Part 6: Perspectives on Safety in Yachting
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The use of technology onboard marine vessels has played an invaluable role in ensuring the safe arrival of sailors and crew members for hundreds of years. Mastering the art of navigating through the open seas was largely achieved through the development of early navigational technology.
The British Government between 1737 and 1828, recognizing the importance of mastering this technology, offered large sums of money for significant discoveries.
Sir Isaac Newton gave us the reflecting quadrant, soon to be replaced by the octant then ultimately, the sextant. 1899 was the year the first radio communications were used to request assistance at sea. July 1974 saw the start of the satellite age and evolution of what we now know as GPS.
We have come a long way since those days and the marine industry has relied on the continual evolution of its critical technology to advance and improve the safety standards to which it operates.
But the superyacht industry is notoriously slow to respond to change.
Superyachts are incredibly complex and integrated structures. Systems and components are built into the very fabric that make up these vessels and as a result, change can often be a slow and costly exercise. The construction process of a new yacht is a symphony of organisation, planning and collaboration. Shipyards bring together thousands of components and use technology that is often tried, tested and proven.
This can mean the technology being used is already a number of years old. In addition, a build can take as long as 1-3 years so at the time of release, a ‘new’ build can have technology that is between 1-5 years old.
Migration from the Commercial Sector
The technological advancements we see in the superyacht industry can be attributed largely to the commercial shipping industry which relies heavily on operational efficiency to maintain profits and keep shareholders happy. And this focus on efficiency-improving technology means it is often seen to be on the front foot of innovation.
Meanwhile during the late 1990’s the superyacht industry was expanding at a rapid rate and an increase in the number of yachts opened up employment opportunities for crew. This prompted a migration of skilled crew from the commercial sector to the white boat industry, bringing with it new ideas and new technology, driving innovation, improving safety for owners and crew and increasing the reliability of equipment onboard.
So the last 20 years have produced significant advancements and, at times, we are guilty of taking these for granted. Inevitably the debate rages around the most important advance of recent years but we can identify some which have totally changed the industry as we know it.
"The internet is so slow here" is a common complaint faced by engineers, but wind back the clock five years and we were hearing “There is no internet here”. Connectively is arguably the greatest technological change we have seen. Advancements in VSAT, the roll out of high speed 3 and 4G internet as well as innovations including Google’s “Project Loon” are making global high speed internet a reality. And now with video streaming services commonplace ashore, it will soon be a reality onboard superyachts.
Modern technology onboard has also had a positive impact on the lives of crew. Greater connectivity puts support networks at the end of our fingertips via websites and troubleshooting forums, while sending images of faults via cell phones has become standard procedure for engineering departments, a feature we could not have comprehended 10 years ago. Greater connectivity also allows crew to maintain closer relationships with family and loved ones while away at sea.
Tracking & Diagnostics
Engineers are on the cusp of a digital revolution regarding the way they monitor and track their equipment and maintenance, with a signficant increase in integrated equipment diagnostics. Advancements in sensors, gauges and automatic shut off mechanisms all protect critical onboard equipment and provide engineers with a safeguard for when their backs are turned. Recently, I met with the Chief Engineer of a 60m yacht in South Florida. Mid meeting his phone sent off a series of beeps which he informed me was an email alert of the location of the vessel's tender. “Heading north on the intercostal” he said casually.
From the wheelhouse to the engine room to the interior, automation now plays an integral role in the daily running of any busy superyacht program. I challenge you to find a yacht without an autopilot or an engine room without an automated fuel shut off value. Automation also greatly improves the efficiency and allocation of resources onboard and, where once a yacht would require 10 crew, it can now safely operate with eight.
Diesel engines have also seen their fair share of investment to improve carbon emissions and improve engine efficiency. With the introduction of hybrid engines and a greater social emphasis on reducing our carbon footprint, we can expect to see more resources poured into improving how we propel and power future vessels.
The engine room has arguably seen the greatest impacts of automation. An ship's entire bilge system is an intricate network of automated pumps, float switches and display panels. However, there are inherent risks when we choose to place a high degree of trust in the automation we now live by.
The Limitations of Automation
In our line of business, we work with engineers daily. We hear the horror stories of when things go wrong and we have lost count of the scenarios where an assumption has been made based on an automated process which has ultimately ended in a failure of sorts.
High levels of automation can pose a threat to the passing on of a unique set of skills which the industry’s best engineers posses. Effective engineering is the art of not only maintaining equipment at its optimal operating condition but, more so, the ability to anticipate potential issues before they eventuate.
This is largely achieved by human senses: sight, smell and touch. It may sound a little light winded but the best in the business gather more information from listening to how a generator starts, or viewing the exhaust and touching components for temperatures than by staring at a set of gauges.
Automation runs the risk of producing a generation of hands-off engineers who place an unsafe level of reliance on these displays that provide us with critical information. use the analogy of the sight glass v the digital display. In a life or death situation, I would bet my house on the best engineers referring to the sight glass for an accurate account of fuel onboard.
Technology and automation will surely propel the superyacht industry into the next generation, but automation still depends on individual components and, by nature, components are susceptible to failure. The most successful yacht programs will therefore use automation alongside a documented and structured manual check process.
Technology will continue to evolve and improve with user feedback and ongoing investment, but implementing the most appropriate technology for your particular yacht will lead to a more efficient, safer and more reliable vessel.
I recently stepped inside an engine room that had a great message on the wall: ‘Leave it better than you found it’. This ethos can be applied to all aspects of running a superyacht program. Adopting new technology, trying it and testing it, is the only way we as an industry will open ourselves up to improving the way things have always been done.
About the Authors
The creators of Seahub, Matt Hyde and Sam Wheaton have spent a lot of time together. They were next door neighbours at college, travel buddies during a ski season in the Colorado mountains and both long time yacht engineers who have worked onboard yachts ranging from 116ft to 264ft for over a decade combined. The result is an intuitive yacht maintenance software built by engineers for engineers.