“It is nothing short of a humanitarian crisis. But what’s being done to address it?”
Knut Ørbeck-Nilssen’s question is rhetorical.
He knows the answer, and you do too, but governments around the world appear frustratingly ignorant.
“There’s an estimated 300,000 seafarers currently stuck on their vessels,” the Oslo-based CEO of DNV GL’s maritime division laments. “Many of them haven’t been home, haven’t been relieved of duty, for well over a year now. Some haven’t even left theirs vessels for the past six months, or more, due to local port Coronavirus restrictions.
“That’s not the fault of the industry – either individual owners or organisations, with campaigning work carried out by, amongst others, the International Chamber of Shipping, seafarers’ unions, and IMO – but rather failings of national governments and local authorities to confront a crisis where few seem willing to take responsibility.
“It’s been pushed to one side,” he sighs, before adding, with a firm tap of the table: “But we need to push it back, right up the political agenda.
“We need action…before it’s too late.”
Recipe for disaster
Sitting in on a Teams meeting at DNV GL’s global HQ in Høvik, a suburb of the Norwegian capital, Ørbeck-Nilssen’s conviction pours through the screen.
The usually calm, unerringly polite head of the group’s largest business area (classing over 11,000 vessels in the global fleet) is animated and exasperated in equal measure by the apparent international impotency on this key industry issue.
“It’s not just an industry issue,” he corrects, “it’s about society itself.”
The well-being of the seafarers is one, central, point, he argues, stating that the mental stress of a wholly uncertain future, where you have no idea when you might see your family again, must be almost too much to bear. And then there’s safety.
“That mental burden, added to sheer physical exhaustion, creates a situation where crewmembers are in danger of operating far below normal capabilities and that,” Ørbeck-Nilssen says, “creates the potential for serious incidents and accidents – at sea, and in port during complex operations.
“These are people that must stay vigilant and alert at all times, but, given the circumstances, how can they perform?
“They’re being asked to be superhuman. They’re being asked for too much.”
Real key workers
At face value it appears governments and societies reliant on cargoes are oblivious to crews. Under local lockdowns the usually complex logistical demands of crew changes and repatriation are multiplied – the system of travel, visas and certification has fallen apart and, it seems, no one is willing to fix it.
But they must.
“Seafarers are key workers,” the DNV GL chief stresses. “The supply of essential goods and commodities is central to the functioning of society and world trade, so it’s my belief that this workforce should be looked after. They should be regarded on a par with, for example, health workers. But, obviously, that’s far from our present reality.”
Global supply chains have already been widely disrupted this year, he notes, and if the key link now collapses – through crews refusing to work, or simply being incapable of doing so – the ramifications will reverberate worldwide.
“Governments and local authorities need to partner with industry and work to facilitate crew changes and implement safe routines as quickly as possible,” he imparts.
“This is a humanitarian crisis we can actually fix, together. So, let’s get on with it.”
Corona conversations are inevitably difficult, and often dark ones, but Ørbeck-Nilssen is keen to communicate that we, as people and an industry, are not helpless, we do have agency.
As such he believes maritime can take control of the pandemic situation, to an extent, using it as a platform for positive development – as a catalyst for something he calls “the maritime renaissance”.
“The enforced changes we’ve had to cope with have accelerated innovation by half a decade and shown our ability to adapt,” he opines. “Traditionally it’s been very difficult to challenge the status quo and find new ways of doing business, but in the past six months we’ve had to.
“The scale and rate of change has been breath-taking; the creativity unleashed genuinely striking.
“There’s no question that we have faced difficulties, and still do (as I’ve just highlighted with crew concerns), but we have been bold, brave and demonstrated our potential to succeed in the fact of adversity.
“And I believe we can build on that.”
Time for action
The renaissance Ørbeck-Nilssen refers to encompasses digital advances – with increased focus on, for example, developing artificial intelligence and improving automation to find safer, more efficient and sustainable solutions – but also what he sees as arguably the greatest challenge facing the industry, that of decarbonisation.
“There’s a step change needed to meet the targets of IMO and wider industry stakeholders,” he states. “We have the ambition, but we don’t have the solutions as yet, and that’s something we must enable.”
In one way his renaissance could be seen as a transition – a move towards a better, brighter maritime future. Cutting emissions is central to that, of course, and here Ørbeck-Nilssen blends his ambition with pragmatism.
“I see gas as a key piece of the puzzle,” he comments. “It’s not carbon free but it does have the potential to bring down emissions by around 20%. Personally, I see that as an important step forward, rather than waiting maybe 20 years in the hope we have a robust, carbon neutral alternative. We need to do something now, and gas has clear advantages.
“Yes, it may be a bridging fuel,” he admits, “but it’s a very long bridge! With that in mind I see it as an excellent solution for the next one or two vessel generations.”
To enable the “renaissance mindset” he envisages, collaboration is vital. We have to “work with the best, learn from the best, and inspire the best” he believes, opening up to a wide spectrum of competence and influence to hone breakthrough innovations.
“Collaboration is fundamental for far-reaching change,” says Ørbeck-Nilssen, “and for that we need the right platforms, like Nor-Shipping for example.”
The Coronavirus has decimated the maritime events calendar for 2020, making Nor-Shipping – which is still in its original calendar slot of 1-4 June 2021 – a natural hub for the industry to regroup, re-energise and start working together to tackle future challenge and opportunity.
The DNV GL executive believes it has an important role to play.
“Nor-Shipping is a fantastic arena to catch up face-to-face and build new and existing relationships across the entire ocean space value chain,” he says. “The exhibition is always exciting, of course, but the value of the networking and knowledge sharing events, like the Ocean Leadership Conference, is key. It’s here where you come into contact with the people and ideas that can give you fresh and invaluable perspectives.”
He smiles: “Put it this way, sometimes you know what you know, but not what you don’t know. At an arena like Nor-Shipping you can fill in those gaps – discover, inspire and be inspired, and really ignite the fuse for maritime renaissance.
“I’m looking forward to it immensely.”
With the socially distanced meeting drawing to a close, Ørbeck-Nilssen is eager to end on a positive.
He believes, with the necessary pressure, national governments and local ports will be shaken out of inaction, coming to the long overdue rescue of crews held captive on vessels worldwide. Hopefully sooner rather than later.
He says, by working together, the industry – supported and enabled by class societies like DNV GL – will find new (increasingly digital) solutions to adapt and prosper, with greater efficiency, safety and a firm resolve to meet decarbonization goals.
“We face grave short-term challenges,” he concludes, “but with our proven creativity, energy and innovation we can address them, while working together towards long-term industry ambitions.
“I’m optimistic,” he smiles, “…after darkness comes the light.”
The words of a true Renaissance Man.