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Welcome to our blog, where we comment on a wide variety of topics. Some of them relate to our line of work. Others are more far ranging.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

April 6, 2021

By Jim Rhodes

Last week, the story of the grounded containership in the Suez Canal was all over the news media, albeit with the usual appalling level of ignorance of the subject matter. For instance, I saw a video clip of a BBC TV reporter interviewing Richard Meade, an expert from the maritime daily Lloyd’s List. She started badly, referring to the ship repeatedly as “a giant tanker.”  Richard showed admirable constraint in declining to correct her mistake. Too bad. An opportunity missed to educate her that a containership is not a tanker.

Not that it would likely sink in.

The story will die away quickly now that the salvage team successfully dislodged the ship and traffic is flowing again through the waterway, and the news media will return to their normal posture of total neglect of ships and shipping. At least until the next time a ship hits a reef and spills bunkers across the local beaches with the usual photo op of oil-soaked sea birds.

Part of the problem is that the world of ships and shipping is murky at best and virtually incomprehensible to outsiders. And companies that inhabit that world like to keep it that way.

Take the case of the Ever Given. The ship is owned by Shoei Kisen Kaisha in Japan and is under a long-term charter to Evergreen Shipping, which is based in Taiwan, and sails under the Panama flag. The technical manager of the ship is Bernard Schulte Shipmanagement, with its worldwide headquarters in Hamburg, Germany. So, who is responsible for damages and losses due to the grounding?

The next few years will no doubt see extended investigations, negotiations and probably litigations giving lifetime employment to scores of lawyers, flag state authorities, the salvage company, the Egyptian authorities, shippers and insurance companies, and reinsurance companies for the ship and cargo. As of Friday, April 2, the Suez Canal Authority was reported to be filing claims for $1 billion in losses caused by the closure of the waterway.

Meanwhile, the shipping industry returns to its usual “out of sight, out of mind” mode in the media, apart from a handful of specialized maritime trade publications.

That’s a shame. On any given day there are some 60,000 commercial ships at sea with over a million seafarers working on them, while the rest of the world goes its merry pace in blissful ignorance.

As you may know, I spent several years serving on ships at sea in my younger days, and I take this personally.

Consider, for instance, the following stories that have for the most part been ignored by the media.

First …

How many stories in the media have you seen on the more than a quarter-million seafarers who are trapped on their ships due to Covid restrictions? They are not allowed to leave their ships during port visits and unable to be repatriated to their home countries, although their contracts have long expired. Many of them are in their second year of virtual imprisonment. The causes are unavailability of commercial or charter flights, draconian anti-Covid border closures, and rigid charter requirements that penalize ship delays in port or diversions to another port for crews to be swapped.

And there are also an equal number of seafarers unable to travel to their ships to relieve the crewmembers on board.

Seafarers on commercial ships work 10 to 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. There is little or no access to medical care. The work is inherently dangerous, and when crewmembers are exhausted, mentally stressed and lonely, the number of accidents at sea inevitably rise. While there is no single source documenting suicides at sea, there is anecdotal evidence that the rate is rising sharply. In many cases, the sailors simply disappear quietly overboard.

Or this …

Did you know that more than 2,500 containers have been swept overboard from five different ships during the last four months due to heavy seas, mostly in the North Pacific? That’s more than twice the number of containers lost at sea in the entire preceding year. Many of the containers have air pockets inside giving them a certain amount of buoyancy, so they will float on the surface or – more dangerously – just beneath the surface, creating a hidden hazard to navigation until they eventually sink to a safe depth. Look at the photo at the top of this article. It shows the view from the bridge of the containership ONE Apus in December (photo credit: twitter).

And finally …

Seen any articles in the media lately on the rise of piracy? The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) lists 37 incidents of piracy at sea since the beginning of 2021. By far the most dangerous area is the Gulf of Guinea in East Africa, where pirates have steadily expanded their operations from nearshore out to hundreds of miles at sea. Other hot spots are Southeast Asia, especially around Malaysia and the Straits of Malacca, and the northern tier of South America.

Take, for instance, the Maltese-flagged chemical tanker Davide B, which was attacked March 11 by armed pirates about 220 miles south of Lagos, Nigeria. The pirates kidnapped 15 of the 21-man crew, mostly Filipinos, and took them to a location ashore, where they are still being held prisoner pending payment of ransom demands.

Or this one? The containership Mozart was boarded January 23 by Nigerian pirates who used high explosive devices to penetrate the “citadel” compartment below decks where the crew had taken refuge. The kidnappers took 15 Turkish crewmembers hostage and left one dead on the ship. The survivors were freed on February 12 after weeks of captivity, presumably after ransom payments of unpublished amounts.

At least one pundit of my acquaintance morbidly pointed out, “That’s a hell of a way to get around the Covid travel restriction and make it back to their homes.”