COVID-19 has accelerated the transition to online services.
(Article originally published in July/Aug 2020 edition.)
Shipowners face gigantic new challenges in the COVID-19 era. In addition to the economic impact, they have to contend with a maze of government restrictions on crew changes and international travel. The restrictions also make it difficult to bring surveyors on board for mandatory inspections.
Ship registries, also known as flag states or flag registries, serve as regulators and facilitators for maritime commerce and play a key role in untangling these challenges to keep ships moving. They advocate on behalf of individual ships and crewmembers, make allowances for logistical hurdles by extending survey deadlines and green-light the selective use of remote inspections – all of which has helped sustain vessel operations during the pandemic.
Like all organizations, the registries themselves have had to make significant changes due to government shutdown orders and social-distancing requirements. Many have satellite offices and customers in East Asia, so they experienced the pandemic early on and began gearing up for remote operation before the novel coronavirus made its way toward the Western Hemisphere.
Robust IT systems and digital services have helped reduce the pandemic’s disruption. Electronic ship registry application forms, online payment processing and online certificate validation systems have all made it easier to do business with flag registries in recent years, and these simple features have now become essential.
“As one of the first registries to introduce online services with the Bahamas Online Registration Information System (BORIS),” says Captain Dwain Hutchinson, Managing Director & CEO of the Bahamas Maritime Authority, “we have always prioritized the use of technology. At the point when COVID-19 was really beginning to have an impact, particularly in the Far East, we were already working on enhancements to BORIS. The pandemic has accelerated this process, and more online services are being tested for delivery in the third quarter.”
Flag registries’ next technological frontier is remote vessel inspection, often facilitated by the vessel’s classification society. In some locales, in-person survey attendance is difficult or impossible due to government-imposed travel and quarantine restrictions.
Since this interferes with vessel compliance, some flag states now allow surveys to be conducted remotely, connecting the surveyor with the vessel's crew over a videoconferencing platform. Registries have varying policies on their use. Some do not allow them at all. Others allow them for a limited number of minor inspections, and some now allow them for any annual inspection including the in-depth load line survey.
Remote surveys were a growing trend even before COVID-19, and the world’s largest flag states – notably, the Liberian Registry and the Republic of the Marshall Islands Registry – were among the early adopters. Liberia was the first to expand its remote survey program this year, and in late March it became the first to implement remote annual safety inspections.
"The COVID 'push' has accelerated discussions we've been having for quite a long time,” notes Alfonso Castillero, COO of the Liberian Registry. “All the technological changes that were only 50 percent-implemented because there was hesitation in the industry are now being adopted. But remote audits and inspections should not be the standard practice. They should be the exception for special cases when circumstances don't allow an inspector to come on board.”
The U.K. Ship Register is moving more cautiously when it comes to remote surveys. Together with classification society Lloyd's Register, the flag is trialing remote technology and techniques, but Director Katy Ware says it’s not in a hurry to follow the trend.
"We're going with caution because this is serious stuff,” she says. “There's nothing quite like having boots on the ground when it comes to doing a survey. Ultimately, as the U.K. flag state, we’re responsible for ensuring the safety of our vessels. There may be vessels for which we have to say, ‘Sorry, but we need you to have a physical survey.’"
The Cayman Islands Shipping Registry is also taking a conservative approach to remote surveys. Early in the pandemic it prepared a list of vessels that would soon be coming due for inspection and evaluated them for the possibility of remote attendance. While the registry does not consider this new option a panacea for all surveys, it’s found they can be a useful tool for smaller tasks like closing out deficiencies or examining specific elements of the ship, according to Regional Director/Americas Peter Southgate.
Worldwide, an estimated 300,000 seafarers are stuck on board their ships and awaiting a crew change due to coronavirus-related travel restrictions. Every maritime stakeholder is invested in their safe return home. In addition to humanitarian concerns, the fatigue from extra weeks and months on board may elevate the risk of accidents and mental health issues.
The Cyprus Flag Administration has been closely involved in facilitating crew changes, both for its own fleet and other vessels. Its staff has worked directly with foreign embassies to secure visas for crew members and has even lent a hand with flight arrangements.
"In the beginning of May we introduced a specific protocol for ships to conduct crew changes in Cyprus,” says former Deputy Shipping Minister Natasa Pilides, who now serves as Minister of Energy, Commerce & Industry. “And that's actually been quite popular. We've had so many requests and completed so many crew changes in the past few months that we’re now easing those measures and, depending upon the ship's details and voyage history, the crew change procedure can go forward without many special approvals."
The Cayman Registry has also been providing advice and guidance to its fleet on crew change issues, but challenges remain. "International travel is starting to pick up, and agreements have been made on international protocols to facilitate crew changes," says Southgate. "However, problems remain in many areas, and some seafarers have been working on board for significantly longer than originally contracted for and are unable to return home to their families.”
The pandemic has changed many things, but the need to maintain fleet quality remains the same. Port states evaluate flag registries based upon how often each flag's vessels are detained for safety or compliance deficiencies.
If a flag's fleet has had more detentions than average over the past several years, it’s more likely its ships will be selected for inspection by port state control officials. In Europe, the rankings are collated by the Paris MoU (“Memorandum of Understanding”) on Port State Control. For Pacific Basin port states, they’re administered by the Tokyo MoU.
The U.K. Ship Registry is the top-rated flag on the Paris MoU white list, and it’s a hard-won honor. Over the past four years, Director Katy Ware has led a transformation to recruit the right team of inspectors, technical specialists and managers. That effort is now paying off, she says, but her agency has no plans to let up: "We inspect vessels that apply to join the U.K. registry and decide whether we will take them or not. We want quality owners on the flag, and we will not compromise safety. We're not looking to be the biggest, we're looking to be the best-performing."
The Liberian Registry, second-largest by fleet size, has taken a high-tech approach to maintaining its quality ranking. The registry has a new software tool that predicts when each vessel is likely to be inspected at its next port of call and what that inspection is likely to look like.
“When a ship changes its destination to a port where it’s likely to be inspected, our prevention program flags it and tells the ship to be careful,” says Chief Commercial Officer Alfonso Castillero. “Then we can advise the master and the shipowner about what the most commonly recorded inspection deficiencies are in that port. This helps them narrow their focus on what the likely problems could be. It’s like the Waze app for drivers. It tells you if there’s a traffic light camera or a cop or a car stalled on the road ahead.”
At the registry for St. Kitts and Nevis, which sits on the Paris MoU’s black list, administrators are working diligently to improve fleet quality. SKANReg, the U.K.-based company administering the St. Kitts registry, is known for its efficient, end-of-life flag services for vessels bound for recycling. It now aims to raise its ranking to the Paris MoU’s grey list by increasing inspections and attracting newer tonnage.
"We’re striving to improve the quality of the tonnage under our flag,” says Liam Ryan, International Registrar of Shipping & CEO at SKANReg, “and while we need to concentrate on revenue flowing to the government from vessel registrations, it’s also important we inspect more ships so we can progress onto the grey list and then ultimately the white list."
Paul Benecki is the magazine’s News Editor-Americas/Europe.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.