The Captain's Way

Can shipping's traditions survive relentless cost-cutting?

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Published Aug 24, 2018 5:24 PM by Erik Kravets

(Article originally published in May/June 2018 edition.)

Ship captains are made, not born (notable exceptions, of course). Almost all are officers first, but some get their start among the ship’s ratings. Formal training and education, as governed by international treaty and national laws, follow. It’s a rank earned through merit and hard work. 

The creative tensions inherent in the rank of captain can be difficult to reconcile with the responsibility of having to look after the safety and security of both the ship and the crew. It’s akin to a military experience. Cramped isolation and frequent boredom during a voyage contrast vividly with brief periods of intense stimulation – while in port clearing customs, loading or offloading cargo or, more rarely nowadays, on shore leave. 

Sometimes it’s life or death. But even when it isn’t, captaining a ship is a strenuous job with specialized skills and significant personal responsibility for both valuable commercial assets and human lives. It takes a toll.

The “Price for Living It”

The sea is unique and demands its own solutions. On land, a manager refusing his employer’s instructions could be fired. But on board, the captain’s word is law – even having more power than the ship’s owner. And sometimes, when there’s a lot at stake, the captain is duty-bound to use his overriding authority to go against the ship’s owner. 

On board, your loyalty is to your crew and ship or to other crews and ships contending against the same elements. Decisions come hard and fast and leave little room for error or second-guessing. 

In a tough situation, the captain should call the shots. It’s arguably better than giving that responsibility to someone not on board and not facing the problem, let alone to someone observing from the relative comfort of the shore office. We hope that captains will decide in favor of safety and security, but sometimes economic forces or career pressures are too much to resist. 

A captain, being only human, may make the easy decision everybody wants instead of the hard decision he knows is right. As Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “Each man lived his own life and paid his own price for living it.”

The “price for living it” is one that shippers rarely see. They want the cheapest possible freight and details handled by the carrier. Better to subject the carrier to an impossible-to-perform agreement and maintain plausible deniability than see all the corners cut due to cost reductions. 

It’s no different with owners who, walking the tightrope between catering to cargo interests and making a profit or investing in their fleets, often have no other option but to pass along, in toto, the pressure of the market to the ship’s captain. And the captain, up to a point, will act as the conduit to the crew for all this negative energy – until he hits a line he will not cross. The moment of duty is not for the faint of heart, because every captain eventually hits that line. In that moment, it’s a test of how far duty can be stretched without breaking. 

As weakening profits put standards under pressure, the stretching gets more and more tenuous each year, which is why it’s more important than ever for captains to remember to maintain their professional standards. If shippers – and even owners – cannot be counted on, the safety and security of shipping is in others’ hands.

What if the need to pick up cargo or quickly reach a port of call conflicts with proper maintenance of the ship or the required rest hours of the crew? In cases like that, the captain doesn’t just need to be a leader and a navigator, he must also be a politician and a dealmaker. Not an easy job.

As the first line of defense, the captain’s power to stop perceived abuses are the most broad and absolute. Instead of relying on a supervising bureaucracy or an office that grants permits upon application, for example, Section 121 of the German Maritime Labor Code states: “[The captain] may not be hindered by the owner in making any and all decisions which, in his professional opinion, are necessary for the security of the ship, for its safety at sea, for its secure operation or for the safety of its crew or other persons on board.” 

Giving the captain’s judgment legal force and fixing the standard as being his “professional opinion” is quite unusual in this era of regulatory creep and top-down control, especially since the captain is not a neutral government official. Not all captains are perfect, of course, and neither is their evaluation of a situation always flawless. But it’s a lot better than relying on someone else’s external control.

A Tradition of Self-Regulation

Beyond that, shipping is special in that it is deeply rooted in a tradition of self-regulation. A perfect example is that classification societies, i.e., private organizations, oversee the approval and validation of ship designs, repairs and even stowage and voyage plans. 

If you want to operate a motor vehicle on public roads, you must have it pass muster with the government. In shipping, it’s your peers – other shipping experts – who will give you a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” An entire industry has grown up around this principle, supporting diverse companies and thousands of employees and giving the industry a deep bench of knowledge and insight that a government would find hard to replicate. 

If a ship has a collision, grounding or other accident, it’s assumed that class is lost and must be regained. Protection & Indemnity (P&I) clubs will regard a ship as non-insured if the owner fails to consult the classification society following such an incident, thereby providing another layer of self-control. If it weren’t for how well classification societies function, there is no doubt that governments would quickly step in and try to fill the void – with problematic results for all concerned.

In an ideal world, all of these groups – ship’s captains, class societies, P&I clubs, conscientious owners and, if a man can dream, cargo interests who seek to balance quality and price – will together give shipping what it needs to hold a steady, sustainable course. But as discussed, the “price for living it” is getting higher with each passing year of the “new normal” of ultra-low charter rates, the slow tightening of the regulatory noose (e.g., on ballast water treatment) and the flood of money and tonnage into the market thanks to cheap interest rates and the pernicious idea that the last remaining victorious shipping company will be the one big enough to stomp all competitors. 

And for every agile, clever owner who manages to carve out a survivable niche, there are many other unscrupulous owners who only swing the hammer of cost reduction with the most frequent target being crews and captains who are made to make do with less and less.

Mystery and Possibility

It would be wonderful to think that shipping, old as it is, can withstand any shock and that, no matter how bad the market gets, maritime traditions and institutions will survive. But the sea is ever-changing and full of possibility, often tempestuous and never rigid or fixed. The sea is also mysterious, its intentions only visible at the surface. It’s impossible for even the most experienced sailor to know what the sea will do next. The same is true of our industry.

The combination of mystery and possibility attracts a certain type to the sea. It’s not “9-to-5ers” who go to sea or sail to foreign shores. It takes an adventurous spirit and, sometimes, the desire for peace and quiet or a fresh start away from civilization. With some luck, these characteristics will continue to inspire future generations. 

From my courses at the Maritime Academy in Cuxhaven I can vouch for the last few graduating classes of ship’s officers. They’re all people who don’t have a problem saying “no” and who would rather put their jobs on the line than risk their crew, passengers or ship. I would, without hesitation, set sail today with any one of them. But the trouble is it’s tricky to predict how long they’ll stay like that in the face of life’s hard knocks. 

I do worry that the industry’s self-regulation is only a few accidents away from disappearing. We all know that failures are more likely when equipment is pushed to the extreme. The same is even more true of crews and captains. The industry has been running well past tolerances for some time now but somehow has been lucky enough to avoid a truly heinous catastrophe. When that happens, the public will conclude that the government is needed and self-regulation has failed.

Room to Maneuver

Thankfully, life at sea is still its own paradigm, full of paradoxes. And while a ship’s destination is often set in stone, the course can be set freely while en route. There is leeway combined with a few non-negotiable items. Those rules that exist at sea, while few, are ironclad. 

If our luck holds going forward, maybe we’ll still have enough room to maneuver. – MarEx  

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