In former times, crewing of ships was not as regulated as it is now.  The original practices were regulated following the realisation that inadequate training and flawed certification procedures in some countries meant that under-qualified seafarers were serving aboard many ships. Several serous maritime accidents occurred as a result of inadequate training of seafarers.

Now, all ships have to be crewed according to strictly-applied international regulations that govern

  • the training of seafarers;
  • the procedures to examine those seafarers and procedures that lead their eventual certification to perform duties aboard ships; and
  • the number of crewmembers and the qualifications that each crewmember in each rank is required to have. For example, a small ship that will trade only along the South African coast will have different requirements in terms of the number of officers as well as the minimum qualifications of her officers than a large containership trading between South Africa and Europe.

STCW 95-2010 Convention

This is an international convention – a set of regulations drawn up the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) in London – that relates to the standards for training and certification of watchkeepers. The original was drawn up in 1978 and amended significantly in 1995, and again in 2010. In terms of this convention, all maritime training has to follow the minimum content and standard as stipulated by the IMO. This means that if a training centre wants to offer recognized maritime training courses, its course, the quality and qualifications of its instructors, and its examinations have to conform to IMO standards. The authority to check on these aspects of training is passed to the national maritime authority. In South Africa, this is the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) which is the deciding authority in courses ranging from elementary courses to complex examinations for people to qualify as master mariners (ship’s captains) or as chief engineering officers.

The convention applies to all ships (whether their flag state is a member of the IMO the or not. This means that the certification of crewmembers on a ship registered in Country X (which is not a signatory to the convention) can be checked when it enters a port in Country Y which is a signatory to the convention. It also means that checks on the certification of crewmembers can be made anywhere, thereby improving the standard of watchkeeping and general performance of crewmembers aboard ships.

Contract seafaring

Although some shipowners prefer to crew their ships themselves – and have a busy marine crewing department to handle it – a large percentage of seafarers are recruited by crewing agencies, operating on behalf of shipowners. Most seafarers therefore work on a contract basis, and are not paid directly by the shipowner, but by the agency who hired them to serve on a specific ship, in a specific rank, at a specific salary and for a specific time. This gives shipowners the ability to employ crews from a variety of countries and the use of crewing agencies means that the shipowner does not have to become involved in recruiting and other crewing functions. This practice can create a few adverse issues:

  • Crewmembers may not be familiar with the shipowner’s way of doing things aboard the ships. This can lead to some procedures not being followed, especially in machinery maintenance or emergency drills. It also means that crewmembers may not be familiar with the ethos of the shipowner’s operation and this may lead to misunderstandings.
  • Crewmembers may not develop loyalty to the shipowner as they may never work aboard that company’s ships again.
  • Although many work well and responsibly, some may not and, because they are not accountable in the long term for the machinery, some may leave important work (e.g. a major engine repair) for the next person to serve in that capacity aboard the vessel. This can cause serious damage to machinery or other equipment.
  • While agreements will be drawn up between the crewing agency and the shipowner regarding the ideal type of person serving aboard his ships, the shipowner has no direct control over who is serving aboard the ships.

The major sources of the world’s seafarers

In terms of the practice of contract seafaring, countries such as Philippines, China, India, Croatia, Poland, and Ukraine supply thousands of seafarers to ships across the world. Traditional sources of seafarers (e.g. countries in western Europe) do not provide as many seafarers as they previously did. The reasons for this are as follows

  • More shoreside careers are available now;
  • Some people prefer the unemployment benefits ashore;
  • Western shipping companies were sold off, thus decreasing the sea-going opportunities for young people in Western Europe, in North America, and even in South Africa;
  • Western seafarers became too expensive when compared to those from Philippines, India, other Asian countries or eastern Europe who now dominate the world’s seafaring population.

There are serious disadvantages of the process of contract crewing from several places. Different nationalities aboard a ship can cause language confusion and ineffective communication. This can be particularly crucial during emergencies when loss of life or serious damage to the ship can occur due to differences in language

Incentives for Countries to promote Seafaring

Some countries – including South Africa – are keen to promote seafaring as a career. To achieve that aim, shipowners need to be encouraged to register their vessels in that country. To do this – and therefore to open more job opportunities for seafarers – countries may embark on special programmes or develop policies aimed at bringing more ships to the register.

One method of encouraging shipowners to flag their ships in that country is to introduce a favourable tax system whereby shipowners can receive tax concessions for registering ships in the country or employing local officers and ratings, and especially training cadets.

Another way of forcing shipowners to flag their ships in a country is to introduce cabotage. This system requires either that selected cargoes, e.g. oil imports, iron ore exports or coal exports (or a percentage of those cargoes) are moved in ships flying the local flag, or that ships trading between ports in the country are registered in that country. Because the ships would be registered in the country, they would have to employ and train local officers and crews. Those opposed to the cabotage system believe that it reduces open competition that normally keeps freight rates in check.