Improving crew comfort

From where he stood on the stern deck, 3rd Mate John Carlisle could see — far above — a shape dancing in the sky astern of the tanker. The ship was mid-Atlantic and making 15 knots, still some days from its destination, Europort in Rotterdam, so what could it be — this figure in the sky that appeared to be following the ship?

Crowley’s Vessel Management Services carefully engineered acceptable noise levels aboard the company’s new ATBs. Here in the engine room of Sea Reliance, crew get instruction in operating the Caterpillar 3612 diesel engines.

He squinted his eyes, and that’s when he saw it, the string, which he followed down to where it met the ship’s stern. Standing a few decks above him was a man, whom Carlisle recognized as the soft-spoken British first engineer. A spool of string was playing in his hands, and his eyes were fixed aloft at the dancing shape. He was flying a kite.

“When I saw this, I was so excited,” Carlisle said. “Life can get pretty monotonous at sea, regardless of how many diversions you have, so I ran up the stairs and said to this guy, ‘I think this is so cool, what you’re doing.’ And then I got it into my mind that I had to do it; and so when I arrived in Rotterdam, I went ashore and bought a kite, which I used for years afterward.”

Spending one’s off-watch time creatively can often mean the difference between a well-rested and happy crew and one that is bored and anxious, suffering from monotony.

Enlightened ship owners acknowledge that a satisfied, comfortable crew is more productive — and more likely to stay with the company. Therefore, understanding the habitability of a ship — noise control, climate control, seating, equipment displays and accommodations like en-suite heads and showers — is crucial to the performance of a crew.

Matson’s new box ships

Matson Navigation Company is regarded as one of the most progressive companies in the U.S. fleet, providing the Hawaiian Islands with a large percentage of their basic goods from West Coast ports. The company pays well, their ships are clean and safe, operated to exceed the standards of the Coast Guard and the International Maritime Organization. The company is building two new ships, a pair of 712-by-105-foot, 2,600-teu (20-foot-equivalent-unit) containerships. Under construction by Kvaerner Philadelphia Shipyard Inc., the ships are scheduled for launch in 2003 and 2004 and will be similar — in size, accommodation and crewing — to Matson’s newest ship, R.J. Pfeiffer. (The vessel carries 21 crew.)

The ships will have more comfortable cabin areas. There is a no-load zone on the deck of the ship, indicating where containers may not be stored. As a result, all forward-facing cabins will not have visibility blocked too closely by stacked containers. Bridge visibility will also be greatly improved on the new ships.

“When I started sailing in 1967, we had one head between two cabins and a shower down the hall,” said Gary Fleeger, Matson’s senior vessel manager.

Today’s crew facilities are luxurious in comparison. “Each of the cabins aboard these new ships will be staterooms,” Fleeger said. “Officers will have a refrigerator in their cabins. All cabins will have wall-to-wall carpeting. And both lounges (officers and crew) will have email computer systems.”

Fleeger said that Matson allows free email (not Web) service to its crewmembers, allowing them to send and receive personal emails along with ship’s business emails, which are typically patched via satellite, using Inmarsat’s Rydex system, twice per day. Each crewmember, regardless of rank, has a personal email account with Matson and, provided they send no attachments, can keep in constant contact with family and friends ashore.

“We decided to offer this service to our crew free of charge since it’s such a negligible cost. Using a store-and-forward system allows crew to submit email at any time of day or night. And when the radio officer then sends out the ship’s business, the crew email goes along with it,” Fleeger said.

Satellite TV is a major source of entertainment. The map above shows the areas reached by DirecTV in North America via 18-inch antennas (inner line) and 24-inch antennas (outer line).

TV or not TV

Matson’s ships may be fully connected while offshore, but they will not feature satellite TV. “We are doing a pilot program to test the viability of satellite TV on our ships, but a ship moves — the antenna needs to be gyro-stabilized, which is a significant cost. Plus, when a vessel lists or is alongside container cranes, that makes it difficult to get good connections. Then you have the problem of who would control the channel being watched if a single receiver is used. If multiple receivers are used, the cost goes way up,” Fleeger said. “Our ships typically subscribe to a movie service, which allows our crew to receive a certain number of movies per month.”

