Let’s face it, getting people to work on a commercial vessel, be it large or small or anything in between, and then hoping they stick around is a lot harder than it used to be. Pay isn’t always enough of an incentive to work on the deck, in the wheelhouse, or in the engine room.
Something that vessel and boat owners are realizing that’s much more important than was previously admitted to is the quality of the vessel, loosely measured in terms of “comfort.”
John Myers, president and managing principal of the naval architecture company Hockema Group Inc., Seattle, gave an idea of what comfort might entail. “Not having your ears ringing at the end of the day, not having a headache from working in an excessively noisy environment or an excessively vibrating environment or one that’s too hot or too cold,” he said. “If you are constantly working among people in very cramped spaces, that just elevates the stress level of everybody onboard versus a vessel with more elbow room.”
It’s an issue that has plagued all sizes and types of workboats. There are answers that depend very much on the size of the vessel or boat. To understand some of the approaches to crew comfort, let’s start with the 420'×81', 15,000-cu.-yd. hopper dredge Frederick Paup, designed by Hockema Group and being built at Keppel AmFELS, Brownsville, Texas, for Manson Construction. When it is launched this summer and delivered in 2024, the self-propelled Frederick Paup will be the largest U.S.-built self-propelled hopper dredge.
A building standard that has elevated the crew comfort idea and was used in designing and building the Frederick Paup is the 87-page, ABS-produced Guide for Crew Habitability on Ships, introduced in 2016.
“It encompasses a whole host of things from ergonomics, ladderways, companionways, stair heights, and inclination of ladders,” said Myers, noting that if you are accustomed to going up and down a particular stairway and then encounter something different, or maybe the stair tread is different, “it invites accidents.” Add to those concerns things such as hallway widths, minimum square footage of staterooms, bunk sizes, and minimum lighting requirements. A vessel “built to the standard is superior in most respects to what the standard industry practice had been prior to the standard being implemented.”
The Hockema Group has also designed a hopper dredge for the Army Corps of Engineers. “That one they dictated the vessel be fully compliant with the habitability standards,” said Myers, adding that he’s “getting pushed from some crew unions,” that would like to see vessels being built to the standard.
Early in the design phase for the Corps dredge, Hockema Group had some preconceived notions, based on previously designed large hopper dredges, of the size of areas such as the deck and the wheelhouse. But after applying the new standards, Hockema Group realized that “the deck house needed to get eight feet longer and needed to grow it one deck.” There is “definitely a cost impact if complying to standards because all your spaces grow,” Myers said. The staterooms are 15% to 20% larger than on a commercial dredger, the passageways are wider, and “it all mushroomed into a larger deckhouse.”
From Myers’ standpoint, there is an advantage to a vessel owner who uses the crew habitability standard for a new boat in “a climate with a lot of companies scrambling and fighting among each other in getting crew, particularly on a vessel working long hours and being away from family. Attracting employees is going to be much greater if you give them a comfortable place to live, whether they are on duty or not.”
SMALL BOAT COMFORT
In the early 1990s, Navy patrol boats would routinely hit 50 knots. At that speed, you didn’t sit down because there was no seat comfortable enough. You stood up and got beat up.
But that began to change after Walter Gezari, who bought seat manufacturer Stidd Systems, discovered that the “largest number of worker compensation claims are high-speed boat drivers,” said Bob Clark of MetalCraft Marine in Kingston, Ontario.
That’s what may have resulted in Gezari and Stidd Systems receiving approval for a patent in 1998 for sensor-driven, deck-mounted shock-absorbing seats.
“He was the first,” said Clark. “The shock seats were probably the biggest breakthrough in historical terms for high-speed patrol boats. You were comfortable by sitting, not standing.”
Stidd seats were chosen for all naval special warfare boats and special operation RIBs used by Navy SEALS. “That was the beginning,” said Clark. “They used Stidds in those RIBs and bought a lot of them.”
It led to marine suspension seating systems for the Coast Guard, Navy, and commercial workboat markets, and Stidd was joined by Shockwave and Shoxs in the marine suspension seating market.
Currently, MetalCraft is working on a contract for 67 patrol boats for the Navy, comprised of 22 39'×11'6" and 45 27'×8'6" Interceptor models that will be stationed in various ports around the world. These are not long-range patrol boats. They will basically be doing harbor security, guarding entrance approaches to Navy vessels. The contract calls for speeds not to exceed 30 knots, though they can hit 37 to 38 knots in a light condition and 34 knots fully loaded.
The patrol boats will have Shoxs 3000 series marine suspension seats from Allsalt Maritime.
“They have the functionality of the standard helm seat,” said Allsalt’s Bryan Wood. It’s a pedestal seat that swivels, slides fore-and-aft, raises up and down, and meets the sit-or-stand functionality. The seat is made with military-grade materials, including hard-anodized aluminum.
Though the Navy patrol boats are going to be spending a lot of time loitering in protection mode, they will be used for training, which usually involves high speeds.
If high-speed pursuit is required, there won’t be a crew safety issue as the Shoxs 3000 suspension seats are designed to withstand a 14 G-force level.
“Shoxs seats are a major part of comfort, and comfort quite often translates into safety,” said Clark.
Contributing to the comfort level on these boats is a 3/4"-thick layer of resilient rubber, which Clark refers to as “shock mitigating rubber” that’s on the deck and in the cockpit.
Looking to the future, Clark believes that the next stage in crew comfort for Navy and Coast Guard boats used for port security will be more “spacious cabins.”
A large cabin is needed because port security works 12-hour shifts, which also means bigger, sea-kindly hulls to carry the larger cabin, so the boat and crew aren’t bouncing around going into waves.
He notes that the Navy has a history of avoiding air conditioning.
“The mentality was ‘they can suck it up,’” said Clark. Even MetalCraft Marine Navy boats sent to the Middle East had no air conditioning, probably to avoid the expense and weight of a generator.
By 2020, however, that thinking started to change for small boats, which increased crew comfort.