One of the least-appreciated professional shields that we carry as tankermen is our adherence to proper procedures in sampling the oil that we carry.
Put another way, properly sampling the oil that we are carrying is absolutely the most powerful means of protecting ourselves from liability claims made against our vessels, our customers, and ourselves... and yet, it's looked at as a pain-in-the-ass routine task... which is fair, as it often is. However, it's an underappreciated part of the laundry list of procedures and competencies that have to be adhered to and seen to in the course of every cargo transfer.
Often, a 3rd party carries out the sampling, in which case there's a temptation to set them loose and handle more pressing matters.
In bunkering, transferring fuel for ships' own use, we handle sampling on the discharge side. Carried out properly, 'good' (accurate representative samples) samples are taken by filling a plastic bag at a slow drip throughout the course of the discharge, and handling chain-of-custody documentation, filling sample bottles at the end of the discharge, sealing them with numbered seals, and ensuring that the documentation is correct, and that we retain some samples, and give some to the ship, to ensure that everyone is on the same page. This all gets done as a matter of routine, but there's a very important procedure to it, as it is a chain-of-custody issue, and potentially, evidence, if there's trouble down the road.
On the shipside, more often than not, once we kick our pumps on, they just start filling up a bag or bottles of the oil, which means that they get whatever was in our pipelines, which is fine, but if it took hours and hours to fill up our tanks, the oil does separate by temperature and any density variation, so what is in the sample bottle may not reflect what is in my tanks.
This is a BIG issue, as ships pay a laboratory to analyze their samples, in case bad fuel causes engine problems later on, which can cost tens of millions of dollars in liability between them, their customers, and the oil supplier.
There's always a temptation to cut corners in any routine procedure. I could cut corners if I wanted.
BUT, every now and again, we get a call where a customer sends a surveyor to pick up one of our little sample bottles because there's an issue- 99 out of 100 times, the laboratory finds that the sample given to them by the ship differs in composition and quality from the specifications that we supplied at the time of transfer. There is no difficulty on the ship side, but for liability's sake, different is bad.
Density, specific gravity, flash point, pour point, water content, heavy metals, solids and sulphur all are found in heavy fuel oil. Sulphur, especially, is rigidly controlled based on where the ship is traveling- many parts of the work have ECA's, regions where the sulphur content is regulated. So if the sulphur is off, God help the ship burning the fuel. On the flipside, low-sulphur fuel is very expensive, so ships often carry low-and-high sulphur fuel, and use it as needed.On top of that, the quality of the fuel is important to know, as it will determine how the engine will perform, and some engines are more sensitive than others. My understanding is that with large slow-speed engines, adjustments can be made to accommodate specific fuel qualities for optimum performance.
And shit happens. I've been on ships where the main engine craps out because of shit fuel. I've also been on a ship where contaminants in the fuel caused excessive smoke, which led to a big to-do with the tree-huggers.
When shit does go wrong, that 1 time in 100, it gets expensive FAST. Ships get delayed, they must pay. Customers don't get their shit on time (90% of all goods are transported by ship), they lose money. The point is someone gotta pay. If the fuel is bad, that means the supplier, our customer, but that actually is exceedingly, exceedingly rare. However, if someone fucks up by the numbers, it's worth the effort to blame someone else.
So, imagine how the customer feels if they're presented with potential problem with their fuel, or, heaven forfend, a multi-million dollar loss, and then they discover that the Domino's boy, the tankerman on the delivery vessel, fucked up the sample procedure somewhere. Their shield and protection, the sample bottles signed, countersigned, and sealed, just went from being their saving grace to the pot in which they're gonna get cooked.
And that shit happens. Look, if the oil is bad coming out of the shore tank, that's not my fault. If I fuck up the sampling, it becomes time to shoot the messenger. Personally, I love making a lateral pass when it comes to accepting liability. The oil quality control isn't in my wheelhouse unless my samples can be called into question. If I can step back and stay the hell out of that kind of fight, I win. The best way to do that is to have rock-solid samples and a reputation for taking rock solid samples. That's not to be despised, either. With that, anything that goes sideways is not my problem.
I love when a problem is not my problem.