Stock of homegrown ship officers dries up

With the world’s largest commercial shipping fleet and a maritime tradition stretching from Odysseus to Onassis, it is perhaps ironic that Greece today has trouble inspiring its youth to take to the sea. And yet despite boasting a fleet of some 3,500 ships – 700 of them flying the national flag – in an industry that accounts for 7 percent of the country’s GDP, this is precisely the problem faced by Greek shipowners. In the historic Greek shipping center of Piraeus, a port city next to Athens, companies can sometimes spend months hunting down captains and engineers, says Admiral Costas Prokopis, a member of the Greek shipowners’ union (EEE). «A captain’s conventional pay is 5,000 euros ($6,270) per month spent at sea, but the salaries we’re currently negotiating are between 8,000 and 10,000 euros,» adds Evangelos Kouzilos, chairman of the union of Greek captains. The sector’s booming growth, accompanied by the building of newer, more complex vessels, has created desperate demand for competent officers. But supply has failed to keep up with this demand, reflecting a trend prevalent across Europe. Not only is there an acute shortage of Greek officers, but the number of Greek sailors has also fallen in the last 25 years from 100,000 to 30,000, industry insiders say. Even traditional hubs, such as the islands of Chios and Andros have dried up, observes Prokopis at the Greek shipowners’ union. «When the quality of life improves on land, the sea ceases to attract,» he says. «Time spent on board has become more and more thankless,» adds Kouzilos, pointing to growing paperwork and dwindling periods spent in port. «Instead of several weeks, this time has now been reduced to a day or two,» he says. A reliable supply of sailors has been found in low-pay hands from Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, but no such alternative exists for officers, whose numbers reflect a global shortage of 10,000 according to a 2005 report published by the International Federation of Sailors. Would-be skippers are further discouraged from pursuing a career at sea because tougher European Union laws against pollution-causing accidents threaten officers with prosecution, argues the EEE, a diligent critic of the EU’s regulation drives. In Greece in particular, the case of Greek oil tanker captain Apostolos Mangouras, who was jailed in Spain in the aftermath of a massive environmental catastrophe in 2002, still jars. «Admittedly, Greek shipowners could switch to hiring Filipino, Indian or Chinese officers,» says EEE international affairs director Anna Bredima. But with Greece in direct competition with Asian powers for naval dominance, such a move would amount to commercial suicide, she notes. Going for Greek officers also makes sense when it comes to dealing with stepped-up port security, Bredima adds. «Imagine the treatment a Muslim captain from India would receive at an American port,» she says. The job’s mortality rate is also a consideration for newcomers: With 250 sailors lost at sea in 2004 alone, shipowners ought to factor the comfort and safety of their crews into their plans, argues Nic Wilmot, vice president of insurance firm Gard AS.