Monday, 29 March 2010

Is the industry prepared for MLC2006?

Concerns are being raised in some circles that the industry is not ready to deal with the impact of the Maritime Labour Convention 2006, often described as the ‘fourth pillar of the maritime regulatory regime’. The MLC 2006 will come into force, as is usual for such legislation, one year after ratification by ILO member states representing a third of global gross tonnage. As things stand now, Liberia, Panama, the Bahamas and Norway are amongst those that have ratified the convention. Experts say that they expect final ratification later this year, and implementation by the end of 2011 or early 2012.

Meanwhile, some are questioning the wider industry’s understanding or preparedness to handle MLC2006; a few are even drawing parallels with the somewhat confused implementation of the International Safety Management Code a decade or so ago. This does not bode well for the future, because the MLC has been rated as important as SOLAS, STCW and MARPOL, and a convention that is supposed to make a substantial difference to the working conditions of mariners at sea.

BIMCO estimates are that MLC 2006 will apply to about 70,000 vessels and 1.2 million seafarers across nationalities, ranks and flags. The convention sets minimum standards for the health, safety and welfare of seafarers; it also covers, in considerable detail, mariner issues related to food, health, medical care, welfare, protection, pay, working conditions, accommodation and fatigue. Compliance with such a broad convention will obviously not be easily possible last minute, say industry sources, pointing out that the five main areas that the MLC covers are panoptic and extensive in scope. These are: minimum requirements for seafarers to work on a ship; conditions of employment; accommodation, recreational facilities, food and catering; health protection, medical care, welfare and social security protection; compliance and enforcement.

Analysts say that shipowners and managers are not allocating enough resources towards the MLC2006 which may be less than two years away. In addition, certification and inspection administrations will have to come up to speed quickly and put mechanisms in place that will be robust and effective. The International Maritime Employer’s Committee has made a statement recently saying that Port and Flag states were unprepared for MLC 2006. Their secretary-general Giles Heimann said that many stakeholders continue to underestimate the impact of the regulations and have failed to budget time and resources for the preparation required. He said that a “well respected open register” had admitted it is not prepared for MLC implementation because it had not yet managed to get a “single word down on paper as far as national legislation is concerned”.

In other seafarer HRD related issues, InterManager has warned the industry that criminalisation of seafarers and piracy are the two major reasons for the fall in mariner retention and recruitment. “Legislative measures following an accident or incident have made the seafarer increasingly susceptible to criminalisation, and a rising incidence of piracy has led to correspondingly high personal risks," Brian Martis said at a conference recently. "A one-sided view of public interest coupled with political expediency has severely curtailed the human rights of the seafarer. The current shortage of skilled and qualified seafarers, already a significant crisis in the maritime industry, is further exacerbated. I know of several officers who have indicated they will discourage their children from taking up a career at sea."


Monday, 22 March 2010

Poor port infrastructure costs India 1400 crore annually, says CAG

Tabled in Parliament last week, a Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) report slams poor infrastructure at ports, saying that this causes annual losses to the country’s maritime trade to the tune of a whopping Rs. 1400 crore. The report, covering a performance audit of the major Port Trusts in India, says that a major overhaul is required to make Indian ports competitive.

Noting that the Government had earmarked almost 56,000 crores for port and berth development under the National Maritime Development Programme, the audit found, nevertheless, that cargo handling services at major ports were inefficient. The majority of berths did not have dedicated facilities essential for fast turnarounds of ships including for major cargoes like containers or dry and liquid bulk. The CAG also says that dredging projects critical for the competitiveness of the ports were neglected, or have otherwise ‘not been effective’. Additionally, poor facilities exist at ports for night navigation. All this ends up in higher berthing delays and extended turnaround times for ships.

Analysts say that the CAG report should not come as a surprise to anybody. Another earlier Government report had underlined poor infrastructure development. "The average turnaround time of major Indian ports was 3.87 days in 2008-09, compared to 10 hours in Hong Kong. This undermines the competitiveness of Indian ports," the report had said. India has 12 major ports: Kandla, Mumbai, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mormugao, New Managalore, Cochin, Kolkata, Haldia, Paradip, Vishakhapatnam, Chennai and Tuticorin; together, they account for almost three quarters of the nation’s cargo traffic.

"Liquid bulk which primarily consisted of petroleum, oil and lubricants, constituting 33 per cent of the total cargo, faced handling inefficiencies due to slow rates of discharge at specialised berths, leading to high turnaround time of vessels," the CAG says, adding that users were shifting to SBMs instead, thus affecting port revenues. In addition, private terminals like at JNPT and Chennai were handling almost 65 percent of the fastest growing segment, containers. Overall, the report says, cargo-handling services at ports were insufficient for quick handling of cargo like liquid bulk, dry bulk and containers.

