What does Responsibility Means



master responsibility


With responsibility goes authority and with them both goes accountability. This accountability is not for the intentions, but for the deed. The captain of a ship, like the captain of a state, is given honour and privileges and trust beyond other men. But let them set the wrong course, let him touch ground, let him bring disaster to his ship or to his men, and he must answer for what he has done. No matter what, he cannot escape. Have we exploited this social contract beyond all reasonableness today? 

Shipmaster's Job

The last person to complain about seafaring today is probably the shipmaster. Of course there are difficulties and unpleasant aspects to the job, but it is the life he has chosen. It is also the life with which, after 15 to 20 years at sea, he has become familiar. He carries great responsibility for all on board, the cargo and the ship, and he accepts it. It is also a job, which is constantly exposed to threats such as severe storms, fog, risks of collision, extortion, intransigent inspectors and changing company practices. Compared with a factory manager or an airline pilot, the job of shipmaster is absurdly complicated, carrying all the social overheads of years of often sub-contracted manning without the authority to select crewmembers or decide about working practices.  

Certificate of competency 

The master mariner’s certificate provides the foundation in operational competence but the mandatory minimum standards fail to address the commercial business of seafaring, which is the main reason why he is there. There are too many shipping companies, so diminishing the resources needed to sustain world-class fleets.


Ships are weighed down with boxes of regulations which are imposed by those ashore on those at sea but which lack any form of reciprocity. Regulations in their over-burdening form have become oppressive. 


Trial and Tribulations


The shipmaster is unique among employees. He is paid by an owner, a management company or a manning agent to discharge the role of master which is to: , 

⦿ Protect the owner’s interests, 

⦿ Care for the cargo, 

⦿ Work the crew as management representative, 

⦿ Act as flag state consul, 

⦿ Navigate the vessel, 

⦿ Assume command for the ultimate safety and prosecution of the voyage, 

⦿ Manage resources, 

⦿ Minimise costs, 

⦿ Motivate the crew and 

⦿ Contribute to the profitability of the company. 

Owner and Master

In each of these areas the shipmaster can be exposed to unreasonable pressure. Unfortunately, if the owner is not supportive, the master’s only ally is his own personality and strength of character. As one lawyer specialising in claims pointed out, when the market is down some owners may seek litigation over the smallest claim and be more abusive to those at sea. 

Those who like to think they can get away with it practise bullying from head office and from charterer’s office. The threats, with no tenure of employment, are not even very subtle and whether true or bluff there is no doubt that master’s feel insecure and vulnerable to summary dismissal without recourse. Some may say this is how business is in other areas but few other occupations carry the same level of responsibility as that of today’s shipmaster.  

Pressure Points

Nearly all the pressure points we have been able to discover are cost-related. A charterer knows, exactly the risk he is taking when fixing a vessel. The negotiation of charter terms, in many cases, is little more than horse-trading, but the end result can have severe consequences for the shipmaster. 

An US-Europe container vessel was re-chartered and the charter party was re-negotiated removing the deep-sea pilot from the charterer’s account. The company, which had already reduced manning levels, needed the pilot to make up an operational quota. The master was left with casually employed junior officers coasting Europe and did not expect to rest for 36 hours. 


Tugs cause similar risks. If the charterer is paying, usually a reasonable tug force is provided. When the owner pays, masters can be told not to take more than a minimum number of tugs irrespective of the prevailing conditions. Taking a large ship into port with insufficient tugs is very stressful and potentially dangerous. 


Charterers claiming direct access to the master use their influence to minimise costs. This type of rogue operator will often charter in an unsuitable ship for a cheap voyage leaving the master in a very difficult position. 


Typically a bulk carrier was chartered to carry containers in the holds and on deck. The charterer insisted the vessel sail without securing the underdeck containers, claiming it was unnecessary. When the ship put to sea the underdeck stacks collapsed. In rough weather there was every chance that heavy items of cargo, now loose from the containers, would go through the ship’s side. What is the role of a supercargo? Should they not be answerable too? 

