Finding Light in the Tunnel of Maritime Security Regulations

My recollection from sitting through an awful lot of the International Maritime Organization's preparatory work on the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code, in 2002, is that of the most depressing time ever spent as an IMO backbencher since I first 'joined up' in this capacity in the late 1970s.

Gone was the spring in my step with which I always set out to 4, Albert Embankment, incorrigible supporter that I am of all the organisation stands for and endeavours to achieve through consensus-building.

Dreading the sight of what looked like a grey sea of gloomy-looking men in suits filling the assembly hall, the only bright speck I could see was the River Thames outside, where I could watch life going on as 'normal' with the familiar passage of jolly tourist boats and assorted labouring craft. The ISPS Code drafters were rightly preoccupied with ensuring full protection of ships and the cargoes and people onboard against attack. Their chosen approach a mandatory system of identifying threats and assessing risks that also embraces shoreside port facilities broke new ground for the IMO.

However, as I pored over yet another redraft of a definition, sentence or paragraph, nothing could dispel the ugly picture that was emerging of a ship transformed from a place where seafarers live as well as work into both an impenetrable fortress and inescapable prison.

Thinking of my usually upbeat seafarer colleagues and friends, how would they cope with all these separate and intertwined layers of prevention and control without going nuts, I wondered? These nagging feelings had never left me until a couple of days ago, when the postman rang my doorbell with a parcel from the Nautical Institute containing its latest new book, titled 'Maritime Security: A Practical Guide'.

This is a treasure of digestible yet solid advice from a sensible person with first-hand experience of an armed attack during his time at sea as a deck officer and who developed a professional interest in maritime security and marine fraud investigation.

Author Steven Jones also deserves credit for immediately putting all seafarers at ease. For he warns, in his foreword, that all within the industry do well to 'remember that the ship is a seafarer's home and it should be protected thus.'

Not beating about the bush, he goes on to say: 'Seafarers have the right to stop people and ask for identification, they must be empowered and confident to act to protect the vessel.'

Adding weight to this statement, IMO Secretary-General Efthimios Mitropoulos, writing his foreword, reminds readers that seafarers and their ships, as carriers of world trade, may also be 'innocent carriers of illegal cargoes under fraudulent manifests, so fuelling the very threats they seek to avoid.'

This observation, which puts the difference between opportunistic pirates and political terrorists into the correct perspective, was of course a major factor driving the fast-track development of the ISPS Code and the new Chapter XI-2 of the Solas Convention.

In Mr Mitropoulos' view, security awareness and preparedness are all about being 'tactically efficient', something which seafarers as well as company and port people have had to learn very quickly.

The book, aptly published on the second anniversary of the entry-into-force of the IMO's new security instruments, on July 1, 2004, focuses on demonstrating and explaining both the role and the feasibility of best practice in today's commercial environment with its attendant pressures on manning levels and its penchant for audits and inspections.

It also lends credible substance to all the fancy talk about harmonisation of security processes across the physical and mental boundaries between ship and shore, without losing sight of the distinct security requirements that characterise maritime security systems across the world.

In the latter respect, the book is particularly useful for its update on the US and the European Union.

The author's most important contribution perhaps lies in his insights into how to get the balance right between security and safety and the role of basic good vigilance, which, in mariners' language, of course means proper watchkeeping in its broadest sense.

It is adequate watchkeeping that keeps ships out of harm's way, whether for security or safety purposes or indeed for the purpose of avoiding environmental harm resulting from a pollution incident or accident.

It is also the essence of good seamanship, a skill that 'e-technology' freaks may think is becoming obsolete but which I, for one, believe will remain at the heart of efficient sea trade.

For those eager to read up in more detail on one or other specialist aspect of maritime security, over 300 documentary and web sources are listed.

However, for me the greatest value any book can offer is a neatly constructed index. This, too, is provided.

Once again, the Nautical Institute, with this latest commission from yet another expert, has done the shipping industry and the maritime world a great service.

All this for the very reasonable book price of GBP27.50 (excluding postage) for non-institute members, with bulk orders of 10 or more copies available at a mere GBP16 each.