There are other issues too. Old and underdeveloped sheds that came in the way of optimal storage utilisation caused losses to perishable cargo like foodgrain. There was also, as in Mumbai, a shortage of covered sheds. “Roofless sheds were being allotted for foodgrains. Further, for automobile cargo, the parking areas allotted were far away from the berths, causing inconvenience to users in loading” the report said.

The CAG report remarked that about 55 per cent of equipment available at all ports except JNPT had been used beyond its economic life, resulting in low utilisation as customers tended to use modern privately owned equipment instead. Interestingly, the CAG commented on the way some ports had fudged labour productivity figures. “The entire handling output was attributed to port labour, disregarding the engagement of private labour, which led to misreporting of labour productivity to the Ministry”, the CAG says.


Thursday, 11 March 2010

MCA cracks down on seafarer working hours

The British Maritime and Coastguard Agency has sent out a tough warning to shipowners and crews that it will henceforth be examining mariner fatigue issues very closely and will take stern action if necessary. The MCA statement, emphasising that defaulters may well face legal action, is seen as part of a continuing drive by the UK regulatory authority to enforce compliance of the STCW regulations as they pertain to seafarer working hours.

Seafarer fatigue is well known to be the root cause of many accidents at sea. The MCA says its inspections will check safety standards and that it will not hesitate to take enforcement action where necessary. “Anyone found failing to meet safety standards can expect the Agency to take prompt and tough action,” the agency says. MCA Assistant Director of seafarers and ships Paul Coley is blunt. "It has been known for many years that tiredness caused by long working hours and low crewing is dangerous to both ships and its crews”.

The MCA statement should not be a bolt from the blue for the industry: the organisation has been in the forefront of highlighting seafarer fatigue issues, especially in areas around the British Isles. The MCA had mounted a concerted campaign to examine working hours on board fishing vessels in the middle of last year; it had then stated that it would emphasise enforcement of working time regulations, seek international recognition of the problem of fatigue at sea and ‘seek a cultural shift over the longer term so that excessive working hours would be no longer acceptable”.

The latest move will see all ships visiting the UK being subject to closer scrutiny, whether British or foreign. Interestingly, the MCA statement pointedly refers to short sea trade vessels running with sometimes very small crews, quite common in Europe: they will face ‘redoubled scrutiny’. The regulatory authority says that its surveyors will closely examine records of watch keeping and other working hours aboard all vessels that fall under their purview. They will verify accuracy of these records, matching them to times of previous port calls and work patterns. If there is not enough time for detailed scrutiny while MCA officials are aboard a vessel, surveyors will ask for copies of the documents they require, especially documents that pertain to the operating pattern of the ship.

The MCA says that it will also examine evidence of the shipmanager’s audit of crew working hour regulations, move analysts feel is clearly intended to put shore offices under the MCA regulatory microscope: the absence of such evidence may clearly indicate a contravention of the ISM rules and stated company procedures. The MCA says that it will be also looking into SMS systems and DOC and SMC audits where they apply to working hours. In addition, MCA officials will ensure that vessels in British waters use dedicated lookouts at night.

Says Coley unequivocally, "The MCA is determined to stamp out excess hours in UK waters, and so significant breaches of the regulations will be reported to our enforcement unit and may result in prosecution."

"Shipping companies have been warned about the consequences of fatigue many times. This time it is not just a warning”.


Plastiki Unveiled!

Sailboat uses plastic bottles for buoyancy

San Francisco, Feb 28 Thirty one year old British environmentalist and adventurer David de Rothschild has finally unveiled his unique sailing craft, ‘Plastiki’, in California; the boat that is constructed out of more than 12,000 recycled plastic bottles and an aluminum irrigation pipe for a mast. De Rothschild will sail the unusual vessel from California to Sydney, a distance of around10, 000 miles. “The journey is a testament to innovation, a symbol of solutions”, David says. It is also meant to highlight the devastation that plastic and other pollution causes in the seas: a million birds and a hundred thousand marine mammals are killed each year because of this.

The Plastiki was built from sustainable design technology: The sail is made from recycled cloth, and solar panels, wind turbines and bicycle generators testify to the ingenuity of the engineers behind the project. Inspired obviously by the Kon-Tiki expedition, David and his crew spent almost four years in pursuit of what he calls a ‘jog across the Pacific’: the boat can only sail downwind, so speed is restricted to a sedate six knots at best. Nonetheless, skipper Jo Royle, co-skipper David Thomson, and Josian and Olav Heyerdahl, the grandchildren of the legendary Thor Heyerdahl of the Kon-Tiki expedition, are excited about the voyage. David and his crew will drink water recycled from urine and consume hydroponic vegetables on the three months at sea.