Inadequate lashings for deck cargoes often emanate from charterers and many ships have been put at risk because charterers have sought to make money out of shipping unsafe cargoes. The fires of east-coast US coal come to mind, the employment of substandard ships like the Kirki, and loading of maximum deadweight cargoes in vessels which no longer had the strength to endure the voyage. 

The over-loading of ferries with too many passengers can also be considered in this category and the record is not one of which to be proud. 

‘Ships of Shame’ is how the Australians castigated the system, which perpetuates profit from loss. It is clear from the recent turmoil in the world financial markets that not all businessmen share a concept of shame. Their environment may be too unregulated and they are not therefore accountable for social dislocation, which their actions may cause. 


The shipmaster has to learn the art of self-preservation. •Sovereign states have made life just about as difficult as possible for the master whenever a problem occurs on board. He frequently faces harassment when stowaways are found. Illegal drugs secreted in the cargo turn him into a suspected criminal and if his ship is involved in an accident he may well be charged and sent to gaol. 

Governments have turned a blind eye to piracy, which still rages unchecked in parts of the world. Similarly, armed robbery in Port and within coastal waters  leaves the master vulnerable and used. 

While these horrific life dramas occur, society blames the master for the oil discharges, the slops; the garbage, the ballast biogens, infestation, the pollution but society is short on solutions. The US, and increasingly other countries, have washed their hands under the slogan. ‘The Polluter pays’. How very convenient? 

Responsibility of port?

 We have seen many instances of ships being fined for pollution but we  yet heard of a port being fined for failing to provide reception facilities. 

We have seen ships fined for stupid infringements of garbage regulations, but have seen no contract whereby the owner of the ship can sue the port for lack of ro garbage disposal. 

Each time international regulations change,particularly Marpol, the law has made it possible for the ship to be penalised but not the country or the port. 

All this is pressure on the master and yet he is always asked to minimise delays. 

The lack of government support for proper facilities in ports, together with the acquiescence over time in port, means that little progress is made and shipowners end up taking risks, which expose their masters. It is a totally unacceptable state of affairs. 

Lack of bridge discipline 


One revelation to emerge from the Institute’s Confidential Marine Accident Reporting Scheme (MARS) is the lack of bridge discipline at sea today. The number of near misses, which have to be very extreme before an officer will write in, are far too numerous. Underlying each dangerous encounter is either failure to keep a proper lookout or incapability to implement the regulations for preventing collisions at sea. 

The constant threat of collision can be very wearing, and of course it is government examiners who have allowed incompetent watchkeepers to qualify. The situation over the five years during which MARS reports have been published has not improved. 

Has the Tide Turned?

Is the tide turning, or can shipmasters expect less reward for more hassle in future? There are a number of initiatives, which have been taken in recent years, which will undoubtedly help to restore some authority to the shipmaster. The worry is that his ship will be so undermanned and his working hours taken up with so much paper work that no benefits will accrue. 

The public image of the shipmaster is appalling. The media assassinates him. whenever there is an incident and the in is entirely to blame for this. It is, like so much of the industry’s paraphernalia, a matter of liability. No company can go  public to back up their masters without committing commercial suicide. Plaintiffs and lawyers are just waiting for that indiscretion to demonstrate that the company knew about the risk. The company’s solicitors, however, need to prove that the incident was caused solely by crew negligence. If employers do not support their employees, particularly in time of difficulty, then the job of shipmaster will continue to be devalued.  

ISM code and the master 

One of the really successful initiatives of the international community is the introduction of the International Safety Management Code (ISM) and its purpose is to act as a countervailing influence to the forces exerted on the industry by commercial pressures. The code requires companies to have a designated person, rather like the old ship’s husband, who is responsible for safety and has to act upon information provided by the shipmaster if non-conformities and hazardous occurrences are found on board. 

Sadly the legal profession has sought to feather its nest with dire warnings about the changing balance of probabilities following written disclosures of potentially unsafe practices on board. The legal profession has two elements to it: remuneration for legal services and public ethical fairness. 

