A Gray List of a Different Kind
As the United States remains on the Paris MoU’s Gray List, the U.S. Coast Guard itself has “sounded the alarm.” That’s to be expected. But is the fleet of America’s primary maritime, regulatory watchdog any better than the commercial entities they supervise? The GAO says “no.” The reasons for both situations are quite similar.
The somewhat embarrassing position of U.S. flag vessels on the Paris MoU’s so-called Gray List isn’t good news. It also isn’t anything new. Since 2008, American tonnage has languished in the company of supposedly inferior flag states because of less than perfect performance during port state control inspections. And, when a Coast Guard compliance officer recently “sounded the alarm” over the matter, it provided the sort of discussion necessary to fixing the “problem.” And if the Coast Guard’s fleet wasn’t in a similar condition to the commercial assets that they criticize, then perhaps some of us would’ve taken the commentary a little more seriously.
Paris MoU is an organization consisting of 27 participating maritime Administrations and covers the waters of the European coastal States and the North Atlantic basin from North America to Europe. Its mission is “to eliminate the operation of sub-standard ships through a harmonized system of port State control.” Annually, as many as 24,000 inspections take place on board ships in the Paris MoU ports. According to the organization’s WEB site, this ensures that these ships meet international safety, security and environmental standards, and that crew members have adequate living and working conditions. It sounds like a good plan, probably is and certainly, flag states do their darnedest not to get lumped into a sub-standard category. So, that’s something, no?
On this year’s “Gray List” a total number of 20 flags are recorded, down from last year’s total of 24 flags. Among the best performing Recognized Organizations included the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS), Det Norske Veritas (DNV) and the China Classification Society (CCS).
Blanket Generalizations: never a good idea
It might be argued that, as someone who hadn’t signed on board a U.S. flag merchant vessel in about 25 years, I’m not the best candidate to be sounding off on technical issues related to seaworthiness, ship’s condition, safety and readiness. But since I followed that 6+ year career at sea with another 15-year stint as a ship expeditor, vetter and loss control man, I promise you that I’ve stepped up more gangways of more ships from more flag states and spent more time aboard them than most. I’ve seen it all – the good, the bad and ugly – and I promise you that it has less to do with flag state than it does with a myriad of other variables. Beyond this, I’ve always frowned upon generalizing about a particular grouping of vessels in order to come to a blanket assumption about the rest.
During a ten year period spent trooping around the globe attending vessels – usually on a twenty-four hour basis, first line to last line – performing any number of roles, including but not limited to petroleum loss control, expediting, vetting, condition surveys, performance evaluations and casualty investigations, I rarely saw a case where U.S. vessels were run or operated in an inferior fashion as compared to foreign counterparts. Likewise; and abruptly pulling my head out of the sand from a seagoing career spent largely in the U.S. coastwise, Jones Act trades, I saw little evidence of the “flag-of-convenience” horror stories that domestic operators would like you to believe is the status quo. From my perspective, the primary factor impacting performance was the age of the vessel itself. I don’t think that’s changed.
My last merchant ship was a U.S. flag, Jones Act compliant 45+ year old converted T-2 type chemical tanker that had been lengthened with a mid-body in the 1960’s. And when it got its steering gear damaged in a grounding in the mid-1980’s, we actually had two suppliers, each with the last two T-2 steering gear units on the planet in a bidding war to sell us a replacement. Also in our fleet at the time was a 1982 built chemical tanker that was, for the most part, state-of-the-art for its day. I’d sailed on both by the time I’d headed ashore as they scrapped the former out from under me. What I soon found, however, was that the vast majority of foreign registered ships were on average (at that time), fifteen to twenty years younger than ours. From a standpoint of automation and maintenance issues alone, it was a huge advantage to the registered tonnage.
So-called flag of convenience operators regularly renew their fleets and as a result, the average age of their tonnage is younger than ours. Moreover, when they do build, they tend to build in series. Beyond the obvious economy of scale that this provides for the shipyards and the operators themselves, it also makes for better operations and more standardization on board. After about five years of trudging up and down the gangways of Japanese built tankers, the upside was obvious. Any Chief Mate in your fleet could walk up any gangway and within minutes, be safely and efficiently operating the cargo equipment. With only miniscule differences, you knew where the three main cargo pumps were set, how the eductors and the stripping pumps were tied in and so forth. That’s a relatively rare metric on the U.S. side of the equation.
I’ve also seen the seedier side of the flag of convenience, starting with the “flavor-of-the-month” manning tactics that trended to go from one nationality or region to another, depending how cheap they could get the manpower. In the immediate wake of the collapse of the old Soviet bloc, for example, it was not unusual to see former Eastern bloc naval officers (who I’m quite sure could fire an anti-aircraft missile with the best of them) confounded by the simple act of stripping the last 18 inches out of a crude oil tank. But, the price was right and as long as nothing too disturbing happened, the lowest cost option was frequently the choice for manning agencies.
Another issue for foreign registered tonnage in the 1980’s and 1990’s – at least in my experience – was the rapid internationalization of the crews. While this didn’t necessarily go to competence issues, it wasn’t unusual to see vessels that made return voyages to the United States arrive with only the Master and Chief Engineer from the registered country and the balance of the crew a mixed smattering from three or more nationalities. It was, I was told by more than one Captain, a lonely existence for senior staff and in many cases, mutual distrust amongst the officers and crew was rampant. I honestly don’t know how and if that metric applies in today’s post-STCW certified world, but for argument’s sake, let’s agree that it is no longer an issue.
