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This paper was presented at the Boulton Lecture in Sydney, 20th September 2012, which was a joint function of the Navy League of Australia and the Company of Master Mariners of Australia.
The Boulton Lecture was inaugurated in 1991 in honour of the founder of the Company of Master Mariners of Australia, Captain Norman Boulton MBE, VRD B Com, M Inst. N, AAUG.
Captain Boulton was born in England in 1904 and died in 1992. The Company was founded in 1938 and currently has a membership throughout Australia of over 600 members.
“I must go down to the seas again to the lonely sea and the sky; And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by; And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sails shaking; And a grey mist on the sea’s face and a grey dawn breaking”

The haunting words of John Masefield’s poem Sea Fever, sum up for me what used to be the ever varied and challenging life of a career at sea. So what has changed - if anything?

Anecdotal evidence and research mainly driven by the insurance and reinsurance industries, suggests that the world’s weather is changing for the worse. Massive storms, gigantic waves such as might only have been seen in films like Perfect Storm, are now regularly reported by ships at sea.

The stars which guided us when I was at sea, play little or no part in the navigation of ships now.

How well I recall standing on the bridge night after night on the long passages across the oceans of the world, watching the stars wheel across the night sky.

Anyone who has had that pleasure, no that privilege, cannot help but wonder at the meaning of life.

But now the days of “feeling the weather” on your face have almost gone, with the Bridges on most modern ships, including many passenger liners and ocean going ferries, being enclosed spaces. Air-conditioned capsules akin to the flight deck of an aeroplane, where the officer on watch sits in an ergonomically designed chair, surrounded by a phalanx of electronic equipment, upon which, he (or she) increasingly relies. Talking to a seagoing officer the other day, he told me that some ships that he sails on have no conventional charts any more, only the electronic ones.

And that he brings his own laptop computer with him, onto which he has previously downloaded charts and navigation systems for his own use on board. I remember meeting a second mate from the American Lykes Line in Hong Kong in the early 1960’s. His business card, which I still have, said, “Have Sextant – will travel!” Perhaps the modern equivalent is “Have Laptop will travel!”

It is a legitimate question to ask what is wrong with such an approach? The problem as I see it is the Master’s on-going responsibility and culpability under the law. Should anything go wrong, the need for the evidentiary trail, whether paper or electronic is of the utmost importance. We are seeing this right now in the search for the truth behind the grounding of the cruise liner Costa Concordia.

Most of us I would suggest, experience varying degrees of frustration as we strive to overtake the pressure of electronic communication before it overtakes us. And at the end of the day, for all of the Master’s inability to control the electronic medium in which he operates the vessel, the law only takes account of the function command.

When Captain Boulton was at sea and many of us were venturing onto a well defined career path, a ship was not only a commercial unit, it was also a social unit. The training that the officers undertook then was long and rigorous with set periods of sea time required, before further qualifications could be obtained to climb another rung on the ladder. Not only were the officers highly qualified in terms of a theoretical education, but also in terms of practical training at sea on many different types of vessels, with varying cargoes and trade routes.

By the time command was reached, typically in the days of Captain Boulton, there would have been years of experience behind the man stepping into the Master’s shoes. Importantly, many of the shipping companies existing then not only had “company officers” but also “company men”.

Such companies as British India, P&O and Ellermans to name just three, had their own pools of Indian sailors, engine room and catering staff, who sailed exclusively on the company ships. Captain Boulton I venture to suggest, like the majority of Masters in his day, had a unique autonomy, not only so far as the navigation of his vessel was concerned, but also in its commercial and financial management.

The Master was in command in the full sense of the word and commercial interference from home office was rare. The owners in the days of Captain Boulton, had their own marine and engineering departments, each headed by a superintendent with many years of sea-going experience, to look after the maintenance and docking of the vessels in the fleet.

