Over the last few weeks the Bring Back Our Girls (#bringbackourgirls) campaign has ignited quite a following across the globe. Initially fueled by many people’s outrage that the media had all but ignored the story, this grew to a lambasting of international super-powers for not stepping in to assist Nigeria find the girls. Mostly the argument followed the rather simplistic course that, if this had happened to 200 white schoolgirls the media would have been all over it and that if it was a situation that jeopardised America’s access to oil then they would have sent in the troops.

This is not the place to debate either of these suppositions and certainly the plight of these girls is one of grave concern. Indeed the message to Bring Back Our Girls has gone viral and everyone is standing up in support of it: from the ANC Women’s league to individuals keen to pen, blog and tweet about it to get in on the action. Even corporates are parading employees in front of cameras and posting photos of them holding up signs with the Bring Back Our Girls message on them – some of them in the maritime industry.

So damn it – where is the #BringBackOurSeafarers campaign? Why is every shipping company, support company, port company, importer, exporter and seafarer not jumping up and down for more media coverage about the plight of 54 seafarers who are still being held hostage in deplorable conditions. According to the recently released document on the State of Maritime Piracy by Oceans Beyond Piracy these seafarers have been held in captivity for almost three years.

“Substantial work must still be done in the interest of saving the lives of the 54 high risk hostages who remain in pirate captivity almost three years after their capture. Moreover, the continued ability of pirates to hijack small vessels such as dhows and fishing vessels is a continued risk. It is important to remember that piracy is not only a threat to the free flow of goods, but also to the well-being of individual seafarers, regardless of their vessel size or nationality. It is evident that the number of hostages in captivity, while trending downward, remains of immediate relevance to counter-piracy work and should be prioritized by the maritime and international communities,” the report says. 

While I am personally doubtful of the true effectiveness of viral campaigns such as the one directed at releasing the Nigerian schoolgirls and feel they simply help us feel better about being powerless in the face of such atrocities; what if they are even slightly successful in seeing their safe return as a global eye is turned to the situation?

What if viral campaigns do prompt the appropriate action? Then the maritime industry needs to be more active in pushing the agenda. Yes we have had successful intervention at sea in the form of naval presence, armed guards and vessel hardening – but 54 seafarers are still no closer to going home. So as you spare a thought for the schoolgirls and their families – spare a thought for those seafarers and their families and consider some action. #BringBackOurSeafarers.





Weekly Press Review – 16 August 2013

The Fisheries Department is back in the hot seat this week (again) with officials again being criticised for still not getting the country’s research and patrol vessels back in the water.

Acting Fisheries Department deputy director-general, Desmond Stevens had the rather unenviable task of updating parliament on the status of the vessels and assured those present that both the Ruth First and Victoria Mxenge were ready for action and merely waiting seaworthy certificates from the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) and that the Lilian Ngoyi would be ready to sail by the end of September. Various MPs stated that they would be waiting on the dock at Simon’s Town to board the vessel on the promised date.

Let us hope that the Fisheries Department can deliver this time. It would seem that the pressure is finally on.

The stranded Kiani Satu has remained in the press all week as all attempts to refloat the vessel, still stranded off the coast of Buffels Bay, have thus far failed. According to Captain Nigel Campbell, responsible for overseeing the salvage operation for SAMSA, it is the strong swell due to harsh weather conditions that is hampering the refloating process.

Obviously the oil that is still leaking from the damaged vessel remains a cause for concern and Parliament’s portfolio committee has called for harsher penalties to be imposed on those responsible for the pollution of local waters in an attempt to protect fish and marine life resources.

This is something that could really go a long way towards protecting our coastline. Let us hope that the powers that be are able to come up with a plan that can be implemented fairly and quickly.

There was also some maritime drama off the coast of Robben Island this week, as the crew of the fishing trawler Claremont, had to be rescued after the vessel crashed into the rocks along the island’s coastline.

The rescue operation was carried out over four hours by the NSRI and all 12 crew members were safely brought back to shore. Another successful NSRI operation.

It seems that the salvage season has started in Cape Town.

“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?




A bonus for safety?

Maritime Southern Africa (Feb/March issue) highlights findings of Gulf of Mexico reports

In a press release issued by Transocean the senior management is lauded for “voluntarily donating the safety bonuses that were awarded to them for 2010 to the Deepwater Horizon Memorial Fund”. If you read the findings of the reports on the Gulf of Mexico disaster you will certainly understand that Transocean was in no way exempt from blame in this incident that resulted in the death of 11 workers and a hideous amount of oil pollution.

So the question must surely be: how can the company justify awarding safety bonuses in the same year?  It’s as bad as multi-nationals issuing performance bonuses on the back of massive retrenchments!

Surely a better PR exercise would simply have been to donate the same amount directly from the balance sheet to the Deepwater Horizon Memorial Fund? By highlighting that the money is from safety bonuses seems to send out the message that the company actually believes their safety status was good for 2010.

Once again I point out that 11 people died in the disaster; that the impact of the oil pollution is still being felt and that human error has been fingered as a major factor!

A bonus for safety? I think not!