Letter: Subchapter M Compliance
Winter is coming, in more ways than one, and it will have resounding impact on the inland marine industry.
Subchapter M has come into full force as of July, and though the general thinking was that it would immediately better the state of the commercial marine industry, I have not necessarily experienced that. There continue to be two tiers of operators, those who meet and even exceed the industry requirements, and those who quite frankly do not. They may say they do but seem to manage to slither under the radar screen. How can this be, you may ask? Well for me to answer this question, I refer back to our SMS and look at the procedure for Root Cause Analysis. Let’s look at why this happened, and dig deeper and deeper by giving two hypothetical scenarios, the consequences and the results.
In the first scenario, a marine fuel distributor offers up credit to a company with a fleet of vessels. When determining the credit status, obviously all the financials are reviewed, as are appropriate credit references. When the operator confirms that its vessels have all been certified to comply with the company’s TSMS and all vessels have received their COI (Subchapter M certification), one would have to surmise that this was a quality operator with quality vessels. I would believe the industry would have enough integrity, if not individually then by TPO, not to issue/endorse these documents unless someone truly put “eyes on” the vessel at some point. Well, it’s hard for me to believe that in this scenario, a vessel operator was following their TSMS with dozens of wooden shingles and plugs in a bilge operating with a standing 4-6 inches of oil, with the remainder of the “dry” bilge having a consistent 3 inches of oil-soaked dry silt on the bottom. Let’s assume that no one went into the engineroom; why were the deck hatches that were silicone-shut not addressed, or even the watertight main deck doors that couldn’t close (in light of all the incidents we’ve had in the last few years with boats sinking)? The end result: vessel and company file bankruptcy, and the seized vessel is not worth what it is purported to be.
Let’s look at another hypothetical scenario. A company “self-inspects” its vessels and because of this self-inspection regime and the longstanding record they have of working with a particular TPO, the TPO may have been lenient on issuance of COI upon reviewing the TSMS. Did the surveyor actually go out and see a “representative” sample of the fleet or did the TPO only venture out on the newly chartered tonnage, rather than the long-in-the-tooth, aged tonnage? It’s easy to check the new tonnage; hell, it most likely left new construction with all the “I’s dotted, and “T’s crossed.” What’s harder for me to understand is that these vessels that were constantly operating and reportedly drydocked, had an instance of more than 8 inches of marine growth, nonoperational fuel shutoff valves, and, get this, I have never before in my life seen a steel-on-steel (shaft on casting) stern tube bearing and strut bushing. (Read that as sarcasm. There were no bushings left.) End result, after acquiring these certificated vessels, hundreds of thousands of dollars would need to be invested to truly bring them into compliance.
These are just two hypothetical scenarios that abound today. After a recent LinkedIn post I feel more than ever that these issues are a mere scratch on the surface of the “questionable” conditions many vessels are in. So let’s look at the root cause. Are these companies “shopping around” for less-than-strict TPOs? I don’t want to believe so, but I do believe there are generally understood less capable or less stringent TPOs. I worked for ABS years ago as a marine surveyor, so though I am not up on all the new regulations, I do know what it took to get properly vetted and qualified to do a survey. Surveyors/inspectors were generally folks from the marine industry with, if not direct sailing experience, at least trained (apprenticed) under a more experienced surveyor. I’m afraid those days are gone. Now it seems to me that there are more and more spreadsheet cowboys who have a nice resume, went to a seminar, paid their NAMS and SAMS dues and have hung a shingle saying they are a qualified surveyor. (Not to discount the need for those organizations, but I’m merely pointing out that there is more than participation in an organization that qualifies an individual.)
What does this mean in the grand scheme of things for the industry? We still haven’t weeded out the “less than desirable” operators. But as I said, winter is coming and drydockings with it. Depending on your operation, in the next five years your vessel will need to be drydocked and really brought into compliance. The days of just doing the bare minimum to make it float will be over.
Though I was not in 100 percent agreement with all the updates and requirements to bring non-Sub M vessels into compliance, we spent the money whether it was mechanical or structural. It is for the betterment of the industry, and I do feel it will save lives. Some folks have called and disagreed with me, but there is now one standard, and you either comply, or you don’t.
John W. Stone Oil Distributor