Smart Phone Use onboard

With communications in general we have choices, postal mail, email, phone calls, text, a visit. Depending on the situation we pick the one most appropriate for the circumstance.

Yes, if the text message is treated exactly like a phone call there is no advantage. Phone call are better for more urgent messages, text messages are better when a delay in answering is acceptable.

So say for example the Chief is in the E/R and I need to talk to him. If it is urgent, I call on the phone, he stops doing what he is doing and talks to me. On the other hand, if it is not urgent, I text and say: “chief, give me a call when you get a minute.”

You mean operate the way every ship in the world operates? Sure, in routine situations obviously little or no need for phone calls. Things don’t always go as planned however.


Almost always had mine on me for part of the day on the drill ship. I know, i know, write me up and fire me. But, you better make sure that rig manager or ARM doesn’t have his on him either when he’s walking around. Oh, my bad he uses it strictly for “business” when he’s sitting in the drill shack or having a cig on the main deck. Sure i used mine to do personal stuff, but only during lulls in activity or work.

Can’t tell you how many pics i’ve taken of broken things or parts that weren’t easily identifiable. Take a picture and then go search the relevant part of the warehouse or manual. Or sometimes a quick picture to have on hand for reassembly if wire diagrams or schematics aren’t readily available.

The cruise ships i worked on back in 2009 had ship specific cell phones that only had phone and text service on them. Only way to reach someone if they aren’t in their office, as making pages in the passenger areas for people to call back wasn’t gonna happen. A system like that would be very helpful on a large vessel.

1 Like

You can do that on apple watches that have the new software update.

And if they’re not going as planned that’s the exact time for a phone call. Think about that logically for a minute. What would be the point for a routine situation? A text message status report every five minutes? I’m honestly trying to figure out where the text would be beneficial and I can’t.

Even for the non-urgent stuff… if I get a text message I’m going to check it, which means digging the phone out of my pocket meaning that I need to stop what I’m doing and clean up a bit anyways. If I don’t check it then odds are great that I’ll forget about it til I see you at a meal time or run into you in the passageway. I’m just going off of personal experience with not checking my text messages while driving, and I’m sure I’m not the only one like that. The CE isn’t running to answer the phone when you call (at least not in any ER room I’ve worked), it’ll be the duty engineer or whomever is closest to the ECR. If the CE is answering it’s likely because he’s already in the ECR, at which point are you really bothering him?

I’m legitimately trying to figure out what the advantage would be vs having one more thing to carry around and potentially break. Personally I’d appreciate it more if people would call back when the phone times out before someone answers it instead assuming that nobody’s in the engine room.

1 Like

I’ve used explosion proof portable phones on a few drillships. Wish I could remember the brand, expensive but really useful.

Operate on a dedicated WiFi network and tie into the rig phone system. So if you call the Captains office phone, his portable rings too…if he got lost and found himself in the ECR he can still answer calls to his office. Mine worked anywhere on deck. Need a permit signed, just call my office. It definitely cuts down on pages.


Have a look at OpenBTS, you could have some fun with that.

You really are hitting on my concern with a cell phone afloat, in that the bandwidth of potentially requested reports can grow exponentially. Hire good people, and they will tell you what you need to know when you need to know it. It actually reminded me of something I read about Jutland, which while tactical in nature has applicable lessons for all seafarers:

