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Where should we start?  As far as I can remember there has always been a shortage of seafarers.

I began my Marine Engineering apprenticeship in 1959 as a Marine engineer Cadet by attending South Shields Marine and Technical College (previously South Shields Marine School and now re-named as such) for 2 years.  I had been taken on by my employer even though I had only gained 2 of the 4 ‘O’ levels expected and was told I needed to pass the other 2 by attending night school, which I did, fortunately.  After I started the college one of the lecturers implied that all we had to do, to pass the entrance exam was ‘turn up’ for it because they needed marine students.  By the age of 23, I had gained my Second Class Steam Certificate of Competency having passed all the exams and served at sea for 18 months as an apprentice then another 18 months as a Junior Engineer.  After 6 months at sea as the Senior Watchkeeper and still only 23 years old I joined the Shell Tanker ANADARA as Second Engineer, with my wife Lilian.  I made lots of mistakes that didn’t cause any accidents but cost my employers big sums of money to put right.  I didn’t think I was ready for the huge responsibility, even though there was a Chief Engineer on board but he would tell me ‘You’ve got the piece of paper, lad, that the company needs to satisfy the insurers’.  By tradition and standard practice, the 2/E reported to the Chief every day and discussed what was happening and what had to be achieved by the engineering departments 3 Senior Engineers, 3 Junior Engineers, 4 Apprentices, 2 Petty Officers and 8 ratings.  The Chief was the figurehead but the Second Engineer was the manager and also had to do his two four-hour watches in the engine room, every day that he was on the vessel, just like all of the other watchkeepers.  If a Junior or Senior watchkeeper was ill and could not turn out for work, his 2 colleagues had to do 6 hours on and 6 hours off, every day until he recovered.  Needless to say there were very few instances of sickness during the 6 to 10 months a person served on a vessel.  The pay was good but the long trips away from home, the relentless very hard work on old ships and the lack of opportunities to get ashore because of an oil tankers quick turnaround, were extremely off-putting to most boys and even men, as a career choice.

That was 1959 to 1968 and right up to modern day there has always been a shortage of seafarers.  Obviously the working conditions have changed gradually over those 60 years and whilst the changes have supposedly been for the better, it appears they have done little or nothing to reduce the stress from the pressures of the job.  The current conditions and how things work in the engine room of a modern ship today bear very little resemblance to those of the 1960’s.  So, is the lack of enthusiasm for seafaring as a career due to the stress of the work and the amount of responsibility, the off-duty lifestyle on board, being away from friends and family (even though today the trips are much, much shorter), or what?

Japanese shipbuilders may have part of the answer on page 15 of the recent publication from the Japan Ship Technology Research Association, titled ‘Shipbuilding in Japan Solution Book 2019’, that can be accessed and downloaded here:

They suggest that the Issue is: The shortage of seafarers is becoming serious and there is a need to reduce incidents involving human error.  Is there a way to reduce seafarers workload and achieve safer navigation?

They suggest the Solution is: Japan’s leading digital technology involves all crew and contributes to safe operations.

The article goes on to say that in Japan, using data collected from ships, there is technology available that can make it possible to understand the situation on board in real time and discover irregularities at an early stage and to prevent the development of problems.  The use of digital technology not only improves safety but also improves the efficiency of seafarers’ work and can also be used for educational purposes.  It then goes on to discuss some of the equipment available now, that can do this.

Interestingly the article on pages 17 and 18 is headed: ‘Japan looks towards automated shipping’, which one assumes, would have a significant impact on combatting the shortage of seafarers, to the point that they may become extinct maybe?