Strange and terrible things can happen at sea, that wavy wilderness where imagination can run deep and myths spawn like eels in the Sargasso Sea. 


Bermuda triangles, those semi-aquatic black holes, swallow ships and aeroplanes, monsters lurk in dark depths waiting for their Hollywood auditions and continent-sized whirlpools of garbage threaten to drag humanity down in a vortex of its own filth. A flotsam flotilla of yellow plastic ducks circumnavigates the globe, forever searching for their legendary bathtub, observed in their peregrination by a giant white whale. 


Now to maritime mythology has been added not just a ghost ship but one “infested by giant, cannibal rats” and that is heading towards any country on the Atlantic eastern seaboard with a mischievous media and an appetite for far-fetched but droll stories. 


The tenuous connection with reality appears to have been the “disappearance” of an old ship that had last been employed trying but apparently failing to make money out of people whose idea of fun was to sail to frozen, iceberg-strewn backwaters, otherwise known as “polar regions”. 


Quite how the ship, after a towline broke on its last voyage to the shipbreakers, disappeared remains unclear. If it did actually disappear (i.e. the outside world lost track of it), that would suggest that, for all the spy satellites and tracking devices, ships on the high seas can become ghosts, phantoms fleetingly seen as they emerge briefly from their phosphorescent limbo. 


Still, it is no more fantastical, albeit definitely more amusing, an idea than that of one ship owner being able to corner the VLCC market, as portrayed in a recently published “novel”. Similarly, the idea of a Norwegian female officer working on a non-Norwegian rustbucket of a small tanker that falls prey to hijackers strains credibility in another “novel”. 


Nor perhaps should the idea that it is the International Standards Organisation which is responsible for anti-pollution laws at sea, as another recent but purportedly factual book claims, be dismissed as counter-factual. Perhaps the International Maritime Organization is simply the ISO at sea. 


The same author, who had sailed on two containerships in order to research his book, also appears to believe that the Master of one told him shipping safety is governed by something called SOLAS that stands for the Society for Saving Lives at Sea, although, pedants might argue, that spells SSLAS. 


While the idea of a modern-day Mary Celeste haunting the high seas, complete with its obligatory complement of rats that evolve into giant, cannibal rodents, as though there could be no other, has entertainment value, the true story, albeit so farcical it bordered on fantastical, of the “climate change” research ship that became stuck in Antarctic ice was no less entertaining in its inadvertently satirical portrayal of human folly. 


Here was a vessel specially chartered by experts to demonstrate the reality of a theory that came unstuck. Seeking to reveal how the ice was rapidly melting as a result of man-made climate change, the scientists and accompanying tourists and reporters on a Russian oceanographic research vessel had to be rescued by a Chinese icebreaker that in turn got stuck in ice that seemed to be unable or unwilling to follow the script. 


In the political arena the climate change contest involves some of the most vicious but confused combat short of actual war. The public watch it drag on, soon becoming bored but, in understandable ignorance, remaining unsure as to either who is winning or whom to support, if any. Some who have suffered floods, bushfires or typhoons may seek a target to blame: governments are easier to hit than a nebulous concept. Others, worried by energy bills, may be offered an alternative scapegoat in corporate greed. 


Ship owners, like their counterparts in other industries deemed to be the biggest sources of carbon emissions, are more directly interested in the varying fortunes of the climate-change combatants. While government policies on carbon emissions may subject individual consumers to higher energy costs for the present and immediate future, shipping faces the prospect of expensive and irreversible carbon-reducing measures, regardless of whether or not the climate change debate is decided one way or the other. 


In the climate change debate facts and figures have been emitted at possibly the highest rate since dubious records began. “Facts”, whether from governments, their opponents or experts with ambiguous positions, have, of course, to be taken with more than a pinch of salt. Relying on the media as a more trustworthy source of information is not recommended. “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story” is a maxim attributed to Mark Twain, itself not a real name. “Don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers” is an equally valid piece of advice often given to truth-seekers. 


In shipping, market data and statistics are available from competing sources, none of whom can legitimately claim a monopoly on truth or authority bestowed by some omniscient power. One can but pay and take one’s chances that one is better informed than another who believes exactly the same. 


Like flotsam on the oceans, facts are at the mercy of conflicting tides of subjective interpretation, prevailing winds of wisdom and currents of contemporary politics. History is continuously revised and science regularly rethought. Fiction, despite some blurring that has produced the hybrid known as “faction”, generally remains the preserve of the occasionally feverish imagination. 


A drifting ghost ship full of cannibal rats is for some more than a diverting tale. It is a maritime metaphor for whatever they happen to see as an accident or even disaster waiting to happen. Any organisation or institution that appears to be drifting and leaderless can be a ghost ship (giant cannibal rats optional). 


Traditionally, such a ship is always heading for the rocks, or, when hubris is the officer of the watch, an iceberg. As ever, the cautious Master must keep a careful eye on the weather but, as yet, there is no metaphor collision avoidance system. 


Author:  Andrew Guest who is a freelance journalist.                             Source: BIMCO