COLUMN | Adrift in a sea of ignorance [Tug Times]

Wakashio. Photo: Panama Maritime Authority

A recent wreck removal job garnered less publicity than it merited, and it caused scarcely a ripple even in the shipping press. I refer to the fishing vessel Northguider, which grounded near Spitzbergen in the Svalbard archipelago in December 2018. The vessel could not be refloated immediately, but fuel and pollutants were removed by January 2019. That summer, attempts to patch and refloat the vessel were thwarted by bad weather and severe ice conditions, so this year the salvors returned. They cut up the wreck and loaded it onto a barge, then ensured the surrounding area was pristine again before they departed.

It was a fairly straightforward wreck removal in many ways, but this was the high Arctic at almost 80 degrees North, and according to a Norwegian spokesman, “no wreck handling has ever been done so far north or so far away from opportunities for logistics support.”

So hats off to the salvors, and perhaps we should make more of a fuss when the industry does good things like this.

At almost the same time, the world-class salvors who removed Northguider came in for criticism of their handling of the bulk carrier Wakashio, thanks to some of the most ill-informed comments it has ever been my misfortune to read. These came from a certain Nishan Degnarain, who claims to be a Development Economist focused on Innovation, Sustainability, and Ethical Economic Growth –  the capital letters are his, not mine. Sadly, the nonsense he produces is published by Forbes, and has been circulated by a number of shipping news sites that should know better.

His pieces are masterly in their use of innuendo, and the phrasing of ridiculous allegations as questions. Among his best claims was that the front half of Wakashio had gone missing in the Indian Ocean, and was last seen being towed in a southeast direction toward Antarctica! I presume he thought the bow section was missing because nobody told him where it was and he lacked the ability to discover it himself, but note the completely irrelevant information that the tow was heading in the general direction of the Antarctic – guaranteed to get the penguin-huggers alarmed even though it was obvious the tow would not be going within 4,000 nautical miles of any ice.

“…the array of specialists would only be confusing to a writer who did not know anything about the subject he wasted more than 10,000 words on.”

He also attacks the Panama register, which probably deserved it when they initially tried to blame bad weather for the grounding, but Mr Degnarain goes further and points out that the ship had never even been to Panama, which is one aspect of the “highly secretive world” of vessel registration.

He goes on to ask whether the grounding was caused by a rogue employee, and whether a more transparent system of registry would have prevented it? Totally illogical, but in the world of smoke and mirrors, and with editors and readers who know nothing about shipping, he gets away with it.

Writing about the apparent delay in starting salvage or wreck removal operations, the writer ignores the coronavirus restrictions and the lack of any suitable local tugs or the total absence of commercial flights to Mauritius, and says it is hardly the fault of the local authorities that the global shipping industry had, “demanded free right of passage through Mauritian waters, and close to biodiversity hotspots and whale nursing grounds.”

The fact that dead whales and dolphins washed ashore at around the same time is given prominence, of course, despite their having no signs of contact with oil or other pollutants, and long before any autopsy results were available.

Blaming Panama occupies several pages, then the author turns on the IMO, asking whether the fact that accidents happen is a sign the international regulations are no good. Even the role of Malta is questioned because the tugs that towed the forward section of Wakashio flew their flag.

It goes on and, if anything, gets worse. Having criticised the slow response and implied that nobody did anything until much too late, it then criticises the confusing array of specialists who were involved. Naturally, the array of specialists would only be confusing to a writer who did not know anything about the subject he wasted more than 10,000 words on.

“…now that fake news has become respectable and has a place in the heart of even the most powerful, things are likely to get much worse.”

Finally, the writer seems to blame the recent tragic explosion in Beirut on the same murky secrecy and incompetence that pervades the shipping industry. You might think the explosion happened ashore, but the cargo arrived in Beirut on a ship, so it is obviously our fault.

If I promise never to write about Development Economics, Innovation, Sustainability and Ethical Ecomomic Growth (his capitals, not mine), perhaps we can persuade Mr Degnarian never again to write about shipping, but I doubt it. He will probably not even stop once the whales have been autopsied and a thorough investigation into the grounding has been conducted. After all, with a careful use of question marks and innuendo, he can spend years asking whether the autopsy was carried out by professional cetacean specialists, or how Panama hid the relevant facts from the investigation, or why Malta was not grilled about the actions of its tugs?

But do not expect to read about how quickly the response was launched given the remoteness and the coronavirus restrictions, or how the world-class salvors did a remarkable job of removing so much oil given the near-impossible conditions, or how a respected P&I Club will offer all the support and assistance they can. Those facts simply do not fit into the narrative being promulgated by Forbes, and being so spinelessly encouraged by sections of the shipping info-sphere.

I was going to suggest it is time for the industry to fight back, but bodies like the International Salvage Union have been employing PR consultants for decades, and we are no further forward. And now that fake news has become respectable and has a place in the heart of even the most powerful, things are likely to get much worse.

Nobody really wants to hear the truth, especially when it is less exciting than the innuendo. Salvors and those dealing in wreck removal are probably getting used to it, but it will affect us all before too long.

See more stories from this month’s Tug and Salvage Week here.

Alan Loynd

Alan Loynd is a master mariner with extensive seagoing and shore experience, especially in the areas of salvage and towage. He is the former General Manager of the renowned Hong Kong Salvage and Towage company. He now runs his own marine consultancy and was chairman of the International Tugmasters Association.