At par with being Managing Director of Western Shipping Pte. Ltd., Capt. Belal Ahmed’s passion is into concerns of the global maritime industry. His vision often overarches those of personal interests; his mission, to cascade standard of competence to policy makers, to users and to doers, ultimately.
Alongside, to State regulators to mandate objectives and requirements, give pangs to regulations and implementation. His dedication to industry is reflected in his work in various industry forum include as on officer of IMEC for over a decade.
Arguably, Capt. Ahmed keeps cadence with technological developments. But he is cautious on applications, particularly digitalization, in that mariners tend to lose basic seamanship resulting to accidents, collisions, and similar problems.
He is all for the new drive but the overdrive that compile new things may put to risk tested methods. When slips pile-up, then accidents happen. The Captain notes this year, the industry has yet to face up to the problems, seeping even into small companies.
Hence, we see Capt. Ahmed present and eagle-eyed during the two-day WESTSHIP Safety Seminar dubbed “Safe Navigation, Ensures Safe Voyages” with its Philippine manning partner Western Shipping Southeast Asia. This was last July 13 at the Marco Polo Hotel, Pasig City and July 14, at the Prestige Tower, Ortigas, Pasig City.
He even casually participates, expressing his concern and dedication to safe navigation vis-à-vis the views of the Speakers who are subject matter experts (SMEs):
Christos Maragkousis, Deputy Manager, Western Shipping
Capt. Niladri Chakraborty, SQA Manager, Western Shipping
C/E Edwin Rafon, Superintendent, Byzantine Maritime- Greece
Capt. Rainier Jimenez, Training Manager, WSP Maritime Training Center
Capt. Alban Castellino, Consultant, WSP Maritime Training Center
Safe navigation — just two words but affect worldwide maritime industry, be multinationals, transnationals or small family-owned firms. In parallel with operations are technical innovations, ECDIS for one, Capt. Ahmed points out. These could free seafarers time to do better things. But he questions how do we agree on protocols to implement industry-wide.
He says WESTSHIP is addressing problems industry may be having. While almost all crew and officers stay on with WESTSHIP, some do leave for various reasons. Many will carry knowledge learned from WESTSHIP. But without continuing education and training like WESTSHIP, skills could retrogress and accidents could happen.
Capt Ahmed “Every company should campaign that Navigators on board do not rely too much on equipment, to be aware of limitations on ALL digital navigation aids. Be vigilant, try to apply the navigation rules that has been there for hundreds of years that has never changed. Due to introduction of digitial equipment, navigators tend to forget the age-old methods… Over-reliance on new digital equipment makes the seafarer over-confident, over-complacent that may lead… to loss of life, environmental damage.”
He sounds the clarion call: new things must be searched to reduce rising incidents. And more than words, he expect meaningful implementation. He underscores, “Western Shipping is trying to address this” in its regular safety seminars.
The Captain presents views in pragmatic terms, not as spaced-out rocket scientist. In essence, new solutions beget new problems. He gives examples from daily life:
- On land, mobile apps guide people to destinations on GPS. How many accidents were caused by these innovations as drivers become complacent with digitalization?
- On air, a pilot goes to rest at hotels after logging six hours airborne. A seafarer is on the watch four hours, then another four hours, for months on end — isolated, away from family and friends.
- As complex as the logistical chain is traffic of the carriers (ships, planes, trucks) over blue waters (warfare, pirates, inclement weather) and limited facilities (berthing, terminal works, Customs formalities). All these affect the mariners, so are the businessmen who also take risks.
Capt. Ahmed recalls streets of Manila are now full of cars, 20 years ago it was not. With increased trade, the Singapore Strait is in the same dilemma: increasing demand that must be served with the same space. He worries, “safety issue has not been addressed” as it should be.
He believes issues affect an increasing number of crew; more importantly, is “the professional attitude of today’s seafarers, how much reliance they have on the technology instead on the basic safety navigation.”
He laments basic rules takes second fiddle to new technology. Basic navigation procedures are ignored. Instead, there is over-reliance on technology leading to information overload — then, accidents follow as data banking replaces decision making.
