An increasing numbers of ships' captains are caught inebriated in German waters. Drinking at the helm poses a serious safety hazard, but port authorities are often powerless. Politicians now want to tighten rules.
Hanging sozzled over a ship's mast isn't a good sign
Steering bulky and enormous modern-day container ships is no joke. Their skippers need skill, good nerves and a steady hand to get them safely in and out of harbor .
The collision between the "ENA 2" and another ship in the Hamburg harbor last June which led to massive pollution of the river and the dying of fish.
The captain of the "ENA 2" however didn't seem to possess those qualities when a year ago his ship rammed another vessel on the Elbe river near Hamburg, resulting in the spillage of 960 tones of sulphuric acid into the river (photo).
The captain was found to have been drinking heavily and was way over the legally permitted alcohol limit for sea captains.In such cases of drunken steering, shipping authorities are usually only able to impose a ban on a ship's captain after an accident, and the ban is often only temporary, despite blood alcohol content levels frequently being measured at over 0.2 percent.
Rum-swigging captains only a romantic myth
The Hamburg case however drew the attention of German politicians, who point out that the incident was by no means an isolated one and warn it could happen any time in any port.
"In recent years the number of reported cases of alcohol consumption has tripled. We have a real and growing problem here," said Rainder Steenblock, an MEP of the Green party in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein. "We have to take action. It's our duty as politicians. We
shouldn't be misled by the romantic image of hardy seafarers and rum swigging captains."
A view of the Hamburg harbor.
One idea being floated is to conduct more spot checks. At present, it is only when a crew enters or leaves the country that the police might check whether a captain is sober enough to be on duty.
Other politicians are calling for the legal limit for the blood alcohol content of ships' captains to be reduced and for alcohol consumption to be banned completely on ships carrying dangerous freight. Anyone caught drinking on the job would lose his license.
But some captains themselves think the reaction is overblown. Polish captain Jacek Pochylski thinks such measures are unnecessary and says times have changed, and most captains and ship owners already behave responsibly without strict laws and controls.
"It depends of course on the character of each person. This is not an easy job, a lot of stress," Pochylski said. "But anyway, just now it's much better then 10 or 11 years ago. Before each contract, not only master but every crewmember had to sign a special drug and alcohol policy."
Pochylski is supported by a group of sailors relaxing at the seaman's mission at the Hamburg harbor. The odd glass of beer is a customary pleasure. Here, and not on board, the men emphasize. And that holds for their captains as well.
"I have never known a Polish captain to be drunk at the helm," said one while another added that he too had never experienced an inebriated captain.
"It's becoming less and less. Especially important people like captain or chief officer - they are taking special care not to get drunk," a third said.
Zero tolerance soon?
Nonetheless, the harbor police in Hamburg say that tighter laws regulating alcohol consumption at sea is a good idea.
"I would be in favor of lowering the legal limits as far as possible," said Frank Blumenritt, a police officer. "Though I doubt we really need random spot checks, independent of any signs that a particular individual is actually drunk."
Even captain Jürgen Umland, who has a spanking clean record himself, admitted that stories abounded about black ship at the helm. "I hear about ships running aground, collisions, near-misses - or of captains reeking of alcohol when they are checked," he said.
Captains may not be likely to hear those dreaded words, "Pull over please" and be subjected to random breathalyzer tests.
But, zero tolerance or something approaching that appears increasingly likely.