Sunday, July 27, 2014

Insulting and repulsive

Silja Festival - from interwebs
Last week, the operators of the Delta Spirit Lodge, through a Vancouver based Law Firm specializing in Commercial Law, put advertisements on the BC Government's taxpayer funded WorkBC website.

The advertisement was looking for all ranks of seafarers, including marine professionals holding a Transport Canada engineering Certificate of Competency of Second and First Class. The Delta Spirit Lodge is actually the 28 year old MV Silja Festival, a Latvian flagged cruise ferry, owned and operated by Baltic Sea ferry heavyweight, Tallink.

The ship was pulled from regular ferry service in May 2013, and has been operating in Kitimat, British Columbia, under a Canada Coasting Trade Act waiver granted in May 2014. The waiver is to effect from February 2015, until February 2016. The Latvian flagged cruise ferry has been chartered by an Alberta company, and repositioned to Kitimat, to house construction workers.

Aerial shot of the town of Kitimat on BC's Northern Coast
Kitimat, on the Northern BC coast, has a boom / bust economy. Right now, it is booming, with the aluminum smelter upgrades, and LNG export plant construction, creating a housing crunch. The lame split level 1970s homes populating the small hamlet, are going for an astronomical high price these days, so to cut worker housing costs, the ferry was brought in.
HT Laevateenindus (HT Shipmanagement) is the ship management company for the vessel Silja Festival. This vessel is in Canada, acting as a floating hotel for workers on the Kitimat Modernization Project and the Kitimat LNG Terminal Project in Kitimat, British Columbia for approximately 9 months.
The ads by the Tallin, Estonia, based HT Shipmanagement company seem to be a lightly veiled attempt at fulfilling what is an undoubtedly required process of trying to prove there is no local expertise available to crew this foreign ship. Its “failure” to attract Canadian certified Marine Engineers will mean the company will continue to utilize cheaper foreign Marine Engineers in Canada. I can see the reasoning of this, to maximize profits while doing business in BC, bypassing the accepted national norms – great for them, but nobody else. 

However, Canadian Marine Engineers have gone through a very painful and an arduous process of getting certified in Canada, and therefore should be the only ones to crew ships operating in Canada, and compensated according to local standards. If foreign companies can so easily undercut this hard work, what’s the point of wasting our time training any Ship Officers in Canada; what’s the point of Cabotage. In that case deregulate shipping in Canada altogether, and please deregulate certification while we’re at it, and, remove seafarer income tax barriers – level the playing field.

Silja Festival in Kitimat Source
The ads are looking for numerous levels of Transport Canada certified Marine Engineering professionals. The ads stipulate a three month on, three month off rotation, with a total time of nine months. The salary advertised for the First, Second and Watchkeeping Engineers is $33.52CDN per hour, with no additional benefits.

Assuming you are working a 4 on 8 off schedule, which is typical on this type of trade and vessel, that would work out to be about $270/day, $8000/mth, 48k/yr. All that, for an experienced Transport Canada First Class Certificate of Competency – wow! At least when sailing internationally, these figures would be in US dollars.

Here’s the skinny on the ads…
  • First Engineer: In-charge of an engine room watch, responsible to the Chief Engineer for operations and maintenance of the engine rooms and equipment. 9 months. Positions available: 2. Wage: 33.52 CAD/hour
  • Second Engineer: Responsible for engine room watch and to the 1st Engineer for operations and maintenance of the engine rooms and equipment. 9 months, Positions available: 2, Wage: 33.52 CAD/hour
  • Watch Engineer: Responsible for an engine room watch and for the operations and maintenance of the engine room and equipment. 9 months. Positions available: 2. Wage: 33.52 CAD/hour
  • Electrical engineer - Electro-technical Officer: Responsible for overseeing and carrying out maintenance, repairs and modifications of the electronic/electrical systems on board the vessel. 9 months. Positions available: 2. Wage: 34.28 CAD/hour
  • Refrigerator Equipment Engineer: Responsible for the maintenance and operation of the refrigerating and HVAC equipment on board, including planned maintenance and repairs to equipment, ensuring that Engine Room logs and maintenance records are completed. 9 months. Positions available: 2. Wage: 24.10 CAD/hour
...form the interwebs
With the amount of tradespeople being housed onboard, I would propose that the rate offered in these ads, to perhaps some of the most qualified and regulated professionals onboard – the Marine Engineers, is probably the lowest offered to any of the skilled trades onboard.

