Amid promises to avert disasters at sea and remove dangerous rust traps from the oceans, a new standard of safety and training takes effect today onboard merchant ships throughout the world.
Yet, despite nearly seven years of preparation and anticipation, the new regulations will have almost no effect - because none of the world's maritime powers plans to enforce them.
Passed in 1995 by the International Maritime Organization, an arm of the United Nations, the new training standard was designed to ensure that every sailor at sea knows how to fight fires, avoid collisions and save lives. Beginning today, any ship that doesn't meet the standard can be forced to drop anchor and find a new crew. But the International Maritime Organization has urged nations not to detain ships that don't meet the requirement because so few of the world's seafarers have obtained the new certificates.
The U.S. Coast Guard has also agreed not to detain vessels, worried that American ports could become clogged with foreign ships whose crews are suddenly deemed unqualified to sail.
Coast Guard and IMO officials say the lack of enforcement is only temporary and that in six months the new standards will have the desired effect on safety at sea.
A spokesman for the Coast Guard said its decision to go along with the maritime organization's recommendation is temporary and that foreign vessels can expect a rude welcome in the United States if not in compliance come August.
"February 1st is still February 1st, and the new requirements are in effect," said Dan Dewell, a Coast Guard spokesman in Washington. "We're not letting anyone off the hook; we've just decided not to detain any vessels for six months, while everyone catches up."
But many American maritime officials, who helped create the regulations and have spent millions of dollars complying with them, consider the delay another slap in the face from the Third World ships that rule the waters of the world.
"Here we've done our ... best to fulfill the requirements and meet the deadlines, and everyone who didn't bother to do it is getting let off the hook," said Capt. Timothy Brown, president of the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots, a union of American merchant marine officers. "It's hard to run a first-class operation when you're competing with people trying to lower the standards instead of raise the standards."
Beginning today, every merchant seaman in the world, except stewards and a few nonessential workers, is required to carry a new certificate showing that he has received training in marine safety.
The regulations require different training for different jobs, but all of it is designed to ensure that crew members know how to avoid calamities at sea.
The new standards have created a global industry of training centers and maritime schools offering the classes that the world's 1.2 million seafarers need in order to comply.
Dozens of schools in the United States have been certified to provide the training, including those operated by all of the major maritime unions.
The regulations allow any country that catches a ship sailing without certificates for its crew members to order that ship to drop anchor until an adequate crew arrives.
Regulatory officials have warned of the impending deadline for years.
"As far as we're concerned, this is the deadline," Natasha Brown, information officer for the International Maritime Organization, said in an interview last week. "The shipowners and flag states have had quite enough time to comply."
But two days later, the organization released a statement acknowledging that "many seafarers have not yet been able to obtain the necessary certification" and recommending that countries issue only warnings for the next six months.
The U.S. Coast Guard formally adopted that stance this week.
"It's disappointing, after all the effort that has gone into meeting that deadline," said Robert C. North, a retired Coast Guard admiral who once headed the service's marine safety division. "But if it's enforced, there will be detentions of ships. Maybe quite a few detentions."
For industrialized nations such as the United States, where training standards were high before the new regulations, the requirement served mostly to standardize the way that training is documented.
The United States long promoted the changes as a welcome crackdown on the less scrupulous cargo fleets that dominate the global shipping industry and are often crewed by underpaid and undertrained Third World sailors.
Despite the seven-year warning of today's enforcement deadline, reports have surfaced around the world suggesting that hundreds of thousands of sailors aren't prepared. In Indonesia, as many as 50,000 seafarers lack the credentials, according to the Indonesian National News Agency. Similar shortages are expected in Malaysia, Singapore and India, according to the London-based maritime journal Lloyd's List.
Some shipowners have accused countries of bribery. Officials of the Cape Verde Islands, off the west coast of Africa, had to secure temporary certificates from Portugal to avert a "national disaster," according to the PanAfrican News Agency.
As many as 5,000 Cape Verde residents who work on ships in Portugal, Netherlands and Great Britain were at risk of losing their jobs, and most of the islands' residents depend on the salaries of family members working abroad.
The countries overseeing the world's two largest merchant fleets - Panama and Liberia - expect a shortage of seafarers with proper documentation, though they blame it on slow paperwork rather than a lack of training.
Many countries, such as Liberia, which manage large merchant fleets but employ few of their residents at sea, typically expect a sailor's home country to provide the training.
"The biggest problem we face is that of people waiting until the very last minute, a factor that we can't control," said Yoram Cohen, head of the Liberian International Ship & Corporate Registry, with more than 2,000 merchant ships in its fleet.
"We're a serious flag with the technological tools to meet the deadline, and it's still difficult," Cohen said. "It must be a problem for the smaller flags."
The United States has had difficulty complying as well. It delayed the requirement for mariners sailing within U.S. territory so it can focus on those who work in foreign trade.
By Jan. 7, the U.S. Coast Guard had issued roughly 9,800 certificates, leaving about 6,300 to go. Still, Coast Guard officials expect that American cargo ships will have few problems finding qualified sailors.
The worry in the United States is that the cost of the classes - thousands of dollars in some instances - has caused mariners who don't sail regularly to flee the industry and allow their licenses or other qualifications to expire.
The Pentagon counts on those part-time mariners to crew government-owned cargo ships during wartime. The nation has a shortage of mariners available, and the new training requirement could eliminate thousands more from the labor pool.
The lasting impact of the new training standards probably won't be known for months or years, industry officials say - particularly if the standard is not enforced.
But some say the seas are probably safer today regardless of the level of compliance around the world.
"I think the benefits are already being realized today," said North, the retired Coast Guard admiral.
"People all over the world have received training they might not have received otherwise, even if all of the paperwork isn't in order."