How to be future maritime leaders: an idea

I am a mariner by training, and I work with mariners every day.

I recall starting school and learning about engineering and deck and talking to my father about the wonderful things I could do if I was an engineer. We were taking a class in welding, and finally, after years of being promised we would do ‘cool’ things in chemistry class all throughout high school, we were finally playing with electricity and fire. I said to him:

  • Me: “I’m learning how to weld and can be a welder as well” [Side note: I was 18, so, obviously, I thought taking one class was good enough.]
  • Him: You don’t want to be a welder; they have machines that automate the process.

Full stop on my dreams to be a welder. To an 18-year-old kid, that was enough to quash any thoughts of that again.

So with that little nugget of reminiscing, I say this knowing full well how it comes across:

The future of shipping is automation.

I spoke of this with a friend who is a teacher at one of the maritime academies. Obviously, their interest is in teaching the future generation, so when I said this, there were obviously a lot of reasons why this COULDN’T be.

But let me reconnect to the anecdote above about welding. I work with welders every day. I know there are some processes that are automated. I also know that there has not been anything developed yet (in the year 2020) to fully replace the welder. So, when my father tells me 20 years ago that I do not want to be a welder because they’re becoming obsolete, its not a universal truth.

So, will mariners be replaced? NO …. but our role is changing. This is the truth as things get more automated and capable of being run remotely. Its uncomfortable to say this to the people who are affected, but that is where I think we need to realize this isn’t something that will just make them unemployed tomorrow.

Fifty years ago, manning on board vessels was well into the 30-40+ range. Now, manning levels are around 20 persons, and minimum manning levels (permitted) are usually around 13-15 persons. So, the progression is evident.

IF WE WANT TO CHANGE, WHY CAN’T WE BE THE LEADERS IN THIS? If we embrace this and change the way we do things, we will come out on top!

The future of shipping is not going to be designed by an automation engineer. The ship will not be run by someone on shore who has never even seen the vessel. Ship’s will never not need people on board doing the work. But it will be a combination of all these things.

The first iteration of this is here. DP vessel’s RIGHT NOW can be run remotely from shore. Engine rooms RIGHT NOW are unmanned for half the day.

If you are a mariner, you have plenty of reasons why this CANNOT happen, I am sure. There are always reasons why things CANNOT be. But, if you can, please envision HOW these things can be. Take some imaginative leaps and bounds with me:

  • I would see the first iteration of this allowing for remote control of the vessels, with operators on board only for emergency override purposes. As for the engineers, I envision remotely controlled engine rooms with riding crews for maintenance work only, as the test bed for totally unmanned engine rooms. In this iteration, the vessels are mostly remotely controlled.
  • The second iteration would be to cross-train decks and engineers so that the manning can be pushed down even further; they are operators trained to take override and emergency actions. In this iteration, the vessels are hybrid of remote and automated.
  • The third iteration would be fully automated, no persons on board. Crews would come on board in port, or, riding ship for maintenance work.

So how can we be the leaders in shipping? Well, the future mariner will not be a mate or engineer . They will be both. We cannot have maritime schools that only train operators, and then leave it up to other engineering institutes to train the designers. There need to be partnerships to build all of this up [and none of this is fast or easy to do]. Our future mariners need to understand automation and how brutal the sea can be. Our future designers need to understand why we still need to tie knots and how to perform FEA’s on structure.

I would like to envision that the Utopian Maritime School would train a cohort of persons to design, build, operate, maintain, and work the commercial aspects of automated shipping. I know its fanciful, but I think there are plenty of reasons why this CAN work.

[Saying this mostly to myself] Now mariners and other marine professionals…let me know what you think.


I agree fully.

One problem with moving forward on this is that there have been a handful of Dual License officers sailing over the years who were infamously bad at both engineering and navigation.

As one of my favorite engineering professors once told me, some have “the linear logical thinking of engineers, and the ego of deckies. It’s not a combination that mixes well.”

That said all the best captains and chief engineers I know have a firm grasp of both areas (and also know how to keep a galley crew happy!).

Personally my career kinda stalled when I hit 2/m but really took off once I started spending a lot of time in the engine room and reading science books.

And you’re right about automation. IMHO automation is not going to replace our job it’s going to create more jobs… but the jobs it will create are going to require more skill and knowledge.


Any future maritime leader had better take some real, university level management courses and maybe a course or two in organizational psychology. There are a lot of very good engineers and mates out there but with the people skills of an earthworm. This is in turn allowing many a seagoing workplace to devolve into a toxic stew of hostility and resentment. I can give an example of what has happened to me, and I will, but it has to wait until I am out the door at my present workplace. Fortunately, that will be soon.


As an engineer, my career turn to tugs and ITBs made a huge difference. I worked a LOT closer with the deck department and I always felt much better rounded as a mariner because of it. It is funny because I can count on one hand, the number of mates (and captains) that ever wandered into my world, though.


I guess I should clarify. The future mariner I don’t think will be what we understand as a “dually” now. (Though, I’m not sure how many of those actually exist anymore in full? Chime in if you are or know one!)

My thought is they have access / experience in the body of knowledge of deck, engineering, operations, automation, etc. It’ll be an entirely different class of mariner. Not better, not worse, just, evolving.

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The French made a bunch of them.

The sinking of the yacht Yogi is an example of the quality of the breed.

I sailed with a German Chief Engineer who did a combined ticket and sailed as second mate before settling on engineering. He sailed his family around the world on a yacht so was no slouch in that department.
In discussion with French officers that had a combined ticket nobody wanted to be the mate.

If you’re referring to Chief Mate (officer), I can say that I do not miss it.

Sounds similar to what is being called “T-Shaped” skills.

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I broke my own rule there and used Brit speak. The mate always refers to the Chief Officer although there is no such position in legal terms where he/ she is simply “the mate”.

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Tell the steam engineers they are linear thinkers. Go on, I’ll just go make the popcorn.


I’m not sure about differences in thinking.

But I think in general people evaluating matters outside their own domain would tend more to take a step-by-step approach. I know I can sometimes get the general contours of an engineering problem by asking simple questions.

For example for a repair that might affect operations I can ask the chief; Do you have the parts? Do you have the tools? Do you have the people and do you have the time? I sometimes can learn a lot by listening to the chief and 1 A/E answer these questions.

LIkewise the chief takes the same approach when evaluating operational plans. It can expose unwarranted assumption, wishful thinking and potential issues.

Emrobu, i don’t mean this in any form of insult, so please don’t take it that way.

Do you know how many steam ships there are still?
I don’t think it’s worthwhile to consider engineers (or mates) a specific “type”. I know
Many people who have those specific license endorsements, and this is not meant to diminish that.

The future mariner won’t be engine or deck though, and they’re have skill sets I don’t think we can specifically define right now either.