Glimpses of greed in maritime Manila (real-life stories)

Glimpses of greed in maritime Manila (real-life stories)

There is a culture of greed in maritime Manila which reminds me of Gustave Doré‘s drawing (pictured above) of the greedy and indulgent pushing rocks in Dante’s Inferno. The caption reads:

Not all the gold that is beneath the moon,
Or ever hath been, of these toil-worn souls
Might purchase rest for one.

~ Canto VII., lines 65-67.

Not all have succumbed to the greed. I have known a few spirits whose kind-heartedness and generosity have helped preserve my faith in humanity. However, many folks, particularly in Manila’s manning community, have capitulated to Mammon, to the siren call of money. The following are two of my personal encounters with them, both excerpted from my e-book, Close Encounters in Maritime Manila:

Encounter 1: A journalist in love with money

I remember one afternoon when I had coffee with Ms. K. in the lobby of a large hotel in Manila. She was a journalist who had previously worked in Hong Kong. Given her background and evident interest in culture, I started hoping that we could become good friends. I even entertained the idea that we were kindred spirits whose paths were fated to cross.

After coffee, we walked together toward the block of flats where she lived, which was some distance away. The sun was almost setting by the time we reached the narrow road leading to her place, so I offered to treat her to an early dinner at a restaurant.

It did not take long for our orders to be laid on the table. We did not talk much as we partook of our meal. After we stepped out of the eatery, I was walking two steps ahead of her when she suddenly quickened her pace and tugged at my arm.

“Do you know how much tip you gave the waiter?” she asked. I thought it strange that she would bring up the matter.

“I think I gave 50 pesos,” I replied, a little embarrassed.

The amount was equivalent to a little less than one U.S. dollar and about ten per cent of our bill. It seemed to me quite reasonable. But after seeing the expression on her face, a look that said I had tipped excessively, I muttered something about the food being excellent and the waiter giving commendable service. That calmed her down, but it was silly that I had to explain a trivial matter involving money.

I felt like the protagonist in the novel L’Étranger (The Stranger) by the French author and philosopher, Albert Camus: an outsider, a cultural misfit, a spiritual expatriate in my own country. At that moment, I saw Ms. K. gradually recede, the gulf that separated us widening and widening until she shrank to a dot on the horizon, like a ship that had departed. It was a friendship that was never meant to be. (from CHAPTER 1: The Great Money Chase)

Encounter 2: A grasping manning agent

I hate to use a colourful Filipino term but it describes many Filipinos, rich and poor alike: patay-gutom. The expression, a combination of patay (dead) and gutom (hungry), literally means a greedy person who acts as though he or she is close to starvation. Its connotes a strong craving for money or material gain coupled with a strong fear of being deprived.

The word is offensive and grating to the native ear, but it would cross my mind after I was invited by Captain F. to the blessing of his manning company’s new offices.

Captain F. had as one of two guests of honour Mr. H, a manning executive known to all and sundry. Office blessings are usually stodgy affairs, but this one had a fascinating twist. After the priest sprinkled holy water in the rooms upstairs, company staff and guests trailing behind him with lighted candles, everyone walked back down to the lobby for the traditional tossing of the coins.

Lo and behold, Mr. H. was the first to dash for it. He was down on all fours, grinning as he picked up the coins scattered on the floor and put them in the pocket of his elegantly tailored business suit.

The popular belief is that the more coins you catch during the blessing ceremony, the greater the fortune in store for you. But surely, I thought, one need not appear so undignified when seeking prosperity and good luck from the gods. The sight of Mr. H. gathering up the coins like a starved capuchin monkey was forever etched on my mind.  (from CHAPTER 1: The Great Money Chase)

READ MORE real-life stories in Close Encounters in Maritime Manila, all of which serve as windows to Filipino maritime culture and society at large. For details, click here.

~Barista Uno

The Marine Cafe Blog

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Six good ways to prepare for an EMSA STCW inspection

Six good ways to prepare for an EMSA STCW inspection

Non-EU countries supplying crews to EU-flagged vessels undergo periodic inspections by the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA). Some may see this as outside interference, an assault even on national sovereignty. But that is just the way things are. Now, the EMSA inspectors can be a bit pedantic when it comes to the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW). They may nitpick, find fault in small details. The following may help maritime officials and training institutions brace themselves for the dreaded visit by EMSA:


Relax. There is no such thing as “pass” or “fail” in EMSA audits. Unlike coronavirus patients, those who have “perceived deficiencies” (a favourite EMSA phrase) won’t be quarantined.


EMSA has a systems fetish. Be sure your organisation has a QMS (Quality Management System) or some such acronym in place. Those in charge should be able to explain how it is implemented, at least in theory.


Make sure everyone concerned has read and understood the STCW provisions. The heads of organisations being inspected don’t have to, since they mercifully won’t be questioned about their STCW knowledge.


Brush up on your English. You won’t be assessed for your communication skills, but speaking in fractured English or groping for words will create a bad expression.


The EMSA team may take a close look at an organisation’s training equipment. Be sure there are no exposed wires or rats running around the place. The inspectors might freak out.


Organise a retreat where maritime bureaucrats and training providers can pray and reflect on what they have done (or not done) to give full and complete effect to the STCW convention. This could make the next EMSA visit less painful for all concerned.

~Barista Uno

The Marine Cafe Blog

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Old artworks that make one think of manning agents

Old artworks that make one think of manning agents

To be sure, not all manning agents are bad. Some are scrupulous and treat seafarers fairly. In Manila, however, there is a culture of greed to which many crewing company owners and executives have succumbed. I am reminded of an 1881 illustration (pictured above) from the 19th-century weekly newspaper, L’Illustration européenne. It shows an old man taking bags of gold coins to his deathbed and exclaiming “Alas, must I leave you my dear lambs”.

