New skills for future ships

Who will be the onboard expert for future fuels or electronic equipment?

By Michael Grey

What a lot there is for the modern seafarer to learn, beyond the old established skills passed on from their predecessors! Ships still have to be sailed from A to B in a safe and sound fashion and the cargo cared for, but that’s just the start of the complex accumulation of knowledge that the future seafarer will require.

In a world which is turning away from hydrocarbons, the expertise of future engineers is surely going to take in the complexities and behaviour of all sorts of exciting different fuels – even life beyond the big diesel that has powered shipping for three generations or more. It’s already happening with the curious characteristics of some of the modern biofuels now being trialled. And while liquefied natural gas – seen as a sort of bridge between fuel oil and some clean-burning composite – might be reasonably well understood, it is clear that the future engineer will have to cope with fuels of extreme volatility or which might, if handled wrongly, cause serious damage to an engine’s internals. Hydrogen, ammonia, methanol; they are all possibilities in the mix of future fuels.

There are already people talking about the all-electric ship, although it may not go deep-sea for a while, implying entirely new skill-sets. And somebody will have to be trained to maintain the various devices now being trialled to harness the wind – the rotors, foils, kites and sails that will (we are told) be increasingly employed in the search to reduce the vessel’s CO2 emissions. You probably don’t need too much training to keep the salt off the ship’s solar arrays, which might be a relief.

You might suggest that a ship without an electro-technical officer (ETO) on the staff is already inadequately manned, as the amount of electronic and digitally driven equipment aboard ship multiplies. And if advanced control and communication equipment is going to be increasingly part of maritime life, you probably cannot expect an ETO to remain a department of one. Might future chief engineers come from such a background? It’s something to think about.

Green roles

And in a world where care for the environment is at the centre of our thinking, it is not too fanciful to suggest that a shipboard environmental specialist, conversant with the fast-changing environmental regulations, ought to be readily available to ward off trouble from any unexpected legal contraventions. It is not too daft an idea, when you have drones sniffing the ship’s exhausts and divers counting the number of limpets adhering to the bilge keels, along with the marine biologists probing the ballast water for alien life. You just can’t have too much expertise in these environmentally conscious times.

With bye-laws, regulations, and a whole mass of bureaucracy apparently conspiring against anyone actually trying to run a ship, maybe it is time to take the bureaucratic burden off the backs of masters, who could probably think of more useful things to be doing. Maybe we should bring back the purser, writer, clerk or in modern parlance ‘executive assistant’ to the Captain. One of the oil companies tried such a scheme a few years ago, with an additional third mate, but sadly it didn’t last as it was (perhaps understandably) somewhat unappealing as a career move because the seafarer wanted to get back to navigation.

What is abundantly clear is as ships get more sophisticated, we probably can’t just go on the way we have. There are new skills to be learned, training has to adapt, and the growth in more specialised shipping means that there needs to be better means to help people wishing to change ships in midstream – or move from one trade to another. It is not enough to demand ‘experience’ in specialised trades or ships if there are no facilities for training, and more training places will have to be provided aboard ships to help people adjust to new vessels or equipment. The old ways are disappearing and the whole industry will have to get its collective head around a changing maritime world, in more ways than one.