Tuesday, January 31, 2012

2012 part 1 - Got Skills?

I get the feeling that the Marine industry is, has been, under the constant strain of "noise", "heat" and "pressure". Its kind of comforting for us engineer aboard, since this is our career, our kind of environment. We thrive in these conditions, and we are well position to weather the continuous "economic lows" on the prognosticator's radar screens. Well figuratively speaking anyways.

As I have done for a couple of years now (read 2010, 2011), I've summed up my feelings of the industry for the upcoming year. Nobody seemed to call "bullshit" on me yet, so I may not be off the mark completely. Please excuse my presumption that you care to hear what a run of the mill shipboard engineer thinks about the industry, the Canadian one in particular.

Last year in Canada, was a scary time for some, although for us engineers, I don't think the jitters were entirely warranted. I continue to get vibes from all three Oceans and inland waterways, that our craft is still very much important, and in demand. The main concern I estimate was more about people staying in their positions, to face the uncertainty around them.

Overall people are retiring, although for some, this has been stretched to accommodate the downward spiral of their retirement portfolios. Like usual the companies are keeping a tight rein on spending, meaning what little investment was made in training and rearing engineers several years ago "in the heyday", has long since disappeared, meaning that established engineer's value continues to inch up.

I understand from various sources, that this past year and currently, training intakes are down for marine engineers, and upgrading is also limited. All these signs point to a tight market for employers, which means a whole change in dynamics for the workforce in Canada, and I believe around the world. Take for instance in the UK, after a brief "scare", educational funding has been assure, for the time being, to training cadets.

In Canada, I sense wages being held back due to union contracts, strangely enough. An experienced engineer might be able to get more for his skills then what has been negotiated in previous contracts. I see various employers lowering their hiring criteria to get bodies into positions critical to their operations - more problematic ashore, but also at sea. I would characterize the situation as a tight one for employers looking to fill positions; and worsening over the last year. I suspect we will see a significant double impact from the retiring engineers departure, especially in central Canada.

In this market, mariners have long held their positions and conditions, and they, and their employers, have grown accustomed to these conditions. As you may be aware, the marine industry is not a static one, and I believe Canadian employers will struggle to adapt to the new realities - that experienced mariners are no longer highly trained and experienced, plentiful, desperate and easily manipulated.

to be continued...

This is a 3 part series, examining my expectations for the Canadian marine industry in 2012, as it affects us marine engineers, and other professional seafarers. It is based on feedback, discussions from my websites, real world observations and discussions, and media reports.  

Friday, January 27, 2012

NASA miscalculations

Ok, this does not really restore my faith in rocket scientists...

Picture by AP

There is obviously more to the story here, than just a ship hitting a bridge; come on look at the thing, who the hell thought that would fit under the that bridge. Maybe they were not ballasted enough, but even that, must be a nerve racking tight fit. More pictures here.

The Delta Mariner carries rocket components for Boeing, used for NASA and the US Air Force, among others. Below is an official comment by the rocket scientist about the crash...
The Delta Mariner, owned and operated by Foss Marine, made contact with the Eggner Ferry Bridge at U.S. Highway 68 and Kentucky Highway 80 over the Tennessee River Thursday evening, Jan. 26 at 8:15 p.m. Central Time resulting in a portion of the bridge collapsing.
The 312-foot vessel was carrying vehicle components for an upcoming United Launch Alliance launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
There are no injuries on the Mariner or the bridge.
Initial inspections have shown that the flight hardware being transported was not damaged. 
The Coast Guard is conducting an investigation.
The Delta Mariner was commissioned in 2002 to transport flight hardware from the United Launch Alliance factory in Decatur, Ala., to launch sites at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
The Delta Mariner is owned and operated by Foss Maritime, based in Seattle.  The US flagged, ABS classed ship was built in 1999 by Halter Marine. It has installed propulsive power consisting of EMDs, delivering 8000 hp.

More pictures of the 8679 GT ship and its cargo here. Here is a the news story from Huffington Post. Foss seems to have quickly taken down their webpage on the ship, but you can find the cache page here.

From Glosten & Associates

Monday, January 23, 2012

Slipping into lifeboats

One day into my wife and I's first vacation in 8 years, and some foolish act results in one of the latest, and largest passenger ships to partially sinks. Having work on cruise ships for four years and like most professionals mariners, I was captivated and stunned. How could have this happened?

Needless to say my wife was probably a little annoyed for my thirst of consuming what little news bit I could get from the various newscast in our "limited internet" hotel; German, English, Spanish and Fox News - yes they speak their own language on that channel.

While she sipped Mojitos, I sat slackjawed at that massive rock firmly embedded  into Costa Concordia's hull. A gaping hole clearly visible, white tanktop peeking through, judging from the location, was firmly in engine room area. It is no wonder the ship was doomed, there is little hope to control that kind of flooding from a breach that big.

The media message was shock at first, then turned vile quickly, as Costa's spinner, investigation leaks, fed them more and more disparaging comments about the Master of the vessel, Captain Francesco Schettino. Obviously, in  a bid to deflect as much responsibility as possible - at least in the eye of the media and its followers.

Every professional mariner these days, knows that not much gets done on a ship without the say so from shore, no matter what the competence level there appears to be. Costa / Carnival's shameful public distancing of its ship's master from themselves, before the Search and Rescue phase of the disaster is even over, is a clear message to all mariners that you are on your own, all the time - beware. Yet again, we are reminded why there is a shortage of people wanting to work at sea.

