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The Ballarat photo John Lupton



I have recently found myself relating my experiences after going to sea in 1960 (On the P&O Ballarat) much to the interest of my listeners, and I have gradually realised that this is now history, and very different from how things are today, though not necessary worse.

On my first ship I was one of six apprentices, and in addition to the normal officer complement there must have been about half a dozen junior engineers. The ship had an Indian crew which meant at the time that there were a lot more of them than there would have been if the ship had been manned by a European crew. The final result was that there were more than 100 people on a medium sized cargo ship so we also had to carry a doctor. This may have been just as well since one of the engine ratings died, so the doctor was able to provide a death certificate so that he could be buried at sea.

Although to be honest, I did not really like it much, it was certainly a lot better than the experiences of a member of "Nautilus" the seafarer's union who wrote about their recent experiences as an engineer cadet. He, or she, the writer was only identified by membership number, was the only native English speaking person on the ship. The rest appear to have been Filipinos.

The mind boggles. The writer says "surely a company needs to have a certain amount of English speaking officers employed before it can opt to take British cadets". I realise that I no longer have any ideas how cadets get to go to sea, since the writer talks about sponsoring companies and training companies, but one assumes that they are British and that in one way or another they are involved with the British Chamber of Shipping - which used to be the General Council of British Shipping.

Are the people assigning the cadets to these vessels desk bound idiots with no experience at all of what it means to go to sea, and so are able to carry out the task? Or are they cynically assigning young people without any concern because they are receiving a fee for doing so? - or both!


Hardly a month passes without yet another marine disaster taking place often unfortunately with loss of life. The Danny F II was a cattle carrier, which had originally been a car carrier. It sank off the coast of Lebanon on 17th December in what seems to have been only moderately adverse weather. There was apparently an engine failure after which the captain gave instructions to abandon ship. More than 40 people were lost as well as thousands of sheep and cattle. If one looks on the internet it is possible to find details of the conversion of the ship, which was carried out in the mid 1990s. The ship itself was built in 1976.

According to Lloyds List the ship had been subjected many time to port state inspections, and that many defects had been found, but it had never been detained.

Once more this really seems to have been a stability problem, and one wonders what work was done to ensure that the vessel would remain upright in adverse weather despite that that essentially the whole cargo was mobile. Looking at the conversion pictures, the barriers between the pens would probably be unable to prevent the animals breaking through from one to another. A very strange form of free surface.

The ship was registered in Panama, now one of the more respectable registries, and there have been calls for an investigation - on top of all the other calls for investigation. Probably it is time the IMO got tough and asked registries to contribute to a central fund, depending on the tonnage registered with them,  which would allow international investigations to take place. Many very unlikely countries have registries, because they are a business. Some are located in the United States, some in other quite nice places in the world. The St Vincent and the Grenadines registry is located in Monaco. As well as the Singapore registry being located in Singapore, so is the Mongolian registry. Even Bolivia which has no sea coast, has a registry.

Could any of these registries mount an effective marine investigation? 


Talking about the IMO (The International Maritime Organisation) as we were. This organisation has designated 2010 as "the year of the seafarer". I have tried to find out exactly what this means with limited success, but it seems that this year it is intended that the population of the planet should be paying tribute to the one and a half million seafarers who collectively man the thousands of vessels which carry 90% of the trade between the countries of the world.

They do this despite the possibility that they may be imprisoned for being on a ship which has fallen apart at sea and hence polluted the environment, that they may be prevented from going ashore because of security concerns, or that they may be unable even to step onto the quayside after weeks at sea, or that they may even be abandoned in some distant country by a poorly financed ship-owner, or possibly worst of all, captured by pirates and held hostage for months while their release is negotiated.

All of these possibilities are acknowledged, but just calling the year "the year of the seafarer" is unlikely to solve the problem.


It is almost essential that I mention what is happening in the Horn of Africa every month if for no other reason than to provide some continuity.

Paul and Rachel Chandler, the British yachtsmen captured ages ago are still being held somewhere on the mainland of Somalia, but of course the British government, possibly the only organisation capable of negotiating their release, do not pay ransoms. This has resulted in a number of more and more desperate videos being made available to western news agencies. While we are very sympathetic to their plight, perhaps they should have considered the risks before they sailed into the area.

But in the mist of all this distress I happened to catch a news item on the BBC where a British ship captain  was telling the audience how he had escaped from a possible attempt to board his vessel. He said that the pirates approached in a speed boat  and demanded that he heave too. He said he gave them one finger, which resulted in a small arms and rocket attack on his ship, but they crouched down and kept going. As the speed boat approached his ship they released their secret weapon. This was apparently balks of timber hanging over the side on ropes.

The captain gave the instruction and the timber was released. Of course this resulted in the speedboat having to shear off from the side of the ship or else get holed. Brilliant! Meanwhile in a very unusual action the Danish special forces have cleared a ship of pirates after the crew had locked themselves into a secure space. Naval forces usually avoid direct intervention after pirates have boarded merchant ships because of possible danger to the crews, but in this case they climbed aboard and searched the ship for a pirate who had been seen on the deck. No-one was found and it as assumed that he had jumped overboard.

According to recent news reports there are at least 180 seafarers being held by the pirates. In the year of the seafarer it may be time this was sorted out. 


That group Sea Shepherd have been in the news again. This time it was because their very unusual vessel Ady Gil was apparently rammed by a Japanese whaler in the Southern Ocean. If you have a look at what these people do, it seems as if they are nothing more than a bunch of seafaring nuts and that the whole business of conservation is a means of financing their fun on the ocean.

Take their latest ship - the Ady Gil. This was a futuristic vessel which apparently set a world record for a trip round the world. It looked a bit like a plane, and was obviously made of pretty flimsy material if the pictures taken after the collision are to be believed.

Apart from the actions of this group, which appear to be piracy, the very idea of confronting  steel vessels in some sort of fibreglass hull indicates a lack of concern for their own crew. In this they seem to have a similar lack of respect for the risks of being at sea, as have Greenpeace and others. The only reason these people remain alive is because in general the seafarers who they are attacking have the appropriate levels of respect and concern. Perhaps this last statement does not apply to Japanese whaling crews.

 Victor Gibson. February 2010.



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