Dec 282009

Three Philippine ferries came to grief in as many days starting on Christmas Eve. Dozens of lives lost in incidents that do not speak well of the nation that provides around 25 per cent of the world’s maritime manpower. With national elections scheduled for 2010 it is certain that the country’s politicians will leverage as much coverage as possible – personality and name recall win elections, not national issues and maritime safety, or lack of it, will not affect voters’ choices.

Hearings are being conducted in the legislature but it is unlikely that any new measures will make it through both the Senate and Congress before both go to the hustings. A far greater issue is the enforcement of existing laws and the need for a change of mindset.

The trend began on Christmas Eve when the MV Catalyn B collided with a fishing boat and sank near the mouth of Manila Bay. At time of writing three people are confirmed dead and at least 23 are missing.

Then the Ro-Ro ferry MV Baleno 9 sank at San Agapito Point in Isla Verde near Calapan City in Oriental Mindoro with, so far, 6 dead and 36 missing. A third ferry, with around 170 on board grounded after losing steering. All were saved.

To which may be added the sinking of Super Ferry 9 earlier in the year with the loss of nine lives, Commander 6 with 12.

This in a year following the almost 800 dead of the Princess of the Stars capsize and sinking in 2008.

Survivors tell of lifejackets nailed to bulkheads, lack of safety briefings and crew unable to cope.

Setting aside the cynic’s view that, given the cozy relationship between business and government and the direct and indirect links between a large number of politicians and the economically powerful domestic shipping industry, the evident lack of political will to provide safer shipping to Filipinos is easily explained, what is the source of the sinking sickness that afflicts the industry?

A presentation by Gloria J. Victoria-Bañas Deputy Administrator for Planning Maritime Industry Authority, MARINA, shows that 25 per cent of maritime accidents involve passenger vessel, another 25 per cent being cargo vessels, each representing the largest groups of casualties.

It is not one symptom but many. Just for starters, the Philippine Coastguard, which is responsible for enforcement of maritime laws is horrendously under equipped with 40 per cent of its fleet unable leave port and its officers dependent upon SMS messaging because it doesn’t have enough radios to go around.

Even the largest vessels lack voyage data recorders, which could enhance the accuracy of investigation and, to date, no Philippine government agency, nor any member of the legislature, has recommended that they should be installed. Little hard evidence is presented in investigations which must depend upon often-faulty memory recall.

The main investigative body is the Board of Marine Inquiry, BMI, an ad-hoc assembly based on a Spanish-era paradigm almost unchanged since the days of the galleon trade, which does not require any of its members to be professionally trained investigators. Its main function is to determine liability, safety recommendations are secondary. Reports are not required to be made publically available.

There is no independent, full-time, professionally trained or certified investigation agency, and there has been a failure to respond to initiatives by overseas investigation agencies to provide training and secure funding for such an agency.

The ability to apply punitive action to domestic shipowners is limited. Most routes are run as monopolies and the country and its people are economically and socially dependent upon them with 44m passengers, 146m tonnes of cargo and 4m TEU in containers carried in 2008, the last full year. Suspension of a license to operate incurs tremendous economic damage and withdrawal of a license – not known to have happened in recent years – is likely to be challenged through the courts for years given the glacial progress of the Philippine legal system.

Then there is the issue of training and drills, almost certainly an underlying cause of accusations laid against Filipino seafarers on domestic routes. Despite requiring much the same certification as Filipinos working on international vessels those working for the domestic industry are trained to different standards and it is not unknown to see, in the same training school, international seafarers and domestic seafarer being given entirely different training for the same certificate at the same time.

Above all, what is needed is a consistent approach to maritime safety and an updating of the safety infrastructure and a strict approach to vessel maintenance.

Which is rather sad. The Philippines has a little more than 7,100 islands, a dozen formally inhabited, and they have a stunning beauty best seen from the deck of a ferry, but most people would not want that beauty to be their last sight.

Philippine Inquirer list of ferry accidents since 1987

Superferry 9 Capsize – Knots or Beaufort?

Time Running Out For Philippine Safety Body

Philippines – Superferry 9 Lost

Ferries and Fireworks

Princess Of The Stars – fixing the blame, but not the problem

Princess Of The Stars – Dead Masters Can Speak Through VDRs

In Philippine waters? Keep your cellphone Handy

Princess Of The Stars: Death Comes Early

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