Courage and Conviction – Cargo Hold Cleanliness Inspections

23 Sep 2021 11:31 AM | The Institute (Administrator)

After surveying cargo holds for the carriage of alumina for almost 20 years, I believe I have earned the right to express an opinion on this vexatious subject. Of course, there are many other cargoes that require similar cargo hold cleanliness inspection; nonetheless, all such inspections require the same courage and conviction to achieve the appropriate outcome.

For the sake of this article, I will first address “official hold cleanliness inspections”, not the variously named pre-cargo, advisory or whatever that have become commonplace in today’s shipping industry. I will burst this festering sore at the end of the article.

COURAGE noun: the ability to do something that frightens one; bravery.

In the context of cargo hold cleanliness inspection, I believe that courage means ‘strength in the face of a challenge’. The challenge to which I refer is that of doing the job properly weighed against the pressures placed upon the surveyor, by not only the numerous concerned parties, but the overall gravity of the situation. I hear many of our more experienced members scoff, however, if hold cleanliness inspection standards are to be maintained, we must educate those coming through the ranks about how their decisions will impact affected parties, and how to remain objective and ethical. We should not underestimate the myriad pressures experienced by surveyors when faced with these decisions.

Naturally, there are many situations where cargo holds are clearly suitable or unsuitable – these are probably the easier jobs. There is little question over the condition or the resulting decision of the surveyor. Let’s not dwell here.

Finding holds unsuitable to carry a particular cargo (some prefer to say failed) will trigger a chain of events that often goes around the globe. There will be many questions asked, so ensure that sound evidence is gathered. High quality photographs will be essential in supporting your decision. For some parties, it is about covering their butt, ensuring the cargo will not be contaminated or damaged in transit; for others it is purely business, all about money.


In overall terms, there is potential for huge costs and substantial disruption to logistics, in some cases P&I Clubs will be brought in to resolve disputes arising from a negative hold cleanliness finding.

Okay, so I have probably embellished this story a little, however, consideration must be made for the complexities that exist behind the scenes and, consequentially, the thoughts that exist in a surveyor’s mind as they are inspecting the holds. Is there an existing arrangement between the surveyor or his employer and one of the concerned parties, and if so, how could this influence the decision made by the surveyor? Are there any undeclared conflicts of interest? Can the surveyor provide an impartial assessment of the cargo holds? Will the surveyor maintain an ethical approach to the job when it has potential to affect a business relationship with one of the parties? Is the surveyor’s employer supportive; is the surveyor overwhelmed and wanting to get the job done as soon as possible? Perhaps the surveyor is simply lazy and knows he will get paid for making the easy decision. Perhaps there is an arrangement with a third party that conducts hold cleaning and a ‘failure’ will be beneficial.

When cargo holds are passed as suitable to carry a cargo, everyone is happy, pressure on the surveyor dissipates, the tension in their shoulders is relieved, and the ship’s crew, Master and Owners collectively sigh relief.

This is often the easy way out. The path of least resistance. No courage required! I am not saying that all holds passed are undeserving; on the contrary, I believe most cargo holds are presented well, generally ready for the intended cargo and in need of little, if any, improvement to meet suitable standard.

Experience dictates that most vessels will prepare cargo holds to suitable standards – the stakes are high, shipping is competitive, reputation is important, future business is on the line, but passing cargo holds can require courage.

This brings me to those cargo holds that may be borderline. Pluck up the courage to do good work! Put aside your fear of failure, remain objective, be practical, consider the cargo, how it will be loaded and how it will be discharged. All these things will dictate your decision, but you must have the courage to make that decision. To make a judgement call. To back your experience.

This leads us to the question of experience. How do we gain experience, and how long does it take to become experienced?

CONVICTION noun: a firmly held belief or opinion.