The following are some more artworks that remind me — and many others as well — of manning agents who give the ship crewing industry a bad name.

The money changers, ca. 1548
by Marinus van Reymerswaele (Dutch, 1490–1546)
Image and text courtesy of Google Cultural Institute

Manning agents in Manila play the role of money changers. They handle the dollar remittances of seafarers which are paid monthly in pesos to their families. Unfortunately, many shortchange the families by cheating on the foreign exchange rate.

They Strut About Elegantly (“Lindamente se pavonean”), 1807–45
by Leonardo Alenza y Nieto (Spanish, 1807–1845)
Image and text courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Unscrupulous manning agents strut around town like distinguished personalities. Some even receive international awards for their perceived achievements.

Sultan Mehmet III (reigned 1595-1603) Enthroned, Attended by Two Janissaries,
about 1600, by unknown Ottoman artist
Image and text  courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Some manning agents are like sultans. In lieu of the Janissaries, who served as elite bodyguards of the Ottoman Sultan, they are attended by maritime cadets who run various errands for company officials and employees. The use of cadets as unpaid labour is shameful, but it is considered normal practice in Manila.

Old Man Offering Money to a Young Maid, 1708, by Cornelis Hubert van Meurs, Dutch. After Willem van Mieris, Dutch, 1662 – 1747
Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Manning agents usually get rich on the backs of seafarers. Some become very rich that they fall into temptation and engage in extramarital affairs.

Shackled to His Treasure (“Preso á su tesoro”), 1807–45, by Leonardo Alenza
y Nieto (Spanish, 1807–1845)
Image and text courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Seafarers may draw some consolation from the fact that manning agents who exploit them are themselves slaves to their own wealth and greed.

~Barista Uno

The Marine Cafe Blog

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Why seafarers should cultivate a love for books

Why seafarers should cultivate a love for books

It is not only loneliness that seafarers have to endure. Away from their families, the shopping malls and their favourite watering holes, they often have to deal with boredom. There is really little to do on board a ship after one’s watch is over. What better way to spend those idle hours than to read a good book?

The following quotes speak of the joy of reading. I trust that they will inspire seafarers to cultivate a love for books, which is becoming rarer these days because of social media, mobile games and malls.

Books are the friends of solitude. They develop individuality and freedom. In solitary reading a man who is seeking himself has some chance of finding himself. 

~ Georges Duhamel, In Defense of Letters 

Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counsellors, and the most patient of teachers.

~ Charles William Eliot, “The Happy Life”, The Durable Satisfactions of Life 

The first time I read an excellent book, it is to me just as if I had gained a new friend. When I read over a book I have perused before, it resembles the meeting with an old one.

~ Oliver Goldsmith, The Citizen of the World, Letter LXXXIII

Reading at the Beach, circa 1912, by Walter Granville-Smith (American, 1870–1938)

Reading is to the mind, what exercise is to the body. As by the one, health is preserved, strengthened, and invigorated: by the other, virtue (which is the health of the mind) is kept alive, cherished, and confirmed.

~ Joseph Addison, The Tatler

Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.

~ Francis Bacon, Essays 

He hath never fed of the dainties that are bred in a book; he hath not eat paper, as it were; he hath not drunk ink: his intellect is not replenished; he is only an animal, only sensible in the duller parts.

~illiam Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost

Drie boeken (Three books), 1887, by Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890)

All that Mankind has done, thought, gained or been it is lying as in magic preservation in the pages of Books. They are the chosen possession of men.

~ Thomas Carlyle, Heroes and Hero Worship 

There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul.

~ Emily Dickinson, A Book

Marine Café Blog has a number of sea novels and other books for seafarers to download and enjoy. Click here. More titles will be added as part of our efforts to promote the love for reading amongst mariners.

~Barista Uno

The Marine Cafe Blog

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Why EMSA should publish the results of its STCW audits

Why EMSA should publish the results of its STCW audits

Between 2005 and 2019, the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) made a total of 74 visits to non-EU countries — from Israel and Tunisia to Indonesia and the Philippines. This shows how seriously the EU takes the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW). However, in no instance did EMSA make public its findings. The lack of transparency may save some countries from embarassment, but ultimately it is neither good for them nor for their seafarers.

There are four compelling reasons why EMSA should publish at least the highlights of its inspection reports, to wit:

1. The EMSA inspections are a matter of national interest insofar as it could affect a country’s econmy and the the livelihood of its seafarers. This is particularly true in the case of the Philippines, which still faces the possibility of its ship officer certificates being derecognised by the EU.

2. If made public, the EMSA findings would encourage a free and fruitful discussion of STCW-related issues. Experts from the private sector can weigh in and suggest measures to fix any deficiencies noted by the EMSA inspectors.

3. The lack of transparency tends to give rise to speculations and even misreporting by the news media.

4. Seafarers have the right to know what is wrong with the system of maritime education in their country and the steps being taken by national authorities to improve it.

Seafarers have the right to know what is wrong with the system of maritime education in their country.

EMSA officials would probably invoke the principle of client confidentiality. However, EMSA inspectors are not doctors or lawyers, both of whom are legally bound by confidentiality rules in the practice of their profession. Furthermore, neither the maritime administrations nor the maritime schools being evaluated are EMSA’s clients. How could they be when they have have no choice but to subject themselves to inspection by EMSA at the behest of the European Commission?

~Barista Uno

The Marine Cafe Blog

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