Masters Under Pressure

Lloyds List by Michael Grey  Monday 2 September 2013

Is risk-taking in the maritime industry now taken for granted? Today, the money men tend to be in charge and shipmasters are expected to tremble and obey   

THE song so admirably sets out the dilemma: “Should I stay or should I go?”

Less romantic is the question asked quite routinely by shipmasters all over the world as they occupy themselves with what we today term “risk management”.

Do you leave what you believe to be a safe and secure anchorage or berth because of the approaching storm, or get out and find sea room?

Do you succumb to the pleas, blandishments or threats of the terminal, which badly wants you on the berth —  even though you suspect, because of the weather and the lack of a great deal of manoeuvring room, there will be some very hairy minutes between the forecastle bell ringing the anchor aweigh, and the ship being controllable in the wind-lashed roadstead?

Do you play safe and ignore the screams, or cross your fingers and weigh anchor, trusting that everything works when it most needs to?

The trouble is, there are few rules for these difficult questions that only shipmasters on the spot can truly answer.

Do you leave the berth in thick fog, trusting the pilot’s assurances that the weather is clearing? Or do you ignore the demands of the charterer, which wants you in the next port for first light the following day — or the terminal, which just wants you off the berth so it is clear for the next customer who is impatiently waiting outside?

So many imponderables have to be faced. If you are leaving a port in a great big ship, to head into heavy seas outside the sheltered breakwaters, you are going to have to be able to let go the tugs in time to secure the forecastle and, importantly, get the forward crew to safety before green seas start crashing over the bow.

You will have read of fatal accidents in recent years, where people were caught forward by oncoming waves.

You probably want to get the pilot off with the ship in sheltered waters, as he or she doesn’t want to spend the next 10 days on an oceanic passage. But then, with no tugs fast, and no pilot, it will be up to you to get the ship safely clear of the coast in the storm.

However, if the engine breaks down at this crucial moment, you really are in the soup, caught on a lee shore with offlying banks, in a fierce gale and mountainous swell.

“Why didn’t I stay safe alongside?” will probably cross your mind as the crisis envelops you in a battle that becomes one for survival.

Who remembers that saying, “There are old masters and there are bold masters, but few old, bold masters”?

It was used chiefly as an invocation to prudence, a word you don’t hear so often in a maritime world whose priorities seem to have changed to one where risk-taking is taken for granted, there is an assumption of precision and those directing ships from ashore seem to regard them as rather large lorries.

You might suggest none of this is new.

Decades ago, the US west coast marine insurer and poet James A Quinby offered us his poem Unsaid about the differences between the shipping company’s pious injunction “safety first is our boast” and the reality of “from here to there is our motto”.

To hell with the wind and the tide and the sinister parting advice to “…use your own judgment, skipper, but think of the penalty — there’s better captains than you on the beach, we know where they are — they’d be easy to reach”.

But Mr Quinby’s burdened shipmaster did not have the pressures of constant communication with the outside world, with all sorts of external forces, themselves pressured, harassing him into taking the risk he would rather have avoided.

“This delay is costing us $20,000 per hour!” shrieks some voice on his mobile phone as he is questioning his officers about their pre-sailing checks.

“If you don’t get off this berth this ship will be blacked,” urges the agent, who is of course primarily representing the charterer, not the ship.

“We are depending upon you to arrive on time,” murmurs another voice, implied threat encapsulated in the words.

There are no allies any more. If anyone dared to come down heavy on any master I sailed with, asking him to do something the master considered dangerous, there would be a fierce complaint to the superintendent, who would inform the directors and the noises of their wrath would be echoing around the world.

Today, the money men tend to be in charge and shipmasters are expected to tremble and obey.

The master who routinely errs on the side of safety will see the costs of the delays occasioned by his prudence thrown back at him.

It will always be somebody else’s ship that ended up broken in half on a reef, with vast insurance bills for salvage or wreck removal — and that’s not a risk the bean-counters consider.

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