Conflict Resolution, Pirate Style

“Hey, Nic: don’t lean on that safety line!”
I flinched back — I’d been about to lean on the safety line. “Why not?”
The answer was short: “We cut the lashings.”

I stared at my shipmates through the driving rain and spray. With the howling wind, maybe I’d misheard them. The railing was only 20 centimetres high, and we were sailing through a gale. That safety line was all that kept us from falling overboard. In that weather, mid-ocean, falling overboard would be a death sentence.

“You cut the lashings on the safety line?”
They nodded, as if that were the most reasonable thing in the world.
“Well, we’ve warned everyone except X.”

I understood. I didn’t agree with their methods, but I understood. X, an officer, had been bullying and harassing the deckhands continuously for nearly eight months. With 16 people on a 20 metre ship, he’d finally pushed some of the crew too far. If X fell overboard at night, even in calm weather, we’d never get him back. And it wasn’t calm weather.
“X still has an emergency beacon.”
“We took the batteries out while X was asleep.”

That was my first real experience with the real-world consequences of poor social skills (on the part of the officer) combined with poor leadership (on the part of the captain) at sea. In that instance, I managed to replace the EPIRB batteries, secure the safety line, and convince my crew that, while definitely appealing, murder was not the best solution to the problem.

It’s been over 20 years since that first experience. It wasn’t the last time.

“Murders regularly occur offshore — thousands of seafarers, fishermen or sea migrants die under suspicious circumstances annually, maritime officials say — but culprits are rarely held accountable.”

Ian Urbina, The Outlaw Ocean

I stared into the cargo hold as the stevedore foreman sidled up to me. 
“Got cash?” he asked.
“We’ve all chipped in $X each. If your lot all put in the same, we can arrange an accident for Y [the chief officer (CO)] next time he goes up the road.”

They only had to work with that CO for one or two days a month; I’d been stuck with him 24/7 for 7 months. I was unsurprised to hear that the CO had “had an accident” shortly after I left the ship. He survived, or so I’m told.
In his excellent book “The Outlaw Ocean”, Ian Urbina claims, “Murders regularly occur offshore — thousands of seafarers, fishermen or sea migrants die under suspicious circumstances annually, maritime officials say — but culprits are rarely held accountable.”

Officially, of course, violence is discouraged. People who work in shipping offices ashore and go home to their families every night write procedures for “interpersonal conflict” on board. Because they know exactly how it works in the real world. Their real world, at least.

In our world, professional seafarers do a 3-hour course on “Personal Safety and Social Responsibility.” If you’re fortunate enough to have never done the course, it includes such gems as:

  • Wash regularly, and brush your teeth after meals
  • Do as you’re told, and use personal protective equipment
  • If you have a problem with another crew member, talk to them over a coffee. If that doesn’t work, follow the guidance in your ship’s procedures.

Early in my career, I found myself at knife point after a disagreement over how many coats of paint to put on something or other. At the time, I was incredulous. “Sit down and talk it out over coffee,” seemed just as impossible as, “Call an officer, and they’ll sort it out.” At some point in my career, the situation no longer seemed strange. That should have been a warning.

We’d just arrived, and were securing mooring lines. Looking over the side of the ship, I signalled my AB (deckhand) to heave a line tight. Nothing happened. I turned around.
My usually unflappable AB held the CO by the throat.
The AB stated, very calmly, his tone even, “If you call me a useless black c%#t one more time, I’ll come to your cabin, rip your balls off, and shove them down your throat. Do you understand?”
At the CO’s terrified nod, the AB shoved him across the deck, turned back to me, and said, “Sorry, Nic. Was that heave away?”
I nodded mutely, and we finished securing the mooring lines. That CO left the ship. Maybe he learned from the experience; knowing him, I’m almost certain he didn’t.

More than once, on miserable ships during long night watches, I’ve contemplated murder. It’s easy to arrange an accident on a ship. If you have a bad boss at the office, you can walk away, go home in the evening. In most cases, you don’t have to live with them for months on end, with no escape, and no outside support. So far, my plans have stayed in the realm of fantasy.

The usually grumpy ship’s agent came up our gangway, laughing. He’d just come from the ship astern of us. On arrival, they’d reported two crew members missing, presumed lost overboard during a storm. When the crew opened the hatches in preparation for cargo operations, they found the two bodies down a booby hatch (access hatch) with stab wounds in their backs. The agent’s laughter was because the police had, “…decided to treat the deaths as suspicious.”

When this was discussed in our mess room over dinner, the unanimous response was that the murderer was an idiot: if he’d thrown the bodies overboard during the storm, it would barely have been investigated. To the best of my knowledge, no-one was charged with the murders.

The Sage Sagittarius is famous–or infamous. There were three suspicious deaths on board the ship, including the superintendent who was sent to investigate the first two deaths, yet no-one was ever charged. Sometimes, such as in the case of Akhona Gevezaeven , even the investigation is questionable.

Which country should be responsible for the investigation? The country in which the murder occurred? The flag state? The missing seafarer’s country? The authorities at the next port? It’s very easy to pass the buck around and, in the end, who ashore really cares about a (generally foreign) seafarer? As long as your Amazon orders arrive in time for Christmas, seafarers don’t matter. As long as you don’t know–or don’t care–nothing will change.

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