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NEWS AND VIEWS JANUARY 2009 

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HAPPY 2009

Here we are again - I wrote the first News and Views in August 2000 and I have to say that I'm surprised that I'm still doing it. I have once passed the job to some-one else but he had to give up due to domestic pressure, and have also considered just adding one of the broker's monthly reports which are generally extremely informative and sometimes entertaining. But times passes and now I am in partial retirement I have decided that writing the column will be one of my primary tasks, to be carried out once a month no matter what, and ranking in importance only slightly below the requirement that I ensure that I have a stock of gin and tonic for Friday nights.

I have also found that I like to beat the drum now and again in the hope that what I write might be read by some-one with influence to improve the lot of seafarers, who it seems to me get a pretty raw deal. As we get closer to the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century things seem to be getting worse. Shipmasters are routinely being imprisoned for incidents over which they have no control and seafarers in general tend to be stuck on their ships after long and boring ocean voyages, in some cases not even being allowed to go to the phone box. Even worse there are now many cases where shipowners abandon their substandard ships in distant ports after port state inspections, leaving the crews on board unpaid and often without the means of returning home or even of feeding themselves. The crews of these ships are often supported by the local populace.

This is a long way from the days when the merchant fleets of the world were operated  by traditional ship-owners, proud to fly the flag of their country of origin and even the economy end of the market, the Greek merchant fleet (sorry guys, you know that's how it was) operated their ships in a professional manner and paid their crews. The British merchant navy almost universally manned on deck and in the engine room by Indians or Chinese looked after its crews, paid them generously in relation to what others were receiving in their countries of origin, and returned them home at the end of their periods of duty.

Can we expect things to improve in 2009. Well, at least the head of the American Coastguard has censured port operators for their very unfeeling approach towards seafarers, but of course no matter what attitude they take there is still the American security situation.

Elsewhere - specifically the Horn of Africa - 2008 has seen an escalation of the pirate attacks on merchant ships apparently without any restraint. The hijacking of  about a dozen ships and many failed attacks hardly made the news until a ship carrying tanks and other armaments was captured. This seemed to have prompted the deployment of a number of warships, which apparently hovered about waiting for something to happen. Nothing did apart, apparently, for the unfortunate death of a crewmember from natural causes, which resulted in some communication between the pirates and the outside world. Just after my newsletter in November the Sirius Star one of the largest VLCCs in the world was captured guaranteeing headlines for both the ship and its captors. Meanwhile the pirates ceased to get it all their own way. There was an exchange of fire between some Royal Marines in an inflatable and some pirates on a fishing boat. Some of the pirates were killed. An Indian warship destroyed a pirate ship, although some of the enthusiasm for this victory was lost because it was suggested that the original crew of the craft were still on board, and making the most news was the master of a Chinese cargo ship who, with his crew, had repulsed boarders with Molotov cocktails. In the end the crew had to give the pirates footwear so that they could leave the ship without cutting their feet.

Only a few days ago it appeared that a ransom had been paid for the Sirius Star. We saw pictures of a parachute drop, possibly of money, onto the deck of the tanker, and it was reported there-after that the boat in which the pirates were returning to the shore had sunk and that the lives of several of the pirates had been lost. Only a couple of the pirates with a small percentage of the  ransom made it to the shore. However the ship was released and apparently, as I write, both it and the crew are safe.

Paradoxically, who knows how the value of the cargo had changed since the ship was captured. Back in the summer the price of oil was so high that it was becoming difficult to breath, the atmosphere was so rarefied. But as the year went on and the world's financial crisis, or logical adjustment, depending on one's point of view, took its course the price plummeted back into some sort of reality. I should have nipped out and bought a Porsche Cayenne while the going was good, but today the drivers of four wheel drive monsters are breathing more easily again.

However the change in the trading environment between China and the rest of the world has resulted in under-utilisation of the container vessel fleet, many of which are apparently now operating on a cost only basis. There is no requirement for raw materials and therefore ore carriers are laid up. Meanwhile the car parks in the ports of the world which dispatch and receive cars are full of vehicles. Typically, Honda in Swindon produces thousands of cars which are intended for the East European market, and these cars are shipped through Southampton. Today according to the BBC there are 10,000 cars in the docks in Southampton and there are a number of car carriers lying offshore. No cars are likely to be shipped in the  near future.

This is an appropriate link into what is happening offshore. Many support vessels are supposed to be being built in China, some probably at shipyards which are yet to be constructed. Will these ships actually be built? In UK one oil company has gone into administration, despite being moderately successful. It is a matter of being able to borrow money. As I have written before since most of the tonnage on the stocks or shortly to be there, is being constructed with the benefit of bank loans it is probable that much will be abandoned. This is may be just as well since most brokers are predicting an oversupply as early as this year.

Hence, in the heat of the world wide financial crisis, almost regardless of the oil price the order books of many yards will shrink back to what they can actually manage, and it is just possible that the new ships which enter service can be crewed by skilled seafarers.

"Oh here he goes again" I hear you say. True,  but in 2009 I am making my own contribution. The third edition of "Supply Ship Operations" is shortly due off the presses and will be sold at the original price of 27.50 which Edition No 1 was sold for in 1991. And what's more, it is for the first time full of colour photographs - just how I always wanted it to appear.

I could go on but I won't, so happy new year to my readers. Keep safe and in a few words from the Desiderata:

"be at peace with your God whatever you perceive him to be, and what-ever your labours and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams it is still a beautiful world . Be careful, strive to be happy."

Its cheesy but delightful!

 Victor Gibson. January 2009.

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