Reduction in numbers of workers is a quick way to cut back operational costs. But results can be uneven with a quick fix becoming a long-term liability. The idea of reducing shipboard crew sizes is very attractive for two reasons. First, depending on the type of vessel and its operational patterns, people can account for up to 51 percent of operational costs. Second, downsizing is also aided by a decreasing labor pool, because it is increasingly difficult to get people interested in seagoing careers.
Since World War II, changes in ship manning have been dramatic. The ubiquitous Liberty ship (2,710 were built) of 14,250 tons displacement required a crew of about 50. Today the largest container ships weigh in at nearly 200,000 tons with crews between 13 and 24.
Reduced manning depends on defining “reduced.” A smaller crew size on long-haul routes is not the same that is needed for ships working in coastal trades, where crew workloads are much greater. A prime example of long haul is the Maersk Line’s container ship Madison Maersk. At 194,000 deadweight tons (DWT), this 1,300-foot giant can operate with a crew of only 13. By comparison, the U.S. Navy’s largest ship is the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) at 100,000 DWT and a length of 1,100 feet. Her total complement with the air wing is about 4,300.
Ship missions must govern crewing size, and one size does not fit all. The minimum number of people to effectively operate a vessel depends more on its type of operations than its size. In addition, it depends on how much automation has been built into the vessel.
In commercial shipping the largest cruise ship is much more labor-intensive than a “box boat” plodding across long stretches of the oceans. For example, the world’s largest cruise ship today is the Norwegian Cruise Lines’ Harmony of the Sea. This behemoth is a 200,000 DWT, 1,200-foot luxury ship with a crew of 2,100 who serve 5,500 passengers.
At the other end of the size scale, small ships serving coastal routes require large crews because voyage segments are relatively short and navigation in crowded seas requires higher workloads. Trips are short, turnaround times brief, and ports served may not have highly modern cargo-handling capabilities. This means larger crews are needed to work the ship and avoid serious crew fatigue.
For any vessel, reduction in crew size is primarily driven by the degree of automation that can be employed to reduce human presence and workloads in a high-risk environment. An example is the aviation industry. In the late 1940s long-haul aircraft generally carried a cockpit crew of five: pilot, copilot, flight engineer, navigator, and radio operator. As a result of engineering, automation, and testing, the crew is now two, pilot and first officer.
There is no magic to doing this on board ships. Time between failures has to be carefully considered and considerable redundancy built in. A ship crew barely sufficient to cover required watchstanding will have greatly limited on-board technical capabilities for troubleshooting, repairs, and emergencies. Therefore, future mariners will have to be much more skilled generalists than those sailing today.
A major problem is cyber security, a serious concern in the maritime industry today. Automation depends on secure, reliable communication among all shipboard systems. In addition, navigation and technical-status reporting to home base require use of secure satellite links. Shipboard, navigation, and communications systems can be hacked, permitting outside agents to take control of a ship’s operation. Could sophisticated pirates or terrorist organizations capture cargoes or misdirect a vessel? On a small scale, some of this has happened. If a ship were boarded on the high seas and diverted by cyber pirates, it could take a long time to take police actions.
There is another problem with reduced manning—social isolation. In general, people need people, but with only a dozen or so in a crew there may be little interaction among crew members. Stand watch, eat meals, and retire to your cabin: Many cannot endure this sort of isolation. While it is difficult to attract people to the seagoing life, even fewer would want this kind of “soft prison” existence. Social scientists have been looking into this problem.
Finally, there is considerable work being done to develop unmanned ships for the longer-haul transoceanic routes. Maneuvered out of port by a temporary riding crew, it would proceed by remote control to its next port where it would be met by another riding crew.
Optimum crew sizing is a work in progress. Some tests have shown this could result in more efficient and safe operations. But “tests” is the operative word; the question to be answered is “How much is too much and how little is too little?”