Satellite TV is used on some commercial vessels, but tends to be limited to vessels that don’t spend the majority of the time on ocean routes, as Matson does. Because satellite coverage for TV tends to be directed at populated areas, vessels engaged in coastal shipping up to a couple hundred miles offshore would be in more of a position to take advantage of the service.

“We have customers on the West Coast of the U.S., for example, who run petroleum products down from Alaska, and they use our satellite TV system for their fleets,” said Chris Watson, communications coordinator for KVH Industries. KVH supplies a variety of satellite TV products to all manner of vessels, including tankers, tug and barges, fishing vessels, ferries, casino boats, Great Lakes fleets, inland waterway towboat fleets, Coast Guard vessels, and even undercover Drug Enforcement Agency vessels. (“They want to look like everybody else,” Watson said.)

The products range in price from about $3,500 to $9,500 for the gyro-stabilized models and cost about $40 per month to receive continuous coverage. Some vessel operators choose to buy the antenna and associated hardware and ask their crews to pay the monthly charge if they’re interested in the service.

Some fleets utilize both domestic and foreign systems, depending on their route, by rigging their vessels with powerful antennae and a variety of receivers. Vessels transiting between the United States and Latin America, for example, would also need to have low-noise block (LNB) equipment to accommodate weaker signals of these areas. But assuming a vessel is operating within an area where the standard system is digital-video-broadcast (DVB) compatible, as in most parts of the continental United States and Europe, satellite TV might make sense for a fleet interested in offering a variety of program options to its crew.

Steward’s department

Despite operating in an environment in which cost cutting is synonymous with survival, Matson chooses to offer a generous budget to the steward department’s food orders. “You don’t go bankrupt feeding your crew, even if they eat the best food in the world; they can only eat so much,” Fleeger said. “Where you stand to lose money is by feeding the wastebasket.”

Matson goes so far as to employ a graduate of the Cornell School of Hotel Administration as manager of its shoreside steward department staff, Jim Mann, who has endeared himself to Matson’s crew by offering the best food available. And by staying within the generous budget, Mann keeps Matson happy. By spending money on a well-qualified steward, Fleeger claims Matson saves money overall, even by buying “filet mignon and smoked cheeses.”

Noise control and the human factor

Human-factors specialists devote a great deal of energy studying ways that working conditions can be improved for mariners, who, although accustomed to working in grueling conditions, endure long hours, bad weather, tight quarters and often a great deal of risk. Many companies choose to engage human-factors consultants to lower risk and consider ergonomics in the design of ships and the organization of the work-watch-sleep schedule.

In August, there was a conference in Houston devoted to human factors, co-chaired by the Coast Guard’s Dr. Anita Rothblum, a research scientist for the R&D Center in Groton, Conn., and attended by numerous shipping companies and marine organizations, among them, BP America, ExxonMobil, Norwegian Petroleum Directorate and the American Bureau of Shipping.

One of the topics that is consistently studied and bandied about by human-factors specialists is fatigue and the many ways that people can become fatigued.

Fatigue can be induced by improper sleep cycles, by bucking the circadian rhythm in a way that is not natural, for example. Sleep studies have shown that workers are more productive at certain times of day than others.

“There is a variability to our biological time clocks,” Peter Clark, president and CEO of Interface Ergonomics in Vancouver, British Columbia. The organization has provided the Canadian government with a fatigue manual for use on Fisheries and Oceans/Canadian Coast Guard vessels. “Fatigue reduces the alertness of people, so we need to pay attention to not just the quantity of sleep but also the quality, so that people working a night shift, for example, can remain alert.”

Interface Ergonomics also designs ships’ bridge systems. “There needs to be thought behind where and how equipment is laid out. By designing controls and displays, we need to consider many things, including visibility, the variability of people’s sizes, the limits of memory capability and have a consistency of design, so that when you reach for a control it responds in a way that you expect it to,” Clark said. “If the layout of the bridge or engine room hasn’t considered these issues, it’ll be no wonder that you have back pain after a long shift.”

