“Curiouser and curiouser”

One cannot help but feel a certain affiliation to poor Alice (in Wonderland) when one reads the latest statement from the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) regarding the beaching of the MT Phoenix off Durban. With hints at a deliberate beaching; the possibility of a mystery stowaway still hiding onboard; uncertainty as to the true identity of the owners and even that the vessel was scrapped in India last year – the situation is certainly becoming “curiouser and curiouser”.

Describing the attempts undertaken by the Smit Amandla to reconnect a tow – the SAMSA statement intimates that the casualty was less than cooperative and that the crew seemed inexperienced in the basic actions required to stabilise the vessel’s position.

“It would not be the first time that an unscrupulous ship owner was prepared to sacrifice a vessel in attempt to realise the insured value,” SAMSA states.

I am not sure, however, how this relates to the fact that Lloyds Casualty Intelligence can find no record of the vessel, but reports that a vessel of “the same type, size and name” was scrapped in India in November 2010. Curiouser and curiouser indeed.

That there is uncertainty about the vessel’s owners is a little confusing. In a previous statements SAMSA is clear about their communication with the owners. Who were they communicating with if there is now doubt as to who actually owns the vessel?

And then – just to add a little more human drama to the situation – it is suspected that a stowaway may still be hiding on the vessel. Alerted by missing medical supplies, the salvage crew believe that there is still another person on the vessel and the South African Police Services will search the vessel shortly.

On a more positive note, operations to remove the pollutants from the vessel seem to be progressing and it is expected that the remainder of the fuel will be removed by tomorrow. In addition the vessel’s bow is being strengthened and preparations are being made to reconnect her to the Smit Amandla.

Oh – and just to make things a little more interesting – the Smit Amandla was called to stand-by as another tug towing a bulk carrier requested assistance off the Durban coast.  With main engine problems the Mahaweli faced gale force south westerly winds with eight metre swells. Fortunately she regained her engine power and was ordered to clear the coast.

It certainly seems that the Salvage Season has started in South Africa!



Is Durban getting her own Seli 1?

With no P&I Club cover and very little hull insurance, the MT Phoenix is currently resident at Salt Rock north of Durban. Are we looking at another Seli 1 scenario? The South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) has issued a statement saying that the owners of the tanker (which was on its way to the breakers) are “currently not responding to any communication” – a situation that should leave the vessel’s new neighbours with some real concerns.

It’s a situation that has prompted some in the industry to call for South Africa to seriously consider the benefits of appointing someone within the relevant government departments with similar jurisdiction to that of the UK’s SOSREP (Secretary of State Representative) for Maritime Salvage and Intervention.The position (and its almost unilateral powers) has gained respect in maritime circles following a number of high profile incidents off the UK coast.

The popular thinking in this regard is that, if South Africa had such a person with the requisite jurisdiction, the MT Phoenix would now be sitting safely in the port of Durban undergoing repairs before being sold at auction under the ruling which SAMSA was granted by the High Court on 22 July.

A SOSREP, you see, can override all decisions and make a call that should (theoretically) prove to be in the best interests of the environment and the safety of all concerned. He can force a port to act as a Port of Refuge in such situations where the risks of bringing the vessel into a safe haven are weighed against the risks of keeping her off port limits.

But with the lack of required insurance in place, the vessel anchored off port limits and, according to industry sources, attempted to undertake repairs at anchor. With no time to move her further out to sea or a mandate to force her into the port ahead of the storm, it is a sad consequence that she is now beached and vulnerable to further weather conditions.

It is a position that will make her hard to salvage and thus unlikely capable of recouping the expense that she is about to incur. And so the fact that “purchasers for the vessel have been identified” may prove irrelevant.

Fortunately the crew have been removed, but even their story is not without poignancy. Due to be repatriated, they will allegedly not be able to claim their wages as their remuneration was based on the successful delivery of the tanker to the scrappers!

Ranking safety at sea

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell is a fascinating read and the section on aviation safety must surely have some bearing on the marine industry too.

In discussing a spurt of incidents attributed to one specific airline, Gladwell highlights a concept called the “Power Distance Index” (PDI).

“Power Distance is concerned with attitudes towards hierarchy, specifically with how much a particular culture values and respects authority,” he writes explaining that cultures with a high PDI will pay particular heed to levels of hierarchy and individuals will interact with each other strictly according to those hierarchies.

How this translates to behaviour in the cockpit (and arguably on the bridge of a ship) is simple. The captain is in command and his (or her) decisions should not be questioned if you are of a lower rank. Now, as rank and command are integral to the aviation and marine world, one would be forgiven for assuming that this is the correct order of business.

In his book, however, Gladwell uncovers the dangers of a high PDI culture. In investigating the series of accidents and listening to the black box recordings of cockpit communication – it was discovered that the WAY in which the lower ranks communicated with the captain had direct bearing on the actual incident.