Most trades in BC – welders, carpenters, mechanics, electrician – journeyman rate is somewhere between 35-45 dollars per hours – plus benefits. Of course, I don’t have to list the far more extensive requirements achieved by the Canadian Marine Engineer, as opposed to a Trades Qualified journeyman, but suffice to say that a $33/hr rate is grossly out of whack, compared to the average journeyman pay rate, vis a vis certifications, skills an responsibilities.

The ads go on to specify requirements from the candidates:
  • Education: Diploma/certificates of proficiency of Chief Engineer. Must be willing to undergo ship type specific training according to STCW convention and Flag state requirements.
  • Work experience: At least 3 years’ experience on board similar size, class, and construction of vessel or sister ship as Second Engineer ore (sic) Chief Engineer.
  • Language: Written and Oral English is the required (sic). Written and Oral Estonian language is preferred.
The minimum pay rate for a Fourth Class, (the lowest rank in Canada) should be in the region of $400-475 a day; a First or Second Class, is considerably higher. The leave ratio of 3 months on / off is now completely out of norm in Canada. This leave ratio is barely in line with international cruise companies, who are offering a “10 weeks on, 10 weeks off” leave system. The leave system offered in Canada is usually a month on, month off, perhaps going to 6 weeks on / off. 

There is no way a person earning these advertised wages can sustain themselves, much less a family in Canada, and especially not in British Columbia. I don’t know of any Canadian Certified Marine Engineers who would be willing to accept these terms.

Basically, this Estonian company is advertising the same pay package they are probably offering their non-Canadians engineering officers currently onboard. It is, at best, a “low end”, to “middle of the road” pay package on the international market, and a “less than bottom end” package in Canada. The one huge difference is that those officers do not pay income taxes in their countries, so effectively
they can undercut their Canadian counterparts by a large percentage.

Canadian officers pay income tax and payroll taxes, probably in the region of 25-30%. Not to mention the high cost of additional mandatory cost such as BC Medical Service Plan premiums, and a litany of other costs to live here in Canada, and in particular in BC, with its astronomical high cost of living.

The lack of these costs for the foreign engineers is a sizable discount for foreign companies to operate in Canada, and an obvious unfair competitive disadvantage for Canadians. This is why you don’t see many Canadians engineering officers working internationally, we just can’t compete.

To have this happen in my own backyards is insulting and repulsive.

Silja Festival in Kitimat Source
I am surprised to even see these ads, I just assume the government would just roll over for the companies and corporations as it usually does, and let this foreign ship, operating with foreign crews on Canadian projects. The foreign workers are afforded the conveniences and safety of working in Canada with unfettered access to our publicly funded infrastructure, without paying any income taxes to Canada. So, kudos to whoever in government is forcing the issue, undoubtedly against great pressures.

How probable it is that they will find Marine Engineers certified by Transport Canada to answer these ads, I’d estimate there was no reasonable expectation of success – on purpose.

Which is probably why they are using a Vancouver based “Commercial Law” firm of Bernard LLP, to handle the applications – a highly unusual crewing arrangement. To any seasoned seafarer, this should tell you allot in of itself. For the rest of the hardworking, tax paying public, this should shed light on the validity of their intentions. 

Tip -Using child labor would probably
also increase profits, call it "training"
As it was with the Chinese, and the hiring of “skilled labour” for their infamous Tumbler Ridge cola mine in central BC, which made national headlines. The hiring criteria (mirrored by those above) were so narrow that it was meaningless to even ask for anything but slave labour, huh, I means, “temporary” foreign workers to exploit BC’s resources.

