The crisis has taken its toll on the Marine sector as a whole and arguably crew members being hit the hardest of all. In times of hardship, it’s important to reflect on the past and also the strides the industry continues to make.
We caught up with a familiar face for many in the P&I marine industry – former Managing Director of North P&I Club, Rodney Eccleston, as he shares how his most recent endeavour has been working in the sector as well as his views on the current situation.
Q: After a long career with North we understand that you have not hung up your boots entirely since retiring in 2009. What have you been up to since then?
Rodney: “Yes it seems a long time ago since I retired as Managing Director at North, having completed thirty six years at the same company. After over twenty years running the company jointly with my colleague and good friend Peter Crichton, I felt it was time to go and leave responsibilities in the safe hands of Paul Jennings and Alan Wilson.
The retirement parties around the world were most enjoyable for me, although sad in some ways as it was saying goodbye to so many people for probably the last time. As Paul often says, I had more farewell appearances than Frank Sinatra!
On announcing my retirement I received a number of part time job offers. I continued as a consultant with North and accepted a position as a Non-Executive Director with a small Lloyd’s broker; both of these continued for about five years. One other approach which caught my interest came from a start-up company based in the North East of England to be known as Roxburgh.
Alongside these work commitments I continue to play golf with Peter Crichton and Alan Wilson who has also joined the ranks of the retired.
With two children and three grandchildren living close by I’m kept quite busy!”
Q: Who are Roxburgh and how do you engage with and assist shipowners and the wider maritime sector?
Rodney: “From a work perspective Roxburgh is now my main interest. I was approached by Lee Stenhouse (CEO) in 2009. Lee and his colleagues were looking to transfer their land based soil mechanics skills into the shipping sector as they had noticed an increasing number of issues relating to the alleged liquefaction of some bulk ore cargoes, such as iron ore fines and nickel. They were looking for a shipping person to help gain entry into the sector.
The shipping industry was facing a substantial problem particularly with iron ore fines from Brazil and nickel ore from Indonesia. Roxburgh believed there was a range of mechanisms affecting the behaviour of the cargoes, not just liquefaction, but there had been almost no credible research undertaken in this area over the preceding years. As such, Roxburgh was asked to lead a very detailed research project on behalf of key stakeholders, such as shippers, IMO (International Maritime Organisation) and insurers, to ascertain why some vessels were encountering a catastrophic loss of stability. This initial research work lead to Roxburgh becoming a leader in the field of ore stability.
Our first major break came from one of my friendly shipping lawyers who was dealing with a chartered in capsize which had been stuck at an anchorage in the Indian Ocean, with a full cargo of iron ore fines for an extended period of time without a solution readily available. The general consensus of the appointed surveyors was the cargo had not been loaded in accordance with the mandatory requirement of the IMSBC Code and was likely to have liquefied on passage. Roxburgh was asked to provide a credible solution as the retained experts could only outline potential problems. Following Roxburgh’s attendance and extensive testing on board, we convinced the Japanese Owners and underwriters that the cargo and ship was safe to sail to the designated disport in China.
Since this first successful case, we have been regularly called in by clubs, lawyers and owners on cases where ships have been stranded in different places around the globe. In addition to our base in Corbridge, Northumberland (20 miles from Newcastle), we also have a base in the Philippines that is fully equipped with testing equipment to respond rapidly to problem cargo cases in South East Asia.
As Roxburgh gained a strong foothold in this ‘liquefaction’ market, we soon recognised one of the main problems faced by owners was that clubs and underwriters were placed in a difficult position because they were confronted by vessels with cargoes which were often deemed as being outside the mandatory provisions of IMSBC Code, thus not insurable in the conventional marine markets. With the vessels often being in “safe” anchorages the General Average ceased and the owners were left to sort out the problem by themselves.
To solve this dilemma we approached a number of Lloyd’s and company underwriters and developed a unique insurance for owners to cover all interests which included Hull, P&I, Charterers, Cargo, Bunkers, FD&D and more. To place the cover, Roxburgh first determines the condition of the cargo throughout its depth profile and benchmarks this cargo against its vast material database, including evaluating the source of origin, underlying geology etc. If Roxburgh considers the cargo is ‘safe to sail’, taking into consideration there is no sliding scale of risk, we will undertake safe voyage planning and then provide specialist monitoring equipment and a riding crew to accompany the vessel for the voyage to the designated disport.
If Roxburgh assesses the cargo is unsafe we can provide solutions in terms of material treatment to make it safe to sail. In recent years clubs and underwriters have often accepted Roxburgh’s ‘safe to sail’ assessment and continued to cover their members vessel often with a Roxburgh riding crew to undertake safe voyage planning and monitor the cargo condition during the voyage to the disport.
Roxburgh also has a strong presence in West Africa, where it acts in a role to test and assess the pre-loading safety of solid bulk ore cargoes, such as bauxite, iron ore, manganese and copper. Our strategy is to persuade shippers to pro-actively communicate with owners pre-loading and act in a responsible and transparent manner with regards to cargo safety. Roxburgh is very comfortable with attaching its brand and cargo safety assessment reputation to a responsible shipper’s material as this provides reassurance to the owner, especially if we have tested the material at our own UK laboratory.
The Roxburgh brand has grown considerably over the last decade - we have experienced geologists, metallurgists, naval architects, a master mariner and a rather elderly ex-P&I executive.”
Q: Looking at the P&I market and Group as a whole, and having been MD of North in 2008/2009 at the peak of the financial crisis, how different do you think things look now (with a particular eye on the COVID-19 pandemic and disruption this is causing to trade and investment markets)?
Rodney: “By the time of the 2008 financial crash, North had wisely reduced its equity holdings substantially so, while the stock markets took a terrible pummelling, the club’s financial security was not hugely affected. I guess, like me, most people were thinking that they were just about recovering from 2008 financial effects when the UK decided to press the Brexit trigger causing more chaos which was swiftly followed by the double whammy of COVID- 19. The recent COVID-19 crisis has really taken its toll particularly with dry bulkers, container vessels and cruise ships. As I write this note in late April 2020, we can see some recovery in the dry bulk and container markets as China opens up, but I think it might be some time before the cruise ships are reactivated. The tanker market seems to have weathered the current storm well so far, presumably because of the drop in oil prices.
But to my mind, as an ex seaman myself, I feel the COVID-19 crisis will hit the crews the hardest of all. I hear stories of crews being kept on board for periods well in excess of their contract periods and being unable to even get a run ashore from time to time due to world-wide restrictions. This is nobody’s fault as, with travel restrictions, owners and managers simply can’t arrange crew changes. The concern on board must always be that someone brings the virus on their vessel while in port and with having to work in relatively cramped conditions, the virus will surely spread very quickly. The mental welfare of the crews must be a concern not only worrying about themselves, but also their families, who they are desperate to reunite with. I was particularly pleased to see that North is offering counselling services for crews, which I’m sure will be of great help.
The clubs as a whole seem to be weathering the storm of COVID-19 pretty well; there was a lot of work put into contingency planning over the years and it’s really paid off with virtually all staff working from home without disruption to service.
I’m sure Paul Jennings, as current Chairman of the International Group, will not be short of subjects to raise at the next Group meeting...or should I say video conference?”
Q: Rather than what keeps you up at night, what gets you out of bed in the morning?
Rodney: “I have to say I sleep very well since I retired, no numbers swirling around in my head or thoughts of how I might respond to Malcolm Godfreys’ latest request for rate reductions! But what gets me up in the morning is usually an early tee time at my local golf course, a short meeting at my Roxburgh office or a run out to the Northumberland coast with my wife.”