SMOKE SIGNALS – Michael Grey Lloyds List

SHIPPING has often been described as an industry that operates “on the frontier”, which could be taken to mean there are always many hostile tribes out there, which bear it no goodwill.

Anticipating where the trouble will flare up next may be thought of as an essential skill in the experienced frontiersman, who, in the best Westerns, was always alert to smoke signals or other signs of danger.

For the professional master, exposure to criminal or civil sanctions has always been the downside of the job, inextricably part of the responsibilities that come with the ship they command.

But in recent years, this risk has been greatly increased along with port state control, which for better or worse, has enabled anyone with a bit of authority to march on board a ship and throw a lot of weight around. Time in port, once a place to perhaps relax a little after a stormy sea passage, is often a place of tension and one of perpetual inspection.

It is also threatening to become a whole lot worse, with coastal states, international regulations and local bylaws, all combining to make the air cleaner and the sea free from harmful alien species which might be transported around in ballast water. The charges for which a master may end up in court are multiplying fast.

There are plenty of smoke signals to be seen.

This month the master of P&O cruiseship Azura will find out whether charges he faced at the Criminal Court of Marseilles for burning non-compliant fuel will stand.

In theory, he and the company face heavy financial penalties with up to a year’s custody for the master, after it was discovered that a local sulphur limit of 1.5% was breached, the ship having bunkered in Spain with 1.68% sulphur fuel. It is regarded as something of a “test case”, but any criminal record for any shipmaster is a very heavy penalty, that is magnified hugely by the demands of his profession to travel unhindered.

There is already a growing number of cases of ships that have been detained, after contraventions of emission regulations have been discovered. Even more sinister, there have been warnings that bogus “environmental inspectors” have been plying their trade on certain Black Sea waterfronts, looking to make some easy money.

Anyone with a little common sense may wonder why it is the master of a ship, who probably has limited exposure to the contents of the bunker tanks, or indeed the operation of the ballast management systems, who would be the person dragged into court concerning any alleged infraction. Nothing new about this, of course.

Think back to those infamous “Perben” court cases in France, where masters found themselves fined and given criminal records, after an overflying aircraft had photographed a ship that appeared suspiciously near what may have been an oil slick on the sea. No other corroboration was needed.

A very experienced retired master of my acquaintance tells of a nasty time he experienced in a Spanish port after his second engineer, who did not speak English very well, made an innocent mistake with the oil record book and suggested in error that sludge had been discharged overside. Only the helpful intervention of a classification society surveyor saved the master from a court appearance.

But all around the world, the authorities are anticipating the 2020 sulphur cap and sharpening their investigative powers. And it is shipmasters who stand to be out there, “on the frontier”, when these new powers are exercised.

Corrupt authorities

They hope that justice and fairness may be watchwords in this new environmental regime, but one does not imagine they are counting on this. In too many parts of the world, it will be regarded by corrupt authorities as just another opportunity to make some money.

But even in places where normally the authorities will be scrupulous regarding their regulatory powers, there are unanswered questions.

There is a presumption of tremendous precision about the performance of environmental equipment, along with a largely misplaced belief that the blended fuels that are taken on board are formulated to the standards that it says on the tin.

Scarcely a week elapses without some P&I club warning about horrible things somebody has managed to tip into a tank of ship’s fuel, whether it is cutter stock, shale, or just the odd tonne or two of chemicals they wanted to get rid of.

The clubs are chiefly warning about the harm it can do to the ship, or the machinery, but is this the sort of behaviour that provides the master with confidence that the sample taken by the inspector will come back from the laboratory smelling of roses and fulfilling all the environmental criteria?

It has occurred to me from time to time that some friendly agency ought to be providing masters with some sort of global analysis of prosecution risk.

Smoke signals for the 21st century, they could be much like the old Admiralty Sailing Directions also known as Pilots, which would warn mariners of poor holding ground, or other local navigational hazards. It might grade the country for its corruption — an index may be a useful indicator — or the propensity of its courts to deal with visiting masters in an unjust manner. A colour code would provide ease of use.

The problem, in these politically correct days, is that nobody would be sufficiently brave to publish such advice. Maybe a seafarer union would take it on board.

“Sailor, beware of the Bight of Benin…” began an old sailing ship shanty, which nobody would dare to recite these days.


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