Food for thought

Have a nice day now — but do treat seafarers with respect
Viewpoint Michael Grey, 30 April 2007 Lloyds List

IF I HAD been born an American, I would have strained every fibre to join the US Coast Guard. The fifth biggest navy in the world, it enjoys public approbation and esteem for just about everything it does.

Its brave lifeboatmen save hundreds of lives every year on its long and often stormy coastline, while its air-sea rescue helicopters constantly carry out feats of brilliant airmanship.

It interdicts the drug runners with its fast craft and takes a proactive, scientific lead in maritime safety at every different level. It operates icebreakers in the Antarctic and Arctic, and long range cutters in two oceans. Its highly professional officers invariably impress, not least because of the extraordinary variety of a Coast Guard career.

The USCG, I am told, is the one US armed service which never has any problem recruiting, with the very best young people fighting to get in, and I am not surprised at the competition.

The US Coast Guard is now an important subsidiary in the Department of Homeland Security; the all-embracing agency created after September 11, 2001, to, er, do what it says on the tin and defend homeland America from terrorist enemies.

There are arguments about the rightness of the policies which led to the formation of this enormous department, which many have described as gross administrative overkill, hugely overestimating the capabilities of the forces ranged against the US.

There again, no democratic government can possibly take chances with the lives of its people, and to suggest that resources spent on security are wasted would take rashness to new limits.

So it is the Coast Guard which is manning the little patrol boats that zoom around the anchorages and provide a visible armed presence on the maritime threshold of America.

It is the Coast Guard which interrogates incoming ships and which boards and searches selected vessels. It is the Coast Guard which effectively implements the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code.

It is the ISPS code, and the security detail which has changed the relationship between the Coast Guard and visiting mariners.

It was arguably on the downward track with port state control, which saw young and often inexperienced Coast Guard ratings making qualitative judgments on foreign merchant ships and their equipment and the competence of their crews.

The relationship between a professional “fault finder” and the professionals he is assessing can often be fraught, and when on one side there is a merchant ship officer of long standing and experience and on the other an inexperienced person who has been trained for that specific function and is following his rulebook with rigour, there can be misunderstandings.

It is one reason why many other maritime authorities, such as Britain’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency, employ experienced senior officers in their inspectorate. An inspection by one’s peers will not be without its stresses but carries with it a certain mutual respect.

From the early days of ISPS code implementation reports were received at international shipping organisations about Coast Guard details behaving in a more robust fashion than hitherto

There were reports that officers were trying to “test” ships by tricking their way aboard, offering false documentation or none, shouting at ship’s crew that their uniform was sufficient authority or, if the crew then admitted them, criticising the ship for their lax procedures.

Other “official” boarders from customs and immigration were also recorded as producing trouble for visiting ships.

What with the new visa restrictions, and often arbitrary restrictions or prohibitions of shore leave, the US was rapidly becoming a place for visiting seafarers, if they had any choice in the matter, to avoid like the plague.

Perhaps for a year or two in the aftermath of September 11 a certain nervousness about foreign visitors was understandable. But at the same time it has been noticeable that foreign tourists, apart from the minor inconvenience of having to remove shoes and belts when passing through airport x-ray machines, are treated in a generally acceptable and civil fashion.

Questions about relative risk assessment immediately come to mind, not to mention the obvious problems of alienating the hundreds of millions of tourists who pass through US airports every year. If you are that nasty to them, they just will not come.

Foreign seamen are not “discretionary” visitors. They are relatively few, and do not raise a fuss in Washington.

But it is five years that have elapsed since September 11, 2001, and even if the identified potential hazards have not been in any way reduced it is time that the faces behind the sunglasses of the boarders became rather more friendly.

Seafarers believe firmly that where terrorism is concerned they should be treated as part of the solution rather than a large slice of the problem.

Those of a certain age recall when the friendliness and hospitality of the people you encountered on the US coast was legendary and made each visit a pleasure, something to anticipate eagerly.

It is not nice to read about visitors being harassed by unsmiling men with guns throwing their weight about on the ship someone calls home, not least in a country you admire and wearing a uniform you have respected all your working life.

Put simply, the word “respect” needs to be reinvented by those who are training the Coast Guard boarders for their homeland defending role. You do not teach them to bark orders like stormtroopers at visiting foreign seafarers, who frankly are probably unused to such behaviour.

You respect the ship’s ISPS procedures, and if you have an issue with this there are people you take it up with. You respect the ship’s senior officers, especially if the ship is under way, and its current operations.

Above all, you do to others what you would rather people did to you, which does not include treating a 60-year-old shipmaster with 40 years at sea like a miscreant or a terrorist suspect. You might take your sunglasses off and occasionally smile.

You might employ a modicum of common sense to determine your approach to each individual ship, even though “risk profiling” seems to be disapproved of by the politically correct elements in your ranks.

A couple of months ago the excellent Scandinavian Shipping Gazette carried an interview with Villy Larsen, the Danish former master of the general cargoship Danica White, who contrived to serve 104 days in a US jail after a contretemps with a boarding detail as he approached Wilmington, to pick up, of all things, a military cargo for Saudi Arabia.

It began with a row over ISPS and identification. Capt Larsen said that one of the officers had no identity documents.

It devolved into an argument about the procedure for searching the ship, with the coastguard wanting to herd the crew into the messroom while their cabins were searched, which was against ship’s policy.

The coastguard wanted the hatches open to search the holds, The master refused as this would require cargo gear to be raised with the ship rolling in a swell. Reading between the lines, there was a breakdown in any sort of co-operative relationship between the master and the boarders.

When they left the ship they accused the master of aiming the ship at their boat, causing contact to be made between them. The master said the ship required steerage way and the contact happened at 1.2 knots.

Anyway, the master, two days after the ship had arrived, was arrested and charged with assault with a deadly weapon (his ship) nine times.

It took 104 days before he was released, fined $100 for abusive language and deported.

It would not be the first time a shipmaster had lost his cool with an intransigent official in port, who then used all the authority with which he was vested to make it hot for the master.

Capt Larsen may have indeed been pretty abusive and uncouth, but there are ways of defusing such situations if the boarding officer had wanted to play it that way. But Capt Larsen was also a shipmaster, the authority aboard his ship, a ship moreover flying a foreign flag and he was entitled, above all, to that word again, the “respect” due to his rank.

The even sadder thing is that all those who read that account will be inclined to take the side of the wretched master, and feel hostility to the US which, frankly these days, needs all the friends it can get.

Readers will recall the equally sad tale of the row with the Turkish master who, after becoming exasperated about the delays occasioned by the security detail, made some crack about “putting a bomb under the boarders”.

His stay in jail was short and sharp but we were given the impression that he was lucky not to have ended up in Guantánamo Bay before he too was deported.

It is not the way to make friends in a world in which friends of America seem constantly to be on the defensive against those who would do her down.

The greatest democracy the world has ever seen needs to think about the impression she makes, and to care about it rather more. How many times, when a television producer is wishing to make some clever point about the US and Iraq, do we see that same old clip of a marine, looking like one of the Death Star warriors, kicking down that door in Sadr City in a search mission against insurgents.

I would not criticise that marine for a second. God knows what might have been inside the house, but it was unfortunate that the cameraman was part of the back-up.

It is the impression you make that counts, to be used for or against you in the future, and when it matters most. Never mind the potential terrorists. The “hearts and minds” of America’s friends need to be considered too when security policies are devised.