It is most unfortunate that the leaders of this profession cannot make recommendations for amendments to their acts and codicils, which improve safety and protect the public interest. Their leadership has been too self-serving and those who carry the physical risks of running a business such as the shipmaster simply cannot win. If he reports a deficiency and opposing lawyers use this to claim against the owner, where does this put the shipmaster? It is a case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t: and the legal framework must be changed. 

This is an issue interlinked between the strands of a complex legal tapestry of checks and balances. It cannot be solved by a sound bite, but we challenge the legal profession to come up with a solution. 

The essence of the issue relates to all those who make money out of shipping: banks, insurers, brokers and of course cargo owners. Should a charterer face criminal proceedings if he knowingly charters a substandard ship? Why not? Can banks really justify to their shareholders that they have invested in a shipping company, many of whose ships are substandard? 

The underlying strategy of the UK approach to international trade contracts is one of information disclosure. Ships, which have been identified to be substandard, need to be available on screen. There also need to be penalties for those who seek to exploit public safety for private gain. The subject was recently discussed at the OECD Maritime Transport Committee. Witnesses to the event can report that 

 self-interest coloured the discussions but a major step has been taken and the shipmaster can take huge comfort that government administrations do understand their problems: if not in detail, at least the commercial implications. 

Many of the master’s problems stem from the fact that the commercial players in the marine transport game are seeking to profit from avoiding regulatory constraints which are designed to protect the public interest and, dare we say it, the safety of those on board. 

The Code

“Shippers and/or charterers subscribing to this code will apply the use of questionnaires as part of a voluntary vetting system in which owners / managers operators of vessels are requested to communicate information concerning the vessel’s port state control status and provide a warranty that the vessel is: 

⦿ In class for duration of contract period(s), (classification society to be specified) 

⦿ P&I or equivalent covered for duration of contract period(s), (P&I club or insurer to be specified) 
⦿ insured for hull and machinery (insurer to be named) 
⦿ Manned in accordance with the safe manning document issued by the flag state in compliance with statutory and class requirements including but not limited to load line, Sofas and Marpol 
⦿ Provided with the required ISM certificates of compliance. 

“The above is considered to be the minimum information required to determine whether the vessel reaches an acceptable standard. In the event that owners/managers/ operators fail to meet the minimum standards set out in this code the shipper and/or the charterer shall not contract the ship.

” Thank you, European Shippers Council. Many masters will feel more comfortable tonight.   

Personal experiences of a Sailing Master

1. Deadweight

The ship is declared by summer deadweight and we all know that she should have the ability to lift a weight of cargo equal to that deadweight less the weight of fuel, water and constants. In reality this includes tank residues and any ballast that has been found unpumpable and the figure of water and constant is sometimes limited by a stated figure in the charter party – perhaps 700 tonnes including maximum 200 tonnes of fresh water. 

With a homogeneous loading the weight can usually be distributed in a big ship: to avoid sag (remember that a ship sagging amidships puts the loading disc into the water before she has reached her declared deadweight). When the loading is with three parcels, for two discharge ports or something like that, the allowable stresses may prevent the actual deadweight from being lifted. 

What does the master do? If he loads short, there may be a deadfreight claim. If he loads by the weight, he may be overloading. The owners are primarily interested in avoiding charter party disputes and rarely provide any help to the master. If there are draft restrictions, the sag may create an overdraft situation. 

2. Under keel clearances

 A ship of Panamax size or bigger will typically have a squat in the region of one foot at 5 knots two feet at 7 knots three feet at 9 knots when navigating in a river -Let’s think of the Orinoco, Parana or Mississippi. Local rules built on commercial practice allow completely inadequate under keel clearances – typically being one foot in the Parana and two feet in the Orinoco – but spuds are used well in excess of those, which are prudent from the squat consideration. 

Most masters from choice would take 10 per cent of the draft as a guide for river navigation with half that being necessary in the vicinity of the berth. Pilots are frequently less thoroughly trained or less technically aware in some countries but a master cannot hope that charterers will accept his judgement of what is a prudent draft in these rivers against the established practice. 