He believes such is also the case in trade, over-automated. The adaptability of the navigators is not maximized, considering there is only one officer (instead of the ideal two for back-up).
When a big tanker is on collision course with your vessel, what do you do? This scenario pushes Capt. Ahmed to bring navigation to the front again, combined with pep talks for mariners to be mentally ready when at sea.
Capt. Belal issues a rhetoric, “What could be more prevalent to say, a Filipino container ship hitting U.S. destroyer. It’s navigation safety…we’re focusing on navigation and in the rule of the road, each vessel is responsible, you cannot say, sir he didn’t do anything.”
Capt. Ahmed thinks there are only few positives in overall Philippine industry. It has more simulators than any country in the world. But under-utilized. He thinks this is because the teaching faculty is not bench-marked to international realities. Ambience and atmosphere in Southampton, Amsterdam are quite different from Tarlac, Batangas, Cebu, Davao. Filipino Overseas seafarers should be oriented properly.
Manila has all the resources. Yet, Capt. Ahmed thinks the majority of Filipino seafarers have not leveled up to international competitiveness. He adds, “The number of Filipino seafarers is not going up anymore. Steady, but not going up anymore.”
He observes Philippine economy is doing well. That having a job ashore need not compel one to go to the sea and leave the family. The attraction of earning more money is fleeting. Something needs to be done by industry as well as by authorities, to keep this proud profession among the Filipinos, continue their service to world of shipping.
Manning agencies process applications for senior officers (i.e. Chief Engineers, captains) and but a large number do no succeed, even if they are qualified on the very high standards on tankers, LPG carriers. Capt. Ahmed would like to see this change and larger number of Junior officers make it to top management level job on board.
He wishes for more qualified officers, confirming the shortage on officers as announced earlier by the IMO and the Baltic and Intl Maritime Council (BIMCO). He observes Filipino mariners are taken care of like no other seafarers in the world. Industry supports them in their education, work insurance, POEA protection, AMOSUP benefits — they have everything seafarers should need. Thus, Capt. Ahmed expects “quality must improve.”
Capt. Belal believes having stayed long in maritime in the Industry, “I think the Filipino seafarer has contributed so much and continues to contribute so much.
We should not make a dilemma for them. When you talk about things to improve, we don’t say they are not good, including myself. Some people take it in a negative way. I am one of those that has fundamental trust and faith in Filipino seafarers. And I don’t wish to see this diminish in any way.”
WESTSHIP managed bulk carriers are manned by an all-Filipino crew. Capt. Ahmed admits “we would love all Filipino.” Unfortunately, not enough is available. But while all Filipinos are prospects, he will not compromise on quality.
An incident could pull down a company that is why there is evaluation on competency, plus double-checking. Currently, ratings are 100% Filipinos, 60-65% for officers. There remain some 30-35% for senior officers like Masters, Chief Engineers but none yet for key posts.
He thinks there are competitors in the Philippines that catch them before he does. For now, he is investing on career development, like IMEC cadets in MAAP. We also train seafarers who are recommended by officers or ratings who are employed in Western shipping managed vessels. This two-track policy provides options for officer development as well as development of ratings.
State of the Art Training Facility provides hands-on training to all seafarers who are on board as those who aspire to be a seafarers. Huge financial commitment for training is an indication of the commitment Western Shipping has for the future of Filipino Seafarers.
On top of weak economies, shipowners are saddled by new requirements: water ballast management, fuel and emission regulations, other International Conventions going into force. Shipowners must comply, invest millions of dollars as they agonize for seafarers to also stand up and fulfill their end. Sadly, initial reactions are often negative to shipowners who are blamed for demanding new trainings for new competencies, new certifications.
Capt. Ahmed believes it is “always the responsibility of the shipmanagers to train” the crew. How? Start early, a “good operator will prepare the crew,” he insists.
He adds teaching is not only for the sake of the crew but of the whole industry. Knowledge imbibed preempts incidents that could crash investors now reeling with a stubborn business downturn not showing any sign of a faster recovery.