Firstly, let us examine what you believe. Do you believe that a job should be done well, ethically, and in a manner that will provide the appropriate outcome? If you answer yes to this question, then you will likely seek to equip yourself with as much knowledge as possible, continuously learning and striving to understand more, building upon your expertise to become experienced. This sounds like a life- long journey, and in many ways, it is just that; however, with the right training, good mentors, critical thinking skills, the right aptitude, and a thirst for knowledge, it is possible to gain the experience to make appropriate decisions, feel confident with your decisions. From here in it is all about opinion!

Once you gain the experience and feel confident in your beliefs, you are equipped for the next stage – decision based upon opinion. This is where we start to feel that we speak with authority; we make logical argument to back our opinions and provide sound reasoning to rebut opposing arguments. Although this is challenging for many surveyors as they learn their craft, technology enables them (in most cases) to call a friend. A second opinion, a close-up photo via SMS, exchanging opinions can provide much comfort to our members who are still making their way.

So, what have we discovered on this brief journey – spend time with good mentors, absorb their knowledge, remain objective, think about what you need to achieve, be always ethical! Maintain the conviction to excel and apply those convictions with courage.

Now we come to the subject of pre-cargo or advisory surveys conducted at anchorage that are now more or less the norm for many sensitive cargoes loaded in Australia, particularly alumina and grain cargoes. This has reached the point in some cases where shippers are engaging with charter parties mandating such inspections at owners cost, irrespective of the actual vessel condition. I have personally attended vessels on maiden voyages, vessels returning for same cargo, etc, with such vessels generally considered very low risk in the past.

Despite the apparent value that this has provided in alleviating vessels being found unsuitable at berth and the raft of issues highlighted earlier in this article that can result from such events, it has equally created a whole new industry that opens many doors to unethical operators who are focussed more on the business potential than the benefits to the shipping industry. Vessels are being failed at anchorage and further pre-inspections are being recommended, often where issues identified during initial inspection were readily addressed. This is plainly a breach of trust and most unethical, however, such practices persist.

Additionally, vessels that have been pre- inspected are found wanting when they do berth, raising questions as to the competence as a way to kill two birds with the one stone – a pre-inspection and FTL certificate at the same time, pending vessel passing FTL of course; however, because the AO inspection must be conducted at berth (except as above), the FTL surveyor is unlikely to be in attendance with AO inspectors as nobody wants to pay for this to happen. I do not agree with this practice and firmly believe that FTL and AO inspections should happen simultaneously to ensure best practice and oversight for and of inspecting parties. Pre-inspections for grain loading should remain just that!

It is often the case that one thing leads to of the pre-inspecting surveyor. Some of these persons are operating outside of the AIMS membership, providing little recourse to address the issue through the institute, but the practices continue – are these operators offering cut price services or are they just plainly incompetent? All members should call out such poor practices at every opportunity, lest our profession will never obtain the recognition it deserves and may slide into the murky depths that we currently associate with some Asian and South American ports. Half the battle is to get governments, ship owners, charterers, and shippers onboard to condemn unethical practices across the globe.

A further, albeit logical extension of moves towards pre-inspection is the conducting of “official surveys” at anchorage. The alumina trade appears to have resisted this move so far, however, the grain trade has taken to it like a Bosun to a bottle of Bundy! Not only is holds cleanliness, known as ‘Fitness to Load’ certification (FTL) being conducted at anchorage, but in particular parts of Western Australia, Authorised Officer inspections are also undertaken. It is an obvious game- changer for shippers wishing to load vessels immediately upon berthing; however, owners are now insisting on anchorage FTL inspections another. In 1687 Isaac Newton’s 3rd Law proposed that “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”. Why is it that more than 330 years later we keep doing things with little consideration of the consequences?

This is by no means a complete discussion of hold cleanliness, suitable standards and all that surrounds the process – perhaps that is for another day, and there are lots of opinions to consider along the way. I understand that some of what I say in this article may upset some people, however, I have reached this point in my life journey with both courage and conviction. 

Until next time,

John Holden

Vice President

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