The outward navigation is often a matter of luck. Buoys may be unlit. Their positions may be unchecked. Depths may be uncertain and location of declared channels unknown. Under these conditions when a grounding occurs the charterers invariably claim that the ship was navigating outside the channel, even though the means simply do not exist for the ship to establish her position on the charts on the information available. When the vessel does take the ground, the master will be accused of negligence and carries the responsibility for the pilot whether he likes it or not. 

3. Ships for berths 

Consider a berth on the inside of a breakwater that is 230 metres in length and reasonably provided with bollards along the quay edge. Published information on the port may describe the maximum size of ships using that berth as being of maximum draft 9.0 metres and maximum length 180 metres.

Shippers/charterers will first bring in partly laden ships of 190 metres in length and few or no problems are experienced, so next time the port is asked to accept a partly laden ship of 225 metres in length. The port usually wants to meet its clients’ wishes and there may be a few remarks to the effect that the last ship of 190 metres experienced no problems, and the ship will be allowed in. 


It frequently happens that the longer ship – almost the same length as the quay – has to berth one way round because access is required to no.1 hold and that access would not be possible the other way round. The only moorings that are practical are springs and short steep nips of breast lines. A bit of swell, the ship begins surging and ranging, mooring part and contact damage results.

Adequate length moorings were never possible; no tugs or pilots were available night to take the ship out and it finishes up in arbitration with the master being accused of negligence in a variety of respects. Whatever his concerns, the master has no precedent to say that berth is not going to be safe because he will not be able to make a safe and balanced mooring arrangement. 

4. Weather routeing 

Generally a master will welcome the concept of weather routeing as it provides some expert opinion on the route to follow. A winter voyage from Long Beach to Japan presents a difficult balance between the shorter distance on the northern route and the possibility of better weather on the rhumb line route. 

What are the advisers routeing for? Usually it is quite simply earliest arrival and nothing more. A specific request once for a passage with minimum rolling turned out to be an absolute disaster. There seems to be a reluctance to alter course to reduce the heaviest rolling even with many containers on deck. Some of us have given a speed loss of 25 per cent (between engine and log) to the 00W as an indication of the time we may have to think about reducing speed because of heavy weather. The ‘feel’ of a ship going too fast into the weather does not seem to be an instinctive part of a watchkeeper’s awareness today, perhaps because of the size of so many ships. 

Weather routeing companies are often used to assist charterers in speed and performance claims under time charter parties. The charter may state a given speed and consumption in conditions up to and including Beaufort force 4 but the hypothetical hindcasting results in claims that the ship was under performing during adverse weather. These pressures discourage a master from being reasonably cautious and the results can be seen in lost or damaged deck cargoes. 

5. Loading terminals

The bulk carrier debates have been going on for many years; how nice it would be for a master to have the opportunity to say, ‘I shall bring my ship to load at your terminal subject to this, that and the other’. In the real world it is very much a case of ‘the terminal rule’s OK’.

A loading plan will be agreed, suppose in two cycles with a final figure for trimming.  By the end of the first cycle the ship should be de-ballasted both for stress and because thereafter she will trim alternatively by the head or by the stern and that does not allow for good ballast draining. If the ship has to suspend loading,even for a short while, to stabilise the two routines all hell is threatened by many terminals.

The loading rate is declared at 10,000 tonnes per hour and that may be the average, but the actual pour rate is often 15 /120,000 tonnes / hour. This is the reverse of the debaliasting where the bulk rate may be 5,000 tonnes /hour but the draining is much slower. The terminal wants the times for draft checks to be minimal, but many terminals don’t even provide a boat to assist the mate with this. 

The final balance may be 3,000 tonnes, and that has two functions. It gives the final amount of cargo to be lifted (which may be taking the slack out of the shore weights or stowage factors given) and the distribution of that final amount, usually between holds towards each end of the ship. 

An arbitrator not long ago expressed his view, contrary to that of experienced masters who had appeared as witnesses, that the final figure was solely for trimming and had nothing whatsoever to do with final deadweight. Such an opinion from a person who had never been involved in the fast loading of a large ship astonished the master involved.