Seafarers Don't Want to Rest in Port

By MarEx 2014-08-10 17:10:00

Op-Ed by John Guy

The first two weeks of August are a lovely time to be at work. The roads are clear, the car park is empty, the office is quiet, the phone doesn’t ring and all the clients have gone to the beach. Most of them have even turned their email off. So those lucky enough to have taken their holidays when the kids were in school can quietly fettle away, boondoggling to their heart’s content. Unless they are seafarers.

There is no quiet period for them and the issue of seafarer fatigue is about to get fettled itself. The Paris and Toyko Memorandums of Understanding will launch a three-month campaign starting in September to verify deck and engine room watchkeeper hours of rest under the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping Convention. That means that the authorities in most of the countries in Europe and Asia are going to send Port State Control inspectors to visit ships in their ports and ensure that the watchkeepers are getting the right amount of time off and are not unduly fatigued when they sail from port.

Ten thousand ships will be hit with the visits over a three month period. It is going to be mayhem, because the unspoken dirty secret of shipping is that a lot of watchkeepers are very tired indeed a lot of the time, and most tired of all when they should be most alert, leaving port.

There is an inherent conflict between the numbers of crew needed to man a ship safely when it is going in and out of port and those needed to man it safely once out on the ocean. A long deep sea passage across an ocean is extraordinarily restful. With three watchkeepers everyone can work a 60 hour plus week and still get plenty of rest, time to catch up on paperwork and time to boondoggle even.

That all changes when the ship gets close to ports. Hitting successive ports to discharge and load, especially for smaller ships working with only two watchkeepers, means weekly hours worked quickly mushroom over one hundred and periods of sleep of four hours become something to dream of. If there is ever time to dream.

Ports want ships in and out to suit their schedules, and those can and do conflict with the need for seafarers to get some sleep.  OCIMF is working on guidance to oil terminals and shipowners on reasonable and agreed interpretations of fatigue and rest hours, but I doubt we will ever see a tanker come into port, tie up to a very expensive terminal then send all the crew to “have a nice rest, dears. We’ll discharge in the morning.” It’s not going to happen.

There is a steady stream of casualties caused by ships hitting things because the watchkeepers were over tired, and a steady stream of lower level accidents on ships caused by fatigue. There are rules on rest periods but there is no data on how they are followed, or rather, how they are worked around. So it is good news that there will be a concerted international drive to find out if seafarers are getting the required time off or not.

I know it is a serious issue but what tickles me is how these inspectors are going to check that seafarers are actually resting when they have time off. It’s one thing to check logs of time on and off duty, but if the off duty time is spent up the road chatting up some fruity blonde and sluicing beers down in an over-priced bar then fatigue is the least of the worries.

Certainly when I was at sea we didn’t waste time off in port on resting. Off the deck, a quick shower, a splash of Old Spice, two cans of warm Tennents beer as a livener and off ashore to see what was going was our approach to fatigue. Unless they are getting seafarers out of a different box these days then you have to assume the young men at least will still have some of the same desires.

Those inspectors are going to find themselves in some very odd places if they start trying to find out when and where seafarers get their sleep.

John Guy served on merchant ships and warships for sixteen years before becoming a ship inspector and then a journalist. He advises companies and organizations working in the global shipping industry on media and crisis management. His latest novel is The Golden Tide.