URSABLOG: Just Rewards

One of the gaping holes in my shipping education is the complete lack of time at sea on the kind of ships that I buy and sell on behalf of my clients. I have never known what it is like to be on a ship that is leaving or arriving in port, the steps taken to start loading or discharging cargo. I have never seen how tugs fasten lines, how pilots board or disembark, how the officers navigate and manoeuvre in tight spaces, what is going on in the engine room, who does what and where. I also have no experience of how the ship interacts with the people on shore in different parts of the world, or even how day to day life flows on board, what the rhythm of life is, who keeps watch and when, and how the crew cope with different weather and sea conditions, or indeed how they cope in a confined space over many months with each other. I kind of know, but reading books and watching videos is not the same thing as living it. 

Would this knowledge help me as a broker? Yes, I think so. The ship is the product in sale and purchase, and becoming more intimate with it would surely give me greater insights. But it is being on board a working ship, with people, real human beings, going about their daily work, and living with them, that I really want to experience. 

I am very happy when I find seafarers in my classes at the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers lectures here in Piraeus, because not only can I learn from their experiences and knowledge, but I can also share their experience and knowledge with the rest of the class. So imagine my joy in September when I walked in to introduce myself to my new class to find six of them, three of them captains! We have spent quite a few classes together in the meantime, and their knowledge, but also their curiosity about how the market works, and their general interest is a genuine pleasure to be part of. 

One of the captains, the youngest, recently shared on her LinkedIn feed a very interesting collection of quotes from arbitrators and judges concerning the role of seafarers at sea at times of collisions, emergencies and other moments of crisis they are faced with. It made me, for once, proud to be British, and in some small way a part of an honourable tradition of respect for both the sea and the extremely difficult challenges faced by those with a responsibility for the ship, the cargo, and the safety of human lives at sea. 

I commend this paper to you, by Prokopios Krikris: not only is it easy to read, it is also to the point. Let me take the liberty of quoting some of the passages of various judgments and awards by judges and arbitrators that resonated with me. 

“The Court has to be very careful not to judge the actions or lack of action of a man with the knowledge of what has happened. Hindsight is not the guide, a reasonable seamanlike foresight is..” Hewson J (1960) 

This is also true of negotiating contracts. Under pressure by one side or the other to conclude, and quickly, items may be overlooked, or left ambiguous that later on could cause problems. It takes a cool head and courage in such circumstances to interrupt the flow and momentum. 

“…it is easy enough to be wise after the event. But on the facts as I have found them we are dealing with a man who was put into a position of no little difficulty – a position in respect of which, even if he did make a wrong decision, he ought not to be too harshly judged”. Wilmer J (1951) 

And having made the wrong decision, we should show a little understanding, and maybe even forgiveness, and not be in a rush to crucify them.

“The master was primarily responsible for the safety of his ship and cargo. He was the paramount authority for decisions made on the spot. He was the person who could best assess the risks and dangers to which the vessel was exposed. His decisions could not be challenged during an emergency or later with hindsight by outsiders ensconced in comfortable offices on shore”. London Arbitration (1985) 

You weren’t there, you don’t know what it was like, and indeed how do you know you would have acted differently? 

“Persons engaged in commercial activities constantly had to balance risks and face the consequences when they erred. A master was no different and could not make the wrong navigational decision with impunity unless there was a compelling reason at the time to take what later turned out to have been the wrong option”.London Arbitration (2005) 

I like this one because it makes a direct link between those ashore and those on board. Taking the wrong ‘navigational’ decision during contract negotiations can lead to the loss of the deal. We have to take responsibility for our decisions, and face the consequences. Then we have to dispassionately analyse what happened and learn the lessons avoiding blaming others. That is very hard to do. 

“The navigation of a sailing ship is an art which the landsman cannot be expected to understand without much explanation”. Lord Dunedin (1926) 

Whether a sailing or motor vessel, the basic rule applies. 

“…You have no right to expect men to be something more than ordinary men”. Scott LJ (1939) 

We are all ordinary human beings, men and women, with that strange mixture of beauty, stupidity, incompetence and greatness in all of us. Why do we always expect so much more of others and so little of ourselves?

One the threads running through the quotes from the learned gentleman is that they know what they know, and they know what they don’t know. They cannot put themselves in the shoes of the captains in question, but in law they have to make judgments or give awards based on what an ordinary seafarer in extraordinary (or indeed perilous or perplexing) circumstances would consider competent seamanship at the time. They are not asking for superheroes. And they resist the temptation of hindsight. I this wise. 

How many times, in politics, in business, in life – professional or personal – do we judge people harshly for the decisions they made, or the actions they took? “They should have done that differently. They should have known that [something completely unknowable, completely unexpected] was going to happen, and if not they should have taken it into account!” How pointless, how foolish, how demeaning, how futile. How unjust. 

Wrapped up in my ambition to go to sea is the desire to know more, see more, risk more, live more. I want to understand this feeling:

“A Departure, the last professional sight of land, is always good, or at least good enough. For, even if the weather be thick, it does not matter much to a ship having all the open sea before her bows.”

This is from one of my favourite authors, Joseph Conrad, a genuine hero of mine. Born in Poland, he went to sea at thirteen. He did not speak English fluently until his twenties, and in fact was his third language, having first learnt French. He became a captain, and not on easy trades. He then became an author and is now justly recognised as a literary great of the twentieth century in any language even though his literature was written in English. He combined nerve, adventure, authority, skill, experience, insight and a unique literary talent so that he is still read widely today, and more importantly, still considered relevant. The film Apocalypse Nowa classic in its own right, is based on the Conrad story Heart of Darkness, also a classic. 

Conrad was a complicated man, and his stories and novels reflect the complexity of human thought, their motives, their actions and the consequences of them. He knew the sea, he knew what it was to have command of a ship and wrote incisively and convincingly about all the people on board, from the first officer down to the cabin boy. He did not exclusively write about the sea; many of his stories do not directly involve it all, but it is always there, at the core of his identity. Above all he wrote – beautifully – about the eternal paradox that is a human being.

It will not have escaped eagle-eyed readers that my student, the youngest captain, is a woman. In the maritime world that the legal quotes above come from, the only feminine pronouns refer to the ships, and the seafarers are by default assumed to be men. Imagine then the achievement of a woman to have not only gained full command, but also to be back in the office onshore as a port captain before reaching the age of thirty. It blows out of the water all the online assumptions about this new ‘snowflake generation’ which I keep hearing about. She has my respect and admiration, as do the male seafarers of similar experience. 

Conrad also said this:

“Being a woman is a terribly difficult trade since it consists principally of dealings with men.”

I know many women in shipping who have achieved success across the shipping industry – on board and ashore, or a mixture of both – who have done it themselves, against the odds but without fanfare, without special treatment. They have just gone for it. They have taken responsibility of their lives, but more than that they have assumed responsibility by pursuing careers that demand it. This is not, I know, without the fear of failure, or the feeling that they should not only be better than the men, but – dare I say it – the feeling that they have to be a better man than the men around them to gain respect. But, to paraphrase Scott LJ above, we have no right to expect women to be something more than ordinary women.

My dream of being at sea remains for now just that, a dream. I have chosen a life that has taken me in a different direction. Time is limited. But I still hope to experience it, to know it, to live it, if only to share some of the knowledge that other men and women have acquired, to put my own and their experiences in a wider context. And perhaps in fulfilling another long-term ambition of mine, to eventually become an arbitrator, I might be able to use whatever knowledge and experience I obtain along the way to gain a little wisdom in the process. That in itself would be a just reward.

Simon Ward