Michael Grey

Michael Grey

Columnist and correspondent


Michael Grey is a columnist and correspondent and has been associated with the maritime industry for the whole of his working life. At sea for twelve years with the Port Line of London and the holder of a British Foreign Going Master’s certificate, he came ashore to work in the safety and technical department of the UK Chamber of Shipping, before moving into maritime journalism. Currently he is the London Correspondent of BIMCO and is the author of a number of maritime books. He lectures at the World Maritime University and Greenwich Maritime Institute.

Nobody knows what the maritime world will be like in 2030, which is well within the working life of a ship which is nicely run in today. Perhaps more importantly, it is well within the working life of a person who has just qualified as a ship’s officer or even started a cadetship.

What are we to think of the news that the Chinese are to undertake serious research into the development of the unmanned, or autonomous, ship? Indeed, we might now see a race between China’s maritime industry and that of Finland, along with Rolls-Royce, to produce the first commercially viable “robot” ship.

Navigators of a certain age, who sailed with decent companies under respectable flags, were brought up with the golden rule that “keeping a good look-out” was the absolute priority for the hours they were on the bridge. There was nothing more important, because the sea always had the capacity to surprise the person whose brain had gone into neutral.

Those of us of a certain age will recall that when a shipowner specified a new vessel, along with the deadweight and dimensions, service speed and fuel consumption, one of the guiding parameters would be the capacity of the ports to which it was expected to trade.

It is tough being green, because you get precious little thanks for your effort and endless demands to be even greener, from all the self-serving environmental groups that snipe from the sidelines.

It is not exactly rocket science that if you are sailing on a happy ship, with your wages paid promptly and in full, working for a company that backs up its value of you with decent promotion prospects, your views of your life at sea are likely to be broadly positive. But these “shop floor” opinions probably need to be spelt our more clearly in our sceptical age.

“If your sins are many”, began the unwritten rule of seafarers who worked for a famous shipping company “make sure your paperwork is perfect”. That company is long gone, a victim of markets and the inadequacies of its management (rather than its paperwork or the sins of its seafarers), but bureaucracy grows like an amoeba and threatens us all, afloat or ashore.

There is, said the president of the UK Chamber of Shipping the other day, “a global shortage of seafarers”. There is nothing very unusual in such an observation; the shipping industry has been swinging from feast to famine for centuries. It was the raison d’etre for the press gang and the crimps who used to haunt the waterfronts in the days of sail.

A hundred years ago, coastal communities around northern Europe tended to anticipate the effects of the unpredictable elements and would very often provide a “shipwrecked mariner’s refuge” in a fishing village or port town.

 

Pirates around the world will be greatly heartened by the award for “moral damages” made by the European Court of Human Rights to a gang of their Somali compatriots whose detention by the French military in 2008 was judged by them to be lacking in legal niceties.

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