Twenty-Eight Observations from The Rules of the Game by Andrew Gordon

Lessons from the Battle of Jutland
31 May to 1 June 1916

  1. In times of peace, empirical experience fades and rationalist theory takes its place.
  2. The advent of new technology assists the discrediting of empirical doctrine.
  3. The purveyors of new technology will be the most evangelizing rationalists.
  4. Rationalism, unlike empiricism, tends to assume an accretion of vested interests.
  5. The training establishment may try to ignore short bouts of empirical experience to preserve its ‘rationalist’ authority.
  6. Military cultures impart doctrine by corporate ambience as much as by explicit teaching.
  7. In long periods of peace, ‘ambient’ doctrine may be no more than the habits of years in which war has been forgotten.
  8. If doctrine is not explicitly taught, vested interests will probably ensure that wrong doctrine is ambiently learned.
  9. In peacetime, doctrine is vulnerable to commandeering by ‘systems lobbyists.’
  10. Innovations adopted in accordance with peacetime doctrine may lock the Fleet into both systems and doctrine which will fail the empirical test of war.
  11. Purveyors of technical systems will seek to define performance criteria and trials conditions.
  12. A service which neglects to foster a conceptual grasp of specialized subjects will have too few warriors able to interrogate the specialists.
  13. The volume of traffic expands to meet capacity.
  14. Signals ‘capacity’ tends to be defined by how much the senior end can transmit rather than how much the junior end can conveniently assimilate.
  15. Signal prioritizing mechanisms become dislocated in times of overload.
  16. Incoming traffic can act as a brake on decision-making.
  17. The more signals, the more the sun shines on signalers.
  18. The ‘center’ must subject its own transmissions to the strictest self-denying ordinance.
  19. Signaling promotes the centralization of authority.
  20. There is an inverse law between robust doctrine and the need for signaling.
  21. Heavy signaling, like copious orders, is symptomatic of doctrinal deficiency.
  22. The promise of signaling fosters a neglect of doctrine.
  23. War-fighting commanders may find themselves bereft of communications faculties on which they have become reliant in peacetime training.
  24. Properly disseminated doctrine offers both the cheapest and the most secure command-and-control method yet devised by man.
  25. Every proven military incompetent has previously displayed attributes which his superiors rewarded.
  26. Peacetime highlights basic ‘primary’ skills to the neglect of more advanced, more lateral ‘secondary’ abilities, the former being easier to teach, easier to measure, and more agreeable to superiors.
  27. The key to efficiency lies in the correct balance between organization and method.
  28. Doctrine draws on the lessons of history.

Signalling or cell phones, the concepts remain the same.


In practical terms, information flow can be controlled aboard ship. The key is the characteristics of the method used.

For example when I was in the CG the 1MC was in constant use during the day. So and so report to the such and such. Constant, all day. Every message to everyone every time.

Merchants ships don’t do that, never broadcast except for all-hands drills or an emergency.

Mostly we use the ship’s phones or the UHF hand-held radios. During the day, for short, standard type messages, “Captain, agent aboard, on the way up” I prefer the radio. If I don’t want to be disturbed I shut off the radio, if I don’t answer a crewmember on the radio they know to either hold the message, note on the door, or if urgent use the phone.

Long non-standard messages are better on the phone, so for example on the UHF during cargo ops, “Chief mate, give me a call on the phone next time you’re near one”.

And so forth, it requires a little judgement and common sense but that’s a requirement in general for running a ship.


Disregarding any of the many problems with anyone using smartphones on watch, as many do regardless of policy or prudence, I believe the Navy uses smartphone like units (more like PDA’s maybe) that allow them to connect with any of the command staff. They also allow for filing reports that all the departments can see and such. I don’t know if this is real but I’ve heard of it. That could be useful, but imagine the liability of allowing mariners to use their personal phones while on watch for company business, nothing is stopping you from surfing Facebook or gCaptain when you should be steering or transferring fuel. I’m addicted to my phone, I admit, but I am sure to not have it out when I should be focusing on steering and lookout duties.

This reminds me of early discussions about internal email aboard ships. The first time I heard that idea I thought it laughable. But since I started sailing captain I changed my tune.

The communication requirements that I have to meet are fairly strict and demanding. We might hit a half dozen ports in a ten day period. I am required to report specific information in each port.

Last thing I want to do is run around the ship late at night after a long work day collecting the required information I need for my messages/records.

For example fuel figures, typically the Chief Engineer is in the control room and when he see the ship is very close to Finished With Engines (FWE) he calls the bridge on the phone and reads the fuel numbers to the mate. This means that as the ship approaches the pier the person running the Engine Order Telegraph (EOT) has to answer the phone when it rings and record the numbers, usually in the bell book, sometimes on a scrap of paper.

So the information gets transferred at a convenient time for the chief but at a bad time for the bridge, and in a less than ideal format.

Instead I have the chief send an email to the bridge with cc to the captain’s office, the chief office etc. At first “old chief” resisted the idea but once he figured out that email instantly and easily created a searchable record of each port’s fuel number he came around.

Emails differ from phone calls in much the same way text messages do. Email and text messages both remove the requirement that both parties communicate simultaneously. Text messages further reduce the equipment requirement. (A computer on a deck in one case, a phone in the pocket in the other). Also both email and text messages are in text format with a time stamp.


