6 things people don’t understand about shipping

12 September 2019
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A big part of my job as a communications specialist for the shipping industry is explaining our industry to people who find what we do and how we operate hugely confusing (and in fairness, who can blame them?).

Here are six misunderstandings and points of confusion that I encounter regularly:

  1. How can the owner not have anything to do with running the ship? What is a shipmanager? Even people who know a little about shipping often find the role of a third-party manager hard to understand. Add into the mix that there may also be a crew manager, a charterer, a commercial pool, etc. and the confusion increases. If a vessel is involved in a crisis it’s usually best to choose one company to represent the ship to the outside world rather than confusing the situation with multiple distinctions about roles.
  2. It’s a Liberian ship, but it’s never actually been to Liberia, doesn’t have any Liberians onboard and the company isn’t based in Liberia. How does that work? Making comparisons with companies registered offshore can help explain the apparent oddity, but usually not with the most favourable connotations. It’s important to guide people away from the assumption that flag states are in race for the bottom in terms of safety standards, taxes, etc.
  3. Tankers don’t just carry oil? That’s right! Tankers carry wine, vegetable oil, molasses and countless other liquid products. I always enjoy pointing this out to people who come to the conversation with the belief that all tankers are inherently dirty environmental villains.
  4. Why isn’t the “steering wheel” at the front of the ship? Wouldn’t you be able to see better? In some vessels the bridge is near the front (ro-ros, Triple-E container vessels, cruise ships etc.). This confusion probably says more about the general failure to understand the huge range of vessels that make up the world’s merchant fleet than it says about what is otherwise a reasonable and easily answered question.
  5. Wouldn’t it be better if all goods moved by electric train? In some areas (certainly not all) the rail industry has done such an amazing job promoting their efficiency and environmental credentials (accurate when compared to road and air freight) that people assume electric trains are the ultimate in green transport. Because the maritime industry has done comparatively little to promote the efficiency of transport by sea, too many people think of ships only as rusty hulks that are always in the news for causing oil spills.
  6. Watchkeepers must be poorly trained or incompetent, right? How else do you explain all the collisions? After all, ships are big and easy to see, move relatively slowly and the ocean is a big place. Few people today know or have ever even met a merchant seafarer. Misunderstandings about the expertise and training required for a career at sea are common. On the collision front, helpfully, the fact that it can take a couple miles to stop a fully loaded vessel has found its way into most people’s knowledge.

Some of these misunderstandings will have made readers in our industry chuckle or role their eyes in amazement, but the reality is, as an industry we’re not great at talking about ourselves to outsiders so perhaps it’s little wonder that people don’t understand us. As an industry we would be wise to take more time to tell people about who we are and what we do.


Dustin Eno

COO and Crisis Reponse Manager

E: dustin.eno@navigateresponse.com

Twitter: @dustineno

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