Those Britons don’t screw around. The owner of a small passenger vessel in Falmouth recently found out the hard way that the U.K.’s Maritime & Coastguard Agency was just a bit peeved that he failed to get his liferaft inspected and serviced on time, as well as replacing the hydrostatic release. The investigation by the agency’s Enforcement Unit revealed that he had run the vessel for a full tourist season in that condition and he eventually wound up in the Truro Crown Court. Apparently the judge was also unimpressed with his “safety management system” and decided to spank him pretty hard: a year in jail and an £8,500 fine. Ouch! I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a similar penalty, or anything even close to it, being imposed on this side of the pond, either here or in Canada, for that kind of offense. Is that because it never happens or because we’re simply more lenient?
To be sure, much of the sentencing court’s outrage was derived from the fact that this was a passenger vessel that carried tourists and that it was doing so unsafely and deliberately. The small seaside towns of Cornwall and the West Country are very tourist-dependent. Obviously, the powers-that-be didn’t want the wrong message to be sent to one of their primary sources of income: you’re expendable.
One has to wonder, though, what the penalty would have been had this been a commercial vessel. Courts here and in the U.K. have long held that professional seafarers serving on commercial vessels, and particularly on fishing vessels, are much more fit to estimate the relative risks and rewards of working aboard a given vessel. We ‘re able to make an accurate assessment of the dangers of a particular vessel, so the reasoning goes, and can always decline to work on those that are simply too unsafe. The average tourist or passenger, however, is not able to do this and that’s why passenger-carrying vessels are generally held to a much higher safety standard. This, of course, doesn’t take into account the inexperienced mariner, whose judgment is likely to be inadequate, or the strong tendency for financial imperatives to push aside all of the others even in the best of times. So just how expendable are we professional seamen? Maybe no one really wants an honest answer to that question.
Regardless, it’s no secret that the economies of both Britain and the United States, along with many others, have been badly battered and weakened by the global chain of economic events we refer to here as The Great Recession. The net effect of any widespread economic downturn is always generally the same: a reduction or elimination of expendable income hurts tourism and also reduces the consumptive activities of humans across the board, which in turn affects shipping and its related activities. As cash flows dwindle the incentive to skimp on maintenance and repair, required or otherwise, increases proportionately. The same principle applies equally to vessel manning. and maybe even more so. You can always count on it and it’s simply a matter of degree: the harder the economic times, the more likely that shortcuts will be taken. This should surprise no one when businesses are fighting desperately just to survive, let alone prosper. Obviously this can and usually does affect safety in a profound way.
For our part, many mariners have historically proven to be rather accommodating to these fiscal realities when faced with the choice of safety or work. How much of one are you willing to give up for the other? Where exactly do you draw the line? How do you measure and judge the risk-reward ratio? There have always been mariners who are willing to “go with the flow” to get or keep a job, or get promoted, and this pressure is felt keenly by everyone else. Former commercial fishermen, particularly those that did it for a long time and have recently “transitioned” into the towing industry, are especially prone to this behavior. Many of them have a long-standing, culturally-ingrained tolerance of accepting virtually unlimited working hours without complaint and a very lax attitude about the kind of safety standards we’ve been working towards for many years, making them and anyone working with them cannon-fodder for the companies that are willing to do anything to get by.
So here’s the million-dollar question: as the towing industry moves slowly towards inspection will the global economic situation seriously undermine the safety gains that would be derived from it before it even gets started?
Click here for the MCA’s press release on this case, which I found on Bryant’s Maritime Blog. Towmasters takes this opportunity to salute Capt. Dennis Bryant (USCG-Ret.), author of said eponymous blog, for consistently delivering the goods when it comes to reporting on important events, trends and issues in the maritime world. If you don’t regularly read it you should.