Not lost is the fundamental trust and faith in Filipino seafarers. But its Government must not be complacent, like expanding meaningful services to Cebu, Iloilo, Davao as major sources of seafarers whose inputs to the economy and family must be recognized, clearly acknowledged by way of better services and professional upgrades.
Capt. Ahmed is a straight talker who expresses his thoughts clearly and without worry who might be offended by his views.
His expertise is beyond question, readily sharing it with those in need. In a deeper sense, the Captain is a true friend, realized better in critical times.
Capt. Ahmed feels the stormy economic weather. But still the job must be done; whatever, however. Ever an optimist, he sees the glow even on things he critiqued. Proof is when he warms up with, “K12 is a fantastic thing…this is a positive development.”
(Editor’s Note. Article based on an interview granted by Capt. Belal Ahmed July 14, 2017, at the Western Shipping Southeast Asia offices, Prestige Tower, Pasig City.)
Capt. Davaris Perspective
TRAINING AND LOYALTY
Just as the Philippine infrastructure program is Build, Build, Build, that of Byzantine Maritime is Training, Training, Training as espoused by Capt. Dimitros Davaris, Crewing Manager.
Byzantine Maritime Corporation of Greece is the owner and charterer of 12 bulkers managed by Singapore-based Western Shipping (WESTSHIP). Western Shipping Southeast Asia (WSSAI), Philippines provides Byzantine the all-Filipino crew, ratings to senior offices. There are 24 Filipinos in each Byzantine bulker.
WSSAI is an active member at the Filipino Association for Mariner’s Employment (FAME) and the local International Maritime Employers’ Committee (IMEC); participates in industry activities and a consistent sponsor of IMEC cadets at the Maritime Academy of Asia & the Pacific (MAAP).
The mantra on training is both a need and a need to, given the close-quarter combat of cargo carriers in the depressed bulker trade, particularly.
Currently, senior officers could take more vacation, with wages and perks basically steady. But it is a time when company loyalty is at prime, testing opportunists from reliable crew given the rough sailings of the company these days.
Capt. Davaris diligently watches the crew officers, the system of the Philippines on STCW regulations, as amended in Manila. Certificates of competency and proficiency are on open access, so are for officers. Master or Chief Engineer licenses are harder, requiring blue waters experience on board.
Licenses and experience are also Byzantine mandatory requirements for higher company postings, backed-up with continuous seminars and reviews on safety.
The company offers a break to those with the certificates and experience claimed. They are trusted to start but are checked and evaluated while on the job. After the evaluation, Byzantine decides whether to accept or reject the applicant.
Business downturn is not made an excuse. Training continues, as it was in 1960s, in the 1990s and onwards to full certifications. There are orientations on crewing matters, on accidents, refreshing techniques to avoid more serious incidents.
Capt. Davaris says in the shipping industry or in the office, something new always turns up. No one should be settled, even those with experience. Graduates and young officers must be aware of new twists, of the need for continuous learning at all stages.
When one goes to sea, he leaves his family, his loved ones. Therefore, he must best exhibit seafaring skills and be attentive to safety details and procedures. The ship, cargo and lives are in his hands, so much responsibility as a person and as part of a mariner team.
Capt. Davaris agrees Filipino seafarers used to be very good, gathering 80% of jobs in the maritime world. And it was easy for them to open doors from one company to another. But now, Capt. Davaris believes they have lost the control.
He thinks the wife decides, does the negotiations as did his wife of more than 20 years.
Davaris says he has no problem with Filipinos, they are his good friends. But Filipinos have started to think differently. The new attitude is losing shipping from Europe which heads to China, Myanmar (Burma) and Vietnam in the Southeast Asian economies.
Filipinos should cultivate loyalty to the company, ply come great or hard times. These are ways to honor the break given which opened career opportunities. On the flipside, it is demeaning to trade that trust for just more dollars or little perks.
His idea of a great professional relationship is simple: principal provides trainings essential to career and safety; crew must be loyal to the job and partners. This could be the core element to mutually survive challenges in the maritime industry of the world these days.