Excessive noise and vibration are other sources of mariner fatigue, particularly over long periods of time. While this is less of an issue with large commercial vessels, especially vessels that have insulated control rooms in the engine rooms, aboard smaller vessels — tugs, towboats, ferries and supply vessels — noise and vibration control is a serious daily concern. In fact, both International Shipping Organization and IMO standards now stipulate acceptable levels of noise and vibration that workplaces can allow. This has led to soft-mounted engines and even “floating” accommodation spaces, which are isolated from machinery spaces by rubber mounts or have cleverly engineered bulkheads and overheads to distribute noise through a fibrous core.

Recently Van Cappellen Consultancy USA, the U.S.-based representative for the Dutch company of the same name, was contracted to engineer the specs for two pilot boats for the Charleston, S.C., harbor pilots. Constructed by Gladding-Hearn of Somerset, Mass., the boats have floating pilothouses and seating areas to reduce vibration and noise. Some vessels are also equipped with thrust blocks, devices that intercept the thrust at the shaft to reduce the ultimate vibration on a vessel.

“The propeller pushes the shaft, the shaft pushes the engine, the engine pushes the boat. That’s asking a lot of the engine mounts. A thrust block helps absorb that vibration before it reaches the hull,” said Steve Hadik, managing director of Van Cappellen USA. Van Cappellen installs noise- and vibration-control systems on ferries, large motor yachts, ro-ro ships and numerous other vessels.

While in times past noise and vibration control was handled in a scattershot manner — by simply insulating bulkheads and overheads as much as practical — weight-savings considerations combined with the availability of computer modeling have enabled shipbuilders to determine exact specs for acceptable noise and vibration levels.

“We start with a given decibel level for a given area, say, 42 db in a cabin space,” Hadik said. “We then work backward to the engine space, insulating bulkheads to the desired level. When you consider that a shipyard sometimes has, for example, a $1-per-pound penalty, this weight can really add up if you’re not doing the engineering carefully.”

Good bridge design should take into consideration ease of use to increase efficiency and decrease fatigue.

Crowley’s new ATBs

Vessel Management Services, the subsidiary of Crowley that engineers, manages and delivers new vessels for the company, recently delivered two ATBs to Marine Transport Corp., another Crowley subsidiary, for use on the West Coast. Both were built by Halter Marine. Two more are due out in September and December from Manitowoc Marine. Ed Schlueter, director of VMS, explained that noise reduction was a major consideration when designing and building the ATBs. “Years ago, noise on ships was just a fact of life. In fact, a sure sign of a tugboat guy was the fact that he was deaf. Now we look closely at acceptable noise requirements.”

Schlueter chose to envelop the tug crews in floating floors, rather than soft-mounting the engines themselves. Each vessel is equipped with a pair of Caterpillar 3612 diesels delivering some 5,000-hp each. The floors and bulkheads are sheet metal with a thick, stiff insulating material encased within, installed in a steel channel. The core fiber effectively absorbs the noise vibration. All accommodation spaces on the new vessels have floating floors and insulated bulkheads. Each floor in the living areas has a final layer of thick, padded carpet.

“You’re on a tug that’s only 127 feet long. It’s pretty hard to ever get more than 50 feet away from the engines. The way you get around that limitation is by insulating,” Schlueter said.

Pilothouses were designed not by ergonomics specialists but by the crew themselves. “We asked the people who were going to be running these boats what they thought would work,” Schlueter said. Halter then built one-to-one scale models of the pilothouses, installing mock equipment like radios, radar and steering controls. “We used the practical experience we already had. It’s worked out very well.”

Pilothouses are also equipped with state-of-the-art, ergonomically designed captain chairs mounted on sliding tracks.

No matter how well the workplace is designed, a mariner still needs to be recharged in the off-watch time, and that is still defined by creative play and interaction, either by satellite TV, a deck of cards, a turn on the exercise bike or by toying with a simple kite on the end of 1,000 feet of string. •

By Professional Mariner Staff