Fleet Age – Disparities Remain
According to the U.S. Maritime Administration, the average age of 192 deep draft U.S. flag ships (circa 2010) was about 18 years; the pure Jones Act trade vessels averaged 22 years. This compares to a global average of 11 years. Now, U.S. foreign trade vessels were, as a group, only 3 years older than their international counterparts, but let’s remember: a majority of those are foreign built and flagged in. Without a doubt, the numbers are getting closer – not because U.S. yards are necessarily building more ships and U.S. flag operators are ramping up their renewal programs – but to a large extent, the improved numbers reflect a (subsidized) maritime security program (MSP) fleet which includes (please correct me if I am wrong here) not one U.S. built hull.
It is harder to maintain an older hull; things go wrong more frequently and the equipment fitted on these older platforms is typically not state-of-the-art. It then follows that a U.S. flag fleet that lags behind its foreign counterpart in terms of age alone will experience more condition-based deficiencies. And, since a flag's ranking is taken into account when targeting ships for inspection, it stands to reason that U.S. flag vessels will get visited more often by participating port state control organizations, on average, than those vessels on the so-called “White List.” When that happens, there are more opportunities to find deficiencies. And, the folks doing those inspections will naturally look a little harder when they do visit. A Senior Coast Guard Marine Inspector told me just recently, “If I want to detain a vessel – if anyone wants to – a reason can be found.” I rest my case.
The Pot Calling the Kettle Black
As the U.S. Coast Guard sounds what it characterizes as “a high-level alarm for detentions of U.S.-flag vessels," it also cites in-house analysis that pinpoints significant deficiencies that include improper manning, primary lifesaving equipment, engine room fire hazards, structural hull safety, and the inability to verify compliance with international conventions due to missing or non-endorsed documentation such as International Safety Management (ISM) certificates. Responding to these troubling conditions, the Coast Guard itself has begun a campaign focused on holding repeat offenders accountable, generally targeting companies for increased oversight. In the meantime, the Coast Guard itself finds itself under the unwanted, white hot oversight of its own government.
Two recent U.S. Government Accountability Office reports panned the Coast Guard’s own performance, citing some of the very things they spotlight for the commercial fleets that they regulate. Specifically, GAO-12-741, dated July 31, 2012 brings attention to the fiscal years 2005 through 2011, where the physical condition of the Coast Guard’s legacy vessels was characterized as “generally poor.” And while the report also says that the nation’s maritime watchdog is reorganizing its maintenance command structure and implementing sustainment initiatives for portions of its legacy vessel fleet, it also says that the Coast Guard’s primary measure of a vessel’s condition is the operational percent of time free of major casualties (a major casualty is a deficiency in mission essential equipment that causes the major degradation or loss of a primary mission).
The report goes on to say that the 378-foot high endurance cutters (HEC), the 210-foot and 270-foot medium endurance cutters (MEC), and 110-foot patrol boats “generally remained well below target levels from fiscal years 2005 through 2011.” I don’t know how that condition would be phrased in a port state control visit or on the Paris MoU WEB site, but it sounds like “Gray” list material to me.
Another GAO report, this one dated back in October of last year, assesses the Coast Guard’s checkered Deepwater acquisition program, which represents the bulk of Coast Guard efforts to recapitalize its fleet of vessels and aircraft. The report, in part, emphasizes actions the Coast Guard needs to take to address the cost growth, schedule delays, and capability shortfalls that have made the approved Deepwater Program unachievable. And, it says, “Today's climate of rapidly building fiscal pressures underscores the importance of assessing priorities--from a Coast Guard-wide perspective--so that more realistic budgets can be submitted to Congress.” This sounds like the Coast Guard is experiencing some of the same pressures facing U.S. flag Jones Act operators: there just isn’t enough money to make the necessary fleet renewals.
Today, the Coast Guard is asking U.S.-flag vessel owners and operators to take the necessary steps to reduce the detention of vessels. As always, they stand ready to assist operators in this effort. And, rest assured, their own internal efforts continue as they attempt to do exactly the same thing within their own fleet. Along the way, they also continue efforts to reform a flawed marine inspection program that lost its “Mojo” during the years immediately following 9/11, when the Coast Guard’s focus (necessarily) veered towards the maritime security side of the equation.
The Bottom Line: It’s Gray, too …
It would be nice if the answers to commercial U.S. flag woes (?) were black and white. But, they are not. Similarly, the organization responsible for overseeing vessel inspection policy development for over 12,000 U.S.-flag vessels, 8,800 foreign vessels under a Port State Control Program, uninspected vessels, and mariner credentialing policy for 200,000+ U.S. merchant mariners has its own problems. If GAO had its own Gray List, you can be sure that the U.S. Coast Guard’s legacy fleet would be on it. Nevertheless, they have a job to do and their efforts to reform the commercial fleet are laudable.
From my perspective – and mine is arguably as deep in experience as anyone else – commercial U.S. flag operators, insofar as their day-to-day operations are concerned, are no worse than anyone else, and except in rare cases, exceed necessary statutory requirements. That’s a hard thing to do when your fleet averages 7 years more in wear and tear than the cumulative global average. Until that metric changes, measurable improvements in port state control data will be difficult to achieve. It sounds simplistic, doesn’t it? But, that’s something the Coast Guard has known for a long, long time. There’s nothing “gray” about that. – MarPro
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Joseph Keefe is the lead commentator of MaritimeProfessional.com. Additionally, he is Editor of both Maritime Professional and MarineNews print magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at Keefe@marinelink.com. MaritimeProfessional.com is the largest business networking site devoted to the marine industry. Each day thousands of industry professionals around the world log on to network, connect, and communicate.