3000 accidents at sea, every year

Maritime transport is one of the vital arteries of the world economy: no less then 95 percent of all goods traded are transported by sea. When this goes wrong, often the consequences cannot be overlooked.
The specialised newspaper Lloyd’s List speaks about 3000 accidents at sea in 2007.  Which makes an average of about 8 per day.  Every accident, big or small, has implications for the economy or the environment.  Most striking are the black, sticky oil slicks which spread themselves over the surface of the sea when tankers are involved.  For example, the Hebei Spirit, one of the 3000 ships involved in accidents last year, leaked ten thousand litres of oil into the Yellow Sea.  The costs for cleaning:  220 million euro. 
Also during accidents involving cargo liners it is possible for dangerous, toxic material to end up in the sea.  The British MSC Napoli, which got salvaged in January 2007, had about two thousand ton of goods classified by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) as dangerous.  On top of that, crew sometimes fall overboard.  At the beginning of January, at least three people died when the MV Vanessa sank.  It was a Bulgarian cargo liner with 3000 tons of steel  cargo. 

Apart from the direct consequences, accidents also have indirect consequences.  ‘And those are much less known’, says Bart Mertens from Belgibo NV, a niche broker in maritime insurances.  ‘At the time of the accident of the Prestige off the Spanish coast, half of the Galician fishermen were without income for a while.  The Napoli transported car parts, as a result of which the plant was unable to get started.  Also, one can not forget the consequences for the tourist industry: communities close to beautiful beaches or nature reserves can be badly hit.  Which was the case after the accident with the Hebei Spirit.’

The difference between port side and starboard

In order to prevent incidents at sea, international treaties are applied.  For more than half of a century, the International Maritime Organisation, a daughter of the UN, has tried to regulate the traffic at sea.  In September the IMO celebrated her sexagenarian existence.  Amongst other things the IMO is involved in setting up the guidelines for the training of seamen, as foreseen in the Standards of Traning, Certification & Watchkeeping (STCW) Convention.  Those guidelines provide what they need to know in order to guarantee safe traffic.  Every national government has to ensure this basic training in their education program and is responsible for certifying it.  The same applies to the technical side of seamanship.  Several certificates exist for the physical appearance of the ship, obligatory exercises, tools, …

According to IMO, also specialised in maritime crime, false documents are easily available.  In 2001, the organisation counted 13 000 false certificates.  Have a look at the story of Captain Johan Deloght who made an around the world trip in 2006.  Passing Senegal , he was offered the possibility to exchange his skippers licence for yachts into a certificate for commercial cargo in Senegal.  According to the guidelines of the IMO this is not allowed without re-education.  In countries like Greece, Turkey and China it seems to be possible to buy certificates without much difficulty.

‘It seems more effective than it is in reality’  says Captain Pierre Janssen of Port State Control (PSC).  The organisation unites coastal states of 27 European countries and the North Atlantic in order to improve the control over their fleets.  Firstly the PSC checks whether the necessary certificates are present.  Only if there is clear indication that the papers don’t represent the reality, a more thorough inspection follows.  ‘Those inspections cost a lot of money and time,’ says Janssen.  ‘A tanker needs to be completely cleaned before we can control it for cracks.  Boats pay per hour when they lie at the quay and the customer on the other side of the ocean is waiting.  It is like taking a test from a pilot at the moment he has to leave in 45 minutes.  If the necessary personal and technical documents are aboard, one has to be very self confident in order to conduct further control.’

Captain Christophe Claus points towards the training behind the certificate instead of the formality: ‘For years I have sailed to the Scandinavian countries.  Sometimes I came across captains who didn’t even knew the difference between port side and starboard’.  Captain Jacques Loncke, nautical service chef of the Maritime Rescue- and Coordination Centre, doesn’t believe these stories.  ‘These are little fantasies.  Mostly the officers are sufficiently educated. The problem lies with the junior  staff.’  Claus doesn’t deny this:  ‘It was impossible for me to trust the junior staff, as a result of which the work pressure was too much for me.  But through the STCW-convention it is possible for the staff to grow to captain.’

Double accounting

Off course money plays a role.  The lesser the crew, the cheaper.  Every member state of the IMO decides autonomously the amount of crew members that is necessary in order to sail safely.  Pressure from shipowners and other commercial stakeholders is not excluded.  Claus states that lack of money is one of the most important reasons why he resigned at the managing company Continental Fleet Management.  Claus: ‘There was a lot of resistance amongst the shipowners to do something against those dangerous things, mostly because this would translate in extra expenditure.’

Finally there is the issue of being exhausted.  Also in the maritime sector, a dual accounting system for extra hours is in existence.  Worldwide there is a lack of officers while the world fleet is growing.  The crew available is responsible for the supporting tasks as well, where before there was more staff to do this.  ‘Twenty years ago there was the court master, the chef, the kitchen help and the kitchen baker.  Now the chef is responsible for everything on his own’, says Janssen of PSC.  The same can be said for the crew on board and in the engine room.  As with the just in time-principle used for truckers, the time schedule is narrowly defined.  In the harbour everything needs to be offloaded, loaded and arranged within twelve hours.

Tiredness plays also a role in the failure of safety management.  The IMO expects that the crew does the fixed training, however in reality this does not always happen.  ‘the crew is not too stupid to do the safety management but often too tired’, says Janssen.

The story goes around that a lot of ships are assumed never to arrive at their destination.  They disappear intentionally at sea, in order to pocket the giant insurance claim. But it is possible that this is also one of those little fantasies of the captains.

This contribution was produced with support form Fonds pascal Decroos for Bijzondere Journalistiek. Info: www.fondspascaldecroos.org

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