The cruising sailor’s worst nightmare: there’s nobody on the bridge, the officer ‘on watch’ is in a call centre ashore.
EU funding into remote-controlled container ships that will traverse the world's oceans without any crew have been slammed as ‘mad' by the RYA.
The ships, almost a quarter of a mile long and wider than a motorway could be trading from Singapore to Southampton within a decade.
Rolls-Royce, the British engineering company developing the ships, claims the unmanned ships will be cheaper, greener and safer than those with a full complement of captain and crew.
Oskar Levander, Rolls-Royce's head of marine innovation and technology, said: ‘If you look at most accidents in marine they are happening because of human error - a lack of concentration and people becoming tired. We can provide a safer, more comfortable and better way of steering a ship.'
But Stuart Carruthers, cruising manager of the RYA, says this overlooks the fact that there are thousands of other users out at sea who may not be seen by the robot ships.
‘I have heard of this mad idea and it is true - they probably can operate remote-controlled ships, but that completely ignores other legal users of the sea.
‘You could programme the algorithms of these ships to fit the Colregs, but to put sensors on the ship that recognise small craft under any circumstances is another matter. Radar often cannot pick up yachts and even when it can, these leviathans will not be able to get out of the way in time. It's the sophistication of the decision-making process that worries me. Doubtless it's possible to send ships from Singapore to Southampton on remote-control but what would be the destruction left in their wake?'
Levander said marine technology had progressed so fast in recent years that most of the control of ships was already automated, relieving captains of many of their traditional duties for large parts of long voyages.
He said most of the captain's duties today concern managing the crew and bureaucracy.
Under Rolls-Royce's plan captains will be relocated from the bridges of ships to office blocks akin to air traffic control centres in London, Singapore or Oslo, from where they will control fleets of ships on big screens.
‘Maybe a captain can operate 10 ships... it might be easier to have a pool of 10 captains in control of 100 ships,' said Levander, a Finn working at Rolls-Royce's Blue Ocean research centre in Ålesund, Norway.
These armchair captains will watch ships crossing a computer screen until they approach port, which is when a full bridge simulator with 360° views, will take over.
Levander brushes aside concerns that the ships could pose a danger to other seafarers. ‘We have drone aircraft flying, we have [drone] helicopters, we have Google cars - these are situations where you need to react in a fraction of a second, with ships you have a lot of margin.'
The technology, which will be tested on a real ship off the coast of Ålesund in the next few months, will be used only on bulk cargo vessels and not passenger ships.
Approval will have to come from the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the global regulator of shipping. But Levander reckons that in time, more than half of the world's bulk cargo ships will become remote-controlled, with container ships following later.
The EU is funding a £3 million study into remote navigation.