Executive in Action: Captain Kuba Szymanski, Secretary General, InterManager

From lifeboat drills to paperwork, it’s not easy being a seafarer.

By Wendy Laursen 2013-07-11 14:01:00

Listen to the seafarers, says Captain Kuba Szymanski, Secretary General of InterManager, and a lot of important issues are raised about their treatment by port states. “Port authorities are treating seafarers pretty badly,” he says.

InterManager is the international trade association for in-house and third-party ship managers, and the organization’s membership represents over 5,500 ships and 250,000 crew. Szymanski’s statement is based on a two-year investigation by InterManager, the details of which follow.

Lifeboat Drills

First, seafarers are generally not allowed to conduct lifeboat drills in port even though they fear for their safety conducting them at sea. “Port authorities do not allow training to be done when a vessel is in port, but conditions at sea are very, very seldom ideal for training. Therefore training is either postponed or done as a ‘table top’ [theoretical] exercise,” said one captain with 37 years of seagoing experience.

Yes, seafarers prefer to be economical with the truth and would rather risk losing their jobs than their lives in lifeboat accidents, says Szymanski. “The system is faulty and lifeboat release mechanisms are known to kill people. This fact has been recently recognized by several port authorities, who issued very specific instructions banning any personnel in lifeboats or rescue boats during the drills.”

The actual regulations about lifeboat drills in port vary by flag state. Singapore, one of the world’s busiest ports, has one of the stricter approaches. Lifeboat drills are allowed but there is not to be anybody in the boat during its lowering, launching and recovery. Additionally, there must be a safety boat in attendance if the lifeboat requires maneuvering in the water as part of the drill, and the ship’s rescue boat or lifeboats are not allowed to be the safety boat.

“Isn’t it a pity to see instructions from a flag state for the use of equipment provided to save lives at sea,” says Szymanski. However, this is not always the case. Canada, gives more empowerment to the ship’s master. Transport Canada does not regulate whether people can or cannot be lowered in lifeboats during lifeboat drills. Rather, the master is expected to follow IMO and manufacturer guidelines and incorporate them into their safe operating procedures.

Administrative Burdens

Another issue for seafarers is the number of people coming on board during the ship’s limited time in port. It includes immigration, customs, port authorities and port state control representatives. “They come on board without any consideration that the crew might have been working for many hours,” says Szymanski. “They demand to see the captain, and it doesn’t matter if he is in bed. He is to be wakened.” The visits should be synchronized so the crew can get back to work, Szymanski adds, a system currently being trialled in Europe.

The paperwork burden that seafarers face is another aspect of this problem. “If you send a shipping container from Poland to Denmark by truck, one document is required. By sea it requires over 25 documents. Why?”

When a seafarer has finished his six or eight months at sea and is ready to go home, he is not treated with the same courtesy that airline pilots receive after a single day’s work when they are ushered quickly through immigration. “Seafarers have to wait. Nobody cares.”

A Better Way

Szymanski is talking from his own personal experiences as well as those of other seafarers. His maritime career started in 1985 and included management roles at Dorchester Maritime and MOL Tankship as well as commands on chemical, product and gas carriers. He took over his key role with InterManager in 2010 and is determined to have seafarers’ voices heard on issues facing the maritime industry. “All stakeholders should be involved, and seafarers are stakeholders.”

InterManager has made a point of encouraging its members to review their own internal processes as part of a continual process of improvement and is developing best-practice guidelines for quality management and operation above and beyond mandatory legislation. Szymanski hopes that port authorities will participate as some issues could be addressed by best practices shared among port authorities globally.

Wendy Laursen writes regularly for the newsletter.

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