Obviously, there would appear to be some mistakes in judgment made by the Master, in my mind the only possible proof of this, found in the transcripts of his exchanges with what I assume was the On Scene Commander for the emergency response. The "chaos" during evacuation, the "bottle of wine", the "slip and trip into a lifeboat", the "mysterious blonde" etc. are all red herrings that have little proof to be accurate.

Clearly, there was a mis-judgement in the execution of their voyage plan. That in itself suggest a major failure of discipline within the Navigational watch, and the bridge team in general. Proper bridge resource management training, if done, would have given the tools to prevent this kind of mistake to occur. Of course only if the individuals on the bridge where provided with the training, or the confidence, from all levels of the company to question a poor choice. Judging from head office's response, one would say the culture was / is one of dominate personality, right from the top. Their response, that the captain has too much power, is laughable in this day and age, and exemplify exactly this disconnected, bully mentality which has been proven to be counter-productive, and resulting in exactly this type of accidents.

Of course the Master is responsible for all that goes on, on his ship, but I could not help commenting (preaching) to my wife, whose eyes were rolling yet again, that so little attention was paid to the "Captains" of industry, when they drove their "ships" into shoals. Yesterday, I was pleasantly surprise to find just such reference, in Rupert Murdoch's own Wall Street Journal (of all places), in the article "O Captain! My Captain!". Michael Grey, of his usual astute observations, writes of the sobering reality that occurs to the Master of a doomed vessel, long before the facts are presented accurately, and fairly accessed.

But if Costa / Carnival are so quick to damn the man so publicly, why they did place him in charge of such a vessel. Perhaps they know that they don't pay their crews well enough, or trained them enough - or have enough of them - to assure high quality in the first place. Perhaps their performance based bonus system, rewards risky behaviour from their crews. Maybe they (are) "slipping into a lifeboat" too.

Regardless of the actions of the Captain during or shortly after the accident, if they felt he was of little character, why don't they decidedly step into the limelight, get on scene and show some backbone. Take charge of the situation - show leadership, and openly assist in the process; communicate with the public. Even BP to some extent, understood this with the Deepwater Horizon. As Chief Engineer, when my Second or Third does not perform adequately, I feel, and it is, my responsibility to step in and take charge - that's how it works.

The facts may never be fully known; I understand the Voyage Data Recorder was not functioning at the time of the accident. The communication by the response authorities are woefully inadequate in this day and age - perhaps its just my Italian. The only communications from anyone in the know, are from the aforementioned Costa web page, which is carefully crafted to provide as little information. I don't blame them necessarily either for this, if watching Fox News was any indication. The ship had barely settled on its side, when these talking heads on US national "news shows" are spouting off about the level of cash involved in lawsuits - what the hell is wrong with us?

I don't expect much from the Italian authorities, from their history they seem to be keenly aware of various special interest groups and how they are involved in all aspect of their judicial, political and social landscape. Carnival is a major consumer of Italian shipbuilding products, and related services, such as Class and heavy equipment. The shipbuilding contracts are also attached to ship's crewing requirements as well. I suppose there will be little appetite to truly find the root cause of the disaster, and even less motivation to fix it. It sells more papers to publicly skewer one man, sweep it under the rug asap, than to have a good look under the hood of this industry.

There been an interesting discussion on The Common Rail. Of course everyone is talking about it, but unfortunately few have proper insight. SMIT is now standing by to move to the pollution abatement stage,  once Search and Rescue operations are terminated. The salvage contract has not been awarded. I believe though this will be one of the most costly and massive salvage jobs ever seen. I suspect the damage from both the port and starboard side will be too great for her to be re floated, one can hope, but most likely the residents of Isola del Giglio will have a new tourist attraction for some time to come. It would not surprise me if Carnival / Costa sent them a bill, to collect their share of the "tourist" revenue.

Pictures and videos from various internet sources.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Christmas message confusion

A Canadian shipping company sent out Christmas cards this year, with a nice picture of one their ships, operating in the arctic. There was a passage inside the card, by Thomas Fuller, the English cleric who lived in the 16th century - I assume.

" he that will not sail till all dangers are over must never put to sea " 

Now, I understand the power of quotes to invoke certain feelings; I use them extensively on my website. Being a professional mariner, and my wife hearing my stories of Canadian ships I've work on, we both had a good laugh and a strange look after reading this quote...

Being the positive persons that I am, I believe the company was trying to convey that they operate in harsh environments, and that the job being done is not without risk, and that it takes skills to accomplish it.

My wife was more in the mind that the company was sending out a message - quit your belly aching; its a old ship, and shit happens, now get back to work. But whose to say.

The ship pictured on the Christmas card, built in the 1980s, is a good average indication of the fleet. That one actually changes flag twice a year too - another "Canadian can do" thing. All very interesting really, it will be fun to see what they come up with next year for Christmas card saying - hey, if you don't like it, try starving.

OK, OK, like usual, I am probably breathing too much into it. After all, it's nice that a company sends out individual Christmas card to their employees - not quite as nice as getting that IPod clone that one company gave me for Christmas, but still a nice gesture.

Oh yeah, by the way, Happy New Year. Welcome 2012.

Rustbucket picture, from Dubai's Mission to Seafarer.