Build it Different And They Will Come

What if ships were built differently – what would it mean to those at sea and the industry. What if accommodation was designed with people in mind first and foremost? What would the effect be? Experts have been pondering exactly that.

Crewtoo Happiness Graphic
Seafarers happiness index



Our own Seafarer Happiness Index has captured a snapshot of what life at sea is like today, and sadly it seems that companies have a long way to go to ensure that satisfaction of crews is a priority.

According to a range of maritime experts, and even common sense, it surely doesn’t have to be like that. Life at sea can be made better, and will have to be if companies are going to keep the best talent.

It may well be that autonomous ships are coming – but that is still years off, and until then ships will need good crews. In the Seafarers Happiness Index, crews have reported having salaries docked to cover “social activities”, such as barbecues onboard. There have been seafarers denied access to communications and cut off from anything vaguely enjoyable.

Our company provides content for ships, but we are proud of providing contentment too. The communications and connectivity our services bring, the movies, news and training from across our company – we exist to make life at sea better, and we know just how powerful the benefits are, for both sides of the equation.


Thinking different


The image of crew being disconnected, and denied a social life paints a rather sobering picture of a life lived in black and white, rather than colour. Seafaring used to be such a different way of life – now, unless things change it will never recapture its lustre and appeal.

We need to think different, to look at the small differences which can mean so much. The market is tough at the moment – freight rates are down and ship operating costs are set to rise in 2017. In a harsh environment we have to adapt or die.

So companies need to get creative and really embrace the ways in which they can have a positive impact on their employees. As an industry it seems there needs to be a radical rethink of the ways in which social life at sea is managed. There is too little formal focus on this, but it is important.

Happy people make less mistakes, they are engaged and interested – so actually ensuring satisfaction of seafarers in the work is a keystone of safety and efficiency, but alas too few companies seemingly see it that way. It is time to tackle this issue, and the cleverest companies know that.


Ship thinking


Building on this theme of making life better at sea and of seeking innovation, the head of one ship registry thinks things can be done different. Dick Welsh, of the Isle of Man Ship Registry, recently wrote a piece in Splash247 lamenting the accommodation blocks on modern ultra large boxships.

He pondered what ships might look like if we asked architects, rather than naval architects, to design the living accommodation. Looking at the latest container behemoth, he wondered what life is like for the twenty or so individuals who live and work in the narrow steel box beneath the wheelhouse, squeezed between stacks of containers.

Accommodation blocks which are so devoid of human touches that Welsh expects most lay persons already think the days of autonomous ships have arrived. As ships get larger and carry more boxes, the accommodation looks sadly ever more pitiful.

One of the world’s foremost urban planners, and pioneers of modern architecture, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, known as “Le Corbusier” famously claimed, a house was a machine for living in. It seems that ships are merely machines that people happen to be housed in.


Get the message


Does it and would it really matter if accommodation and quality of life and recreation at sea were at the core of the debate? From the evidence we have seen, it would have an incredibly positive effect.

All too often it seems that the message of the positive effects of happier, fitter, more engaged seafarers is not getting through. Lest we forget, happy employees quantifiably translate into larger profits. Seafarers who feel the company takes their interest to heart, will take company interests to heart – that has to be a positive.

There is a real danger that there is simply too little enjoyment and professional pride in seafaring anymore. People respond well to positive stimulus, and with the social focal points at sea being removed it is hard to engender a sense of community onboard. This has to change.

Isolation becomes the order of the day. We end up with a situation in which seafarers “eat, sleep, work, repeat” – with little or no opportunity or options to do much else. This is not likely to be a recipe for an enjoyable or sustainable career at sea.



So is the claim that architecture rather than ship design should be the order of the day? What difference would it make to quality of life if architects considered ships and more importantly seafarers?

Firstly we need to be critical and admit that architects haven’t always got things right. Le Corbusier himself was a little gung-ho and managed to create monstrosities which were based on utopian ideals for workers, but which turned out to be incredibly ill conceived. Yes, 60’s high rise council flats, we mean you.

However, architecture is about translating the needs of a space, people and commerce into a structure. So there is a glimmer of hope that an architect could dream of ways that life at sea could be enhanced through intelligent design.

Perhaps a better example of visionary architecture, and of translating it to shipping would be that of Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright was an American architect who believed in designing structures that were in harmony with humanity and its environment, a philosophy he called “organic architecture”. Which sounds much more like reflecting the needs of seafarers.




Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings are the stuff of legend. Perhaps his most famous work is the Guggenheim Museum in New York. A building which has been praised for its sheer genius and spirit of adventure.

Many of Wright’s buildings have become UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and they not only look amazing, they are revered too and deliver on the needs of all that see them, or who live and work in them.

This is the kind of architecture that Dick Welsh would surely want for seafarers. So what lessons could be learned from an architect such as Wright – and how would that translate to making life better for seafarers and how would ships look today if we’d have had a visionary at the helm? Let’s explore some of his ideas…

“The architect must be a prophet…” So the architect would have to see the future, and they would have anticipated smaller crew sizes, they would have seen the demise of the ships bar and shifted the focus into communal spaces and social interaction.

“Every great architect is – necessarily – a great poet”. Ok, admittedly it is hard to think of modern ships in terms of poetry, but it seems that any vessel designed with this in mind would be about the human emotions. Culture and art were once commonplace at sea – that has gone. Perhaps keeping both our cargoes and people in homogenised steel boxes has played a role in this.

“There should be as many (styles) of houses as there are kinds (styles) of people and as many differentiations as there are different individuals”. This is an interesting point – vessels reflect their operational demands, but not necessarily the life and work of those onboard. Smaller vessels with short turnarounds, perhaps they need places for power naps. Larger vessels with more people need social spaces. The styles need to evolve.

“A building should appear to grow easily from its site and be shaped to harmonise with its surroundings if nature is manifest there.” Ships could and perhaps should embrace the sea. Seafarers are housed away from nature. Enclosed bridges, small port holes. Perhaps people need to feel the connection once more, instead of being closed away in a floating factory.

Perhaps architecture doesn’t or won’t readily and easily translate into the modern, safety first, harsh industrial feel of shipping. That shouldn’t stop the debate, and if we are serious about making life better for seafarers, it is important to care and to think of what can be, rather than that which always is.

About Rob Parkin 16 Articles
Rob has worked in the maritime communication and content industry for over 18 years, during which he has gained great experience and insight in to this essential and sometimes misunderstood service sector. Coming from a media background, Rob has developed a passion for the welfare and connectivity of those at sea. Rob is very excited about new technologies and media services that are heralding the beginning of a new digital chapter in shipping.