Stephen Fry wrote that, “if a columnist has a single solemn duty, it is to make predictions for the New Year.”
Well, I am sorry Mr. Fry, but I am well aware of the pitfalls and have no intention of trying to reverse my abysmal record of failing to predict absolutely everything. This year, I have decided to adopt the much less perilous option of criticising the predictions of somebody else.
My victim, for want of a better word, is Nicola Pryce-Roberts who is a senior lecturer in maritime business and law at Southampton Solent University. I predict she may well have a title such as doctor, but I do not know it so I hope she will forgive me if I refer to her simply as NPR.
As I understand it, NPR has predicted that some of the major companies in the salvage industry may exit the business due to a decline in revenue-generating activity as shipping becomes progressively safer, with salvage and wreck removal jobs becoming more complex and expensive as they become rarer.
Using academic models developed in other industries to study the salvage world, she concludes that we are in a “decline phase” which is characterised by decreasing profits, lower outputs, a lack of innovation, less efficiency and slowing employment growth, among many other evils.
These academic models predict that some companies will seek to exit salvage or merge with other players. But bigger companies often face shareholder pressure to withdraw from unprofitable businesses, while smaller family companies have more autonomy and are better-placed to survive the lean times.
I hope I have done justice to NPR’s opinions, and explained them fairly, but is she correct?
My guess is that her predictions are just as inaccurate as mine, or Stephen Fry’s, or anybody else’s, but let us attempt to debunk them with hard facts. First of all, let us look at the decline in revenue-generating activity.
We all know that the number of Lloyd’s Open Form cases is in sharp decline, but this may be more to do with the unpopularity of the contract among deluded ship owners and insurers, rather than an absolute decline in salvage work. Swiss Re keep records of maritime catastrophes, and their records for the past few years are shown below:
This would appear to indicate that the number of catastrophic accidents is fairly stable, a proposition which appears to be borne out by statistics published by the Japan Transportation Safety Bureau (JTSB), which recorded 153 losses in 2011 and 203 in 2019, with similar deviations in between.
The difference in the numbers of losses between the two sources can be explained by the fact that Swiss Re only record accidents where there were large insurance claims or massive loss of life, whereas JTSB records all accidents which come to its attention. Different methods, but similar results in my opinion.
Finally, I checked a 2012 report compiled by Southampton Solent University for WWF, which again recorded a fairly steady number of losses over an extended period. One of the authors was NPR.
What that WWF report did conclude was that losses are declining relative to the overall size of the world fleet (my italics), and this is where I think NPR may have made her mistake. Losses as a percentage of the world fleet are certainly declining, but it is my opinion that the overall number of losses is not.
Consequently, I am fairly confident that salvage and wreck removal work will remain at present levels until autonomous vessels arrive on our oceans, when it will rise spectacularly and profitably for readers of this column.
Sorry, I just made a prediction, but let’s blame it on the time of year and move smartly on.
My final disagreement with NPR is her assertion that large companies may exit the business because salvage and wreck removal jobs are becoming more complex and expensive. Surely, this is where the large companies make the greatest profits and they are the jobs that smaller companies simply do not have the resources to attempt.
So I think we will have to agree to disagree on this as well. Mergers and acquisitions may well continue, but I believe the demise of the salvage industry is unlikely.
One thing is for sure – either NPR is right, or I am. And that is my final prediction.
Thoughts for a bereaved family
Readers may have heard of the tragic death of Chief Engineer Ian Webb, who slipped between the jetty and his tug and could not be recovered from the water before he tragically died.
The MAIB report was published recently and makes sad reading. One finding was that his shipmates were not trained in the use of the man overboard recovery sling and there were no operating instructions on board, so they failed in their attempts to recover Mr. Webb.
This is not the first time a tug man has died in similar circumstances, so I urge all tug companies to ensure they fit an approved recovery system on all tugs, and ensure the crews know how to use whichever system they choose.
Regular drills can be conducted without too much disruption, and I have found that a boiler suit stuffed with suitable filling makes an acceptable substitute if nobody volunteers to play the role of victim. The devices are not expensive, and they do save lives.
Let us at least make a collective resolution that no other family will ever enter a New Year in such anguish because we failed to prevent an entirely preventable tragedy.
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.