Taher Sawliwala is from the Mumbai suburb of Marol, a veteran sea captain of many years commanding commercial vessels with his employer ‘Torm Shipping’ based in Copenhagen, Denmark. He began his maritime career in 1990 and spent extended periods of time at sea before a lengthy stay ashore at home. In this interview we ask him about his life at sea, his experience over the years and on World Oceans Day, his thoughts on the condition of coastal areas around the world.

  1. Share with us a brief account of what it is you do.

I work on board commercial shipping vessels as a Captain. My rank on board the ship is Master. Overall, I am in charge of the vessel and responsible for the safety of the ship and it’s crew.

I’m also responsible for communication with the company, charterers, port authorities and all other external parties. There are two departments on board, one is the Deck and the other is the Engine. I’m the head of the Deck department where there are usually three officers in my assistance. 

  1. What is your routine like on the ship? 

When the ship is sailing out in the open sea, I start my work after breakfast at around 8 am going on till 5 pm, which includes an hour’s break for lunch. Before going to bed, I hand over a memo of night orders for watch keeping officers to clear any underlying issue they might have. So, that’s about a standard everyday routine for me.

During arrivals and departures from port, I take over the navigation from the duty officer and guide the vessel. If the ship is on short sailings, it’s a little bit of a strain as the workload increases tremendously. The entire crew has to be on hand to safely berth and unberth the ship. Hence, the crew prefers a longer sailing so that a regular routine can be set.

  1. Are there any experiences that you would like to share from your long career?

There certainly have been quite a few. Experiencing bad weather is the most frequent one. Added to that are similar experiences of extreme weather anomalies such as severe ice accretion on deck due to freezing conditions, dealing with weather damage, suffering engine failure and that too in the midst of bad weather, etc. I have also experienced stalls due to frozen water surfaces. Once my ship was stuck in the gulf of Finland as the waterbody around it had frozen. It was a bit of a task getting out of that one, but thankfully the port authorities keep icebreaker ships on standby to assist in such situations. It is time consuming, but ice-breakers do turn up and get the job done. One of my most unforgettable experiences was going to rescue refugees at sea off the coast of Libya. 

  1. Being in charge of a cargo vessel, what are the challenges you face in terms of marine life protection and do shipping companies come up with creative solutions to tackle such challenges?

Protection of Marine environment is one of the most important policies of all shipping companies. There are stringent maritime laws (MARPOL Convention) which prohibit pollution. Generally, only food waste is allowed to be discharged at sea and all other wastes have to be collected, segregated on board and offloaded to responsible shore-reception facilities when the vessel is in a port. There are also certain pockets which are designated as ‘Special Areas’ where even the discharge of food waste is prohibited by law.

Ships are regularly inspected by port authorities to check if they comply with regulations, which is generally done by checking the log books and garbage delivery receipts received from shore-reception facilities. Additionally, there are inhouse company inspectors who come on board, on a timely basis and verify that we are complying with regulations.

These maritime laws have ensured that shipping companies become more vigilant in their responsibility towards water bodies. Some companies have installed a  deep freezer in their ships for the storage of food waste. Similarly, designated garbage rooms are provided on board for storage of wastes such as plastics, metals and other types of waste materials which are then dealt with when the ships return to port. In some cases, the company’s policy gives crew members the liberty of dialing a hotline number if confronted with any kind of illegal dumping.

  1. From your experience, what have you learnt about the condition of coastal areas throughout the globe and what needs to be done to alleviate them from their dire conditions?

My work has taken me to ports around the globe from Africa and Europe to North America. I have witnessed coasts with pristine turquoise waters to coasts filled with a flotilla of filth and garbage, the majority of which is plastic. The latter condition is absolutely sickening. 

I think we need to raise more awareness among the masses to avoid using plastic. Governments of such coastal areas should enforce a strict code of conduct near these areas and take stringent action on anyone found violating them. Unfortunately, plastics have pervaded our society to such extremes that its usage has become almost second nature. People need to understand that their one-time use is eventually at the detriment of a large and diverse aquatic ecosystem. 

I think we all need to become more accountable and not treat the ocean like a waste basket. Waste production is unavoidable but responsible waste treatment is entirely possible. We need to treat the ocean as an extended part of our homes. We wouldn’t like strewing pieces of garbage in our homes, why then do it in the ocean?

Even in ships, we need to do more to curtail the environmental hazards posed by some of our customary practices. In Norway, I once had a visitor on board who was investigating the effects of invasive species like microorganisms, pathogens, etc from the ship’s Ballast water (Ballast Water is the dead-weight volume that is poured into the ship after off-loading in order to maintain its balance) in their coastal waters. When the ballast water of one area is discharged in the waters of another port, they damage and at times destroy the flora and fauna of that coast due to these invasive species.

This research has put the impetus on authorities to act and recently new regulations have also been introduced for ships to avoid coastal damage. However, it’s a continuous process and needs to be more universal. 

  1. How do you keep yourself and your crew environmentally conscious when onboard?

When you have concern for something, it manifests in your actions. Our company makes sure to keep us updated with the latest regulations with respect to pollution prevention. Also, the crew undertakes special training sessions wherein they are informed about the different forms of marine pollution. The company also sends an auditor on board half-yearly to check records and to interview all the crewmembers in order to gauge their knowledge and verify that everyone is complying with the regulations.