Retaining quality officers and crew has become a full-time struggle for shipowners. As the shortage of candidates has become less cyclical and more structural, employers are having to look beyond simple remuneration and offer more value-added benefits.
Crew calling – a catch-all term that these days encompasses voice calls, SMS, email and very occasionally web access – is probably the best known of these and is a common part of such packages offered by owners serious about loyalty.
But because of the way crew calling has evolved over time, the reality is not always as good as the promise. Where an owner does permit access, the equipment is very often in a public area – sometimes on the bridge – so the user has little privacy and may be under pressure to limit their time online, even when they are paying for the session themselves. Anyone with sea-time will recognise the ‘Sunday afternoon in Manila’ effect when all the crew wants to phone home simultaneously, putting bandwidth under strain.
For the master or chief officer, the issues are just as numerous. If the crew are using the ship’s business systems then there is always a risk of damage or virus infection. They also want to avoid yet more administration – selling pre-paid cards or access codes to the crew will normally be the limit of their welfare provision.
The superintendent meanwhile will naturally assume that they can contact the ship whenever the need arises – satellite airtime is expensive stuff after all – and there should be no interruption to the critical systems that enable the ship to trade.
It’s a problem that needed a bit of a re-boot and Globecomm Maritime thinks it may have the answer. Globecomm has marketed its se@COMM shipboard software for a number of years. It recently extended its functionality into onboard Wi-Fi, promising to connect seafarers in their own time, on their own equipment.
To test the concept, Globecomm conducted a three-ship trial with customer Reederei Thomas Schulte, which owns and operates a mixed fleet of bulk carriers and containerships. The trial highlights a shipowner’s motivation for improving welfare onboard, and demonstrates the demand for improved crew communications.
“The competition to retain crew is always a critical thing for shipowners but the wired solutions don’t always solve the problems,” explains Globecomm VP of Sales Malcolm McMaster. “Thomas Schulte allowed crew calling but if the crew wanted to make phone calls or send emails they had to go to the bridge and as a result not many people used it.”
McMaster says Schulte and its in house shipmanagers found that the crew increasingly want ‘the terrestrial experience onboard ship’ just as owners are coming to see their ships as a ‘floating office’.
“As we get more of the generation X and Y going to sea, there will be even more demand. Schulte wanted to be seen as a forward-thinking operator – they recognised they needed to do something different,” he adds.
Working with its German agent, Globecomm installed a dedicated Iridium OpenPort satellite system and a series of wireless repeaters on the trial ships. This meant the crew data system could be kept completely separate from the ship’s business network while offering three additional voice lines per installation.
“It was a requirement for Schulte that they weren’t messing around with administration so the Wi-Fi core is all separate from the ship’s systems. The crew can use their own smartphones and laptops in their cabins or in the crew mess or make calls from the wired phone in the mess,” adds McMaster.
In the first month of the trial more than 1,000 SMS, 1,500 emails and 200 calls were made and an order swiftly followed to equip the whole Schulte containership fleet. Web browsing is still too expensive to be practical over satellite but McMaster says the system’s combination of increased access, greater privacy and reduced administration proved more popular than even he anticipated.
“When the first trial was put on, there was a degree of scepticism, but one or two crew members said ‘OK let’s give it a try’ and the next thing, people were crowding round and very soon a whole bunch of people were using it. Thomas Schulte tell us they see improved morale onboard and better retention and it supports their reputation as an owner which takes crew welfare seriously, which is very important to its business.”
Master of the Dorian Schulte, Gennadiy Balabanov says the system has made an immediate difference to life at sea for his crew. “Younger people use the internet more than the older generation and Dorian Schulte is no exception. I enjoy being able to use my own laptop to call my family and I think the price for the pre-paid cards is reasonable. The crew is very satisfied with it.”
By Neville Smith