tony foster gardline

West African Piracy from a Ship Operator Perspective | Interview with Tony Foster from Gardline Marine Sciences

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May 17, 2012

tony foster gardline Hanson-Wade’s Sara Patela speaks with Tony Foster, Marine Safety Superintendent/DPA and CSO at Gardline Marine Sciences on the subject of piracy off West Africa from a ship operator’s perspective.

What have been your experiences of maritime crime in West Africa?
We had not been victim to any incidents until the end of last year. Since then we have had two further petty opportunistic thieving incidents with menaces onboard. These involved the same ship and the same crew.

We operate seagoing survey ships, so are low and slow, which is what you want when conducting seismic surveys. The average speed of our vessels when working is 4 to 5 knots and they lack maneuverability when they have all survey equipment deployed. Therefore, without high levels of protection they are really easy to board.

Two of the three incidents occurred at Point Noire and the other one happened off Ghana, which was more surprising.  They all happened around the same time in the morning, at about 3am, with the same crew on. You have to question the quality of the look out – to get three mooring ropes off the boats would have had to be there for some time. These incidents were not even discovered until about an hour afterwards.

What would you say is your biggest challenge when operating in this region?

The big problem is crew motivation from the Captain and officers. The threat of incidents has always been there, but the crew didn’t help themselves by mitigation, and guidance given in the Ship Security Plan, M Notices and other publications held on board was ignored. I as CSO also arranged for daily bulletins concerning security to be emailed to the vessel. It comes down to a complacency issue. The crew does tend to get lax during long periods between projects and ship’s employment. As a CSO I have had to tell them what to do, which is surprising, as both the Master and Chief Officer hold Ship Security Officer Certificates. The Master is the appointed SSO, and should have been aware of the risks and the steps to take to mitigate these risks. The crew is well trained, and it is within our training matrix that the crew have to conduct security exercises on board, and also hold exercises between the ship and our Emergency Response Team ashore.

We operate our ships differently to most Merchant Shipping companies, in that we are not carrying cargoes from A to B, rather than we’re
conducting surveys. Therefore, we are in a particular area all of the time, rather than coming in and out. I think that once a ship has been sat at anchor for a couple of weeks, the locals get to know about it and will be watching. Bear in mind it tends to be local fisherman who commit these opportunistic crimes. If they can observe the ship and get to know the routine including how many people are on watch and deck patrol, then they can use this information to their advantage. They are not stupid. So routine can be dangerous.

It goes back to onboard crew management. There were 12 onboard marine crew and they said it wasn’t enough people. However, many ships operate with this number of crew members.

Would you consider employing additional security personnel?

It is difficult for us to employ additional security. We tend not to put our ships in to dangerous areas. So we don’t bid for jobs in Nigeria as it’s too dangerous. But when the ships are working and we have the survey crew onboard, there just isn’t enough room to have additional security personnel onboard. It is bad enough trying to appoint cadets and trainees to a vessel and trying to find them accommodation whilst staying within the ship’s LSA numbers.

What recent trends have you noticed?

I have received reports of increasing levels of violence, which is concerning. There is also a fear of this type of criminal activity spreading
from Nigeria to other parts of West Africa. This is something we are looking at and monitoring closely.

How easy to identify and mitigate risks to your supply chain?

We try to limit our exposure to risk. We don’t bid for jobs in Nigeria and certainly not off East Africa. We turned down three jobs in East Africa last year. That’s the main way we mitigate risks – we don’t put our ships in that position. When we are operating in high risk areas we just have to make sure we have high levels of security at all times.

We haven’t had any problems whilst vessels have been alongside in port. The security at some of these West African ports is quite good. The berths we tend to use are often operated by oil companies and are privately run, including their own security. When we did have operations in Nigeria we did have some problems there in the municipal ports, but as stated, the ports we tend to use tend to be heavily compounded with their own security.

How will next 6 months evolve?

Extrapolating from what we have experienced this year, I expect a steady increase in maritime crime in West Africa. We, as a company, will carry on as we are and monitor the situation. It is a lot easier when the ships are working rather than sat at anchor where they
are a sitting target. When the survey crew is onboard this heightens security as it doubles the number of people onboard who can help keep watch and such.

For 18 years Tony Foster was in command of company vessels and rose to Senior Master.  In 2008 he came ashore as Marine Safety Superintendent, and also took the dual role of DPA and CSO at Gardline Marine Sciences, where he currently works.

To hear more about the issues discussed here, join the Combating Piracy community at the 2nd Annual Combating Piracy: West African Maritime Security conference, taking place on the 10th & 11th July 2012 in Ghana.

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