The ship of the future, 2020 edition

I have been thinking about the great issues of the day, as they affect shipping. Since we no longer have shipping events with keynote speeches to tell us what the great issues of the day are, I have decided to start by making a list of them. We all think we know what they are, but actually, opinions differ.

One large and illustrious shipping line thinks that the important thing is to make the supply chain transparent. Glass or plastic? Will this work for anchor chains as well? The information technology folks, who are very numerous, want to digitise shipping. They expect us to swoon with amazed delight over their offerings of things that we don’t want or need, such as ships that can navigate themselves, whereas what we want are ships that survey themselves, repair themselves, generate their own port state paperwork and get broadband internet 24/7. We wish the IT people would go away and come back when they have done this. Even better if the ships can write their own manifests and keep their list of deplorable substances, scrapping for the purposes of, up to date.

Eventually, the ships and the men who man them will fall over. But let’s not think about that, because we will have time to design and build the ships for the new normal

The International Maritime Organization (whom God preserve!) take Saint Augustine’s approach; they want to make us all virtuous, but not yet.

I asked people at sea, and they had quite a different list. It starts, of course, with “I want to get off…”, but I ignored that. I haven’t been a shipowner’s man for 40 years without learning how to distinguish between normal healthy whingeing, things really aren’t good enough, he really will look for another job, and actual incipient strike, and to ignore all of them.

On the bright side, there are no superintendent’s visits any more. You might think this is a bad thing, because the expletive deleted super cannot be shown what is wrong and what needs doing in person. But if we think more carefully, we can see that it is a good thing. As the ocean greyhound that the now-invisible super thinks he is in charge of gets less and less like the heap of rust that the crew are actually driving from no-shore-leave to no-shore-leave, the crew learn to relax and get on with making the best of the ship they have actually got, as opposed to the ship that the super thinks they are aboard, and instructions to do this, that, and the other with equipment that stopped working months ago when the super crossed out the indent for the spares, and was fixed in quite an innovative way, can be safely ignored. Or unsafely ignored, but either way, ignored they will be. Most ships can go on for quite a long time like this – indeed, most of them are doing so – which is just as well, because otherwise the world’s people would not get fed, clothed and kept warm.

Eventually, the ships and the men who man them will fall over. But let’s not think about that, because we will have time to design and build the ships for the new normal.

Like many of us, I had the pleasure of going onboard some of the ships built under the German Schiff der Zukunft programme in the 1980s. We need to do that again, but rather differently.

Let us assume for a moment that the prophets of doom are correct, that a vaccine for Covid-19 is not found, and we have to go on like this for a while. What does a ship for the new normal look like?

There won’t be an accommodation block. There will be two, and both will be very large. Since the crew won’t be getting off for years at a time, they may as well have their families with them

Well, quite different. There won’t be an accommodation block. There will be two, in the manner of the old-style tankers; one aft and one under the wheelhouse, and both will be very large, because whilst the crew will be large, to include some spare ABs, a chief thief and a deputy ETO, we will still want lots of spare cabins. Since the crew won’t be getting off for years at a time, they may as well have their families with them, and when Wife A no longer gets on with Wife B, she can decamp to the other end of the ship. For similar reasons, there will be at least two galleys and at least two dining rooms.

The stores and spares, and the workshops and tools, will be beyond the dreams of chief engineers, because few more spares will be supplied for the life of the ship. There will be an entire hatch filled with cylinder liners, given the rate at which low sulphur fuel oil gets through them, and everything else in proportion. The main engine, on the other hand, will be tiny, because if 11 knots was good enough for a Liberty ship, it’s good enough for us. This means that the fresh water capacity will be vast, because we won’t ever make enough.

There will be a separate weathertight door at the weather deck level, leading to a separate stairway to a hermetically sealed area of the wheelhouse, for pilots, with a similar hermetically sealed area of the ship’s office for agents, port state, surveyors and others. There will be a small airlock that doubles as a sterilisation chamber through which papers can be passed, and a coffee machine so they can make their own.

We will make a gesture towards green propulsion. Only a gesture. We are, after all, shipowners.

Andrew Craig-Bennett

Andrew Craig-Bennett works for a well known Asian shipowner. Previous employers include Wallem, China Navigation, Charles Taylor Consulting and Swire Pacific Offshore. Andrew was also a columnist for Lloyd's List for a decade.


  1. At last! An outbreak of common sense and reality. Some of the recently announced mega strategies for de-carbonization and alternative fuels need to take the comments in this piece seriously and stop pontificating.
    The comments re IT are spot on.

  2. I don’t know the number of cabins, type of engine, etc but the ship of the future will have a crew mistreated by some shipmanager, an unethical recruitment method, and a flag of any third world state, with miserable social conditions, receiving zero part in the revenues of the company.

    And for this to be possible, the debate at IMO and media needs to focus on emissions into the atmosphere and digitalization.

  3. This is either the best satire I’ve read in months or a disturbingly accurate prophecy. Although, with the decline of owner/masters since WW1, and decent Master’s rarely making it to the board room these days, it is hard to see a way out in shipping industry where decision makers don’t live with the consequences of their actions (or inaction).
    I sailed with a dreadful cook once, and he also failed to eat his own cooking. It didn’t go well.

    1. so very true Scott… Just yesterday I was in a conversation with a “distinguished” gentleman (Ex-Seafarer to say the least) who got extremely offended when I told him that I (as a Master onboard) don’t appreciate Micro-management from the office but rather take responsibility for my own ship. His anger was at my incompetence to deal with Micro-management rather than appreciate my sense of responsibility.

  4. I like it! I’m all in in the idea of bringing the whole family along. Ok, maybe at least the spouse!? Get them to work in galleys and it’s a win-win!

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