Cruising into Troubled Waters
Costa Concordia disaster fallout will eventually reach far beyond today’s lurid headlines.
Charlotte, NC: I decided to start this week by letting you know exactly where I was writing this e-Column from. I did that to also let you know that, unlike myriad others in the news and trade media, I won’t be trying to duplicate the guesswork that is so far the hallmark of most of the analysis emanating from the horrific grounding of the cruise vessel Costa Concordia. That’s because – like most folks – I’m thousands of miles away from what happened and my coverage will be for now confined to official accounts. All that noise sounds impressive, but this story will change 1,000 times before all of that facts are laid bare on the table for all to see. Count on it.
My immediate thoughts and hopes go out to those still missing and condolences to the families of those who have already perished. That’s the most important thing right now. There will be plenty of time for the blame game later. Beyond this, and when the news of this disaster leaves the front pages of newspapers, web sites and television news feeds everywhere, the fallout will probably be more far reaching than you can possibly imagine. That’s because whatever you think you know about ship safety, crew training, competency, recruitment and retention just went right out the center porthole.
SITREP: Wednesday morning
As of Wednesday morning, the Master of the doomed vessel finds himself in some form of custody, facing any number of offenses and a world community who have already largely thrown him under the proverbial bus. The early reports certainly don’t paint a flattering picture. He might deserve just that, but I’ll wait for the qualified authorities and investigators to say so, first. In the meantime, the wider global community of mariners – licensed, unlicensed and all of the support ratings in between – are closely watching the drama play itself out. They know that their world, in similar ways manifested by the EXXON VALDEZ, the COSCO BUSAN and a half dozen other landmark events, is probably about to change forever.
At some point, industry observers will point to the “enormous amount of money” being paid to ship captains everywhere. I don’t know how much the Master of the Costa Concordia was making at the time of the accident, but he was likely in possession of every single international and locally mandated qualification necessary to be in command of that ship. It was likely a much-coveted job, too. Away from the dirt and grime of the petroleum tanker trades and the tight, in-and-out schedules of the demanding containership routes, the prestigious assignment also carried its own weight of responsibilities. That much is obvious. This grounding and associated loss of life also provides accent to the increasingly common practice of criminalizing mistakes that happen in the course of operating any kind of marine platform. Outwardly, it might seem like this is an appropriate use of that power.
If it was Easy: Everyone would do it
It is at times like this that I reflect on the seemingly annual battle (taking place in some deep draft American port) over the price of harbor pilots, their allegedly “bloated” salaries, and the ultimate cost to the supply chain. I wonder how many operators, port officials and industry observers would (today) begrudge the typical U.S. harbor pilot’s annual salary of $500,000 if they could guarantee that events like the Costa Concordia disaster never happen again. What about you? And yet, I promise you the Master of that ship was making less than half of that amount. It’s still a lot of money. Is it enough? Would you go to sea today knowing that an oil spill, collision, allision, grounding or any other accidental event could land you in prison? That’s a fair question, too.
A major headache for boat operators today remains the recruitment and retention of properly trained, quality, career-minded mariners. I constantly hear about the terrific salaries being paid to today’s mariners and the things that companies have to do to keep these folks on board their vessels. Broadband Internet access immediately comes to mind. Still, all the money in the world isn’t going to attract the best and brightest professionals to critical seagoing positions that constantly expose them to the risk of criminal charges every time something goes wrong. It is going to get a lot harder to recruit mariners in the short term. You can count on that, too.
Apples to Oranges
Let’s be clear: In no way do I condone deliberate violations of company and regulatory policy that lead to dire environmental consequences, loss of life and/or other grave damages. As far as the Costa Concordia situation goes, however, we only know what we get secondhand from the so-called analysts – some less reliable than the other. That said; it certainly doesn’t look good, does it?
When I was dating my future wife back in the early 1980’s, she had just finished her CPA testing and had remarkably passed all of the exams on the first try. Tremendously bright, she had landed a good job and nevertheless, I was going to sea and making almost 2X her salary at the bank. She liked to kid me about overpaid we were and I would typically answer, “If you make a mistake, that’s why they put erasers on pencils. If I make a mistake, I’m going to ruin a $50 million ship and cargo potentially worth twice that much.” Today, the numbers are a little different, with the differential between shore pay and that enjoyed by seagoing folk, arguably a bit closer. These days, though, the grounding isn’t just going to cost you your job. It might also mean your freedom.
STCW. IMO. ISPS. ECA. SOLAS. ISM. VGP. BWT. Subchapter “M”. OPA 90. Only one of the foregoing acronyms was in common use when I last signed off a merchant ship in the mid-1980’s. If you don’t know which one it is, then you probably shouldn’t be analyzing or making conclusions about what just happened off the coast of Italy. Moreover, if you are unable to define the scope and intent of at least half of the others, then what I’m about to tell you probably means even less. That’s because the regulatory hammer which has continually been brought to bear over the entire maritime industry has become nothing short of daunting over the course of the past 25 years. The vast majority of that onus has fallen squarely on the shoulders of the mariners that operate the world’s ocean and inland tonnage.
Leaving aside the Costa Concordia situation for just a minute, and on the other end of the spectrum, we have the U.S. Department of Justice utilizing the Migratory Bird Act as a prosecutorial tool. In Mobile, the Master of a ship is prosecuted for a minor allision that occurred while another individual was advising him in port. On another vessel, the cook cuts his thumb while preparing dinner in the galley, and chances are everyone in the crew is going to have to urinate into the cup. At another U.S. berth (for example), a foreign crew that has not stepped off the vessel in four months will remain on board because of unreasonable shore leave policies. What does any of this have to do with Costa Concordia? Apples to Oranges, you say? For the broader shipping community and their mariner employees, I don’t think so.
Risk & Reward
We can only guess at what the regulatory landscape is going to look like in the choppy, roiled wake of this incident. Just for a moment, however, consider that ocean shipping has always been about measuring risk and reward – financial, physical, and operational – for those who operate, charter and otherwise move freight on the water. The grounding of this cruise vessel certainly fits that definition for its corporate owners. Increasingly, seafarers are waking up to the same realities.
No one, much less the seafarers themselves, will tolerate incompetent and foolish actions that lead to disaster. I’m sure that the vast majority of active mariners are disgusted at what has occurred. At the same time, those same seafarers are also likely doing their own simple actuarial calculations about their own jobs. Ship operators everywhere might not like how they crunch the numbers. What then? Who will man the ships and what will it take to lure them up the gangway? – 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.