Years ago, when an operator decided to design and build a new workboat, there usually wasn’t much thought put into crew comforts. A bunk, a galley, a head — sometimes a bucket or over the rail — was enough. If someone didn’t like it he might quit. That was OK because it wasn’t hard to find a replacement, since guys moved around a lot back then.
Bob Pelletier at Blount Boats in Warren, R.I., remembers a boat the shipyard was building where the crew would practically be “sleeping on top of each other” because there was so little room. That changed about 2006 when Nancy Blount took over the company, and “she decommissioned passenger cabins and gave them to the crew. Then the crew got to spread out.”
These days crews generally have some personal space and maybe amenities such as a shower, TV and Wi-Fi. But in comfort terms, there’s still a long way to go, both for those working on the boats and the industry.
Crew comfort “definitely remains an issue, especially for the U.S. fleet,” said Jonathan Parrott of Jensen Maritime in Seattle. That’s because “the number of millennials that want to go to sea is dropping. It’s just not there to support the industry. They are going to need creature comforts.”
On boats that aren’t liveaboards, such as some fire and rescue, law enforcement and military patrol boats, improving crew comfort often means taking “a hard look at ergonomics,” said David Hunt with Silver Ships in Theodore, Ala. Take the leaning post in a Silver Ships center console boat, which, until about a year ago, had been “essentially just a box you could scooch up on if you needed to, but it wasn’t meant to be anything comfortable.”
Now that leaning post design has been embellished with the option of having a flip-down seat. “You can flip it up and it functions as a leaning post,” said Hunt. Flip it out and someone “can sit down and not have to be standing the entire time they are operating.” He said Silver Ships does it a lot with center consoles in the 26' to 32' range, RIB or non-RIB. It’s now a standard design feature. Put a Skydex seat cushion insert inside the seat’s cushion and you get extra shock-mitigation protection. The cushion is normally closed-cell foam, while the seat cushion insert is basically plastic bubbles, so when the boat slams down off the top of a wave, “your deceleration is a little more elegant,” said Hunt.
Something not related to the operation of a boat but has proved popular is the placement of cup holders. It’s “actually a big deal,” said Hunt, and now “cup holders are standard on all vessels in spaces occupied by crewmembers.” Things like this, he said, “makes life a little bit nicer.”
For a lot of boats, especially smaller boats that are tight on available space, it’s not possible to increase the size of crew cabins and so the focus turns to “improving the amenities,” said Brian King with Elliott Bay Design Group (EBDG) in Seattle. “That’s what we try to do.” That means “light, bright surfaces, good lighting and comfortable,” plus a focus on noise isolation and reduction, especially structurally transmitted noise. King said the big three sources of noise reduction are engine, propeller and ventilation noise.
The propeller pulse, he noted, “transmits itself through structures and gets in all kinds of annoying places.” To isolate that vibration noise, EBDG has been using more resilient mounts on engines, instead of hard mounting equipment.
HVAC machinery is another source of noise that King said deserves close attention. Installing individual temperature controls in cabins is one way to reduce cabin noise, as is running the air at lower velocities through the ducting. “We pay more attention to the flow disturbance, so it reduces the noise in the cabins.”
Gladding-Hearn Shipbuilding, Somerset, Mass., has “always leaned towards stiff engine mounts,” but is now going with softer engine mounts, said Peter Duclos, the shipyard’s president. “In the last year or two some of the mounts have gotten quite good. They are more robust and isolate engine vibrations over a wider range of frequencies.”
Engine mounts in a Gladding-Hearn pilot boat have to be very durable for, as Duclos will tell you; “Remember pilot boats are crashing into a ship for a living. That’s what they do.” Though pilot boats do break mounts from time to time, he feels the newer softer mounts are robust enough to take the abuse.
Mounts of a much larger size went into the 70'6"x24'4" crew transfer vessel Atlantic Pioneer, built by Blount Boats in 2016 for Atlantic Wind Transfers. The CTV, the first built in the U.S., was designed to take 12 wind farm technicians on a 90-minute ride out to an offshore wind farm tower.
The cabin for the technicians was designed as a separate structure and mounted on heavy I-beams that were bolted to what Pelletier described as “12 huge isolation mounts” that had been bolted to the deck. “It was the first time we had done anything like that. You could almost whisper to the guy across the way from you.” It was also very quiet in the wheelhouse: “70 decibels while under full power.”
Another tool in the struggle to makes vessels more comfortable is a heavy-duty coating designed to reduce airborne structural noise and dampen vibrations, while at the same time having some heat-insulating qualities.
Mascoat’s Sound Control-dB is an acrylic spray application coating that can be applied to a vessel’s walls, stiffeners, piping, basically any surface on a boat. Jensen Maritime first used the coating on Seattle fireboats several years ago and now “it’s pretty much specified on all our boats,” said Parrott. He estimates it is two to three times the thickness of regular paint.
Looking to the future, a technology that is not mainstream yet is noise cancellation technology, often called white noise, King said. It is employed to counterphase noise frequencies. A microphone picks up a sound frequency and produces a counterphase to that noise, essentially neutralizing it. “It’s employed in some areas but I haven’t seen it done on tugs or workboats.”
Something else that hasn’t made it into the workboat market yet is designed to improve a boat’s comfort level by reducing its rolling motion. This would improve the comfort level from, in some cases, downright sickening or hazardous to at least bearable if not comfortable. That’s the gyro stabilizer, which generates a stabilizing torque to oppose a boat’s wave induced rolling motion. They have been used with some success in yachts.
Can a gyro stabilizer give a workboat a comfort motion? Parrott said Jensen Maritime investigated the use of gyro stabilizers for some workboats but so far haven’t added a gyro stabilizer to any of their designs. It especially doesn’t seem to be a good match for a boat that employs a crane off its side for an extended period.
“The boat has a tendency to heel to that side,” Parrott said, and the gyro stabilizer eventually settles into that heel angle. “When you bring the crane aboard, it takes awhile for the boat to settle to zero heel. So, there might be issues with a gyro stabilizer.” Perhaps someone will figure out how to solve that glitch. It would make life on a workboat a lot more comfortable.
At the end of the day, enhancing crew comfort is all about making daily life on a workboat acceptable, instead of an impetus to find another occupation, preferably land based.
King echoes Parrott’s sentiments when he emphasizes that “it’s absolutely true we have to make life at sea on a workboat more attractive to new generations of people. There are too many alternative, desirable ways to be employed without having to go to sea and put up with a lot of additional uncomfort and noise.”