Who's Really in Charge of the Ship?

Credit: Erik Kravets
Credit: Erik Kravets

Published May 11, 2019 11:30 PM by Erik Kravets

It’s an exciting time to be a captain. In an industry characterized by restructuring, consolidation and danger, personal skill and seafaring knowledge have never been more in-demand - or, for that matter, more needed. Yet the Council of American Master Mariners asked Erik Kravets, partner at Kravets & Kravets, to try to answer the following question: “Who’s really in charge of the ship?” 

In spite of the unique contribution a good captain can make to the success of a voyage, shore offices and customers are more pushy than ever. And this often comes at the risk of safety, as in the case of the sinking of SS El Faro, where a decision was made to head through a hurricane in order to save the extra bunker needed to sail an additional 160 nautical miles around that rough weather.

Yet there can be no doubt. The captain of a vessel still has overriding authority. That is to say, he can override any other demand made on him. It’s his word, on board the ship, that is law. This is enshrined both in the International Safety Management (ISM) Code Sec. 5.2 and in the International Convention for Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Chapter 5 Regulation 34-1, which gives the captain the right to make any call necessary in order to protect the life of persons on board or to safeguard the vessel.

In practice, the pressure exerted by customers and the shore office to cut corners in the name of costs can make such decisions unduly difficult for the captain. After all, captains are also people. And people can be afraid of getting fired, getting reprimanded or getting pushed back from desired promotions.

The same rule applies as elsewhere. If you’re going to make an unpopular decision, be ready to do your homework. Simply because ISM and SOLAS grant the right to exercise overriding authority does not mean others will uncritically accept this truth. Thus, documenting the process and reasoning used in coming to the determination that overriding authority must be exercised, and supporting that with appropriate, thoroughly gathered, well-presented and organized evidence is essential.

It should be assumed that any such decision will come under fire and will need to be defended, possibly in court. What followed was a deep-dive into a multitude of possible scenarios, from ship collisions requiring a yard visit to weather deviations to measures undertaken to prevent cargo damage.

Photos, witnesses, surveyors, notes of protest and logbook entries were discussed along with the various attending details, e.g. the correct use of time-stamps and validating witness identities. Of course, gathering this evidence is important, but it’s arguably even more valuable to assemble evidence in a systematic, credible manner so that it can be be used fruitfully in case of a dispute. No matter how good the evidence is in principle, if it cannot be validated and submitted to support an argument, it will not be of any use in helping a captain defend an unpopular decision made under his overriding authority.

The captain’s role is critical to a well-functioning shipping industry. If charterers and owners encourage a race to the bottom, it’s up to ship’s captains to use their overriding authority! Charterers see logistics as a pure cost. Owners want to do right by their customers in a competitive market. Captains must shout: “stop!” if it goes too far. That means preventing the worst of the cost-cutting and putting in the legwork, e.g. fact-finding, assembling evidence, submitting reports, to justify any unpopular decisions.

At the end of the day, the shipping industry relies on diligent captains to make the right call time after time. A captain who has integrity and a sense of duty, and an ability to accurate anticipate and address risks, is a valuable – essential – contributor to the success of a global industry. If the captain’s decisions are based on good seamanship and can be supported with evidence, there is nothing to fear. 

The shore office and the customer may complain about extra expenses, but in the end, they are all relying on the captain to get the crew, the vessel and its cargo safe and sound to the contemplated destination.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.