Strange places to live

What crew would want their accommodation to be forward on the ship, feeling every movement of it?

By Michael Grey

The comfort and convenience of seafarers, it has been said with just a touch of irony, has rarely been to the fore in the minds of those who design ships. Nothing new there, perhaps, if you study history and consider that down through the ages.

From antiquity to modern times, the crew of a ship just fitted in where they could. The priority of the designer, urged on by whoever was paying for the construction, would be the space for the cargo, paying passengers, or weaponry in the case of warships, as well as the desired speed and sea- keeping qualities. Where the crew could be accommodated would always be something of a design afterthought. The cost of a new ship might also have something to do with it, too.

There are, however, some very strange designs emerging from shipyards and the computers of designers, who seem to have been pushing all the stops in their quest to cram the greatest amount of cargo within the dimensions of their ships. The latest generation of container ships, for instance, has seen the crew accommodation squeezed either to the extremities of the afterdeck, far abaft the sternpost, or to the very ‘eyes’ of the ship, where it can provide a useful auxiliary breakwater to protect the deck load of containers.

Indeed, one new container ship design from the Far East, proudly illustrated by its designer in a computer-generated impression, has the entire complement, along with the navigating bridge, situated in the space conventionally configured ships would have allocated to the rope stores and anchor windlass. The capacity of the ship, announce the delighted designers, will be increased by some 8%, with the extra presumably being those boxes piled over the bridge and what passes for accommodation.

And there are plenty more illustrations of new designs where the forward accommodation is perched on the forecastle, protecting the deck space abaft the superstructure. Typically, this is for heavy-lifters – ships built to carry large deck loads or wind-turbine blades. It obviously makes some sense to prevent boarding seas damaging the deck cargo in the event of heavy weather.

Lavish furnishing?

It could be that the designers leave no stone unturned or skimp in any way they can on costs of furnishing the accommodation for the small crews who will take these ships to sea. With the ship alongside in a snug harbour it might seem that the crew cabins and public spaces are of truly admirable quality with every comfort and convenience lavished upon them. Hopefully it will be far from the ‘institutionalised’ accommodation recent surveys have complained about.

But you are compelled to enquire whether any of the design team have ever been to sea in a ship experiencing heavy head or steep following seas, when the extremities of the vessel experience violent accelerations, slamming and vibrations. While it may be discouraged by speed or course alterations, green seas boarding over the bow can be both alarming and hazardous. Given any choice, you probably wouldn’t want to be living in such circumstances, which is why, in more enlightened times, crew accommodation was ideally situated around the mid-length of the ship, where movement is less pronounced.

It may be something of a giveaway to my age, but I sailed in several pre-war built vessels where, just like their sailing ship predecessors, the sailors lived in the forecastle, admittedly in two-man cabins, but which were utterly miserable habitations in heavy weather, cold or heat. And with more modern ships with pleasant accommodation available, it became very difficult to find crews for these elderly vessels, in the autumn of their days. Are there any lessons there, as ship owners worry about crewing shortages, which are bound to get worse in the near term?

Maybe naval architects could adjust their priorities just a little and consider the lives their fellow human beings will live aboard the ships they are designing. It could be that everyone benefits!