The waters of the world have been used for travel and trade from the beginning of civilisation. At every stage, global trade anchored on the gifts of marine craft. The design and style of vessels have undergone remarkable changes during the past centuries.
With the advent of modern naval architecture and marine engineering, merchant ships have become technological marvels that require technically trained manpower for effective operation and maintenance.
Shipping has become a giant international industry. It handles more than 90 per cent of global trade, by safely carrying huge quantities of cargo across oceans in a cost-effective way. Goods in transit are carefully linked to the supply chain, in order to ensure delivery on time. The import-export business depends mostly on merchant navy, the backbone of international trade.
With a long coastline running from West Bengal in the East to Gujarat in the West, India has a rich maritime heritage. It moves about 95 per cent of its traded goods to other countries by merchant ships. It is an integral part of the economic growth of our country. The shipping industry involves mainly three different categories of personnel — merchant navy, logistics, and seaport services.
Ships usually operate in different parts of the globe, away from the country of registry. There are international standards to regulate practices in shipping. A specialised agency of the United Nations, the International Maritime Organization (IMO: www.imo.org) based in the United Kingdom, takes care of the regulations.
Rules concerning maritime safety, efficiency of navigation, distress communication, search and rescue operations, prevention and control of marine pollution from ships, compensation and liability regimes, technical co-operation programme, and so on are in its agenda.
The Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) is a boon to ships in distress, since it automates emergency communication. It is the international radio safety system mandated by the IMO for ships at sea. It was implemented through amendments to the Safety of Life At Sea (SOLAS) Convention. ‘Standards of Training, Certification, and Watch keeping for Seafarers (STCW)' is another significant initiative of IMO.
Merchant navy ships
The merchant navy is distinctly different from the navy that is part of the defence forces. The commercial fleet normally transports cargo. There are passenger ships as well. The following are the different kinds of merchant navy ships:
Bulk carrier: Carries unpackaged bulk cargo, like grains, coal, ore, and cement
Container ship: Carries containerised cargo; containers filled with cargo can be loaded directly into the ship. They can be unloaded directly.
Reefer ship: Carries perishables like vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, and dairy products. Needs refrigeration for preserving the cargo.
Tanker: Carries petroleum products or other liquids like liquefied natural gas in bulk. The term oil tanker is popular. The vessel has pumps for loading and unloading by direct pumping.
Roll-on and roll-off ship: Carries wheeled cargo such as automobiles, and trailers which are driven on and off the ship on their own wheels.
Passenger ship: Carries passengers as well as some freight. Ocean liners transport people from one seaport to another according to a regular schedule.
Barge: A long large boat usually with a flat bottom. Normally it has no power of its own; it is towed by other craft.
(Warships form a totally different category that is outside the purview of our discussion.)
Nature of work
The work in a merchant ship can be divided into three main areas — deck, engine and service. These do not stand separate as watertight compartments. Consequent on the increasing application of electronics and computers, there are changing norms in the division of work among the three departments.
In many instances there has to be co-operative effort and teamwork, since there are areas of overlap in functions. Studies in the growth of merchant navy services indicate great prospects for those who get trained in this area. Right aptitude is essential for success.
The topmost authority and executive officer in a ship is the captain/ master. He is responsible for every aspect of the operation of the ship. He should ensure that the ship complies with all local and international laws.
Further, he should see that the ship observes all principles of right navigation and safety rules including safe handling of the cargo in the charge of the ship. Compliance with the vessel's security plan, as required by the IMO security regime for international shipping, is another responsibility.
Maintenance of cash, accounting, stores, and inventory, management of the ship's slop chest, communication with port authorities and company administration, compliance with immigration and customs regulations, management of personnel, documentation, maintenance of the ship's certificates and log books, arranging medical care of crew and passengers, co-ordination of different departments, general discipline, and overall supervision of all matters relating to the ship come under the purview of the captain. He is in command of the ship; he should see that the ship safely reaches the destinations as per the schedules.
The captain will be assisted by the first mate / chief officer and the second mate in the discharge of his responsibilities. The duties will be defined specifically among the mates.
The first mate is the captain's right-hand man and the second-in-command. He oversees cargo planning, assists in navigation, allocates duties of maintenance and upkeep of the ship among the deck crew. He looks after the overall discipline.
The second mate is in-charge of checking mail and keeping the navigational equipment and charts in good condition. He assists in watching the ship's navigation and sailing schedules as well as cargo handling at the ports. He would also check the upkeep of medical facilities, and ensure the health of the crew.
The third mate is responsible for keeping safety equipment, such as life boats, fire-fighting tools in top condition. Further, he acts in the capacity of signal officer.
The deck/ navigation officers are in charge of the navigation of the ship. There will be other members of the deck crew for further assistance. The deck is primarily responsible for navigation, cargo, and passengers.