Monday 27 April 2015 Lloyds List
STAYING ON THE LINE by Michael Grey
IT IS called “shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted” and, as a phenomenon, it is as old as humanity itself, signifying the extraordinary precautions people take after an untoward event.
You might think of Hatton Garden the other week, after the safe deposit box heist, awash with the policemen who were sadly absent when they were most needed. In maritime terms, they don’t get much better than Titanic, with lifeboats sprouting on every liner’s boat deck in the following months.
Most readers will be too young to remember the notorious Lady Gwendolencollision in Liverpool Bay, when in 1961, the little Guinness coaster bumped into and sank an anchored tanker in thick fog. It subsequently transpired that the owners of the Guinness ship had failed to give explicit instruction to their master to use his radar and slow down in poor visibility and were thus denied leave to limit their liability and simply blame everything on crew negligence, as they normally would have done.
As collisions went, this was pretty insignificant, with nobody hurt and only two small ships involved; but in terms of the consequences, it was as if two laden liners had collided with vast loss of life. Within days of the judges’ decision, a huge global paperwork explosion took place, with every company dispatching vast quantities of hastily collated instructions, on every conceivable aspect of ship operations, to their fleets.
I can still recall the rage and frustration of our esteemed master as he worked his way through the great wads of paperwork in which was encapsulated what he described as “everything from the pointless to the bleeding obvious”. Up to this date, we had a company “Brains Book” — a single volume of company instructions that we were supposed to read and sign up to, each voyage, in addition to the specific requirements of the master.
Soon the volumes would start to multiply and before long there would be whole bookcases full of important information, which would be held against the guilty individual after an accident. It was called “clearing the yard-arm”, ensuring that the person issuing the instructions had done his part to avoid any subsequent blame, by having this documentary insulation. And all this happened because some bloody-minded old shortsea shipmaster didn’t like turning on his radar.
You might describe the months and years after the Lady Gwendolen judgment as the dawn of the “health and safety” age, with everything that hitherto was left to common sense and the normal practice of seamanship, being spelt out in dismal detail. It has just multiplied from there, to such an extent that even the International Maritime Organization is now starting to question the sheer numbing volume of instructions that delight modern mariners.
Lots of stable doors have been slammed shut and securely closed since those days. Think what the Exxon Valdez spawned in the way of precautions and completely changed tanker construction. Look at the Herald of Free Enterpriseand the International Safety Management Code. After the Costa Concordia loss, you would probably have put money on all sorts of new regulations and precautions coming along, although you wouldn’t have been given very good odds.
I have been reading the latest edition of the Royal Institute of Navigation’s excellent online journal Fairway, which tells its readers that since the facts became known about the loss of the Italian cruiseship, some owners have taken to “micro-managing” the navigation of their ships to an astonishing extent.
Communications are making this online scrutiny possible in a way that has never been available before; all it takes is for a ship to divert from the electronic course-line by half a mile, an alarm rings in Head Office and the master is being angrily questioned by some superior on his mobile phone!
As with all these things, people go to ridiculous extremes and common sense flies out of the window in the aftermath of an accident, as people go overboard demonstrating their extraordinary zeal.
I know we have a generation of people who regard a diversion from the computerised course-line something they should avoid at all costs and shout over the VHF at “stand-on” ships, but this is just barking mad. What about the Collision Regulations and necessary course alterations, which ought to ensure that ships keep well clear of each other as they abide by the rules?
The RIN points out that slow steaming is prescribed by the Gods in Head Office and if the ship alters its engine speed, for such a reason as not being able to maintain steerage way at such a low speed, or because of the visibility, or the density of traffic, there is an instant inquiry and the master is given a hard time.
The RIN’s Safety of Navigation group thinks this nonsense should be stopped forthwith and I imagine there will be plenty of practising navigators who would agree with this view.
I know that before that fine company ceased to exist, we used to laugh at friends who navigated Blue Funnel and Glen Line ships, as their routes were prescribed for them and charts taken ashore at the end of a voyage to see that they had not strayed unduly from the line.
But Blue Flu still self-insured its ships in those days, so there was arguably more at stake, whereas we were free to range all over the ocean at the master’s pleasure.
However, this latest flurry of post-accident micro-managing is something else — and if you treat professionals as idiots, that is exactly who you will be soon employing.