High on the list of uselessness, are ashtrays for motorbikes, cat flaps for elephant farms, and sidecars for locomotives.

Who could forget the other useless mandatory maritime items such as the double acting manual pump with ferrous shafts that even if they were not frozen solid with rust, couldn’t prime anyway.

What about the whistle on a lifejacket? Can you imagine the pilot of a rescue helicopter with padded earphones, a 500 horsepower engine above his head and huge rotors creating an almighty din, saying to the co-pilot “hang on, is that a lifejacket whistle I’ve just heard?”

The mandatory use of asbestos lining as a structural fire protection may have saved a few seafarers lives. But this was dwarfed by the huge amount of shipbuilders’ lives that were lost through a slow and painful death with asbestosis. I know it well, my dad was one of them. It took thousands of lives before the regulators reversed the ruling and prohibited the use of asbestos.

Then there’s Gross and Net Tonnage, another pinnacle of marine stupidity, already causing loss of lives and likely to cost more

Over 200 years ago, in an attempt to tax the industry on goods carried by sea, these volumetric formulae were devised as a reasonable basis for the various charges of port dues, pilotage and berthage.

All of the ships in those days were short, beamy, relatively slow with high bows and poop decks at the stern, to prevent a heavy bow or stern sea from crashing down on them, swamping them or ”pooping” them.  Don’t believe me? Just look at the Christopher Columbus’s vessels and Captain Cook’s Endeavour

In the last 35 years the industry has seen the advent of “paragraph” ships being computer designed to optimise the revenue earning deadweight. But to comply with GRT paragraph sizes, you have to reduce total volume, so the only target is above deck volume to limit the vessel’s “gross tonnage” and “net tonnage”. Most of today’s ship designers have never been at sea in a ship, certainly not a small ship in heavy weather.  Subsequently poop decks disappeared and these paragraph ships of 99 GRT, 499 GRT, 999 GRT, 1499 GRT all had maximum earning capability but with frighteningly small reserve buoyancy.

The Mediterranean saw the first of these small paragraph container feeders being pooped, capsized and lives lost.  Then it occurred again and again, before the Courts of Inquiry determined that “the pursuit of a reduced GRT” was indeed the root cause of the tragedies by the elimination of raised poop decks and sterns.

The GRT regulations certainly motivated the shift in thinking of designers in removing reserve buoyancy not only on poop decks, but foc’stles as well.  Certainly the disappearance of the huge British bulk carrier Derbyshire in heavy weather in 1980 was due in part because of the lack of a foc’stle, allowing storm waves to impact on the forward hatches. The hatch covers can fail not only due to static pressure, but under dynamic loading as well. Breaking or plunging waves impacting the covers can generate very steep pressure impulses. Even for mild steel this can lead to brittle fractures. The steep impulse is called the gifle peak, and evidence of this type of fracture has been found in Derbyshire’s wreckage.   

Why would any prudent designer or regulator allow a ship without a foc’stle and a raised stern?  Just look at the internet pictures of the wave profile on the Derbyshire’s hull.  Blind Freddie could see that a foc’stle would have certainly helped the situation, and may indeed have saved the lives of the 44 seamen that were killed.  Why would Naval Architects and regulators remotely agree to eliminate raised bows and sterns that were considered essential ingredients for ship safety for the previous two thousand years?  The answer is GRT, the written Law, and the Law is an ass.

But GRT and NRT have been obsolete as sensible financial benchmarks since the shipment of barrels ceased 150 years ago. Even the Panama Canal Authority, free of the US controlling shackles, eliminated the transit charges being based on the (much abused rules by the US) GRT and NRT as they found it useless in trying fit various GRT sized vessels in canal locks.  They subsequently have reverted their cost base to length of vessel

Parking your pleasure boat in any Marina in the world, they are not interested in your GRT or NRT but on the amount of marina berth you are occupying, i.e. your vessel’s length.

25 years ago the various Australian State Governments agreed on the “uniform” shipping Laws Code (USL Code) which saw the departure of GRT and NRT as the benchmark for manning, equipment and stability, and the introduction of a sensible length based code for vessels up to 80 metres.

Four years ago, the Dutch Government, after much prodding of their consciences by the prominent Naval Architect Ernst Vossnack, have agreed to take the fight to eliminate GRT and NRT to IMO. My friend Mr Vossnack has since passed away and the efforts seem to have died with him

Michael Grey of Lloyds List also comments “I am also sure there will be some oomph given to the campaign against GRT by the pictures of all these containerships shedding forty-footers like autumn leaves in the current winter gales”.

Having read all of the above, one would question why would Flag States continue to use GRT or are they just too ignorant and arrogant to change the status quo? Why not make the relevant fees based on length?.

Would you describe your girlfriend or wife as a 0.74NRT brunette?

Would you describe your 35 foot pleasure boat as a 22GRT cruiser?

Even Insurance underwriters should be thumping the table on this one

Why would IMO Member States not pause to consider removing obsolete and dangerous pieces of legislation, instead of their continual rush to introduce new rules?  Perhaps they cannot differentiate between Gross Tonnage with Gross incompetence. The fallibility in some leadership is very trying, as they could spill so much of other people’s blood.

I would rather fight with a regulator than lose the life of one of my seafaring friends

I would encourage any marine participant to stand up and be counted on this issue.

Author: Stuart Ballantyne, Managing Director of Sea Transport Solutions who offer specialist marine design and consulting services in the construction of commercial, military and pleasure vessels. STS designs are currently operating in 45 countries worldwide.