Common Language

Even with trade tensions, safety is the language we all speak at sea.

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Published Oct 20, 2017 2:24 PM by Ken Wells, MBA

President Donald Trump is headed to Asia in November for a trip that will include a state meeting with China President Xi Jinping at a time when the two countries have ratcheted up their rhetoric over trade. We are, regrettably, living in an age of increasing international tension over trade, disputes over national and maritime boundaries and a fair degree of saber-rattling. This may be as good a time as any to remember the thing we all share – maritime safety.

It is the common language that is understood on every ship in the world, no matter what flag it flies. It is also the bond that connects every seafarer, from the captain down to the lowest wiper. Think about a ship in distress. It is the norm for every ship in the area to respond, no matter where they are from, what language the crew speaks or what flag they fly. Anything other would be unusual.

We take this for granted, but it is something we need to highlight. During times of dispute, one of the most effective ways to resolve conflicts is to strengthen the things we hold in common and to focus on the areas where we agree. In this case, safety is our shared value.

In my career, I have spent time with navigation and engineering students in classes at China’s premier school for maritime students, Dalian Maritime University, and with their American colleagues at the maritime schools in the Unites States. They all study the same STCW safety rules. They all must meet the same competency requirements to work at sea and to advance in their careers. In the end, professionalism knows no country. In effect, every future mariner in the world is studying the same material and showing their competence in the same areas. That is remarkable.

And when there is a collision at sea, as happens, we automatically accept that lapses in safety don’t just belong to the flag state of the ship that caused it. They impact both vessels, wherever they are from. The duty to prevent them in the future is a moral, not a national, obligation.

This universal acceptance of safety can be seen in practice at the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which was first established nearly 70 years ago. Again, it is worth taking a moment to remember that nearly every country in the world has agreed to the same fundamental principles of safety and the same governing rules of practice. Countries that have broken off diplomatic relations still agree that the IMO rules are the accepted definition of what is safe on the world’s oceans.

A case in point: During the last update of the STCW rules, there were periods when there was no open line of communication between the United States and Iran. However, the two countries share a deep philosophical commitment to safety at sea and fundamentally agree on how maritime safety, security and environmental compliance should be addressed. On provision after provision, their delegates voted for the same approaches, even when they could not directly speak to each other. In other words, countries that are at odds still share the common goal of maritime safety.

This is something valuable and something that can be built upon. Three things could help:

Funding – Ships carry 90 percent of global trade. Funding maritime training, whether at the university level or classes for hawsepipers, are an investment in making sure that trade takes place safely and professionally. Funding for agencies that regulate maritime safety, primarily the Coast Guards of the world, maintains the culture of safety that we share.

University exchanges – Exchanges that allow students to experience the way maritime safety and shipping are taught and how they are practiced in other countries help us maintain a global safety culture. This is especially true in a world where maritime students are very likely to wind up in shoreside logistics or operations roles, where an understanding of other cultures in critical.

High-level official exchanges – There are conferences all over the world and ample opportunities for government officials and industry executives to intermingle, but do we take advantage of them? Official exchanges, which carry the sponsorships of their governments, are one way to show that we want an open line of communication.

Will we still have disputes? Absolutely. Are some differences important enough to take a strong stand? Yes, most definitely. But the first breakthrough in any standoff comes when the opposing parties find something they can agree on. Safety is that area and increasing the opportunities to talk about safety sends a message, “No matter how strongly we disagree, at least we can communicate.” – MarEx

Ken Wells is the President of Lifeline Strategies, a maritime safety consultancy, and the former head of OMSA, the Offshore Marine Services Association.  


The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.