Mar 232010

imageFatigue continues to be a major threat to safe navigation. Can it be resolved?

Captain S Pullat sends up some signals.

Would anyone fly in an aircraft, if the pilot and co-pilot hadn’t had enough rest and were not fit for flight? Should freighters be allowed to sail likewise? Oh! No, if they were ferries, ro-ros, passenger ships and so on, and tankers –oil & gas too, but what about the workhorses of the sea -the bulkers and now increasingly container ships –the supermarkets in transit?

It is fair to demand that the ship’s crew get the same attention and microscopic review as much as a ship structure and its fatigue. For, it is by and large recognised that the minimum rest period records are created for showing compliance even when the truth is otherwise. It, indeed, is the next calamity waiting to befall shipping and seafaring, the further one would be ballast water exchange; by sheer co-incidence, after this piece was compiled it happened on Cougar Ace and woke up PSCs after the well orchestrated oily water discharge imbroglios.

True, goals, targets, pressure of work, deadlines and so on raise adrenalin levels and are good for motivation as performance enhancers. Can sportsmen re-do their feats? But that level of focus and concentration is what is regularly expected of seafaring professionals in ship-handling, cargo work, navigation and so on.

Do note that the tired lot increases fatigue risk factors when focused attention is called for in traffic-lanes, during cargo work and so on.

Aviators from whom such skill and concentration is demanded, are mandated to rest adequately before taking on the next sortie, have restrictions on non-stop flying hours and on long flights do dose off handing over controls. Can we on the ships?

On large passenger ships, command may be one and administration the other, the master allowed to hand over control of navigation through a simple log entry to the other captain. Can we have similar hand-overs to a suitable person on bulkers and tankers in crowded waters, continuous fog/rough weather and during non-stop cargo operations during lightening/ship-to ship transfers, short coastal legs etc? Suppose each one has to be handled on its own merit. Cargo work stoppage during continuous oil lighterage –like in LOOP- so as to give one and all rest despite six-on-six-off, may be acceptable both professionally as well as administratively for shipmanagers.

Rotating crews on fixed services helps though –but mainly for continuity, competence, maintenance cycles and preserving ageing demanding seniors. Why not additional crew -like Port Captains & Charterers’ Expeditors during short voyages and Coasting? It is to be noted that returns on human capital diminishes when risk exposure is stretched; so they must be treated humanely

Having served on the eleven-port-call a week Far East loop leg of the Pacific box trades, what was found challenging was adjusting to the ship’s local time when clocks had to be moved back and forth hourly every day at sea. The circadian rhythm would have none of it. In the end it was a matter of managing like many other issues, thus carrying over rest, resulting in sleep-deprivation during coasting too. As sleep-ologists would attest, one can accrue and catch up with lost sleep. But when there is no chance to catch up over a period, it is the health that succumbs in due course. Read performance and Safety too. I must confess that I had to get off thus after a fifteen month tenure on a tanker as Mate when I was found to be somnambulating; eyesight suffering in the interim.

Workload scenario is worse on the European coast with congested traffic routes and long river passages. The use of voluntary North-Sea pilot did help reduce work-load-strain, but apart from the Liners, most owners/Operators are reluctant users of such non-compulsory services. Makes me recall, the valiant efforts of a Captain during his first Command in the summer of ’72 to take it all upon himself. As cadet, I could see sleep oozing out of his eye lids during the ordeal from English Channel to Poland. Seafarers are all too well known for such soldier like commitment and endurance, taking pride in stretching themselves to dare-devilry.

Such hard work is not limited to just Masters. Mates, Engineers and crew all chip in with their best performance when called for. Replacing problematic cylinder liners et al was perfected down from thirty to eighteen hours by an eighteen man crew on a new box ship series in the ‘80s to complete maiden voyage till the lubricating problem could be overcome. Indefatigable attribute to soldier on is what is perhaps expected regardless of what STCW provides for.

Well, were it not for such rising to the occasions to take on the challenges of body, mind spirit and the seas, humans wouldn’t have had success in linking continents half a millennium ago. Having garnered such credit, it need be pointed out that the fatigue factor of the seafarer came to the fore when a VLCC ran aground off Shah Allum shoal in AG in the early ‘70s (73?) when the Mate dosed off on morning twilight watch after having loaded her during the preceding thirty six hours.

The issues have been compounded due to automation, downsizing, lack of training and experience especially on ageing ships where tough-necks are called for, whereas those of the new generation are at loss of words and tools when systems fail.

As accident reports reveal, ISM hasn’t really helped unburden, for example watch-keepers said to be immersed in paper work whilst vessels transit busy sea-lanes and under pilotage. And as for maintenance, creating records is said to be more time consuming than effecting the tasks themselves. Due to their nature of turn-arounds, Box and Car carriers are the worst affected; Tankers also if workload is not shared and spread out during the thirty hour port calls. Surveys, Inspections and Audits make matters worse. Fatigue is directly proportional to stress and is worse on poorly built, ill-maintained, badly managed ships. PSC inspectors are most suited to feel out such symptoms and syndromes subjectively, internal audits and super visits usually, sweeping it under the carpet.

Minimum manning fortunately hasn’t had much impact. Almost all ships are found manned with more crew than the specified in Minimum Manning certificate. This does allow some room for work-load sharing. Nevertheless, good managers should –in fact and do- employ additional crew to man, maintain and record such efforts.

Now that polyvalent certification is catching up, additional crew berths could be used for cross-training as also specifically to provide opportunities to seamen for pursuing their goals of becoming officers and then captain.

In the ‘70s itself, had heard of navigators not allowed keep watch on passenger ships after long inter-continental flights without sufficient rest to overcome jet lag. Can we authorize the to be relieved watch-keeper, not to hand over watch to a fatigued relief; at least call the Chief/Master? Eventually, it is an on board affair the Master and his team should cope with due corrective measures called for through Reviews under ISM.

(Originally published in Marex Bulletin and reproduced with permission)