Navigating dangerous waters in midst of perilous times

Rama Chandran, head of marine, QBE Asia, speaks with Maritime Fairtrade on his analysis of pressing issues facing the maritime industry.

Why is there a shortage of seafarers? How can we overcome the problem?

The COVID-19 pandemic brought the seafaring community much distress, with many having now left the industry. The issue was exacerbated by the Ukraine-Russian conflict, which saw nearly 10 percent of seafarers impacted and displaced. More importantly, vessels are getting more complex, and seafarers need to be retrained to meet the technical requirements of today’s and tomorrow’s ships.

This challenge also creates an enormous opportunity for the shipping community, particularly shipping companies. Private companies have both the means and the motivation to enhance maritime education and training programs, by offering scholarships and mentorship programs, as well as partnering with educational institutions to help encourage talent to pursue careers in seafaring. These will not only help plug the seafarer gap in the medium term, but hopefully encourage individuals to pursue long-term careers in the industry as well. 

There is also an opportunity to make the sector less fatiguing for seafarers. Shorter contracts, or more time off between contracts, can improve the work-life balance for seafarers, making the profession more appealing.

Do you think artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomous shipping can replace seafarers? 

Autonomous shipping has been tested in advanced countries with some success, but the concept has not been fully implemented due to regulations not keeping pace with technological advancement. Regulation needs to be amended to clearly define the responsibilities of the various stakeholders regarding autonomous shipping.

While AI and autonomous shipping have the potential to transform the maritime industry, the complete replacement of seafarers seems unlikely due to regulatory concerns and the complexities involved in maritime operations. Instead, the industry will move towards a hybrid model, where advanced technologies assist seafarers in their tasks, rather than merely replacing them. 

As with so many walks of life, the somewhat futuristic vision of machines entirely controlling technology on their own is more myth than reality; shipping is no different to many other sectors in this regard. 

What are the more promising green technologies and power sources?

Though not clearly defined which one of today’s alternative fuels will emerge as a clear winner, due to the infrastructure and developmental costs, the advancement of these fuels remains a work in progress.

Recent developments, however, suggest a few. Much is said about the potential of hydrogen and ammonia to decarbonize shipping, which currently accounts for about three percent of global emissions. Yet, while the technology exists, infrastructure on land to pipe these new fuels to ports is underdeveloped and still many decades away. Moreover, it’s not just pipelines or storage facilities that are required, shipping hubs need to produce these clean fuels at scale. 

Take green hydrogen for example. Hydrogen is created from renewable energy rather than with fossil fuels, and producing this fuel will require enormous amounts of clean energy from the likes of solar and wind power, which many maritime hubs around the world do not yet have access to. 

So clearly, we are some ways from where the shipping sector wants to be. Nonetheless, the journey has started, and there is desire from the community to advance the agenda further. Likely, there will need to be greater collaboration among all actors, including shippers, fuel companies, facility developers, and many others including insurers, to make these aspirations a reality. 

How can shipbuilders in Asia be encouraged to adopt green technologies and explore new power sources?

For shipbuilders, green technology adoption should mirror the national rules and regulations, and accordingly have access to the necessary finance to make this transition. While there is a strong likelihood that shipyards will transition to greener operations off their own back over time, regulations will help accelerate this shift.

A further consideration is customer demand. If ship operators decide to only use vessels that are environmentally sound, then shipbuilders will have to adopt these new technologies. Customers will, therefore, also play a big part in this transition and its speed.

Recently, we are seeing numerous incidents of fire aboard RORO vessels. Why?

RORO (Roll-on/roll-off), PCTC (Pure Car and Truck Carriers) or PCC (Pure Car Carriers) have had several high-profile incidents of fires. The significant increase of such carriers in recent years has also contributed to the number of incidents. 

Fire hazards remains one of the major operational issues that affects ship operators. There are many possible causes and some of these are cargo misdeclarations, insufficient detection and inadequate firefighting capabilities on board vessels, equipment being procured from unreliable and not established makers, and insufficiently trained and motivated crews. 

The carriage of electric vehicles (EVs) is often cited as being one of the reasons. It is said that recent vessel fires have been partly attributed to the presence of Li-Ion batteries. These batteries, commonly utilized in EVs and a range of consumer products, present hazards linked to fire, explosions, and what is known as “thermal runaway”. The jury is still out on this one.

What measures can ship operators take to mitigate the risk of fire?

At an industry level, it is critical that operators seek assistance from classification societies and other experts, who can outline the cause of these incidents, as well as the near misses that go unreported, to help lessen the likelihood of future incidents.

At the operator level, different actions must be taken to solve each individual challenge. Take Li-Ion batteries. It is crucial to ensure appropriate State of Charge (SOC) levels, obtain certifications from manufacturers, provide crew training, and equip vessels with effective firefighting equipment detection systems. 

To tackle the issue of mis-declared hazardous cargo, it is important to establish harmonized requirements and penalties, enhance cargo safety protocols, and ensure accurate cargo handling and stowage practices.

Dedicated RORO vessels specifically designed for transporting EVs can help make the transportation of these vehicles safer and more secure, including appropriate fire detection and prevention systems. 

Carrying out regular inspections and maintenance is a must, as is ensuring that all crew receive fire safety training and are aware of incident-response protocols and evacuation procedures, among others. 

Besides fire, what are other risks to take note of? How to mitigate these risks?

Besides fire, machinery breakdowns, perils of the sea, and geo-political issues and conflicts have contributed to business losses and loss of life. 

Shipping companies should seek to obtain comprehensive insurance coverage that specifically addresses machinery breakdowns and other risks. Working closely with insurance providers to ensure adequate coverage and risk transfer mechanisms are in place can help mitigate the financial losses that typically occur when a major incident takes place at sea.

Critical to making the sector safer and more sustainable is to conduct thorough risk assessments that identify potential perils of the sea and the geopolitical risks. Operators must develop contingency plans and emergency response procedures, including alternative routes or safe havens to avoid hazardous areas or navigate through conflict zones.

Photo credit: QBE Asia. Rama Chandran, head of marine, QBE Asia.

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