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EDITORIAL AUGUST 2010
For thousands of years seafaring has rightly been regarded as a dangerous
occupation -- hence "game". If it wasn't pirates, the dangers might be wind or
waves or uncharted rocks or fire or, even, sea monsters.
No one much considered the possible threats from ostensibly friendly governments
or from our ambulance chasing friends in the legal profession. Of course, until the last
thirty years or so, malignant NGOs (Non-government organisations, whatever that
means?) had not even been thought of.
The situation has changed dramatically and globally. Modern media and
communications ensure that an oil spill in the back blocks of Alaska, for example, will
be front page news all over the world instantly.
Similarly, the definition of an "accident" has changed equally dramatically,
particularly as it relates to shipping. In fact, if a shipping accident occurs, it always
seems to be regarded as far more serious that one involving trucks or aircraft. In fact, in
the minds of the general media, politicians and the general public, "shipping accidents"
are now widely regarded as deliberate events.
Of course, by definition, all ship owners, whether they be private individuals,
companies or self-proclaimed Communist governments, are now widely regarded as
bloated capitalist exploiters. Ships' officers and even their ratings are considered to be
the willing lackeys of these capitalist exploiters.
Other transport operators also suffer accidents from time to time. Those accidents
sometimes kill people or cause discharges of noxious materials. They sometimes cause
pollution. Unfortunately, no matter how carefully you try to eliminate them, accidents
will continue to happen as long as people get out of bed in the morning. They are just
as much a fact of life as volcanic eruptions, tsunamis or cyclones, for example.
Why is it then, that shipping accidents are singled out and highlighted as so much
worse than train, truck or aviation accidents? What has the shipping industry done to
be seen as being so different and so much worse than other forms of transport?
Trucking accidents are far more frequent than shipping ones. They, also, to be fair,
tend to involve smaller sizes or quantities. However, their relative frequency would
more than make up for that difference.
When a tanker truck is ruptured, its cargo tends to be immediately hosed off the road,
into the gutter, down the storm drain and into the subsequent creek or river. The process is
much the same whether the cargo is milk, water, caustic soda, petrol or furnace oil. The
polluted creeks, rivers or storm drains almost inevitably, eventually run into the sea.
That kind of reality goes practically unnoticed by the general media and the famous
"man in the street". However, if a ship's hull is punctured and fuel or cargo oil or other
chemicals spill, there is inevitably a hue and cry that normally receives global exposure.
Such outbursts still occur even if the size of the spill is tiny compared with a truckload.
Long term readers of this magazine will recall the insane response to a spill of less
than fifteen litres of hydraulic fluid at Lord Howe Island a few years ago. It was the
result of an accident -- a hydraulic hose burst -- and was cleaned up rapidly afterwards.
Nevertheless the bureaucratic and political witch hunt that followed had to be seen
to be believed. The unfortunate, and very careful, shipowner, who I know personally,
was hounded to hell. He eventually had to appeal to the highest court in Australia to
clear his name and have the dogs called off. Needless to say, the legal profession made
millions out of it and the Australian taxpayer (mostly) footed the bill.
A Swire ship, the 'Pacific Adventurer' lost some containers over the side in a cyclone.
One of the containers pierced a fuel tank and some 200 tonnes of heavy fuel oil escaped
off the Queensland coast. Unfortunately, a state election was imminent and even
though the incident occurred beyond state waters, the incumbent premier used the
incident to the full in her campaign. She was the protector of the people and their
pristine beaches against the bloated, careless capitalists from Hong Kong.
The fact that in the same week two tanker trucks were in accidents in other parts of
Australia and spilt large amounts of oil on land barely got a mention in the general
media. The Swire ship was front page news for weeks.
More recently, a Chinese owned bulker, the 'Shen Neng 1' received similar treatment
from the same premier and same media. It spilt 2.5 tonnes of fuel oil, about an eighth
of a truck load!
Of course, the masters and mates of all the ships mentioned immediately became
"Public Enemies No. 1". The ensuing witch hunts saw them treated as common
criminals, not as the unfortunate participants in a genuine accident.
These, unfortunately, are just recent examples of the same problem, the criminalisation
of seafarers for accidents or actions that would not be regarded as criminal ashore.
Incidents such as the 'Heibei Spirit' in Korea; the 'Tasman Spirit' in Pakistan; the
'Prestige' and the 'Erika' in France and Spain; and, the 'Yoo Hai' and 'Neftgaz-67' in
Hong Kong waters, have all received similar treatment politically and in the media. The
bad behaviour of the press and the politicians is usually enthusiastically encouraged by
NGOs with very spurious motives.
It is high time that BIMCO, the ICS and ISF commenced a strong, serious and
effective campaign to return the world to reality. An accident that occurs at sea is still
an accident no matter how much politicians , NGOs and journalists might like to think
otherwise. Their criminalisation of seafarers does no-one any good.
Seafaring's a dangerous game
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