Strong unions raised up concerns about the true intentions of the Chinese mining company in courts of law and in public opinion courts. Eventually, the Chinese got their way and Canadian workers lost out on those valuable jobs. Unlike the mine, the very specialized and highly trained Marine Engineers and their low numbers, have no organization with clout to speak for them. The mine's temporary foreign worker debacles is clearly whats ahead for us engineers in Canada.

The Canadian Marine Engineering ranks have been decimated by decades of abuse and neglect, and a successful assault by Canadian ship operators on labor coordination. Now the Canadian shipping industry is faced with a major problem, there is not enough certified Canadian engineers willing to suffer through harsh conditions, on subpar vessels, for subsistence wages.

After all, why would they, when all signs like these, point to a federal government unwilling to protect those highly skilled Canadians jobs and the families they support. However, these engineers and their families have, or are expected to, slog through endless and burdensome Canadian certification requirements, and then are expected to compete on an un-level playing field.

This is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, foreign certified Marine Engineers – in all probability all officers, not to mention, ratings - will most likely be kept on board this vessel in Kitimat; a foreign owned ship, with a foreign crew, operating in Canada, for a lengthy period of time regardless of the outcome of this futile exercise.

With the escalating rate of retirements and the numerous other projects coming online, Canadian ship operators are requiring a dramatic increase of Marine Engineers labor supply. However, Canada – its government, its unions and its ship operators – over the last few decades, has failed to nurture, even hampered, the ability of Marine Engineers to come into, and rise through the ranks. There is only one thing on the horizon – the end.

Harper's TFW program;
yeaaaahhhh, thanks for that...
The choice that is emerging, by default, is the end of our profession in Canada, or continue to endure the unsustainable working conditions currently being imposed on us, and those, becoming even worst by actions such as these.

Hell of a choice.

I encourage all of you, my Transport Canada certified engineering peers, to send in your resume in response to these ads. Whether you are working or not, ashore or not, I want you to submit your resume, do it now.

Flood these people with your documents regardless of the terms they are offering. If they are actually serious, you can try to negotiate better terms, or decline the offer. Let me know what comes of it. This affects you, and cannot go unnoticed; spread the word to your local media, and Member of Parliament.

Please email or mail your application to:
1500 – 570 Granville Street
Vancouver, BC V6C 3P1
Attention:  Catherine Hofmann
Email:  info@bernardllp.ca
Here's some info from the BC Chamber of Shipping
Silja Festival
Built by STX Finland, Helsinki Yard in 1986
Owned and managed by AS Tallink Grupp
Technically managed by Owned by HT Shipmanagement, Tallinn, Estonia

LOA 168m
Beam 27.6m
GRT 34,414
Berths 1879
Speed 22 knots

The vessel has been chartered by Rio Tinto Alcan to house additional workers being contracted for the Kitimat smelter’s modernization project. The ship is expected to be used for nine months and will have a service staff of 110 persons.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Don’t mention P.M.S.



Funny things happen when I leave home.  For one, the Domestic Operations Control Unit (my spouse) is probably happier, to a certain extent anyways. It’s really tough being married with children and going to sea. It is not realistic to have her work outside the home, as the costs outweigh the benefits. So she ends up being, by necessity, the Alpha in the home. 

Of course being a Chief Engineer, you end up being a bit of an Alpha at work, so coming home does then to create some interesting dynamics; two Alpha personalities in one small house.
Being an engineer, I am not the keenest to those “feelings” things either. So it takes me a while to realize the subtle or even not too subtle events that occur around this career we’ve chosen. Whenever I leave home now, certain upsetting things occur that I have learnt to expect when I leave for the ship.

The first thing is usually my wife’s aggression about a week before I sail. This one is always upsetting, but I am learning that there is a certain way people deal with this job. I am not sure why it happens, maybe it’s the realization that she will be stuck “home alone” for six weeks and is more edgy. Maybe it’s a way to hide the fear of being alone. I am not sure, but there is certainly something there.

The kids well, there is no difference there. There is usually a pattern of unusual occurrences when I leave. The eldest, although not as much lately, will of course become defiant. Dad’s not around so he gives mom a tough time for the second week I am away. First week usually seems ok; I always leave, giving him the “you’re the big man around the house” responsibility speech, so maybe that helps defer the angst a bit.

