IMO: One Hundred Years after the Titanic

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has since long explicitly recognized shipping to be “perhaps the most international of all the world’s great industries and one of the most dangerous”. Ever since the advent of steamships around the middle of the nineteenth century, safety at sea has always been a prime concern. It is no wonder then that the IMO has decided to highlight this aspect during the World Maritime Day celebrations of 2012. The WMD 2012 theme is aptly titled “IMO: One Hundred Years after the Titanic”, in honour of the greatest peacetime disaster the world has ever witnessed at sea, which had resulted in the loss of over 1500 lives within a few hours on 14 April 1912.

The World Maritime Day is not a recent phenomenon. It is being celebrated every year since 1978, the first time being on 17 March to mark the date of the IMO Convention’s entry into force in 1958. The IMOs membership has since steadily grown from 21 to 167 today, which includes virtually all the nations of the world with an interest in maritime affairs. May I add by way of introduction that the International Maritime Organization is a specialized agency of the UN which has been responsible for spearheading all major maritime legislation in the technical, training, environmental, safety and security fields. It is indeed no stranger to all those associated with the maritime sphere. As elaborated by the Secretary General IMO Mr Koji Sekimizu in his message on the occasion, IMOs main task since it’s inception “has been to develop and maintain a comprehensive regulatory framework for international shipping”.

Anyway, the World Maritime Day is being celebrated this year on 27 September by the IMO, which has left it open to it’s individual member nations to do so on any day during the last week of September. The IMO will itself celebrate this day by hosting a traditional reception in it’s London Headquarters and by sponsoring a parallel event in Bahrain, a small member state which has been so honoured owing to it’s robust seafaring traditions and strong maritime credentials and follows on from the week-long national celebration of the WMD so successfully undertaken during the Bahrain Maritime Festival.

The theme chosen each year reflects an area of maritime importance. Last year it was Piracy: Orchestrating the Response”, highlighting a global phenomenon that had cost many lives and placed many ships at risk. The year before that it was 2010: Year of the Seafarer, a fitting tribute to the world’s 1.5 million seafarers for their unique and perhaps largely unnoticed services for the benefit of the 6.5 billion individuals inhabiting this world. This year, it’s the long overdue safety-related issues stemming from the Titanic disaster, which was a monumental one by any standard

Without commenting on the inevitability or otherwise of the disaster resulting from the SS Titanic’s collision with an iceberg during it’s maiden voyage across the Atlantic, it can safely be said that the many lives lost had been sacrificed on the altar of human greed. By labeling the ship as unsinkable, the owners recklessly jeopardized it’s passenger’s safety by substantially reducing the number of lifeboats on board in order to increase it’s passenger-carrying and hence it’s revenue-generating capacity.

As the Secretary General IMO again noted in his message, ” Many ships have sunk- too many – but few have had the lasting impact of the seemingly invulnerable Titanic”. This tragedy however generated a flurry of activity that culminated in the adoption, two years later, of the first International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (the SOLAS Convention). Incidentally, The International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS), on minimum security arrangements for ships, ports and government agencies, also happens to be a post-9/11 amendment to the SOLAS Convention. The SOLAS Convention has since 1914 been superseded a number of times, the last time being in 1974, which though updated many times, is still in force today.

While it is true that all steamship-plying countries had been worried about collisions and shipwrecks long before the Titanic disaster, the event did however hasten the development of an international consensus in the matter. Great Britain, which at the time was universally acknowledged as a colossus of the seas, led the way in unilateral rule-making. It’s signalling rules won world-wide appreciation from seamen because of their simplicity and effectiveness. France was the first to follow suit, with the two countries signing numerous other agreements over the course of the next thirty years, covering areas like rules on maritime signals using flags, setting standards for navigation in fog, devising joint rules for routes at sea, lighting of fishing boats and special signals for telegraph cable-laying ships.