It made sense from all points of view and particularly from the point of the commercial adventure, for after all this was the raison d’être for the fleet. In Captain Boulton’s days at sea, ships proudly flew the flags of their own countries, were crewed by their own nationals and strictly regulated by their own country’s independent authorities.

So what has changed and why?

The advent of open registries and flags of convenience, together with the tumultuous change as containerisation swept the world’s sea routes like a commercial Tsunami, overturned the traditional operation of the merchant navy and its well established career path.

The so-called “Western Model” of ship owning was replaced in the rush to get aboard this new form of commercial adventure. Traditional ships and traditional forms of manning were no longer required. A commercial realism was born, based on the “Profit” model and the need to pare to a minimum everything that could possibly detract from that goal.

Maintenance was cut, traditional registries with their oversight by experienced government authorities, regulators and independent classification societies were bypassed. And all in favour of more pliant flags, where manning scales and safety regulations were less rigorously applied and tax advantages could be maximised.

The ever increasing number of FOC (flags of convenience) vessels, brought with it an ever decreasing transparency of ownership and control of shipping, as corporate structures often spread across numerous jurisdictions, making it more and more difficult to ascertain the real beneficial ownership of the vessel. We are seeing this presently in the arguments over which is the responsible corporate entity to meet claims involving the Costa Concordia – Is it Carnival Corporation, the owner of the vessel based in Miami in the USA? Or is it Costa Cruises, the operator of the vessel based in Italy? There are no prizes for guessing which jurisdiction the claimants are arguing for.

Western style crews were one of the casualties of this new commercial mentality that suddenly took over the traditional ship owners’ role. Gone were the fleet marine and engineering superintendents and their departments, gone were the annual dry dockings and careful maintenance programs, gone were the highly qualified and experienced officers – all replaced by “out sourcing” to “Specialist Management Agents” for a fee.

Why use European-style manning when cheaper options were available? Why have on-going maintenance, when “just in time” programs could be obtained on a fixed price contract? Why use traditional crews when cheaper options were available and less generous contractual conditions could be pressed – longer tours of duty, all in wage packages to include annual leave.

MSC Flaminia The world - especially India, the Philippines, Myanmar (formerly Burma), China and the emerging Eastern Bloc countries, had vast manpower resources, all clambering for the chance of work. Business has always been the driving force behind shipping, but now a new type of ship owner was in charge, with the focus being commerce and the need to stay ahead of the competition.

Succession planning, if it ever came to be characterised as such in those early days, was never needed due to the plentiful supply of qualified officers and seamen, displaced from their traditional fleets and scrambling for work.

Gradually it became harder and harder for the traditionally trained Masters and Mates to find a berth as wages and conditions were driven down and many ranged far and wide seizing overseas employment, wherever they could. This was also the start of the decline of the autonomy of command and the increasingly voracious need for the shorebased commercial managers to “run the ship remotely.” Ships only make money whilst they are at sea.

With the ever increasing size and speed of the newer vessels and their large cargo carrying capacity, the need to cut port time to a minimum, was finetuned with the increasing reliance on automation using computer operated equipment. I have little doubt that if it was realistically possible (as opposed to technically possible), vessels would sail the ocean routes of the world unmanned. The skills of the modern master mariner, dare I be so bold as to say it, have largely been reduced to the monitoring of increasingly sophisticated electronic equipment.

But it is fair to say, that many Masters and watch keeping officers have little idea of its limitations and its composition or how to use it to full advantage. Ships today, both in the engine room, on the bridge and in their cargo operations, are run and controlled by highly sophisticated computers.

Masters of modern container vessels, with minimum manning, have little or no say in the loading and discharge of their vessels, as has been clearly demonstrated in the recent case of the German owned MSC Flaminia.

The vessel caught fire on 14 July 2012 on passage from Charleston to Europe, allegedly as a result of a container loaded with undeclared hazardous cargo. Three crew members lost their lives fighting the fire and the vessel was subsequently abandoned to salvors in mid Atlantic.

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - April 2014 Issue
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