The middle one is more worrisome, because he generally is a happy go lucky little guy. But he’s not able to articulate his feelings. This is not good, as they end up coming out as anger and tears over the smallest things. Funny how that is. After quite some time going to sea, I could see a subtle pattern emerge, however it was really tough to nail down what the cause of it. We’ve been practicing expressing the root cause of his outburst s when I am home, and finally, this last time leaving, I believe we have some kind of breakthrough. He finally admitted that he misses me when I leave.

The youngest one, like his eldest brother also has a predictable reaction to my leaving for sea. However, he has more of a physiological response to my leaving. Usually the first week I leave, or the first week I am back, he will pee the bed at night; probably twice, most likely once. It is unlike him typically to do this, whatever that typical life of a sailor is, but… yeah, it is strange to see such a physical response. The usual response you would expect is more moods and feelings.

Leaving for sea as a professional sailor is not for the faint of heart and it doesn’t just affect the individual. There is a pretty dramatic roller coaster of emotions and physiological responses one can expect during these times from those around them.  This challenge, yet another we deal with every day at sea, is another aspect of the job few think about.

Whatever you do, don’t ever, ever, mention anything relating to PMS, when dealing with these challenging situations. That was an easier lesson to learn, one I learned quickly… for once.  

Pictures from the interwebs

Monday, July 07, 2014

TC - Interesting for all the wrong reasons



It caught my eye one evening on watch, while catching up on my maritime news. There it was a Transport Canada (TC) advertisement, a few simple lines, in French and English, in a US based magazine. Well, that was strange to start with, I thought to myself, then I read the ad: “News for owners of vessels over 24 meters, change in service delivery for certification and inspections”.  
I know about delegation, but I thought this was an optional program. According to this ad it would seem like TC has made it mandatory effective January 2014, for basically all commercial vessels that most of us are accustomed to.

Wow! Just think about it.

If TC is not going to inspect or even issue certification to commercial ships, defer that responsibility to class, what’s left for them to do? Recreational stuff, some small commercial, nothing that really matters to the greater shipping industry, mostly just hassling individuals people like seafarers. That is pretty astounding, and scary, for a federal agency to give up so much power and oversight to commercial entities.

I am sure that someone at TC would argue that they maintain the authority to enforce and create regulations. Yeah, of course you do; which is why as a professional seafarer, I am most worried with this plan. How can you make effective regulations and policy on commercial shipping, really the meat and potatoes of their “clients” / mandate, if you withdraw more and more the ability to see what’s actually going onboard, in the industry.

TC - Interesting for all the wrong reasons
Despite withdrawing front counter services left, right, and center, TC still seems to have a huge bureaucracy that is going to have to justify itself. But if you’re not enforcing laws, because you’ve delegated that authority to business entities, or just the fact that “regulators” don’t get out from their cubicles, then what are you going to do? Where are you going to get the technical skills to create policies and regulations?

I would imagine that they’ll squeeze the remainder of their clients / mandate; harass small time operators, individual seafarers - as if the certification process was not bullshit enough – and recreational boaters.

Speaking of that recreational boater. I know TC is a notoriously shy agency, but I get the feeling that the agency has a considerable pedigree of experienced seafarers, especially those trained overseas. This should certainly be interesting as to how regulations will be developed for recreational boaters, fishermen and small time operators in Canadian waters.   

This must be a boon for the large operators. Basically they get to wield their usual business prowess with their vessel’s Class, without interference from the people who are supposed to regulate them. I don’t blame them, really they are looking after their own interest, and when you’re encountered with a dysfunctional system, you press for change. I know I have…

As an added bonus to established operators in Canada, TC will crack down with their famous “variable standards” on any budding business. This “see, were still relevant” reaction, is sure to prevent any small operator from becoming a serious competitor, and posing a threat to the established players in the market.

The simplicity of the ad was quite comical, given the huge impacts this has on us as professional Canadian seafarers working domestically. It is astounding that Transport Canada would even push this agenda in the wake of the Lac Megantic calamity hanging over their heads. I must say I am jealous of the ship owner’s et al, to get such treatment.  

