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Thursday, 11 November 2010

Personal communication and information technology access on merchant ships

Just one single aspect of life at sea:- the busiest time for people on board ship is when the ship is either in port or close to a coast. One would expect that is the time when all other issues are set aside, and people concentrate on work, like they do in any other job ashore.

The maximum number of phone calls and emails I get from friends at sea is when they are in port or coasting. This includes Masters going through pilotage waters, Chief Engineers when they are receiving bunkers, and others. It is almost as though the sanctity of "only work" when in port is almost lost on the present generation of seafarers, and this was one of those important aspects drilled into our heads way back when mail came in packets - of paper, not bytes.

But then, fact remains, for a 24x7 connected generation, this is also the only time when seafarers get "connectivity". Both for mobile phones as well as wireless broadband. And as a result what do you have? People on duty in charge of navigation issues, pollution prevention, dealing with shore staff and most of all, snatching a few hours for rest - these very people also have to somehow find time to communicate with family, friends and other beloved ones.

This is being repeated because it is so important now, and there are whispers that accidents were caused because the watchkeepers were busy "doing personal mail". Whether on laptops, netbooks or simply mobile phones. And fishing vessels get run over, amongst other things. For lesser crimes, car drivers go to jail - for long durations.

Likewise, the availability of news, information and other updates, while at sea. Go back to memories of people buying ultra-powerful "world radios", with short-wave capabilities that ensured they managed to receive static infused but audible all the same, music and news from their homelands even in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I just received news that a batchmate of mine revived his old Grundig World Radio - and the Customs Officers were amazed at seeing this vintage piece, took photos next to it. Almost as big as a suitcase, but then luckily, he was entitled to 60 kilos of baggage.

Now match this with this big move afoot, keeps ebbing and surging actually, to try and improve matters for seafarers. Especially in "Year of the Seafarer", whatever that may imply to the rest of the world, since many or most outside the orbit of shipping are still to figure out what to do next about it.

Yes, we are repeatedly told that the Maritime Labour Convention 2010 will address and improve matters, but despite that, there will be a shortage of any number of thousands of trained seagoing personnel - especially on deep sea tanker, both liquid and gas.

Would it, then, be asking for too much that ships complement be provided with the facility of something everybody has at home - 24x7 internet, through VSAT on satellite and similar?

To my simple mind, and having headed a technology company where the same generation of youngsters needed full-time connectivity as a given, this is a holistic solution to a lot of issues at sea. It provides a low-cost benefit, it certainly keeps seafarers more in touch with the world and most of all, it is a step that actively promotes safety by freeing the body and mind of the seafarer when the ship needs it the most.

Ship-owners of a slightly more aware nature have already started providing this onboard, some for more than a few years now. Having revalidated my "ticket" with a whole new generation of young seafarers  in their 20s and 30s, I am aware how internet onboard is now one of their major parameters when deciding where and who to sail with.

And most of all, in The Year of the Seafarer, denying them what is almost a basic requirement is like shipowners and managers making an issue of providing air-conditioning and radars on ships in the "old days".

Good luck. And this article typed out on a netbook while riding the Delhi Metro underground, sent out through a small little USB port linked device, which goes through repeaters and boosters on this train. In some trains, the wi-fi is free, too.

About time ships followed what trains provide?

1 comment:

  1. I actually enjoyed reading through this posting.Many thanks.

    VSAT India