Shortage of mariners raises concern that shipping accidents will rise

A freighter's oil spill in San Francisco Bay last week has highlighted a worldwide dearth of 10,000 officers.

The Cosco Busan left its moorings in the port of Oakland at 7:48 a.m. last week. The questions continue to swirl about what happened next – before the ship dumped 58,000 gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay. Did the radar go out? Was there a miscommunication between the captain and the pilot who was sent on board to guide him?

The American pilot's lawyer is saying the Chinese captain, who had no experience in the bay, misinterpreted symbols on an electronic chart.

But whatever the cause of the Cosco Busan incident, it highlights the potential for environmental damage and public danger of the sort that worry ship operators looking at a worsening shortage of experienced mariners.

"As the liability insurers, we are conscious of the fact that human error plays a very major part in liability claims. With the sort of manning problems that are now being faced, it's only likely to become more of a problem," says Andrew Bardot, head of the International Group of P&I Clubs based in London.

Booming global trade means more ships are moving everything from oil to Chinese plastic toys. Meanwhile, fewer young people in the developed world are taking to the high seas. While more Asians have come on deck, not enough are moving up the officer ranks to replace the retiring Westerners.

The worldwide shortfall of officers stands at 10,000, or 2 percent of the total workforce, according to a 2005 survey from BIMCO/ISF, two international shipping groups. By 2015, however, the survey projects the officer shortage to triple.

The numbers mask a more troubling skills shortage, since more sensitive shipping – cruise ships, cargo ships, and fuel tankers – is entrusted mainly to developed world officers who have undergone more rigorous training, says Commodore John Keever, vice president of the California Maritime Academy (CMA) in Vallejo. More than a quarter of these officers are over 50 years old and moving toward retirement.

Several reasons underlie the growing shortage.

First, there are more ships. The number of tankers worldwide rose 17 percent between 2001 and 2005; container ships jumped 30 percent, according to the US Department of Transportation.

There's even competition from mega-yachts. More than 450 yachts over 30 meters long are currently under construction, and they'll need an estimated total of 5,000 crew members, according to Lloyd's List, a British shipping publication.

With demand for seafarers up, supply is going down in traditional seafaring regions such as Scandinavia, Japan, and Singapore. Strong economies there mean it's no longer true that someone with a bachelor's degree and sea credentials could make twice the money on ship than on shore, says Commodore Keever.

And it's more rare for someone without the degree to rise up into officer ranks.

"In the old days it was possible to go down to the waterfront and get someone to say, 'Sure, I'll take you onboard, and you start out as a deckhand, and you work your way up,' " says Doug Webster, director of public relations at CMA.

This inability to "come up the hawsepipe," and the more demanding certification process, deters the less academically inclined.

As for the glamour of seeing the world, mariners don't see much beyond the deep blue sea these days. The move to container shipping means port calls that once lasted days are now cut down to mere hours.

Meanwhile, Asian countries like the Philippines, China, and India are training more people to be seafarers – but they don't stick with it, with only 8 percent of officers from East Asia over 50 years old.

"The [Asian universities] are recruiting people from the countryside, the farming regions, to move them up the economic scale. Their mentality isn't to go to sea. They want to go ashore and be with family," says Keever.

The shortfall has begun to factor into the thinking about increasingly expensive insurance claims. Shipping operators pool their resources to handle major claims. These big claims are up dramatically across most of the international clubs, with last year marking a record.

"We believe that the rapid growth of the world fleet coupled with a severe shortage of experienced seafarers is one key factor," reads a 2007 report from the North of England P&I Club. Other factors cited by the industry: growing sea traffic and increased value of ships and cargo.

In the case of the Cosco Busan, the National Transportation Safety Board has tested the instruments on board and found no anomalies so far. The pilot told NTSB that the two radar systems failed prior to the accident.

His lawyer elaborated to local media that he was unfamiliar with the symbols on the electronic chart system (ECS) so he asked the captain in English for clarification. The captain – in this account – wrongly identified the bridge footing as the passageway for the ship.

The Chinese captain and crew have not given their side of the story, and their lawyers have shielded them from NTSB.

"I could see where [the ECS] could be confusing to someone if it's not set up the way you're used to having it set up, or if there's too much info and it's cluttered up, or you don't put enough info on for safe navigation," says Sam Pecota, assistant professor of marine transportation at CMA. But symbols ECS-makers use shouldn't differ much among the dozen or so systems used by most big ships, he says.

Pilots are not trained on every possible ECS because they are constantly changing, says Pat Maloney, executive director of the San Francisco Bar Pilots Association. Pilots tend to have served as captains, then spend several additional years training. Bay Area pilots make more than $450,000 a year.

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