One sunny Sunday in January 2018 Tonya Illman strolled along a beach near her home in Perth, Western Australia. An intriguing bottle poking from the sand caught her eye. She picked it up, imagining it enlivening a display shelf in her home.
A more careful survey of the glass vessel revealed something extraordinary – the oldest known ‘message in a bottle’ ever found. Illman’s bottle had been thrown from a German merchant ship in 1886 as part of a scientific experiment that sought to better understand the sea’s currents.
The purpose of such research is, of course, to enable ships to save money and time by harnessing ocean currents. And no less extraordinary than a 130-year-old note, is that intense research of this phenomenon is ongoing.
Today, needless to say, satellite images provide the raw material rather than oceanic flotsam. Scientifically-planned routing to optimise weather benefits remains a matter of intense scientific interest. Professor Vladimir Gershanik, a leading authority on marine propulsion efficiency, concluded a recent paper thus: “Rational weather routing increases ship safety….and helps cut the time and fuel consumption of ocean voyages”.
In practice this often means timing sailings to take advantage of both winds and currents that will partially propel ships in the right direction. Doing this has already led to significant reductions in the use of fuel by cargo ships – but at a cost to their crews. Sailing slower means that seafarers spend longer between ports, away from easy communication with family and friends.
It is just one of the approaches that has helped shipping lines to achieve significant efficiencies in recent years.
Maritime business consultants Moore Stephens, for example, undertake an annual survey that shows how operating costs are on a downward trajectory across all types of carrier. Richard Greiner, Moore Stephens shipping partner, says: “This is the fifth successive year-on-year reduction in overall ship operating costs”.
Localised studies reflect this. One by Maritime UK, for example, revealed that “over five years, the British maritime sector experienced a 12.7% increase in turnover, 6.6% increase in gross value added and 3.9% increase in employment”.
Other cost reductions have been driven by seafarers’ effort too. In the past decade the average size of cargo ships has risen significantly – the biggest now carry nearly 20,000 twenty foot containers. Crews have remained much the same size, however, usually between 12 and 24 seafarers, evenly split between officers and ratings.
Significant effort has been deployed to minimise time in port – in many cases just 24 hours. This contributes significantly to efficiency and thus profitability, but makes the job of seafarers even tougher. Most don’t have time for even a few minutes on dry land when they dock, so intense is the effort to load and unload.
No doubt further efficiencies can be achieved?
In an analysis of cargo shipping economics, McKinsey concluded that building better teams on board ships is a critical challenge to making them more efficient. The management consultants also noted that: “monetary incentives and recognition….energise a transformation journey…It is important to balance the right mix of monetary and non monetary incentives to achieve the desired behaviour”.
Happily there is an increasing recognition among shipping companies that the support and wellbeing of seafarers is crucial to commercially successful futures. Ulf Hahnemann, Maersk’s head of human resources told one of this company’s magazines: “What I’ve learned is that building trust in an organisation is the core challenge. If there’s trust between employees and the company, problem-solving follows. People will use their intelligence as they feel supported, not judged. They are not worried about being shut down or intimidated so ideas can thrive.
The ambition to succeed among seafarers themselves is also not hard to find. Arnold Sangabol Pestano is a Filipino who, in 2016, aged 26, was working for shipping line Hapag-Lloyd. He had already been going to sea for five years at that time: The seaman described his day in one of the shipping line’s internal publications. “I keep watch on the bridge 8pm until midnight, as well as from 8am until noon. During the rest of my working hours, I take care of all sorts of maintenance and repair jobs on board, such as painting and cleaning.”
He has keen ambitions to progress to more responsible work. “I hope to be a chief mate one day and maybe even a captain,” he said.
Pestano won’t be the first seafarer who aspires to improve his lot through career advancement. For the vast bulk of ships’ staff, however, this will happen only when ship’s owners pass on some of the efficiencies that their crews have achieved. The question is whether they will respond to the rational case for a minimum basic increase of at least $50 a month? Failing to do so runs the risk of allowing global trade to be tainted with a whiff of exploitation that could prove hard to shake.