The exact route is not planned, but the Plastiki will sail from San Francisco down the coast, when she will catch the equatorial currents and winds that will take her to the Line Islands and then towards Tuwalu in the Pacific. From there the vessel will sail to Sydney, Australia.

It will not be all play, though. The crew will be collecting environmental data around the Pacific Islands, including sea level rises in an area that many believe is at the forefront of the war against climate change, and where some islands are in danger of disappearing. The voyage will also keep a close watch on marine debris in the Pacific and plot the movement and sighting of marine life.

David says that Plastiki has learnt from "biomimicry," - looking at nature. He compares the boat to a pomegranate. “It's compact and tough, but when you cut it open and get to the seeds, they're soft and fragile. On Plastiki, the seeds are the bottles. Individually, they're fairly soft and fragile, but packed together they become buoyant, strong, and stable. That's where the inspiration for the makeup of the hull came from”.

David and his engineers use of up to 12,000 of these ‘buoyancy chambers’ was just one step in innovation. Another one: what holds everything together is not industrial (and carcinogenic) glue, but bio glue made of sugar and cashew nut waste. The boat is also completely networked; David collaborated with HP and Inmarsat to ensure excellent technology on board. He is particularly excited about this. “We will blog and tweet and update and broadcast and stream from out there in the middle of the Pacific. This will be one well-tracked voyage!” he says.

David is passionate about the ocean, calling it “the most important environment in our natural world, and yet it's the most disrespected in so many ways”. He says that he wants to use the expedition to highlight the need for more marine parks and better marine protection, and an ocean “that's protected, looked after and properly managed’.

“I want to pull people out of their landlocked imaginations and showcase to them this amazing, not-endless, not-endlessly-resource-filled environment that is driving our planet and essential to it. Without the oceans, humanity can't live on this planet. How do we create a network that allows accountability for the exploitation of our oceans”?


Tuesday, 2 March 2010

GPS signals easy to jam with $150 equipment

Growing menace from jammers, say experts

A meeting held at the National Physics Laboratory in Teddington, UK, pointed out that equipment is easily and cheaply available off the internet that can cripple satellite navigational signals, including those widely used in GPS systems at sea.

Although the conference was not particularly looking at marine systems, experts warn that growing reliance on GPS signals by navigators can have disastrous consequences. Even more dangerous than jamming the GPS signal are sophisticated methods that let jammers hack into programs and decide what to display on your shipboard receiver.

Consultant David Last, former President of the Royal Institute of Navigation, says, "You can consider GPS a little like computers before the first virus - if I had stood here before you then and cried about the risks, you would've asked 'why would anyone bother?'.

But hackers do, and this is a clear and present danger to shipping, where GPS signals are used directly for position determination and also fed to other critical equipment. Additionally, many observers fear that navigating officers are now less competent to go back to older traditional methods of navigation in any such eventuality.

In 2008, Alan Grant of the General Lighthouse Authorities carried out an experiment to assess the degree to which ships would be affected by a jamming signal (see diagram).

Using a low power jamming signal off the eastern English coast, he could have their receivers show positions almost anywhere in Europe. Much depended on the strength of the jamming signal and the ship’s equipment, but seafarers will agree with Grant when he says that a jamming signal causing smaller errors would be infinitely more dangerous at sea, as navigators would not be able to easily identify the error.

 New Year Day failure of a single satellite in 2004 created huge confusion in GPS readings. Professor Last says that "Satellite failures, though dramatic, are not the main problem. The Achilles heel of GPS is the extremely weak signals that reach the receiver."

The weak signals can be swamped by other stronger signals on earth; the armed forces have been doing this for a long time in an attempt to disrupt enemy missile and other capabilities. However, cheap and low power jamming devices are easily available on the internet today; one can get hand held versions that run on batteries and interfere with satellite signals miles away. More powerful ones can do much more.

"You can now buy a low-cost (100 GBP) simulator and link it to Google Earth, put on a route and it will simulate that route to the timing that you specify," said Professor Last. "A GPS receiver overcome by it will behave as if you're travelling along that route." This simulator, although more expensive, can easily be used by criminals or terrorists.

It is not just marine systems that are under threat, of course. High value cargo and armoured cars are being regularly monitored using GPS systems, and missiles are increasingly using these to lock into targets. Even in cases of clear civilian use, the potential for mischief is huge. GPS systems are widely used across the world in areas as diverse as rental car tracking, toll usage charges, logistics handling, distribution, just in time logistics, emergency services, farming and road building, just to name a few.

And, critically, GPS also keeps our telephone networks, internet systems, banking and trading systems- and our power systems up and running.

"Navigation is no longer about how to measure where you are accurately - that's easy," says Professor Last. "It’s all about how to do so reliably, safely and robustly."