This month we hear from the Director of Strategic Marine Services
When did you first get interested in the maritime sector?
I always had a keen interest in the sea and boats, first learning to sail in the Sea Cubs; on a local fishing lake. When I told my school Careers Master that I wanted to work on Ships or Rigs his reply was ‘That’s what they all say, now let’s look at engineering apprenticeships in Stockport’. A few months later I read a magazine in the school library advertising opportunities for school leavers which included Cadetships with BP and RFA. I applied and obtained a number of interviews, one with [the then] ‘Shipping Federation’ who would recruit on behalf of the smaller ship operators. The federation informed my school that they had assessed me and I was not a suitable candidate for a sea going career, but also did not offer any substance to their conclusion! Undeterred I continued with direct applications and was successfully offered a cadetship with ‘Cunard Cargo Division’ working on a range of vessels from Tankers, Container/Ro-Ro and Bulk Reefer ships (something which unfortunately doesn’t tend to happen anymore), prior to passing my Second Mates ticket.
Do you have any highlights from your career?
There have been many along the way but the main mile stones were; obtaining a ‘Masters Unlimited’ at age 26, and promptly being promoted to Chief Officer on product and chemical carriers operating out of South Africa.
A couple of years later the company I worked for was bought by P&O and I was seconded to the London Office as P&O Container’s ‘Cadet Recruitment and Training Officer’. This gave me an early insight into how shipping companies then operated (and also office politics). Over the next two years I was responsible for the recruitment of some 160 Cadets, many of whom remain in the industry today. When our paths cross it always puts a smile on my face to learn that many are now Masters, Chief Engineers, Superintendents, Consultants, OIMs, Harbours Masters or Nautical College Lecturers (to name a few)!
As Chief Officer I spent three years in part of a ‘new builds team’ working in yards in Germany, Korea and Japan. I thoroughly enjoyed living in these countries and learning the culture as opposed to a fleeting visit to another container terminal. After 10 years understudying as Chief Officer I was promoted to Master of a 1st generation Blue Star Container/Passenger ship – Melbourne Star – trading between the US eastern seaboard via Panama to New Zealand/Australia.
In 2004 I took the P&O Nedlloyd Mondriaan – out of the yard on its maiden voyage, this being briefly the largest container ship in the world at 8450 TEU (a baby compared to today’s 20,000 plus TEU monoliths). This seemed a high point to end my seagoing career and I moved to Hamburg in the role of Charter Operations Manager for ‘Reederie Blue Star GmbH’ (a subsidiary of P&O Nedlloyd) running the commercial operation of 29 container vessels.
In 2006 an opportunity arose to join Strategic Marine Services Ltd then based in Hoylake on the Wirral Peninsula. It took some soul searching to leave the comfort and plentiful perks of corporate shipping and join a small company in relative infancy, however I could see development potential and in 2012 I took sole ownership of the company which now provides plentiful professional and commercial reward.
Who are Strategic Marine Services?
SMSL was originally formed by three Master Mariners working as marine consultants. They provided independent audit and training services primarily based on the requirements of the ISM Code and the Port Marine Safety Code. The latter gave an opportunity for SMSL to provide Harbour Master and Designated Person services to Harbour Authorities. We also completed ad hoc vessel inspections/audits on instruction from Flag States and Charterers.
The business expanded rapidly when The Crown Estate granted major expansion licences for the development of Offshore Windfarms, at the same time DTI policy and guidance required developers to provide a detailed Marine Navigation Safety Risk Assessment (MNSRA) to inform their Environmental Impact Assessment. MNSRA’s require extensive marine traffic survey and analysis including an assessment of displaced traffic. To complete this we developed a vessel encounter modelling tool in partnership with the Geodata Institute of the University of Southampton. Over a period of 5 years we completed work on the MNSRA’s for the Gwynt y Mor, Triton Knoll and the now cancelled Atlantic Array Windfarms.
Around the same time we were asked by Airbus to monitor the build of a purpose built ‘Trailing Arm Dredger’ designed to keep the A380 wing load-out berth (on the River Dee) free from silt accretion. This work lead to SMSL being asked to tender for the crewing and management contract of the vessel which we successfully gained in 2007. The vessel operates 365 with 2 x 2 crew working 4 days on 4 days off. Our relationship with Airbus has continued to grow and we now maintain parts of their marine transport infrastructure bringing in divers and fabricators etc as required on a sub contract basis.
Although the windfarm MNSRA work is now all completed, the construction and O&M service vessels continue to provide a regular source of audit inspection and occasional accident investigation work (mainly groundings). This year we have also started work for insurance interests providing specialist input into large container ship accident investigation.
