Who Would be A Master Mariner?

Lloyds List Monday 23 January 2012
Facing Up To Life As A Surviving Captain by Michael Grey

WHO would be a shipmaster, as everyone from the media to his employer bites chunks out of the reputation of poor Francesco Schettino, late of Costa Concordia ?

A century ago, perhaps the prospect of such a life as a survivor occurred to Capt Edward John Smith as he walked back into the dark and abandoned wheelhouse of Titanic before his ship slid into the deep.

“If I ever lost a ship, I would make damn sure I went down in her,” said a master I sailed with one evening as he finished writing up his night orderbook and took the cup of cocoa I had made for him.

He had reached this gloomy conclusion, he told me, after reading the harrowing account of the formal inquiry into a collision in which a master, who lost his daughter in the incident, then had his certificate suspended (Crystal Jewel/British Aviator collision)

My captain’s assessment was probably right, when you consider how people who take on the vast responsibilities of command are treated when things go pear-shaped.

The master is the man or woman who carries the can and whose conduct falls under the spotlight after a disaster. Whether the incident was due to ill fortune or misjudgement, parties jostle to declare open season on the master’s behaviour and reputation.

Lawyers’ perfect hindsight will dissect the master’s every action. Survivors’ evidence will provide grim personal stories that can be taken out of context to prove professional negligence of one sort or another. Inevitably, the odds will be stacked against any rational assessment of one man’s conduct in extremis.

Witch-hunts of the past have left surviving shipmasters as wrecked as their ships from the treatment they received. Who recalls the vilification of Capt Rugiati of Torrey Canyon , exhausted, suffering from tuberculosis, being harassed to meet the tide at Milford Haven, yet “entirely to blame” for the stranding that ushered in the age of the superspill.

Remember Capt Bardari of Amoco Cadiz , who carried the blame for the grounding of his disabled very large crude carrier , which nobody could tow clear of rocks off Brittany.

Recall Capt Kirby, senior master of Herald of Free Enterprise , not even on board his ship when it came to grief in Zeebrugge, but persecuted and prosecuted nonetheless.

It is a long list of people, whose lives and careers have been wrecked like their ships, survivors who then faced judgement for their actions, in modern times mostly in criminal courts.

These days, of course, nobody waits for the court of inquiry or trial before drawing their own conclusions about the obvious incompetence, negligence or even cowardice of the master. All those cellphone cameras, wielded by citizen journalists, provide us with “evidence”, even though that they are in the hands of individuals who almost certainly have no idea of what is going on and no inkling of the complex events taking place in an evacuation.

Can any survivor, as he or she gives their breathless recollections to camera, be in possession of anything other than a fragment of the whole picture?

It is so very easy to allege that there was panic or a lack of proper instruction, amid inevitable confusion, to a media that will publish these words instantly, with no counterbalancing view from somebody with a better idea of the reality.

Let us acknowledge that it takes a well-informed cruise passenger to be able to distinguish between the various senior officers of the various departments on board these huge ships.

The “captain” that some breathless survivor has allegedly seen chatting to a blonde in the bar before the accident, may well have been the chief purser, chief environmental engineer or just a barman with a lot of gold on his uniform. Almost certainly there will be very little context in the way that these fragments are then delivered.

In this most human story, the hunt is on for heroes who can be lauded or incompetents who can be roundly condemned. National stereotypes are meat and drink for the tabloids. The fact that almost no reporter has any clue about ships or shipping tends to encourage them to focus on things they do understand. Heroism. Cowardice. Blame.

An allegation, even a hint of cowardice, or of failure to abide by traditional mores of “women and children first” fills a lot of airtime and printed space.

Of course, the fact that the professionals mostly will not talk, possibly because they have a professional future to consider, leaves the questing scribes with those who want to get something off their chests. Along with the experts who, it is fair to say, are markedly less expert now that maritime expertise is a minority pursuit in former maritime countries.

Will there be any objective assessment of what went on before or after a marine accident? It very much depends on who is doing the assessing.

Despite the laudable efforts of the European Maritime Safety Agency, too many countries in Europe still cling to their old habit of investigating through judicial or criminal law. We need to know what happened, so we can prevent it happening again.

Finding somebody to blame and throwing shipmasters in jail will not get us anywhere.

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