I wish TC would relinquish their responsibility for the certification of seafarer process, and let it be properly reviewed and modified to meet real world realities. But I am afraid that at the end of the day, blaming individual is quite trendy, and necessary for governments. TC won’t give up that file as they need to keep the sacrificial lambs on a tight leash and close by. Blaming individuals, the “bad apple”, allows the system and the larger entities from ever bearing the true consequences of reckless behaviour – the rotten barrel, filled with low quality genetically modified apples stored in a wet damp location. 

I’d love to give you more information, but the ad only gives names of 5 approved Class Societies now doing TC’s work, and gives the general TC website and phone number; there, “due diligence” criteria met.

After 30 minutes getting lost on the TC website I finally found something to reference to, clear here for more info on this program.
Pictures from the interwebs

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Stop the madness



Does technology ever frustrate you? It seems like we going backwards now when it comes to technology. I was over at the seafarer mission just hours ago, downloaded my email, to read later, then left to sleep before watch. Well, lo and behold, I turn on the computer and, poof, all my emails are gone. Just gone.  WTF!

Over the winter I was on a shitty boat and a leak from the deckhead dripped on my computer, frying the keyboard. I guess the computer got confused with so much whacked keyboard input, and corrupted the hard drive. So I had to buy a new computer. I went with a trusty brand, a Toshiba, and of course there was no choice about operating system, so Windows 8, it was.

What a piece of shit ! Both the hardware and software. I have never had to pay so much attention to ‘mickey mousing’ the operating system since Windows 95. This hardware is not user friendly and unnecessarily gimmicky. The keyboard looks cool but is hard to type on resulting in many missed letters.

The operating system is made for the benefit of Microsoft, trying to insert itself into every facet of your life, to try to scam a few more bucks out of you. I get it, they want more profits, they are jealous of how Apple’s been able to swindle so much more money from their users.  But it’s just not those basic tools that we need; it seems everything is designed to suck you into a void of unproductive, time consuming, wasteland.

Last year, I create a few websites using different content management systems (CMS); it’s been the trendy thing for some time. Most website now use a form of Wordpress, which is a CMS based system. My intentions were to find a system that would allow me to join the “crowd” and move my website, created in the early days of the internet as we know it, and modernize it.  

I am realizing that CMS is like my laptop, its looks really great for the first few minutes, then, you realize what a pain in the ass it is. It is constantly under spam attack, always needs tweaking, because the endless security updates are not compatible with the skin or “apps” you’ve installed. Its non stop !

I was thinking of moving my website to a CMS system, but I am sooooo happy I did not fall down that shithole. No, I like my little old simple HTML website, sure I’ve added a few things here and there, but the time I spend on it now, is actually time producing content.  …and time, like many people, is my most precious commodity.

I believe I have a pretty good record of adapting technology and making my day more productive. But these days it seems I am wasting so much time fixing, tweaking, updating, dodging bloatware and scams; and let’s not forget all these gadgets track and spy on you to boot.

I am fuming because I’ve lost my whole email program, luckily I just backed it up a few days ago, so I probably just lost a few emails. But still, technology should not be this painful. It seems now that technology has become an enslaver; I guess it always was, but at least five years ago the benefits outweighed the negatives, to me at least.

Can anyone stop the madness!

Pics from the interwebs

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Canada's register to add two crude tankers



MV Palva in Montreal, now owned by Transport Maritime St Laurent
I’m back in Quebec, passing through Quebec City, on our way to Oswego, with a load of Aluminum ingots from the smelter in Sept Iles, bound for Mitsubishi. As we pass my “old stomping grounds” in Quebec City I see no signs of Valero’s “new” Panamax tankers. Apparently the whole deal and its details are quite hush, hush, but they are around, I am told.

Valero, the US based oil company that operates Ultramar’s Jean Gaugin Refinery, in Levi, across the river from Quebec City, has purchased two Panamax tankers for an undisclosed sum. The tankers Stena Poseideon and the Palva, where jointly owned by UK based Concordia Maritime, and Finnish oil company, Neste Oil; the deal closed in April 2014. The new owners are Transport Maritime St Laurent Ltd., a new shipping entity in Canada, with Desgagnes being tapped as ship managers.