These days only Myself, Capt. Simon Capes and part time admin staff operate from the office and we have a pool of self employed Chief Engineers and Masters who can be drafted in as work load requires. The dredger crew are all local and are qualified Boat Masters. As Simon and I are not getting any younger we are both looking for suitably qualified ‘young blood’ to steer the ship beyond 2021.
Where do you mainly operate?
Our office is now in the village of Wervin near Chester. Most of our work is local to Liverpool and the N. Wales coast however our PMSC audit work takes us to ports in Cumbria and the Wash.
What do you think is one of the most interesting parts of your work?
The variety of our work means no day is ever the same. Whilst writing this piece I have had a request for advice on river siltation from a harbour authority stake holder, reports on aid to navigation repairs completed plus confirmation that a dive inspection of assets will commence as planned tomorrow. A two day audit booking for August has been received and a phone call from the dredger requesting important provisions required for July (tea & coffee)! I find that PMSC auditing is the most interesting and rewarding part of our portfolio. Our relationship with the customers is one of team work and over the years we have improved and fine tuned RA’s and MSMS’s to meet new demands, most important is to accurately reflect the individual requirements and operations applicable to each Harbour Authority. I was particularly pleased when a ‘2016 MCA port health check’ of one of our HA clients reported the system demonstrated best practice for a Municipal Harbour Authority.
I have inspected some disastrous vessels over the years particularly when vessels have been arrested and the vessel’s Flag State has requested an independent assessment. However in all but one case the many deficits were not due to the lack of wanting or ability of the crew, but due to non-existent support from the vessels owners or managers. Most Masters & Chief Engineers I have spoken to in these cases genuinely want to be proud of their ship – but have not been given the correct tools to implement improvements. This is a clear example that best practice has to be facilitated from the top.
How long have you been a member of the NWA and what do you find is the most rewarding part of your membership?
We have been members since 2016 and were practically interested in gaining an insight into the review and input into the various codes and guides to good practice that the NWA were engaged in. In the previous 18 months we had investigated seven CTV groundings in the Dee Estuary and I felt it was important to understand what the industry was doing to improve and promote best practice.
I was impressed by the talent and experience in the membership and when attending a safety forum and it was clear that the membership was very proactive in this area.
You recently attended the NWA ‘Writing Procedures Workshop’, do you have any ideas for any further workshops or campaigns for the NWA that would help Strategic Marine?
I would be interested in attending a workshop on ‘Accident Investigation’. As with the writing procedures workshop I believe it is important to keep refreshed on latest thinking and alternative ideas. If nothing else, talking to other members is always beneficial in understanding how others approach an issue; which is often food for thought.
Are there any specific challenges that you currently face as a workboat operator/ stakeholder?
For SMSL the pending close of Airbus A380 production means that the requirement to dredge the load out berth is uncertain post 2020, however I feel comfortable that new opportunities will arise. I consider it inevitable that the current scoping plans for tidal lagoons will be consented in due course and construction of these high end projects will bring in a new chapter for the Workboat industry.
The construction of Windfarms further offshore (for example ‘Triton Knoll’ being 18nm off the nearest coast line, commencing offshore construction later this year) will bring new challenges for work boat operations. Decisions on weather windows and the launch/ recovery of daughter craft in an unpredictable environment will require a high skill set in both Management and Operator.
In some areas of the industry I believe there is still an over reliance on technology, or more common, a non appreciation of its limitations. I consider it vital that back up and override systems are fully understood. As many seafarers will know; the highly unlikely does happen. I have experience of a military spec. fibre optic gyro doing the ‘impossible’ when it ‘jumped’ 60 degrees causing the autopilot to order hard a’ starboard when my 66,000DWT fully loaded Container Vessel was doing 28knots. The twin-ring main multi-server computer system failed to change automatically over to the backup gyro, and the OOW and Helmsman struggled to gain control once in manual steering. As we were in the middle of the Indian Ocean the only damage was frayed nerves and some broken crockery caused by the sudden onset of a 30 degree list, but the story could have been very different in confined or congested waters. I was on a ship recently that had similar safeguards in its W2W systems, there is a well documented history of DP failure with multiple alarms often hindering the process to regain control. Joy stick control IPS has been around for over a decade and is a highly efficient and reliable technology; however it should not undermine a Skipper’s ability to perform traditional boat handling. A well known IPS manufacture Operators Manual states:
“IMPORTANT! The boat keeps moving even after the joystick is released; compensate this by moving the joystick in opposite direction.”
(I would also add that a competent operator should have in the back of their mind
‘What to do when there is no reaction from the joystick controls!)