Pier Pressure Can Increase When Security Officials, Ship Employees Meet

The oil company tanker master was quite emphatic. 'If anyone thinks that all this inspecting, surveying and vetting is making me better at my job, or will improve the quality of my ship,' he said, 'they are quite mistaken.'

One is tempted to suggest that there could be in his attitude a certain level of professional arrogance, which resembles that of schoolteachers who resent the visits of the inspectorates with their propensity for fault-finding.

But it is worth persisting in this line of inquiry. The master, it transpires, has no objections to judgment from someone who has something of an inkling of what it takes to run a modern merchant ship.

Brought up when the only inspections were by the highly qualified and experienced professional surveyors of the flag state and those of the classification society, he now operates under a regime when any barely literate person armed with a uniform, authority and a clipboard can come aboard in foreign ports without appointment and demand his time, attention, and evidence of total compliance with either local by-law, regulation or that authority's interpretation of an international convention. It is an awful way to live.

Other masters speak about unpleasant meetings with interrogators, often peremptory in their manner and driven by their mission to find fault. These were rarely mariners themselves. They could not be described as professional, but were people with the mentality of parking attendants.

They did not understand ships and shipping, or even what it was like to operate a complex item of floating machinery in a 24 hours a day, seven days a week regime.

They were incapable of reason, saw everything in a monochrome black or white, pass or fail context, and those forced to deal with these robots were left completely exasperated.

In some parts of the world the ignorance and arrogance of these officials is supplemented by an astonishing level of blatant corruption, the official, often backed up by the agent, making it quite clear that unless the requisite fee for facilitation, whether in cash or kind, is paid 'bad things' would happen.

And anyone who doubts that this is not widespread needs to visit the back pages of any BIMCO Bulletin, where the shipping organisation likes to set out chapter and verse and, usefully, the locations of this primitive behaviour.

There is nothing at all new about this, but it is worth noting that such a regime is being made a good deal more demanding by the arrival on the scene of the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code.

It means more officials, more officialdom, now acting under the premise that where security is concerned no demand made of a ship and those aboard her can be deemed unreasonable.

These are early days with ISPS and in the maritime world in general it takes time to come to terms with the insecure world of today.

The arrival on the scene of the international terrorist, and the paranoia which our inability to prescribe solutions to terrorism sometimes induces, produce a strained relationship between mariners trying to do their jobs, with the unasked for addition of ISPS compliance, and security forces who are solely focused upon the protection of the realm.

Let us face it, it just needs one successful terrorist attack upon a big tanker, laden gas carrier, passenger- ship, or perhaps a ship seized to act as a weapon and the proverbial has hit the fan.

Security people have had this drummed into their skulls until their brains reverberate and they wake up having nightmares about that 'worst-case' maritime scenario which leaves Osama triumphant.

'Not on my watch!', they pray fervently. Shipping people need to understand just what these unsmiling, humourless folk with their clipboards have as priorities, just as the authorities could gain a great deal from a wider understanding of the merchant mariner's life.

Something that is new in the ISPS regime, which was not a feature of 'normal' port state control, is the enthusiasm of security staff to 'test' the ship's systems and procedure with trick questions and behaviour designed to find faults in the ship's organisation.

Several of these are outlined in a summary by the International Chamber of Shipping, collected by members of the Round Table of International Associations and helpfully reproduced in the BIMCO Bulletin.

Reading these accounts, it is difficult to escape from the notion that seafaring is becoming a pretty joyless career option these days, having routinely to meet some of the officials whose actions are described.

Like the US Customs official on Portland Maine, who 'began shouting and threatening the gangway watch officer' after he had refused to take a ship- issued security badge, subsequently delaying the commencement of discharge by 12 hours in what the ICS commentator suggests was 'an abuse of power'.

Or the two visitors dressed as US Coast Guard inspectors who boarded a ship in New York, one offering as ID a 'joke' document, purporting to identify the bearer as an extra-terrestrial.

When properly denied access to the ship, they threatened to delay the vessel, stating that the ship would be shifted off the berth until a full inspection could take place.

Worth comparing the USCG 'joke' with the dire treatment meted out down the road in Philadelphia to the Turkish master who, exasperated at the delays in affording him clearance, made a crack about a bomb being aboard and ended up in jail.

A sense of humour is evidently highly selective among security staff.

There is an account of a US Coast Guard visitation to a ship in Quincy, Massachusetts, where there were three separate 'tests' inflicted on the ship, starting with a member of the team who failed to show ID, attempting to persuade the master to leave the gangway unmanned while the whole crew was mustered and then proposing an unescorted visit to the engineroom.

The ship passed its tests with flying colours, but the master may well have reflected that his long professional training could have benefited from tuition in dramatics.

From the several reports submitted after visits to US ports it seems clear that there is a disturbing degree of interpretation of the regulations permitted by individual officers and no guarantee that something judged as compliant at Port A will be so judged at Port B.

And it would be wrong to suggest that the only problems are being encountered in the US. Indeed there were accounts of positive and harmonious encounters in the US, as elsewhere. And it is perhaps worth noting, for the record, that the reports give only one side of the encounter.

But what on earth does the SSO do when faced with an entire bloody-minded stevedoring workforce in Marseilles which refuses to take ID badges and generally co-operate in any way? Does the master stop the job, send the dockers ashore and provoke what could be a stoppage that could bring the whole port to a standstill?

Does he risk the wrath and sanctions of the French government for NOT taking such a tough line? And, when faced with instructions from charterers that the ship's security level is raised only the preserve of the flag state does the master tell the charterer to get lost, refer the matter to higher authority or submit quietly?

Such questions speak volumes about why a competent, professional and diplomatic master is worth about 10 times as much as any shipping company would ever pay him. Where will it go from here? One would like to think that these accounts will eventually end up on the desks of people of sufficient power and intellect to learn from the incidents and instruct their front line staff on the optimum way to conduct themselves.

Hopefully, these practical elements of the ISPS Code at work will be taken back to the International Maritime Organisation and if the code requires amendment in the light of experience we would hope that this can be done speedily.

Clearly, as with so much in the relationship between ship and shore, it is ignorance of the other person's point of view that causes so many problems.

To the security officer on the quay the crew of the arriving ship is composed of potential terrorists who must be treated as such until they can prove otherwise.

To the crew looking down at the security inspectorate, with their guns and designer sunglasses, these people are visitors who have excessive powers and who must be endured. One would like to think that, with the passage of time, there might be some meeting of minds.

Ideally, part of the training of any security, customs or other official who has to deal with ships and seafarers would include a short voyage in a merchant ship, just to gain some idea of how they are operated, the pressures on those who work aboard them and an inkling of the seafarers' thought processes.

And that goes for all port state inspectors, not just those dealing with security, because the exposure would certainly be a useful experience.

And we often forget that there is, in fostering a more harmonious relationship between seafarers and security staff, a path to a more productive regime than one based on mutual suspicion and antagonism.

Co-operation and respect work wonders and people aboard ship, after all, need security every bit as much as do those ashore.