MV Palva in Montreal
The two ships have a length of 228 m, a beam 32 m, and a draft of 12.2 m, with deadweight of 74,000 tons. They are powered by a MAN-B&W 6S60 MCC main engine, delivering 13,560 kW to a controllable pitch propeller (CPP), to give them a 16 knot service speed. The ice classed ships were built in 2007 and 2006 at the Brodosplit Shipyard, in Split, Croatia, and are classed by DNV.  The two ships are bound to be some of, if not, the largest ships on the Canadian ship registry.

The Stena Poseidon has been renamed the Espada Desgagnes, and the Palva, has been renamed the Laurentia Desgagnes. Until Desgagnes takes full management control, Concordia Maritime remains the ship managers. The ships are currently trading internationally in the North Atlantic area, and still fly the Barbados flag, with a non-Canadian crew aboard. In the fall of 2014, they are expected to start regular service between Montreal and Levi, carrying 350,000 barrels of Alberta crude, with 100 trips a year planned.  

Picture by FleetMon
The “new” ships are expected to carry crude from Montreal, to Levi, utilizing Berth 86; the smaller, but recently dredged “inside” berth. The bigger outside berth will remain for crude imports from overseas. The plan is based on Valero wanting to take advantage of the cheaper Alberta oil sands crude, coming to Montreal, by Enbridge’s pipeline “9B”, from Sarnia and points west. But until the East West Pipeline Reversal proposition is “rammed through”, errrr, I mean approved, they are faced with a transportation issue between Montreal and Levi.

Media reports state that Valero is spending CDN$180M. on upgrades to their facilities, in Montreal and Levi, to accommodate the two ships. Desgagnes’ Jean Marie Beaulieu is quoted as saying 100 jobs will be created with this new venture.

Berth 86 at Valero's St Romuald Marine
Terminal near Quebec City
A couple of years ago, Valero completed a clean product pipeline from Levi to Montreal, which alleviated some pressure on the local tanker market. Currently, Quebec City based Desgagnes’ Petronav division handles most of the product moved out of the refinery, utilizing Desgagnes own ageing tankers, and those from the (ex)Rigel fleet of four vessels.

Crude oil for the refinery has been coming in from places like Northern Africa on foreign flagged tankers. The addition of two large ships in the St Lawrence River, moving crude, is a net increase of ship borne traffic in Canada, and is sure to stretch the resources available.

One of the problems with the plan, apparently, is a lack of seafarers able to handle this surge in work. Desgagnes is renowned for their low wages, especially for Marine Engineers, so this crewing problem is probably not going to get any better fast. Regardless, it will undoubtedly put some additional pressures on an already tight labour market.

With the federal government’s unwavering support for the Alberta crowd, I wonder where they are going to magically make Engineering and Deck officers appear from. I estimate you would need 20 or so engineering officer alone.

Sister ship Stena Perros
Perhaps we are going to see the “highly successful” Temporary Foreign Worker program come into play, but I would assume this would be too cumbersome for the companies involved, especially with cumbersome and archaic Transport Canada personnel certification regulations.

Alternatively, I would suspect some kind of foreign crewing arrangement, as they don’t have too many options to choose from. At the very least I would expect a strong demand for Certificate of Equivalency.

Given Valero’s past experiences with Canadian cabotage, I would suspect the latter will be deemed necessary, and eagerly facilitated by the Harper Government ™. Of course, we tax paying professional Canadian seafarers we’ll keep getting the “high standards” from Transport Canada, and be left onshore.

Ok, maybe I am too depressing in my views, but no matter what, this is a major development in Canada. There are very few - five other - Canadian crewed, managed, crude oil tankers operating in Canada, so there is a shortage of experience in this market, I would propose. This is a very ambitious plan by Valero, and it is bound to be a major shift / blow / impact on the current Canadian seafarer / shipping scene.  
Stena Perros and Vega Desgagnes on Montreal 2008