Piracy puts us on the big screen

Is it unfair to say that Tom Hanks is the next to actually stand to benefit from the scourge of piracy off the Somali coast? Breaking news from Hollywood at the beginning of the week names the actor as the chosen lead in a film depicting the true-life drama that played out on board the Maersk Alabama when it was captured by pirates. The film is to be based on the book by Captain Richard Phillips who was in charge of the vessel at the time.

Tom Hanks is an actor who can demand up to $30 million per movie plus profit participation which, in the case of Forest Gump, saw him walk away with $70 million. That’s not a bad pay check – higher in fact than most pirates’ ransoms!

In the 15 years that I have been reporting on the maritime industry for specialist publications – piracy has been the topic that I have received the most calls from the daily newspapers for information on. It’s unfortunate that this is the reality that has catapulted the world of shipping into the headlines and it does nothing for the industry’s very real need to attract youngsters into a career at sea.

Indeed most feature films depicting aspects of the maritime world revolve around disaster. That many are based on true stories does not bode well for the image of the industry, but then where would the drama be in plain sailing?

And so while legal, emergency and medical vocations are glamourised in shows such as ER, Gray’s Anatomy, LA Law and so forth – surely a case can be made for a series that follows the lives of a crew across the globe. It’s a perfect set-up for a show that relies on the need to focus on the relationships between a small group of people who interact on a daily basis. Yes, certainly there will be incidents that will do nothing to attract new seafarers – but on the whole it may go a long way towards promoting the industry by exposing more people to the fact that there are other options for them outside of being a doctor, a lawyer, a policeman or a firefighter.

Flying the Flag

Imagine if every car owner in the Western Province decided to license their vehicle in Gauteng. Imagine what that would do to the relevant municipal coffers and what impact it could have on their ability to deliver services. Essentially the monies collected from Cape Town vehicle owners would be used to benefit the lives of Gauteng drivers.

It would be crazy to think that we would want to enrich some other jurisdiction – or would it?

What if another town or suburb waived the need for our car to be roadworthy? Or the conditions of our chosen  licensing authority made our lives easier every time we had an accident? What if choosing a licensing authority also meant less taxation; fewer rules of the road or even access to cheap servicing? Now would you consider licensing your vehicle elsewhere?

Now suddenly the idea of driving around with a license plate that bears no relevance to your home address makes sense. Would it matter if you were forced to use Gauteng mechanics every time you required a service? Would you care if Capetonians no longer had access to employment based on this decision?

Choosing a flag – a matter of conscience or convenience?

This may sound ludicrous and you may wonder what it has to do with the maritime industry, but this is exactly what is happening in the world of shipping. As an owner of a ship that trades around the world, you have a global choice of where to license your vessel and many nations have spent time and money on creating Flag States that attract tonnage (ships) to their registry.

Choosing a jurisdiction or a Flag for your ship impacts on the way you manage and operate that vessel. The regulatory and legislative mechanisms associated with each Flag State will have implications on the manning, the financing and even the insurance of the vessel.

As one of the key trading nations on the African continent and with almost 3000km of coastline, you would not be forgiven for thinking that South Africa should have a robust ships’ register. The sad fact is, however, that we lost the last trading vessel on our register towards the end of 2010 and are unlikely to attract any significant number in the near future.

The Safmarine Oranje was the last trading vessel on the SA Ships' Register.

The Safmarine Oranje was the last trading vessel on the SA Ships' Register.

The reasons for the demise of the South African Ships registry are many and relate largely to the way in which some of our key maritime law is structured.

Over and above the obvious loss in potential revenue associated with a robust Ships Registry; we are putting all our youngsters keen to follow a career at sea at a distinct disadvantage. It stands to reason that all seafarers need to complete a portion of their training at sea and the lack of South African registered ships impacts directly on their ability to be placed as a cadet and gain valuable sea time.

Revisiting the car analogy above – it would be like saying all those with Learner’s Licenses from the Western Province would not have access to vehicles to gain practical experience before trying to pass their Drivers’ License because all of the cars in Cape Town were being used by learners from Gauteng as stipulated by the licensing criteria.

It’s certainly not a new debate for the industry, but given the government’s recent proclamations about job creation coupled with a well-documented shortage of seafarers (globally), it’s certainly an area that should continue to be addressed.

Shipping will show the ripple effect of quake

Japan may be showing the very real physical and traumatic effects of last week’s earthquake, but the shipping industry will demonstrate the ripple effect of globalisation as the economic impact of damaged port infrastructure on the island takes hold.

With some 1020 ports in Japan, it may not seem significant that Reuters is reporting damage to only six major ports, but a closer look at the trade as well as commodities handled by these ports should point to an even larger impact.

Consider too Japan’s current ranking as an economic superpower. Third only to the US and China – Japan’s ability to trade will impact on the global market and consequently the wheels (or more accurately the propellers) that drive that trade.

To put this in perspective, Lloyds List predicts a  $3.4 billion a day loss in seaborne trade each day the ports remain closed in Japan and attributes a total of $1.5 trillion to maritime trade in 2010 for the island.

And so at a time when the global shipping industry debates freight rates in an environment of overcapacity, some economists are predicting an increase in dry bulk rates as Japan attempts to replenish stocks of coal and imports materials required for the rebuild process.

Indeed, there is no doubt that certain companies will already be mobilising for a piece of the very large pie that will most certainly result from the world’s third most economically active nation preparing  to rebuild its port infrastructure to ensure that it remains economically connected to its trading partners.

Getting on board

As an old-school journalist I have long scoffed at and underplayed the importance of blogging. I’ll admit that in the back of my mind I even wondered at the audacity of the non-journalists of the world to claim a right to public broadcasting!

So it is with cap-in-hand that I lift the anchor on this blog and set sail into the somewhat uncharted waters of blogging.

As such this Maritime Matters blog will aim to complement what our magazine – Maritime Southern Africa – does on a bi-monthly basis by enhancing the maritime message we broadcast.

But while the magazine is aimed at the industry (if you make your living on or from the sea – this is the magazine to read); it is hoped that Maritime Matters will find a much wider audience and expose what goes on at sea to more than those with a direct financial interest therein.

So I’m finally on board with this blogging thing – let’s hope I don’t get seasick from the experience!