The Korean crew (with a high PDI cultural background) understood that the hierarchy within the cockpit needed to be respected. And so, even when they saw their superiors making a dubious decision, they felt they could not undermine their authority by bringing direct attention to it.

And so the black box transcripts document their attempts to hint at potentially disastrous decisions. They simply were unable to voice a different opinion – and the captain at this stage was just too tired to pick up on the hints.

According to Gladwell it was this single discovery that marked a significant turnaround in aviation safety. Airlines began to concentrate on creating a new culture in the cockpit that allowed for the co-pilot to question authority and a specific set of prompts was created that ensured that neither the captain nor the other crew felt they were overstepping the mark.

In a very interesting footnote Gladwell lists the five highest rating PDI countries and the five lowest rating PDI countries:

Highest PDI’s:

  1. Brazil
  2. South Korea
  3. Morocco
  4. Mexico
  5. Philippines

Lowest PDI’s:

  1. United States
  2. Ireland
  3. South Africa
  4. Australia
  5. New Zealand

Remember that in this case it is better to be listed in the lowest PDI rankings. Surely this bodes well for SAMSA’s vision of creating a nation of seafarers?




It’s a dry – dock!

One of the attractions of the V&A Waterfront is that it is a working harbour. It’s the perfect way for the maritime industry to showcase itself to the general public. Usually, however, when I visit the waterfront I am struck more by the ability of the general public to ignore the “maritimeness” than by their willingness to want to engage with it.

Today as I walked passed the Robinson dry dock I was therefore pleased to see a young couple leaning over the guardrail checking out the two fishing vessels receiving attention. I could not help overhearing a snippet of their conversation:

“It’s a drydock,” he said to his girlfriend.

“A what,” she asked.

“A dry … dock,” he said even as she was turning her back and refocusing on the more commercial spoils of the Waterfront.

Yes – it’s a drydock. It’s a drydock that represents an industry in waiting. The ship repair industry, having submitted proposals for the concessioning of the ship repair facilities around the country, still awaits the outcome of this bid process.

There seems to be some speculation around what is holding up the process. Some say that more negotiations are likely to follow around the financial aspects of the proposals, while others point to Robinson drydock and the Cape Town synchrolift as being the stumbling block.

But the industry is getting impatient and one industry player was bold enough to say that if Transnet is unwilling to make a decision in this regard, then the industry needs to go to the Minister of Public Enterprise for a mandate to make this happen.

It is believed that a vibrant and rejuvenated ship repair sector will have a positive spin-off on job creation. But SATAWU has publicly opposed the move.

“We also remain opposed to the privatisation of the dry docks which should be retained under state ownership as part of the promotion and growth of a vibrant maritime sector,” SATAWU announced in their reaction to Transnet’s financial results.

Given the need to undertake a degree of much-needed maintenance in most of the facilities and given the industry’s desire to move forward – it’s a decision that needs to be taken sooner than later. And one cannot help but speculate that the maintenance required as well as the subsequent drive by the sector to bring more business to the facilities would be of benefit to the workforce.

It’s time to nominate a seafarer

Now in their second year the SAMSA Seafarer of the Year Awards celebrate the role of South African Seafarers in the country’s economy as well as their contribution to safe seas, prevention of pollution at sea and job creation.

Understanding that over 90 percent of our local trade is carried by the shipping industry; that fishing is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world; that oil companies are drilling further and further offshore and that incidents do occur at sea that require human intervention – it is clear that the men and women who choose a career at sea do so facing many challenges.

The SAMSA Seafarer of the Year Awards are designed to honour the choices that our seafarers make everytime that they go to sea. These awards, nominated by peers and employers, offer recognition of the challenging working environments and often the dangers that they face.

Culminating in a gala dinner and entertainment evening in Maritime Month (October 2011), the SAMSA Seafarer of the Year Awards go beyond thanking those that excel at sea – they aim to raise the profile of seafarers and the maritime industry as a whole in a country that is reliant on their contribution.

The inaugural awards in 2010 drew a high level of nominations from the industry and gave me a rare opportunity to interview some exceptional individuals. I am once again looking forward to engaging with those that remain the backbone of the industry.

I was also humbled by those that took the time to nominate their peers. Oftentimes we get so caught up in our own lives and issues, but  acknowledging others is such a simple way to give back to those that deserve the recognition.

Our partners in this initiative also need recognition. The South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) has once again put their weight behind the awards as the title sponsor. Smit Amandla Marine and Grindrod Limited (as employers of a great many South African seafarers) prove once again that they understand the importance of their own crew. Sea Harvest – one of our top fishing companies also partners us for the second year as does Business Partners.

Entries are now open and members of the South African maritime community can download the nomination form from our website (www.maritimesa.co.za) or nominate directly online. Click on the SAMSA Seafarer of the Year logo on the home page to learn more!