As far as multi-lateral conventions are concerned, the first rules for preventing collisions at sea were agreed upon at an international convention on 1 Sep 1880, followed by a convention on health and safety for steam packet navigation less than an year later. The first rules on wireless telegraphy emerged out of the Berlin Convention of 3 Nov 1906.

A major breakthrough occurred in 1972 when all the regulations for preventing collisions at sea were rationalized and consolidated in a single document known to all seafarers as ‘The Rules of the Road’, which is still being followed rigorously by all sea-going ships.

While such regulations did lessen the probability of collisions, they couldn’t be eliminated altogether for the simple reason that a host of other factors like bad seamanship skills, watch-keeper fatigue and high stress levels are also at play. Ship groundings are another major danger area. Resort to modern technology like GPS and up-to-date electronic charts help to curb suchlike accidents. Fire incidents on board, either through internal or external causes, also need to be guarded against through appropriate preventive measures and fire-fighting equipment and techniques.

It has been ascertained that human factor is the most probable cause of a majority of accidents at sea followed by technical and environmental factors. For all three causes, namely slack watch-keeping, electro-mechanical breakdowns and hostile elements, good training is of the essence. The IMO has done yeoman service in this regard by formulating a detailed convention on Standards of Training Certification and Watch-keeping for seafarers and then carrying out extensive revisions in 2010 to meet the exacting demands of today.

In parallel with efforts towards reducing the probability of accidents, there is even a greater requirement for restricting the havoc caused by them through better preparedness. This fallout can differ for various classes of ships. In the case of cruise liners and passenger ferries, safety of so many lives is paramount. The cruise industry has, barely a week earlier, announced the adoption of new safety measures meant to ensure the currency and comfort level of all the crew members with lifeboat launching and loading drills. This follows on from the Costa Concordia cruise liner disaster of January this year in which 32 people died, ostensibly because the ship crew lacked competence in evacuation procedures. An investigation into the incident also held the Captain responsible for jeopardizing the ship through a needlessly reckless manoeuvre close to land, which resulted in the vessel running aground off the Tuscan coast and for deliberately delaying the announcements of general emergency and abandoning ship.

In the case of oil tankers, pollution poses the greatest problem and the greatest risk to the habitat. The first major oil spill which occurred in the English Channel in 1967 and involved the tanker Torrey Canyon, contaminated an area of about 300 km along the coast through 100,000 tons of oil. The tanker owners have luckily got their act together to provide immediate cleanup and compensatory services under the aegis of the P&I Clubs, which had emerged out of a ship-owner’s initiative. In addition, the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Limited (ITOPF), which is a non-profit organization, also responds to ship-source spills by providing experienced advice on clean-up measures and compensation.

In the case of LNG Carriers, the strictest possible preventive measures are needed as they possess the potential of creating a catastrophe of huge proportions. Nuclear-propelled warships and/or those carrying nuclear weapons also remain a source of great concern.

Warships by their very nature are required to take calculated risks even during peacetime exercises and manoeuvres. A more exacting training regimen thus becomes inescapable to help them tide over adversities. The missile attack on the US frigate Stark in the Gulf by an Iraqi warplane during the Iran-Iraq war of the eighties and the terrorist attack on the USS Cole at anchorage in Yemen proves the point. Good training skills mastered through constant drills not only kept the ships afloat but were also instrumental in saving many lives.

Since this year’s WMD theme primarily revolves around the IMOs own contributions over the years in the field of ship safety, one can hope that all existing gaps in the safety regulatory framework will be plugged in a proactive rather than a reactive manner. IMO must however be lauded for keeping safety aspects uppermost in mind by initiating numerous pieces of legislation which set minimum safety standards for various classes of ships offering varying services.

In Pakistan however our dreams should be for a time when we as a nation start celebrating this day with gusto, more or less like all the other IMO member states. Only then can we be said to be in line for realizing our maritime aspirations.

Note: This article was published in the 27 September 2012 edition of the daily newspaper ‘The Nation’.

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published.