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The Digital Age in Maritime Industry

Updated: Jan 19

The Short answer is, we are not living in the 18th century anymore. Everything has

gone digital and digitally recording our daily information is a natural progression in

that direction. I can get you around the world using just an old atlas, a sextant, and a

piece of string but seriously folks, is this the best we can do?

The bane of any skipper's life, whether commercial or recreational is ‘paperwork,’ but that my dear friends is the difference between the professional and the amateur; between those who ‘accidents always seem to happen to’ and those who take the job seriously.

Way back when Noah was a boy, I ran a tug around Auckland Harbour, whose principal job was to tow a 500 tonne barge up the Tamaki estuary, fill it full of rocks, and then tow said barge to Whangaparoa where we were making Hobbs Bay marina. Our sole navigational aid was a magnetic compass and a notebook full of compass courses from various points around the harbour. It did not work very well given that a 500-tonne barge exerts a large amount of deviation and was always in a different load presentation or position in relation to the tug. But I was young and had the freedom of the Hauraki Gulf. So long as I did not attract too much attention, kept out of the bosses sight, and delivered the load of rocks on time, no one cared.

  • Rawhiti and Hikarangi towing Pacific ‘rock barge’ towards Devonport. Hikarangi was state of the Ark, she had a Radar!

Compare that to the last major vessel I ran, one of factory trawlers down the Southern Ocean. We had every electronic device imaginable to man, usually the latest in the world, because the profit margins are so great that if we could justify it, the company bought it for us. Where the navigations systems could tell you if you were on one side of the wheelhouse or the other, where we could track the trawl 2000 meters behind the vessel and over 1000 meters down and if they wanted to, they could have run the vessel from the office. Where we could monitor over 25,000 sensors onboard the vessel, covering everything from the auto-pilot, Radars, to cameras and winches. Where we could and did record terabytes of information from the sounders making our own charts of the Southern Ocean (accurate to a few meters and a thousand times better than a Navy chart). Where engine parts were automatically ordered, fuel consumption monitored and graphed against engine pitch. Where every carton of fish (22,000 when full) was bar coded and tracked from being caught and processed, till it arrived on the customer's table. The possibilities just went on and on.

  • Typical wheelhouse layout of a factory trawler, how many of the instruments can you identify? All of the equipment shown is digital, can all be downloaded and transmitted ashore, controlled from ashore, including engine controls, net controls, factory records, cameras, radars, net sensors, trawl computers etc.

Yet we still had to keep paper logs! I would shake my head in disbelief when the surveyor came down the vessel, “just how much more information do you want us to keep?” Everything was recorded electronically, but a copy was also required in a paper format, which was then sent ashore at the end of the trip, until the back office was overflowing with old logbooks that no one ever looked at. Yet on one small memory stick, I would walk off the vessel with a completely updated chart of the Southern Ocean, including all our fishing positions, every piece of information recorded on this and a multitude of other trips, all in a format that I can easily use. Irrespective of whether I had just completed a fish survey and had terabytes of information to be scrutinised by a panel of the world's leading fishery scientists, I was still required by law to write down the noon position in the logbook/catch book which did not even have enough columns for the decimal places we would normally use!

Do I need to go on? The digital age is here, it has been here for over thirty years.

  • Ships office on a factory trawler, not too different to an office ashore. Everything is networked and connected to the shore via satellite communications and email. Where the fish is tracked from the factory floor to the customers plate, from anywhere in the world.

Frustration does not even begin to describe how we felt, However, I am an old seafarer, so I‘m well used to this ideocracy, stemming from bureaucracy. Bureaucracy, by its very nature is conservative, reticent to change and highly suspicious of modern technology, often with good cause. But that is the way of the world, all governmental regulatory departments lag behind their industry and the maritime industry is no different. That does not mean us in the industry should styme the progress of technological change just because Governmental officialdom moves at a snail's pace!

I would never recommend running around Auckland Harbour, or for that matter anywhere around the NZ coast or Southern Ocean on just a magnetic compass, (yes you can do it, I have done it), but I sleep much better at sea knowing that I have the latest electronic systems keeping track of my vessel, which are easy to use and that will notify me automatically if something is amiss. This is the digital revolution which has been building over the last thirty years and is here to stay, making my life and yours so much easier and safer. Because after all, the primary factor driving these technological changes is the ability to do the same job faster, more efficiently and above all, in a lot safer fashion.

There is only one real issue with going digital and that is something called ‘information overload’. The simple fact is that we can now collect so much information and data that it needs to be filtered out. This is where “SeaLogs” comes into its own. At each step of the process, whether that be Skipper, Engineers or vessel/operations managers, we can now access the relevant data, analyse it in both real time and historically, then utilise the material in an easy digital format. “SeaLogs” operates not only as a collection system but also as a filter by compartmentalising the information, thereby simplifying the managerial process and record keeping. So instead of filling back-rooms with log books and other records which are never looked at unless some misfortune befalls the vessel, the material is actively used to quantify the efficient running, not just of the individual vessel, but across a whole fleet. This ability to utilise the information is the hallmark of a ‘professionally’ run vessel or company, irrespective of the size. As skippers we spend countless hours collecting this information, the least that could be done is for the information to be used in a productive manner.

Take care out there everyone and all the best from sunny Northland.

- Captain Maurice Prendeville


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