By Guy M. Tombs

I am the first grandson of a man who as a boy badly broke his nose in a fist-fight on Montreal’s Richmond Square in 1892. It wasn’t fixed properly. Guy Tombs began at Canadian Pacific Railway that year at 14. In his 40’s he founded our firm. He always favoured his pugilist’s nose, wiping its flattened ridge reflexively with his forefinger, until the end of his life in his late nineties. So who am I to speak of etiquette – descended from a street-fighter, and named after him!

The shipping industry is full of people who were or are street-fighters and have learned to be extremely polite.

What seems to regulate much in the complex worldwide web of relationships in shipping can be thought of as the etiquette at a ‘Smörgåsbord’, of proper behaviour at a Swedish celebratory banquet. All parties in a successful shipment benefit, but in different ways – the shipper or charterer, the broker or freight forwarder, the stevedores, the port terminals, the carriers, the receiver or consignee – and many more. Maritime law and maritime insurance law are the intricate working out of the implications of this behaviour and of facts, in a written and codified form – but I would submit that the law generally flows from the expected etiquette rather than the reverse. Shipping etiquette is generally not learned from the law.

Back in the mists of time we were approached by a Middle Eastern national who wanted us to charter for him a succession of vessels to carry frozen chicken from Tampa to Jeddah. He was suave and polite and came to our office frequently over many weeks with his Egyptian advisor in tow – but he was forever vague on details and was not coming close to a fixture, seemingly drawn more to our company travel agency’s ready ability to issue air tickets on short notice for his regular travels with his girlfriend. We soon learnt that Interpol was seeking this impostor and the law caught up with him before we had any real exposure. A scoundrel fakes the etiquette.

The daily motion of the tides, and the roll of the waves in vast seas, rivers, canals and lakes — these surround us and play the eternal, hypnotic rhythm of our industry. There is timelessness in its soul, in the brave life of the seaman, in the brave life of a ship’s master.

I have been to countless shipping functions where powerful industry figures were congenial, generous with their time, and well informed. Who could tell how ingenious they had to be to maintain control of their enterprises, with those multiple, interlocking corporate names – who could tell the huge risks they were undertaking or how they retained long-term business with such demanding customers — or what secrets they jealously guarded, who could tell — from their generally modest demeanour in this public forum? That is this industry.

The language used by ship agents in my experience, most often in English, to inform interested parties of the imminent arrival of a vessel, of its loading, discharge and departure, and summarized in the Statement of Facts, is generally the quintessence of this etiquette. One responsible ship agent can communicate important vessel and cargo information to several involved parties with divergent financial interests satisfactorily and generally without rancour, day-in, day-out.

Principals and their Agents – there is an important existential distinction between these terms and their roles in shipping. Am I acting as a Principal in this transaction or am I an Agent in this transaction? What are my obligations? What is my duty? What is my liability? All are important questions – which impact the etiquette expected of me. But also, am I perceived by my counterparts in the transaction as an Agent or a Principal? And as a consequence of what I am, or how I am seen, what facts do the other parties need to know and when? What actions must I take?

Or – am I now dealing with an overseas agent, without principles – who is not providing me valid information? An industry pun – ‘an agent without principles’ – this play on words has certainly come up in conversation over the years, in our trying to understand and describe what was going on in an office remote from these shores.

Wandering the web and exploring our libraries, we come across a plethora of Codes of conduct, Standard trading conditions, Carrier’s bill of lading terms and conditions, Stevedoring standard terms, Purchase Orders – all clambering to be the paramount guides to what governs the ocean shipment and what governs behaviour. These documents are of course all outgrowths from the experience of shipping, the foul-ups, the accidents, the misunderstandings. Implicit etiquette, consistent civility, in contrast, always takes us back to first principles, returns us to a kind of innocence, not sullied by the tough times that can hit this sometimes merciless industry.

Business of course generally comes down to price and availability – and profit is essential – but the quality of the human interactions and relationships are at the heart of our working lives.

Competition can be thought of as stylized fighting – and consummate acting. But the genuineness of the encounter, the sincerity of the conversation or communication, and the expertise demonstrated all are fundamentally important – and are what makes business friendships powerful and worth keeping.

The beauty of etiquette – in contrast to the law – is that it is unwritten.

Guy M. Tombs is the President of Guy Tombs Limited, international freight forwarders and shipbrokers, established in 1921