Dec 192008

From MAC’s office window six ships float at anchor, four handymax tankers and a couple of fair sized bulkers. On the other side of this sparkling, tropical bay two containerships are under construction at a Korean-owned shipyard. It’s a worrying sight.

The ships that swing moment by moment with the changing current will be joined by others. The two ships now under construction may move no further than a half mile out into the bay and the shipyard will sit empty once its current contracts are filled. When it makes sense for shipowners to pay $25,000 a month for a ship to go nowhere one can see the industry’s in trouble, although it appears to have made few headlines in the general media.

US President George Bush is not pleading with Congress to bail out the shipping companies that keep the wheels of General Motors and Ford turning, it is on its own. By and large, politicians know little more about the shipping industry than they glean by watching HBO re-reruns of Cameron’s Titanic, to which the present situation bears an uncanny resemblance.

It is, in fact, a test for shipowners and their various trade organisations of their commitment to the safety of their ships, the welfare of their crews and the environment. Seafarer training and competency were already under pressure before the crisis hit due to the manpower shortage and the irresistible temptation to cut corners in order to put warm bodies on ships. Now there is an equal temptation to save money by reducing or setting-back training as far as possible and overlooking competency shortfalls.

Add to that poisonous mixture an equal temptation to reduce or delay maintenance and, with fingers crossed, to by-pass pollution controls such as oily water separators, also to save money and it is not too difficult to hear the ticking of a time bomb.

If those temptations are not resisted than we will read the industry’s failure in the numbers of increasing maritime incidents, mariners’ lives lost and swingeing punishments for illicit pollution in years to come.

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