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Not the smoothest of handovers

P&O Ferries P&O Ferries Pride of Kent
As a number of P&O Ferries vessels remain under detention Michael Grey explains why the process of changing crews has proved considerably more difficult than management seemed to anticipate.

The tanker was sitting in a Caribbean repair yard, but was more or less ready for sea. The owner had been enthused by the blandishments of a crewing manager and was replacing the tried and tested complement aboard the ship with a new and rather more economic crew. It was not a complicated ship and no problems were anticipated.

Ten days later and the ship was still lying alongside, as the technical superintendent attempted, with extreme difficulties, to instruct the new crew in their duties. They appeared to speak no known language, could not understand any of the manuals or any of the ship’s signage. They had taken days to start the main engine, but the superintendent, he reported, had no confidence that they would ever be able to stop it again, once they had taken the ship to sea. They were bewildered by the ship’s piping and pumping arrangements and it did not take a great deal of imagination to imagine the nightmare of huge pollution claims.

The owner, after several long and increasingly fraught telephone calls, had decided that enough was enough, sent the new crew packing and despatched a planeload of competent people from his usual source. His lesson, he confided to me some time later, had been learned, but it had been a painful and expensive exercise.

This event was some years ago, but it swam back into the memory when reading about the problems P&O Ferries are having in convincing the UK Maritime & Coastguard Agency regulators that their ships should be permitted to begin trading after the company elected to replace 800 of their regular employees with cheaper contract staff. Nobody ought to be surprised at this situation; it is one thing to effect a smooth handover of a few crew members aboard a relatively standard sort of ship – it is something else to replace almost the whole crew of large, complex and sophisticated ro-pax ferries.

The regulators, both those from the ships’ flag states and the UK’s port state control, have quite clear responsibilities to ensure that the crews are capable of safely operating the ships and their systems. These are vessels designed to carry large numbers of passengers across busy sea lanes and much attention will be paid to the crews’ ability to cope with every sort of emergency that might arise. The inspectors will need to be satisfied of the crew’s speed of reaction and their familiarity with fire safety, life saving and other emergency systems, some of which will not be “standard” fittings as might be used elsewhere.

There will be two crews appointed to each of the large ferries, along with their reliefs, all of whom must demonstrate their competency. And while deck officers and engineers must be able to demonstrate their specialist skills and familiarity with their ship’s equipment, large hotel staffs must be able to show that they can properly react to emergencies, with crowd control and facility with LSA equipment, with a reasonable degree of interoperability. In short, it is a big deal and one that ought not to be rushed, despite the urgency doubtless being expressed by those pointing to the huge queues of holiday and commercial traffic converging on the ferry ports. It is also worth repeating the fact that the problems now being experienced by the company are self-inflicted.

One might think that somebody in the decision-making chain within the ferry company might have realised that on legal, political and practical grounds, there was going to be no smooth handover, but the start of something of a regulatory obstacle course.

The world has moved on from the days when a ship’s crew could be signed on in the shipping office and take the vessel to sea a few hours later. Maybe somebody, living in the past, had assured the bean-counters that it was no more complex an exercise than changing a crew by helicopter off the Cape, with a half-hour handover (and that caused the odd problem). But big, passenger carrying ferries and their precious cargoes deserve something different and a less cavalier approach to crewing. P&O Ferries seem to be learning this, the hard way, as the regulators fulfil their considerable duties.