The shipping industry sails on

Four key players discuss challenges and innovations during the coronavirus crisis

shipping industry

Photo courtesy of DNV GL
DNV GL is an international accredited registrar and classification society headquartered in Høvik, Norway.

The Norwegian American

“With the world facing challenges caused by the ongoing COVID-19 situation, the maritime industry is no exception. However, this industry has shown many times before that it can overcome any crisis and move forward. And one thing is clear: the world definitely needs the maritime industry to move forward.”
          – Allan Krogsgaard, DNV GL

A traditional and people-oriented industry, during recent months, the shipping sector has been forced to rapidly shift gears with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. On May 21, the Norwegian-American Chamber of Commerce (NACC) organized a webinar, “Maintaining Maritime Business Operations in Times of Crisis,” to discuss the new measures put in place to mitigate the crisis.

Four panelists represented four sectors of the industry: Allan Krogsgaard, DNV GL; Laura Sherman, International Registries, Inc./Marshall Islands Registry; Boriana Farrar, Americas Shipowners Claims Bureau, Inc.; and James Knutson, Sealift Inc.

Allan Krogsgaard, DNV GL

Allan Krogsgaard, principal surveyor and business development director of DNV GL and president of the national board of the NACC, opened the discussion with a brief introduction to the panelists and topic, and was the opening presenter. His company, DNV GL, specializes in risk management and quality assurance to ensure the safety and protection of company property and the environment. As the world’s leading classification society, they serve as trusted advisers for the maritime industry.

Krogsgaard described the shipping and maritime industry as a “traditionally very conservative business,” bound by very conservative ways of working, down to hard copy certificates of compliance on the vessels. 

But already before the pandemic, the industry was transforming. These days, it’s not unusual to see a ship’s captain with an iPad in hand, as internet technology transforms the way surveys are completed to create digital certificates of compliance. By the latest count from a couple of months ago, DNV GL has completed more than 15,000 remote surveys, and by necessity, the number is growing very quickly during the coronavirus crisis.

DNV GL maintains a robust IT department, with 24/7 “DATE” service around the globe. DATE is an acronym for “Direct Access to Technical Experts,” a system facilitated by machine learning and artificial intelligence. Computer programs scan email questions and send them to the appropriate experts. For example, the words “boiler on a vessel” will trigger the keyword “boiler,” which will route it to a qualified technical resource, who will answer the question within 24 hours. And if an issue is urgent, a response can be returned within just a couple of hours. 

James Knutson, Sealift Inc.

Companies like Sealift Inc., which operates a fleet of U.S. flag ocean-going ships, have found the digital assistance that DNV GL offers to be extremely helpful. But according to James Knutson, the company’s HSQE (health safety quality and environment) manager and DPA designated person ashore), there are prerequisites for success when employing these systems. Namely, it is necessary to get all stakeholders on board, with reliable systems in place and secure connectivity to transfer the files. This is what enabled Sealift to complete their first Safety Management Certificate audit fully remotely.

Sealift, based in Oyster Bay, N.Y., employs 100% American union labor, operating under defined regulations to ensure their health and safety, and there are strict standards to be maintained. Knutson emphasized that shipping is still a “people industry,” and he talked about some of the strains that the coronavirus has put on crewmembers. 

With COVID-19, human capacity has been stretched, with fewer crew changes possible. Some people have now been on the ships beyond their contract, as getting people in and out of countries has become more difficult. It is necessary to work with sponsor countries and their rules as well, as airline regulations. Vessels have becomes bubbles with 14-day quarantine periods, and the seafarers must be kept safe with protective equipment. 

Above all, crewmembers need to use their work hours to maintain their ship. Knutson stressed that when performing surveys with people in different time zones, it is important to factor in working hours and the mental state of the crew. There can be additional stress when documents need to be uploaded overnight. To make everything happen, onboard crews “must be open to change and stay flexible as the situation shifts.”

Boriana Farrar, the American Club

Boriana Farrar, vice president-counsel senior claims executive and business development director for the Americas Shipowners Claims Bureau, Inc., known as the American Club, called in from San Francisco, where she is sheltering in place. With its headquarters in New York, the company maintains offices all over the world, these days all working remotely. During COVID-19, there has been no interruption in service, with the company on call 24/7, as it works closely with its members, including Sealift.

The transition to remote work had to happen quickly and was not without glitches, internally and externally. The American Club has been able to offer members advice on how to use their computers, and they are maintaining strong presence on social media, including instructive videos.

Ironically, people are now “seeing each other” more often with frequent virtual meetings, and there are weekly and sometimes daily updates regarding recommendations coming from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as Coast Guard notifications, as it is critical to remain compliant with port requirements. 

The American Club’s survey department has remained fully operational during this critical time. Close contact is maintained with lawyers and members, who relay on the American Club for their claims experience—and some related to COVID-19 have been filed. Court proceedings are still taking place during the pandemic crisis, and Farrar confirmed that many U.S. courts continue to be operational with virtual hearings. Private mediations are taking place via videoconferences, while jury trials are postponed indefinitely.

Laura Sherman, Marshall Islands Registry

The fourth panelist, Laura Sherman, is the director and marketing and communications operations technology officer for the International Registries, Inc./The Marshall Islands Registry, the world’s leading shipping registry. 

Sherman reported that by the time the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, almost all of the registry’s offices had been affected. Fortunately, they were already set up to work under crisis conditions. As early as 2004, a decision had been made to set up all offices for remote access, and all employees are able to access systems from their home computers. She noted that this type of operational setup has necessitated increased cybersecurity.

Despite this well-developed infrastructure, Sherman emphasized that the crisis has demanded more flexibility, teamwork, and ingenuity, and that everyone has been forced to communicate better. A COVID-19 info page is updated regularly, and virtual meetings have been set up for fleet overviews. Online educational seminars have been developed for sailors who cannot travel, and remote inspections are now being done globally. The communication is not only needed to share information, but it also boosts morale and camaraderie, essential to maintaining a healthy and productive work environment. 

Concluding remarks

The current crisis has forced the industry to innovate in new ways, and the four panelists acknowledged that many of the changes have resulted in improvements. The industry has been forced to take a deep dive into operational practices and risk management. On many levels, communications and processes have improved. Remote surveys and electronic certificates have pushed things forward, and solid emergency backup plans have been put in place. Working remotely has even benefitted family life for some, so despite spotty internet connections, barking dogs, and kids needing help with their homework, there have been upsides during an otherwise challenging time.

But everyone agrees that it is not in our nature to isolate. Knutson, a self-professed creature of habit, is anxious to get back on the ships. “Managing shipyards is a big challenge,” he said, adding, “As owners, we want to go out, and our port engineers want to go out and take a look at our vessels.”

All four panelists look forward to returning to their physical offices—but only once it is safe to do so. “We need to take care of each other, clients, and society in general by doing the right thing,” said Krogsgaard. 

In the meantime, it will be all hands deck, both on board and virtually, as it is smooth sailing ahead for the shipping industry, key to the world’s economic recovery. As Krogsgaard said, “This industry has shown many times before that it can overcome any crisis and move forward. And one thing is clear: the world definitely needs the maritime industry to move forward.”

This article originally appeared in the June 12, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

Avatar photo

Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.