useful income from their own dubious bylaws and corrupt policing systems.

“Captain, you are in big trouble” says the official, bearing some spurious document from a local laboratory which has been testing the bunker samples. Who would bet against such a situation arising all around the dodgiest waterfronts?

But it is a post-sulphur world the marine industry must embrace, like it or not. But incidentally, let’s not see so many of these published pictures of ships with smoking funnels, which are mostly caused by engineers blowing their boiler tubes. Half a century after our confrontation in New York, they still have to do that, if they are to avoid nasty fires.  

COLUMN | Ladies first [Grey Power]

We are terribly hung up on the need for “diversity” these days, with every government department in most developed countries ramming its importance down our throats.

EEDI status quo for Ro-Ro vessels

The IMO Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) to uphold previously agreed sector-specific energy efficiency design index (EEDI) targets for Ro-Ro passenger and Ro-Ro freight vessels. 

COLUMN | Celebrating seafaring [Grey Power]

This is being written on the day being celebrated by the IMO as “the Day of the Seafarer”, which I suppose gives an opportunity to various maritime organisations to say how much they appreciate the work of those who earn their living on ships.

Outside the somewhat closed community of the maritime industry, the event will scarcely make a ripple on the great ocean of ignorance about what happens on the other side of the dock wall, let alone over the horizon.

Most people, outside certain parts of the Philippines, probably don’t know any seafarers, such has been their exclusion from mainstream life. They might meet some if they travel on cruise ships, but that great multitude of seafarers, who operate less exotic forms of marine transport, carry out their tasks quite invisibly.

I can’t remember a time when so many people and various bodies have been expressing concern about the “well-being” of seafarers, so perhaps this marks some form of recognition. This is driven by concerns about their health and mental stability, with attention being paid to the rate of suicide among the seafaring workforce.

And in addition to the religious welfare organisations, which have always showed their concerns in welcome and practical ways, P&I Clubs, academic institutions and various maritime organisations have all voiced their concerns.

Happiness Index

Studies have been carried out, like the Mission to Seafarers’ “Happiness Index” which polled serving seafarers and discovered a decline in measurable levels compared with earlier surveys, citing stress, workloads and isolation. All sorts of useful “self-help” advice is being produced to enable the stressed, fatigued and isolated workers to cope with their lot in life.

Well, three cheers all round! It is good that there is a more concerned management at home, helpful that the unsatisfactory elements of a seafaring life are being recognised. But will all these reports and studies on seafarers’ mental health actually make any difference. Or will they merely be added to the growing anthology of data that tends to show that Jack (and Jill) is not so jolly as was once the case?

There have already been fears expressed that if you are hoping to attract lots of bright young people to the world of commercial shipping, it is best not to be constantly harping on about how miserable a life afloat might be. That may be a good point to make. But wouldn’t it be better if the industry, in the shape of the seafarers’ employers, in acknowledging the problems, set out a sensible strategy for addressing them? Something, perhaps more constructive than advocating “mindfulness” or yoga?

People complain about loneliness more than they did in the past, it is said. You could argue that even ashore, in an era of mass communication, people are citing their loneliness as a reason for their lack of happiness. You might equally argue that both ashore and afloat, people seem to voice their complaints more they did in a more phlegmatic age.

Or you might agree that lonely seafarers have a point, and maybe we should not be surprised, if they are a member of a tiny crew rattling around in big ship full of people who speak every language but their own. They might be lonely, because they work largely alone, only meet people at mealtimes and then only two or three people, whose command of language might be to acknowledge a request to “please pass the salt”, but not much else.

They might be lonely, because they have nobody to talk to, and not much else to do at the end of a watch but to sit in one’s cabin, watching a film on an electronic device. They might be stressed, because of somebody giving them a hard time on account of an instruction being misinterpreted because of the lack of a common language.

They might be fatigued because of the ferocious schedule of the ship, with lots of ports, everyone screaming for the ship to arrive and shouting when there is an unavoidable delay. They might be miserable because of the shocking relationship between ship and shore, with the latter just not comprehending the reality of life on that particular ship.

Solvable problems

People often cite the length of tours aboard ship as a reason for unhappiness. It also cannot be much fun when the officers go home on leave at the end of a tour that is half as long as that of the ratings. There is no doubt also, in the minds of older seafarers, that accommodation standards have deteriorated over recent years, with shipping scratching around trying to stay profitable.

Then there is time in port, which was once a chance for a bit of shore leave and relaxation, but now is a time of added stress, with no shore leave, very short stays and everyone screaming for the stay to be further abbreviated.

It is no exaggeration to say that some seafarers actually dread their time in port, notably in those parts of the world where ships and their crews seem to be there to be exploited, tested and punished if they are found to be non-compliant in some way.

So, in addition to drinking a toast to seafarers on “their” day, maybe some of these very real problems could be looked at constructively. None are insoluble, given goodwill, better organisation and perhaps a modest increase in costs.

Subscribe to this RSS feed

Subscribe to the Work Boat World mailing list

* indicates required