LETTERS | New Korean container vessel design: a ship designer’s opinion

Photo: Samsung Heavy Industries

As an ex-merchant navy deck officer, who left the sea after seven years, studied naval architecture, and then ran a ship design studio for five decades, I was asked to comment on Samsung’s new containership design, in particular the wheelhouse and crew accommodation position, in response to a recent column about designing ships.

In my seafaring years, I vividly remember two incidents where I came close to losing my life, things that you don’t read in naval architecture books. At 19, as the senior cadet on a ship running from Nauru to Geelong, we were caught in the dangerous quadrant of a cyclone and the engine stopped due to water in the fuel. On the bridge of this 157-metre passenger cargo ship, 18 metres above the waterline, I looked up at the huge waves around us. The 100-knot winds added a shrieking noise to raise the fear level and the foam was two metres deep that it would suffocate and drown anyone even with a lifejacket, while the engineers struggled to restart the engines before the ship foundered, which luckily they did.

The second incident was in Cilacap in Indonesia, as relief master of an 85-metre Dutch trailer suction dredger, where the 12 crew-accommodation was in the fo’c’s’tle. I awoke at two a.m to a loud hissing noise and ran up to the deck. The vessel had run aground on sand just metres away from the cliff face of Nusakambangan Island. The new second mate on an outbound leg to the spoil ground had become disorientated, on manual steering heading, and had headed the ship into the cliff. Luckily it was low tide and we grounded before hitting the cliff face. Note to self: no crew accommodation must be placed in the forepeak area.

At the time, the industry still had fresh memories of the Andrea Doria/Stockholm collision where two trans-Atlantic liners collided, sinking Andrea Doria and significantly reshaping the bow of Stockholm. Ship collisions are still in vogue and generally involves the bow of one. Hello, what don’t you understand about collision bulkheads?

Firstly, I must confess that I don’t claim to be a naval architect as most of them that I have met have no idea what a ship must face. I am a ship designer and the three best ship designers that I have met in 50 years were all ex-deck officers, all Scandinavians.

A naval architect can get his degree without ever having been on a ship or ever going to sea. I have employed dozens of them and it takes me 10 years to get them reasonably competent with the product, but never with the whole picture.

However, with an ex-seafarer or a serious yachting person with a passion for design, I can have him or her as a competent designer within three to five years. They instinctively understand the effect of strong winds, high waves, ship power, rudder angle, and what the ship can do, but more importantly what it can’t do.

After designing a variety of innovative designs 30 to 200 metres in size, for 47 countries, I am a ship designer at the top of his game. Not boasting, just stating a fact.

Alas, the level of stupidity in design concepts that I have seen for decades has confirmed that a pretty picture can easily fool the bean-counting decision-makers of the maritime industry. We’ve been hearing about items such as “reduced GRT,” “increased TEU slots,” and other financial claims of a positive adjustment to the ship’s bottom line and their bonuses, generating goosebumps and mild dizzy spells during decision-making.

Most naval architects have never been at sea in a ship, certainly not on a small ship in heavy weather. Subsequently, poop decks and their buoyancy disappeared, foc’s’tles were minimised, and these paragraph ships of 99 GRT, 499 GRT, 999 GRT, and 1,499 GRT all had maximum earning capability but with frighteningly small reserve buoyancy.

The Mediterranean saw the first of these small paragraph container feeders being pooped and capsized, sometimes with lives lost. Then it occurred again and again. Before the Courts of Inquiry, compliments of Dutch naval architect Ernst Vossnak, it was determined that “the pursuit of a reduced GRT” was indeed the root cause of the tragedies by the elimination of raised poop decks and sterns.

The GRT regulations certainly motivated the shift in the thinking of designers in removing reserve buoyancy not only on poop decks but also on foc’stles. Certainly the disappearance of the huge 294-metre British bulk carrier Derbyshire in heavy weather in 1980 was due because of the lack of a foc’stle, allowing storm waves to impact on the forward hatches. The hatch covers can fail not only due to static pressure, but also under dynamic loading. Breaking or plunging waves impacting the covers can generate very steep pressure impulses. Even for mild steel, this can lead to brittle fractures. The steep impulse is called the gifle peak, and evidence of this type of fracture has been found in Derbyshire’s wreckage.

Why would any prudent naval architect or prudent regulator allow a ship without a foc’stle and a raised stern? Just look at the internet pictures of the wave profile on the Derbyshire’s hull. Blind Freddie could see that a foc’stle would have significantly helped the situation, and may indeed have saved the lives of the 44 seamen who were killed.

Why would naval architects and regulators remotely agree to eliminate raised bows and sterns that were considered essential ingredients for ship safety for the previous 2,000 years?  The answer was the pursuit of GRT reduction and the associated fees.

So now the latest thought bubble and pretty picture from a non-seafaring naval architect is proposing accommodation and wheelhouse space above the forepeak to improve revenue by eight per cent, enough to cause a group pants-wetting in the finance department, and their gleeful approval of such nonsense.

Apart from the inherent safety factor of storms at sea, the seat belts and bed belts to hold you down in a heavy head swell would not allow quality sleep or rest and possibly lead to more human errors in that company that were started in the design office.

In the meantime, I will write to Elon Musk and suggest that the driver’s seats of his Tesla cars should be on the front bumper, to gain more passengers in the cabin. I’m sure he’ll be so impressed that he will give me a free ride to outer space.

Dr Stuart Ballantyne

Sea Transport Solutions, Queensland, Australia

[email protected]

An injustice on your mind? Want to get something off your chest? Please direct all letters to the editor to [email protected].

Baird Maritime

The best maritime site on the web. The sea's our scene!