Government Update

Depopulating Ships

While autonomous ships are the maritime news flavor of the day, the move to significantly reduce crew on ships, replaced by automation, has been ongoing for 70 years.

by Dennis L. Bryant

© videotrinkets/AdobeStock

One lesson that shipowners and operators have learned during the COVID-19 era is that crews can be extraordinarily expensive at times. When the pandemic struck, nations started closing their borders. This made it difficult and costly to arrange for repatriating current crew members and bring in new crew members (curiously, the word patriate is not widely accepted in the English language as meaning the opposite of repatriate).

Nations are now stopping or severely restricting international air travel due to concern about COVID-19 variants.

Some shipping companies have arranged special charter flights and made additional port calls in order to facilitate crew changes.

Some nations, such as Australia, have taken the position that regular crew changes, as provided for in Maritime Labor Convention 2006, is required for safe shipping. Vessels found to be out of compliance have been detained until the MLC provisions are met.

All of these developments have pushed crew costs far beyond what could have been anticipated in 2019.

Among the limited options available to ship owners and operators to reduce crew costs is to reduce the size of the crew.

Coupled with the move to autonomous ships, we can expect to see an increased trend toward increased automation of existing vessels so that they can operate with fewer and fewer crew. That trend has been going on for at least 70 years. Ships in the 1950s and 1960s were mostly steam turbine-powered and had crews numbering 40 or more. Automation of the boiler system and then its elimination through the conversion to diesel power greatly reduced the size of the engine department. Increased navigational equipment and placement of restrooms on or near the bridge allowed reduction of the bridge watch. Further reduction of the deck department was possible when mooring, unmooring, and anchoring became less labor intensive with the installation of constant-tension winches with strategically located controls, as well as lightweight synthetic mooring lines. New paints and coatings diminished the need for chipping and painting. Automated hatch covers also eliminated the need for much hand work.

The deck department took a major hit with the advent of containerization. As the engine and deck departments got smaller, the need for a steward’s department was largely eliminated.

Most current commercial vessels have centralized control of almost all ship functions on the bridge, with more comprehensive automation of navigation, engine control, cargo operations, safety and emergency systems, and communications. The US Coast Guard has set the minimum manning level for large cargo and tank vessels operating more than 400 nm from shore at 26 officers and ratings, but that is just the starting point. The agency has retained authority to reduce this manning further if the owner or operator demonstrates adequate automation and related measures, such as transferring routine maintenance responsibilities to shoreside personnel. Overall, the Coast Guard will consider vessel trading areas, construction, machinery, equipment, operation, and maintenance or management in determining minimum crew sizes.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has promulgated a series of resolutions over the years establishing and refining the principles of safe manning. These principles do not set any specific manning level but lay down principles that flag administrations must consider when setting minimum manning levels for individual vessels. Ships must evidence the capability to maintain safe operations and provide for the safety of persons and cargo on board. Among other things, the flag administration is to consider the size and type of vessel; the main propulsion system; the level of automation; the ship’s construction and equipment; and the method of maintenance used. The maritime sector is transiting (some would say with excessive speed) to autonomous and semi-autonomous ships. The IMO recently issued interim guidelines for trials of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS). Various nations are developing more specific guidance for industry to implement automation and autonomous operation concepts.

It is expected that merchant vessel owners and operators will increasingly adopt measures, such as automation, to depopulate their vessels. Not only will this reduce current operating expenses, but it has the potential to increase the resale value of the ship. Future ships will be designed so as to further reduce crew size, ultimately leading to fully autonomous vessels. These trends did not start with the COVID-19 pandemic, but the coronavirus is accelerating the process. The entire maritime sector, including owners, operators, mariners, classification societies, insurers, and regulators, should plan accordingly.

About the Author

Dennis L. Bryant is with Bryant’s Maritime Consulting, and a regular contributor to Maritime Reporter & Engineering News as well as online at

March 2021