Shipmanagers explain the challenges faced when improving seafarer welbeing and communications providers explain their solutions
New communications technology and digitalisation needs to provide the right level of connectivity and welfare services to vessel crews. Otherwise, seafarers negatively affected by their social media and communications experience could become a safety liability.
Thome Group chief marine human resources officer Hanus Mikkelsen tells Maritime Digitalisation & Communications digitalisation has positive and negative impacts on seafarer wellbeing as communications upgrades on vessels result in increased social media use.
“This is a double-edged sword for our seafarers,” says Mr Mikkelsen. “It allows seafarers to keep in contact with their loved ones and updated on what is going on back home.” This is a positive motivational influence on board and helps mariners cope with separation.
There are negative influences also. “Connectivity exposes seafarers to the risk of depression and frustration when they feel helpless because they are unable to be present to help in emergency situations at home,” Mr Mikkelsen explains.
Deploying digitalisation and creating more off-duty entertainment choices can also adversely impact crew welfare. “Each crew member may unconsciously become enwrapped in their own world of online entertainment in their own cabin and neglect social interactions with other crew members on board,” says Mr Mikkelsen.
Seafarers increasingly expect vessels to be fully connected and have onboard entertainment but they may not be aware of the negative impacts. “Shipmanagers need to recognise the importance of crew mental health and educate onboard management on how to identify and assist crew members who may be struggling with these issues,” says Mr Mikkelsen.
“Efforts must be made to engage the crew through regular group interactions and one-on-one communication, so that hopefully such issues will be brought forward and addressed properly.”
A seafarer who is mentally preoccupied with personal issues “may mistakenly overlook safety consciousness which in turn greatly increases the risk of accidents”. Therefore, shipmanagers should manage onboard connectivity and access to online media to provide appropriate welfare for their crew, says Mr Mikkelsen.
These concerns were raised at Riviera Maritime Media’s Asian Tanker Conference in Singapore in February, where Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement (Singapore) managing director Captain Raymond Peter highlighted issues around seafarer mental health.
In particular, he spoke about the stresses seafarers face, which impacts onboard operations. He said successful operations were about systems, processes, data and people. All too often, the first three can overwhelm seafarers.
Capt Peter said enhanced data and communications can be the cause and solution to these stresses as seafarers can become overloaded with data and social media could have a positive or negative impact.
Other fleet managers are concerned about the importance of communications to crew welfare. At Riviera’s Annual Offshore Support Journal Conference in London in February, V.Group chief commercial officer Martin Gaard Christiansen included crew welfare, onboard connectivity, advances in ship automation and vessel safety as challenges facing owners.
He said owners face tough market dynamics and changing technologies in daily operations. So are their seafarers, who expect better welfare services, especially connectivity and online applications.
VSAT technology, regardless of band, is a good solution for providing high bandwidth crew communications, and is covered in Riviera’s Complete Guide to VSAT. But some shipowners and managers do not want to invest in VSAT and their crews rely on bandwidth-restricted L-band connectivity.
In recognition of this, Inmarsat introduced Crew Xpress in March 2019, as a fully managed crew wifi portal with higher-speed broadband from Fleet Xpress Ka-band satellite coverage.
Inmarsat Maritime president Ronald Spithout says Crew Xpress will encourage owner and operator groups to improve onboard seafarer communications. “We recognise crew wellbeing as a separate connectivity imperative,” he tells Maritime Digitalisation and Communications.
“Certain owners and operators seek fully managed wifi connectivity crew can use on a self-service basis, but do not yet have the business data needs.”
Crew Xpress enables these operators to offer a managed, high-speed crew internet solution “while staying on an allowance plan that could migrate at any time to full-scale Fleet Xpress” says Mr Spithout.
Crew Xpress includes managed wifi Fleet Hotspot, a leased 60-cm diameter Ka-band antenna and a 6-GB allowance plan. With usage payable either through credits or by top-up payments by crew, the package can yield a revenue stream for vessel owners and operators.
Another solution is independent connectivity to 4G or LTE mobile phone networks. Vessels operating in coastal or inland waterways can use terrestrial networks for communications. bobz has introduced shipznet router RA 300 to facilitate 4G mobile broadband on vessels. This provides connectivity up to 60 km offshore at rates of more than 300 Mbps. It has six slots for SIM cards for rapid switching between networks for seamless internet access.
RA 300 router has the latest LTE advanced technology, LTE-A, and is connected to a light-weight antenna. Through its development, bobz improved the software for device configuration and control of communication links for seamless roaming and to enable operators to select their own mobile network providers.
Seafarers can use specialised email services over L-band or VSAT for social and business communications. Email needs multiple layers of cyber security, says GTMaritime head of service Jamie Jones. “Email is the easiest way to get malware on board a vessel,” he tells MDC.
“We have a multi-layer approach to protect vessels from these threats.” The first layer is to “weed out spam and junk mail”, the second layer is to use antivirus programs to check messages for known viruses.
Mr Jones says a third layer of protection is an advanced threat protection (ATP) program that uses artificial intelligence to analyse the behaviour of email. An anti-phishing program is a fourth layer of protection within GTMailPlus ATP secure email solution.
Global Marine Group offshore windfarm support vessel owner CWind has implemented CrewSmart’s advanced management support service across its fleet of 21 crew transfer vessels. Cloud-based CrewSmart enables CWind to control personnel and fleet administration, creating considerable efficiency gains for its operations team.
CrewSmart delivers key metrics of vessel availability and time-on-turbine of offshore maintenance technicians. CWind adopted this service for digitalisation of its operational practices in reaction to rising demand for crew transfer vessels worldwide.
Hanus Mikkelsen has more than 20 years' experience in ship and fleet management. He became Thome Group chief marine human resources officer in 2016 after three years as director of marine human resources with Viking Supply Ships. He previously held director and management positions at Gulf Energy Marine, Nordic Tankers, Elite Shipping and Clipper Group.