Twice in the past month, I turned down the opportunity to make a couple of thousand dollars through oil theft.
This is a slight uptick in our more usual rate of once every 3 months.
Bunker theft has always been with us, probably since the second bunker transfer from one vessel to another. It's a modern day version of cappabar, the centuries-old practice of illegally selling off ship's spares and stores by the crew.
It's an easy thing to do, and, if done sparingly and in small volumes, quite difficult to get caught in the doing.
Bunkering is a dirty, dirty business. There's a stark dichotomy between practices in the US (And Canada &the UK, I would imagine), and practices in the rest of the world.
In the US, a bunker vessel is maneuvered and moored alongside the receiving ship, papers are passed and a pro-forma agreement signed, stipulating how the transfer will proceed. Tax documents, invoices, etc, checklists, Homeland Security paper shields, too depending on where this happens. Caeser gets his rendering, y'know? The formal, universal documentation is the Bunker Delivery Note (BDN), a chain-of-custody document that is also a contract AND invoice, attesting to the volume transferred. To document the volume of oil, we invite the receiving vessel to measure the volume and temperature of the oil in our tanks both before and after transferring the oil (Oil changes volume rapidly, as its' density changes easily with temperature. Knowing the temperature allows you to calculate the density of the oil, and account for expansion of volume, so you can figure out the actual standardized net volume). The difference between the two is the volume transferred and the billable quantity.
In the US, the numbers listed on the BDN are the numbers that will appear on the bill, which is shoreside staff business. My point, however, is that it's all very aboveboard, and there's no shoveling bullshit into the buckwheat. And it works! Maybe one time in 200, the receiving ship will bother send someone down to look for residual oil in our now-empty tanks. Regular visitors often come to trust us, and specifically mention how happy they are to bunker here, 'and not in fucking Singapore.'
Not to say that it's all smooth. Most ships are built and crewed foreign, and trade foreign, as well, so they're used to doing what they need to do to get by. There are standard practices, and almost-standard practices. Bribery being one of the former, for the most part. Many engineers (fueling being in the purview of engineers) try to apply the same practices that work elsewhere when they step foot on my deck.
Aaaaaannd, that shit don't fly here.
Every single engineer who has ever tried to bribe me was either from Russia or Ukraine. Take what you will from that. I always ask, at some point. I'm a people person, and always try to make a little conversation, mostly because I miss sailing long distances, and, just like I know from experience that an Indian assistant engineer is usually afraid to take responsibility for making any decision whatsoever, fit only to carry messages to the Chief, and Eastern European crewmen are more likely to attempt to brain you with a monkey fist if you make them do their jobs, I can generally tell when I'm about to be sounded as to whether or not I'm up for playing Disappearing Bunkers. (Google "Bunker scams" if you want to know more.)
The Disappearing Bunker Scam works simply: As it is most commonly practiced in its' most egregious form, Let's say I was to deliver 400 metric tons of heavy fuel oil to a ship. The engineer comes down with a bottle of whiskey and wink wink nudge nudge, suggests that I transfer 375 tons, which he reports as 400, and I sell off the difference to 'someone' and throw a little cash his way for looking the other way, (and pay off the surveyor, if there is one); OR I transfer the 400 tons, but mark it as 375, change the temperature a little on the paperwork, claim 'heavy bottoms" (meaning I leave extra in my tanks and fake the numbers for my next load), and he gives me a little kickback, just a couple grand, as a thank you.
So, that's what I am occasionally asked to do by these scumbags, and it pisses me off. I learned quickly that blurting out "Are you calling me a fucking thief?" gets me no end of trouble, as the now-butthurt engineer will go to great lengths to find a way to fuck me over. Instead, I have to go into Boy Scout/Astronaut mode and lecture these assbags, and hide behind a more formal, severe demeanor and a quiet,scowling moral authority.Regardless, the whisky, too, is not welcome. Shit's taboo, ever since Exxon tried to blame one of their captains when the officer of the watch on one of their ships crashed into Alaska while he was sleeping in his bed like he was supposed to be.
I happen to like good scotch, so seeing that shit while I'm working is just rubbing my face in it. For the same reason, I don't go to strip bars (anymore).
BUT, there's also the legal Disappearing Bunker Scam. I discovered this last year, while bunkering outside the US. It's apparently a standard business practice, and conspicuous by its' absence, judging by the reaction of the engineers we dealt with.
In the legal Disappearing Bunker Scam, at the completion of the transfer, you 'negotiate' the difference between what they ship says it received, and what the bunker vessel says it transferred. I always can pick out 'honest' engineers who don't regularly bunker in the US. Same thing every time: "Twinty tones shoht, my friend, twinty tones, yis yis." That's their opening position, and they expect me to make a show, like we're in a fucking Egyptian market haggling over some goddamned limes.
This must be a pervasive practice, as I occasionally deal with disgruntled engineers who get pretty bent out of shape when I shrug my shoulders and casually tell them to document any difference with a Letter of Protest if they choose to. (A LOP is a discoverable document explaining the vessel's position on an event. As it holds legal status, asking someone to document any dispute is a fine way to call their bluff. Since I'm 100% honest (not my circus, not my monkeys, why not be honest?)), I demand the same. Once an engineer realizes I won't play his reindeer games, things usually proceed in a surly but aboveboard fashion.
Only once have I been goaded into a heated response, when a ship claimed I shorted him about 20% of his oil. After he had a meltdown on my deck because I told him he got the oil, and to recheck his tanks (this is a nice way to avoid calling someone a fucking liar and let him save face), I was feeling pretty soggy and hard to light, so when I suggested that I'd be happy to sign a Letter of Protest for him, and he demurred in an energetic, angry fashion, I smelled a rat, and said "If you're 100% sure that I'm lying and cheating, give me a letter of protest for it, and you can put your mouth where my money is. This isn't Singapore. It's the US and we don't do that here."
I don't think he got my little play on words, feeble as it was, but it made me feel better. What I really wanted to do was to chase his midget ass up the ladder for lying in my face, but what can you do?
The more I deal with foreign places and foreign business, the more I appreciate things inside our own borders, where the government manages and practices 99% of the thievery and corruption, just like God intended.
For a more nuanced, professional view on bribery by an experienced mariner, check this out:
For any maritime professional who doesn't know the guy, Max Hardberger is one of those rare birds, a master mariner who sailed foreign ships, owned one or two, and is also an Admiralty lawyer. Oh, and he re-steals ships that are illegally detained in foreign ports, too. For a living. Guy's the real deal.
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