I learned a good lesson about the oil shipping industry a few months ago.
For all the talk by mariners, columnists, managers and politicians, when it comes to charting the course of the future of the oil trade, only bankers and shipowners truly matter. Money matters.
for the most part, a single investment bank has a much more important role in shipping than every single mariner in the trade combined. For all that we are needed, sailors are at the very bottom of the totem pole, which makes most of our bloviating just so much noise. At best, we can be useful resources for information. At worst, we are like taxes, merely the cost of someone doing business.
I say all that because I got another good lesson this week, in a related vein.
I'm pretty good at my job. I mean, you can shave a monkey and make a tankerman out of him; I'm not bragging, certainly. A shaved monkey will get a good seal on his respirator, and that, coupled with the presence of a beating heart, is enough to sign a Declaration of Inspection, the founding document at the terminal end of an oil transfer. Those of us who aren't shaved apes often get picked on by being given more challenging work for the same pay as the shaved apes. So it goes. There are benefits, too, though. We can submit useful feedback to the office, and sometimes they even listen to us.
This week we had to do a debunkering. De-bunkering is when a ship has to transfer its' fuel to a fuel barge for some reason. This is done for contaminated, off-specification, or fuel that does not meet the minimum sulfur content required by environmental regulations in some nations. Essentially the fuel needs to be returned to a terminal to be reblended, reformulated, re-refined or stored and given to someone else who CAN use it.
Thing is, when you get heavy fuel oil, the residue sticks to the tank walls and bottom of the tank. This eventually drips down and hardens on the bottom of the tank. We call these 'bottoms' and they are carefully accounted for in our assorted calculations.
Well, we don't want the wrong type of bottoms in our tanks. So, before debunkering I had to come up with a plan for flushing our tanks out, as the supplier did not want to pay for us to spend a week getting our tanks cleaned professionally at the local tank cleaning facility. As such, I came up with a plan that required us to flush the tanks twice with good clean oil (unlike product carriers designed to switch between highly varied oils, we can't self-wash our tanks), but which would result in almost zero bottoms, something we normally can't have this time of year- colder oil congeals on cold steel tank surfaces, and it's chilly these days.
Doing this stuff is a matter of trimming and listing the hull over, to allow semi-congealed oil to slump downhill. Since not all of my tanks have the pump suction sump in the back inboard corner of the tank, sometimes we have to do things like trim us way down by the head, but also to be able to recover from that position and then reverse it, by going down by the stern, or listing over from port to starboard by varying which tanks we pump out of.
Essentially my plan was to shift bottoms around using trim and list that we normally couldn't do, and shift as much bottom oil into a particular tank that I can pump out better than others. This required I reload twice, which was doubly adventitious, as I got to flush my tanks clean twice too. There was no way to do what I wanted to do by flushing just once.
Not rocket science, just good basic tank vessel ops. And my gosh, you'd think I asked for gold leaf paint, caviar, a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle and a footrub.
Our office gets to be Lucky Pierre, stuck in the middle in talking with the oil company. I don't speak to the oil company directly. I am a mushroom. So our shore ops guy gets to get yelled at on both ends.
Can you do x instead? No, we can't. We'd gain on bottoms.
OK, the customer says let's do Y. No, we can't. We'd gain on bottoms and it wouldn't flush the last tank.
Ah, OK. We'll do X, then. Very good.
No, no, we don't want bottoms containing that oil. The next time we use that tank, we don't want to blend it into the new fuel.
OK, We'll do y, but this time we'll just use less oil on the flush.
*Facepalm* That's even worse! Look, if they can suggest a better way than what I came up with, lets' hear it. Otherwise, after 20+ years of these sorts of thing, maybe just listen to what I had planned to do?
OK, very good. Let's do your plan. 2 cargo flushes for each tank.
...and, at the end of the first flush "OK, great, all done. See you next time." "Wait, what about the second flush?" "What second flush?"
Phone calls, and now it's 3am, and the night ops guy has no idea what is going on, and we have to take a few hours explaining things, so he can explain it to the night guy at the customer's company, who also has no idea what is going on. Because of course the oil company didn't want to do the second flush.
End result, we got our second flush and it did exactly as planned, reducing bottoms by 75%.
Thing is, I knew what to do, and I get that the shaved apes don't. I get that the presence of shaved apes makes an oil company turn a gimlet eye at suggested plans that cost money. They don't know me, or trust me to optimize a plan. They want to save time and money. Now, my company's ops guy knows me, and also knows that the oil company just wants this problem to go away without costing them time or money, and therefore will not be willing to part with either. I just want to save time and be efficient so I don't go home at the end of the month in a frustrated rage.
Like with shipping in general, money determines who has the power. The resistance to my plan the other day wasn't because it was expensive or slow. It was because it was MY plan, not theirs, and a certain contrary nature on their part. They don't want other people telling them what the best plan is when they are being forced into doing anything at all. They want their plan it seems. And that's fine, if it's a good plan, or even workable. It's a good reminder that the guy in the field has little power or agency no matter what benefit experience may provide. It's not unlike listening to the maritime crew unions talk about the future of shipping. The future is what the people with the checkbook says it is. And while that sounds pretty pessimistic, it makes sense. The guy who cleans the toilets doesn't usually have a board seat at the office. I get that my purview ends at the handrails around the perimeter of my deck. It doesn't bother me that I have little say about what happens ashore. It was a bit silly that I had to negotiate so much to get clean tanks, when the negotiations took longer than the fix.