Tired of Talking Green: Masters at Center of Commercial Pressures

By Wendy Laursen 2012-11-19 08:41:00

“Maritime technology without the marketing clichés”

By Wendy Laursen

Is safety compromised as a result?

It is easy to suggest that crews are becoming less competent and that this is a significant contributor to greater safety risks, says Allan Schwartz, General Manager of Maritime Operations at the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA). “While this could be a contributor, it is equally likely that the intense commercial pressures placed on masters are contributing.”

Much of the day-to-day commercial pressure falls on the ship’s master who has, in a lot of cases, had their autonomy to make operational decisions severely limited by shoreside management. A significant pressure is to prevent delays, and this does not just start when they arrive at a new port, says Schwartz, it starts from the moment they leave the last port.

Conflicting Priorities

AMSA sees numerous cases of ships navigating on inappropriate charts, both in paper and electronic versions. “It is disappointing that AMSA is routinely told that charts can only be ordered through ‘the office’ and that the charts for the voyage being undertaken are delivered at the first or subsequent ports during that voyage,” says Schwartz. At times, no effort at all is made to provide appropriate charts to the ship in a timely manner, and AMSA has seen ships navigating on charts that are the wrong scale, are uncorrected, or have been faxed to the ship and then put together on board.

Time-saving measures such as voyage shortcuts have also caused incidents. In the case of Rena in New Zealand, an unsafe shortcut resulted in grounding, total loss of the vessel and its cargo, and significant oil pollution. In the case of Shen Neng 1, a bulk carrier that ran aground and caused an oil spill on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, what should have been a safe shortcut led to a grounding as it was done outside the agreed passage plan and did not involve updating of navigational aids on board.

The opportunity for the master to consider maintenance requirements when arriving at port anchorage is not as simple as it seems because they may be required to have the main engine available at short notice due to navigational or weather hazards, or because berth availability may only be given at short notice. Similarly, situations have arisen where drills cannot be conducted. Often the master has no choice but to defer maintenance of some critical equipment to a later date.

Jumping the Gun Can Be Dangerous

Once the vessel is safely moored alongside, pressure on the master continues because the port facility will want to begin cargo operations as soon as the vessel touches the quay. The master, however, has to finalize preparations such as means of access, preparing the holds and cargo, and ballasting or deballasting.

AMSA has seen an increasing number of cases where these preparations are being undertaken prior to berthing. This can create significant hazards and situations that directly contravene legislative provisions. Crews have been reported to be turning out and fully rigging accommodation ladders before arriving at the berth. A seafarer lost his life off Western Australia this year doing this even though he was wearing a harness and lifejacket.

Similarly, there have been cases of lashing or unlashing cargo prior to berthing and after departure, along with deballasting before entering port, to save time. This can place the vessel in a non-seagoing state. “The Pasha Bulker grounding in Newcastle, Australia, is just one example where the sea-going condition of the vessel at anchor was questioned in the incident report. AMSA has also seen cases in which cargo operations have commenced prior to the master approving the plan or having been provided with the appropriate cargo information,” says Schwartz. “We have had several cases of bulk cargoes that may liquefy being loaded above their transportable moisture limit and ships being overloaded. AMSA has also seen cases of lack of required trimming of cargo at completion of cargo operations just to get the ship off the berth.”


With all the other commercial pressures the master has, being subject to inspections can add to these, says Schwartz. “AMSA does acknowledge this and does endeavor not to add to the master’s workload. However, inspections have become a necessary evil and can provide a ‘circuit breaker’ if commercial pressures are preventing safety deliverables.

As a maritime regulator, AMSA has a clearly set mandate, expectation and vision for promoting and ensuring the safety of ships, seafarers and the protection of the marine environment. While recognizing that the commercial viability of shipping companies is imperative, AMSA does not consider that this should prevent or inhibit delivery of desired safety and environmental outcomes.” – MarEx

If you would like to propose viewpoints or topics for future articles, please contact Wendy Laursen at wlaursen@maritime-executive.com.

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