COLUMN | Don’t forget the power of the sea [Grey Power]

The German cargo vessel München. The ship disappeared along with all 28 of its crew in bad weather in the North Atlantic Ocean on December 12, 1978. (Photo: Hapag-Lloyd)

You do not want to be labelled as too reactionary in these exciting days of ship design, with vessels emerging from the CAD labs that seem to stand conventional ideas on their heads. But you sometimes wonder whether their designers have ever experienced the power of the sea.

The market, we are told, is crying out for container feeders, so we should not be surprised at a number of remarkable designs competing for the attention of shipowners. But some of these designs, which seem predicated on getting the largest number of boxes accommodated within a given length, employ the accommodation as a sort of breakwater on the forecastle. You might suggest that there are all sorts of advantages in such a configuration, not least being the excellent visibility forward, but you surely ought to consider the vulnerability, if not the comfort, of the wretched crew, subject to all manner of violent accelerations, let alone the risk of boarding seas.

It may be that the naval architects responsible for these optimised cargo carriers have undertaken all manner of tank tests to ensure that the sculpted underwater shape of the bow and entrance damp down wave-induced accelerations. But if you consider that forecastle accommodation was made a thing of the past in the late 1930s, it seems a little odd that it has once again become fashionable and convenient (though not for those forced to live in it). And while some of the more radical designs have the accommodation perched above what would otherwise be the windlass, there are even more extreme configurations with the crew living in the space that once would have been used to store the rope and paint, right up in the eyes of the ship and a lot closer to the sea surface with the ship laden.

“There is no getting away from the fact that seas are sometimes sufficiently high to board a ship.”

It regrettably gives away my age, of course, but I actually sailed in more than one ship built in the 1920s and remember the general frightfulness of the forecastle in which our sailors lived. Boiling in hot weather, frozen in cold, with the deadlights screwed right down in heavy weather, it was a life such that the best seamen, by the 1950s or early 1960s, would just not sail on those ships, so we were forced to sign on crews who were otherwise unemployable.

I’m sure that the owners of these new ships will have all sorts of home comforts lavished upon their crews as inducements to sail on these odd designs, but there is no getting away from the fact that there will be no fresh air behind the armoured glass, and nowhere to walk about. I dare say the engineers will get some violent exercise running the full length of the ship when alarms sound, but you have to ask whether the designers ever considered whether their ship would be a pleasant place to work. In the compromises that are within every ship design, the crews will compromise most, as they always have.

There is no getting away from the fact that seas are sometimes sufficiently high to board a ship and there have been plenty that have been smashed up by heavy green water coming over the forecastle. Cruise ships in heavy weather in the South Atlantic have had their bridges (arguably too low and too far forward) flooded and armoured glass stove in, while the huge waves off the southern capes have a long record of loss and damage. It was never a cast-iron proof, but the loss with all hands of the German barge carrier Munchen was often attributed to the bridge being smashed in and all control lost, with the big ship then broaching and rolling over in the storm.

“A wise mariner would never completely trust either forecasts or instruments to protect them against the rogue wave.”

Extreme weather and “exceptional” waves are said to be less exceptional than they were, which perhaps ought to be the reason for rather more caution in ship design. But in the quest for ever-bigger payloads within the confines of the specified dimensions, the designs are becoming ever more extreme.

You might point out that we have far more weather expertise at our fingertips and all sorts of predictive equipment that will ensure that risks of weather damage are mitigated. But people, particularly at night, are not infrequently surprised by the unexpected, and a wise mariner would never completely trust either forecasts or instruments to protect them against the rogue wave.

The people at DNV, bless them, have now produced a “route specific app” that will give you advice about whether you need to bother with your sea fastenings on a passage. After all, it is surely a waste of money if all those wires and turnbuckles, tomming and timber, were employed on what turned out to be a nice calm passage. Seasoned heavy weather folk will immediately worry about who might be using such a device and putting on the pressure to save a few dollars. Nonetheless, let’s see if it works.

I recall Nedlloyd’s famous naval architect Ernst Vossnack, with whom I corresponded for years, raging about designers discounting the power of the sea as they lowered forecastles and built ships with low counters that were invitations to a pooping swell. He is long gone, but I am sure that he would have a lot to say about these clever, capacious, yet possibly vulnerable cargo carriers now emerging from the designers’ software suites.

Michael Grey

Maritime industry legend, and former long-term editor of Lloyds List, Michael Grey kicks off each month with topical issues affecting the maritime world at large.