Clay Maitland

On a quest for quality in shipping

Ships that drive themselves

Posted on | July 23, 2015 | No Comments

There are some encounters between ships that stay in the memory. One was a meeting with a crossing vessel off the Sombrero Passage into the Caribbean, when we saw a crossing vessel on the port bow, on a steady bearing. It was a large tanker and clearly the burdened vessel, but showed no inclination to give way. Eventually, we blew the required number of blasts and prepared to alter course ourselves.

At that moment, through our binoculars, we saw a door flung open in the midship accommodation block and a person rushing up the external ladders to the bridge, just before the tanker violently altered course away from us. It was lunchtime and clearly there had been nobody on the bridge. We thought it quite disgraceful, as this was a vessel owned by a respectable outfit and what has subsequently become one of the world’s largest shipping companies.

That was then, in days when ships were manned more generously, but even today, when crews are cut to the bone, there is never any excuse for leaving a ship under way without a responsible officer on the bridge. So there is some cause for alarm at a recent UK MAIB report into a collision between the chemical tanker Orakai and a beam trawler in the North Sea, which revealed that the OOW of the tanker went off on a 22 minute errand in the midst of his watch, leaving an untrained ordinary seaman, in this busy waterway. It didn’t exactly help that the watch on the trawler was no more efficient, being unaware of the closing tanker when they altered course into its path.

There are some quite odd watch keeping habits being exhibited for our education, as they are revealed in casualty reports. What are we to think of ships proceeding through some of the world’s busiest channels with the master fast asleep in his cabin and a relatively inexperienced officer left to get on with it? There has been a number of strandings and collisions revealing some rather questionable conduct in this respect. Of course we point to the failure of owners to have sufficient people on board, or burying the Master in paperwork to such an extent that safe navigation becomes almost secondary. Perhaps this is just the half way stage on our route to the unmanned ship!

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