I use my smart phone in the engine room to take photos and sometimes, video of something I want to study in detail or let someone else have a gander at.

We used to do this with those small pocket cameras, but the benefit of the smart phone is the ability to shoot the photo and then send it to whomever without dealing with cables and transferring files.

I like being able to shoot photos when I’m looking for damage, cracks, erosion, leaks, nameplate data, stuff I can’t reach easily or get my head over, etc and then be able to enlarge and get a better look. Also use it when I’m working on something complicated or unfamiliar, for later reference. Very handy.

Also use to get the occasional spectacular sunset.


Calling the E/R to check if they are ready is not a good example. In general I have three ways to get information from the engine room. Call, that gives the klaxon horn and the flashing lights. Wait for a call or go down in person.

Text messages gives another option. For example if I need to see the new oiler to fix a payroll problem, not urgent but needs to be done before the offices closes. Now I wait for coffee time and call. A text would be good for less urgent messages. If sent during coffee no interruption.

Smart Phones are just another device and tool whose utility is evolving for both better and worse. Just like the engine room (and bridge) computer. A great tool for reference, record keeping, communications and the like…but on more than one occasion we had to remove games, movie files, certain pictures etc that were not conducive to work and the reason it was put there.


Besides the ability to text I’d like to be able to screen calls to my cell phone at night.

I don’t like getting woken up to take questions the mate can answer. I’d like to set up my phone so it could forward calls to the mate on watch when my phone was off.

I should add that I usually don’t get calls at night on the cell phone, one exception being late night repairs that might delay operations.

1 Like

Gee - finally you guys are talking about a subject where I actually know something :slight_smile: There are a couple aspects of using a cellfone/smartfone onboard that don’t seem to have been identified here.

First, a fone will connect to only one system at a time, so if you implement a “micro cell” system onboard for internal communications, you would want to lock all your fones to that system. This would mean that any connectivity to the outside world would have to be provided by the ships system - you couldn’t simultaneously also use outside world infrastructure to make calls and move data (Internet, email, etc.)

Second, “Micro cells” are how European airlines provide inflight cell service, so the technology is well-established, as are ways of interconnecting them with the outside - not cheap or maintenance-free, but do-able. In the US they are prohibited by law, so not operative here - this prohibition is only for aircraft, however.

Third, if these systems are strong enough to work throughout a big iron ship, they’re gonna have a footprint outside the ship as well - and this means that whatever country you are docked/moored in will have an interest in making sure you don’t interfere with their own systems.

In connection with the last, I am curious regarding the UHF handheld radios you are using aboard - do they really work from topside to below decks and way down in the engineering spaces? Do you have onboard repeater systems to enhance their coverage? My experience in metal structures leads me to believe that there would be coverage issues with UHF devices (such as smartfones, which are quite low power) on large (metal) vessels.

1 Like



Yes, there are huge dead spots, most of the engine room and many spots in the holds are spotty or dead zones.

That’s almost certainly going to be the case. I wouldn’t expect that mobile phones would extend coverage, just add functionality to existing systems.

Texting On a Cruise: Cruise Line Messaging Apps

Among other capabilities, iConcierge allows passengers to text and call people onboard the same ship without having to use the cell phone service providers’ roaming service. The texting and calling functionality piggybacks on the ship’s Wi-Fi system to avoid the cell service provider

Thank You, Captain!

Cellfones/smartfones are not capable of talking directly to each other on the cell bands without intervening infrastructure, and that infrastructure is complex and expensive. WiFi, however would offer a way to achieve this if the ship were equipped with a WiFi network - and this is probably the best way to interconnect your people aboard, whether thru specialized devices, smartfones or computers with wifi. Some specialized application software would be required, but this is do-able.

The WiFi systems used on cruise ships are a great example of what can be achieved using WIFi.

The problem is the maintenance and security oversight of this (and any other data system aboard) - I doubt the company is willing to invest in an IT person to service & configure these systems, even on a “when in port” basis unless it was necessary to meet a compliance requirement - so it will fall as an “additional duty” on some poor sap - who may also be disinclined to abide by company policy and security concerns…

The ship already has WiFi available in the accommodations for crew internet use.

That’d be me, well I sometimes drag the chief into it too. Most problems that can not be resolved with a simple restart might involve email support from shoreside. It’s very rare to have to get shoreside support personnel onboard.

1 Like

That’s what we have, too. we have the wifi capability and can text.