Feature: LNG vessel manning - the new challenge

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Feature: LNG vessel manning - the new challenge

By Mike Corkhill The LNG shipping industry is under great pressure to secure the crews necessary to accommodate a major expansion in fleet size. In terms of numbers the current orderbook of 125 vessels represents 32% of the existing world fleet of 393 LNG carriers. Over 90% of this orderbook is due for delivery over the 2014-2016 period and the total orderbook is likely to require an additional 2,000 LNGC officers.

Operators of LNG carriers have been faced with such a fleet size growth spurt only once before, in 2007-09 when 120 such ships were delivered over the three-year period. On that occasion, LNG carrier operators and managers were pushed to the limit of what was possible as regards manning the newbuildings with suitably qualified officers.

LNG carriers have established an exemplary safety record over their 50-year history and it is this performance which effectively provides the industry with its license to operate. Not far behind the safety priority are the high standards of ship reliability, operational efficiency and general good housekeeping that must be maintained. The vessels are a vital part of high-cost projects in which any downtime at any point along the supply chain is likely to have severe consequences.

One of the cornerstones on which the industry’s safety record has been established is the rigorous training regime now in place. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) sets minimum standards for seafarer training and specific additional training is mandated to ensure the safe and proper handling of cryogenic LNG cargoes. Seagoing experience and classroom training are essential elements of this basic training.

The LNG shipping industry also sets voluntary standards in excess of IMO requirements. The Society of Gas Tanker and Terminal Operators (SIGTTO) has developed competency standards for various senior officer ranks on LNG carriers and has published minimum accepted experience levels for such ranks.

Adherence to the provisions of the overall regime established for LNG carriers means that it takes approximately 10 years to train a deck cadet to become a master and an engineering cadet to become a chief engineer.

The fact that LNG carriers represent a prestige sector of the shipping fleet, and a segment in which safety is afforded the highest possible emphasis, is reflected in the salaries commanded by officers on such vessels. According to data just released by international recruitment agency Faststream, the average annual salary for a Chief Engineer on an LNG carrier is USD 121,536.

Such wage scales serve to attract seafarers from other shipping sectors. Depending on their previous type of ship, candidates may be able to fast-track certain elements of the LNG training regime. In this respect the LNG industry was fortunate to be able to attract a number of oil tanker and LPG carrier officers during the previous major crew recruitment drive in 2007-09. LPG carriers in particular constitute a good breeding ground for potential LNGC crew but at the moment the LPG carrier fleet itself is in the midst of a major expansion phase.

Also central to safe ship operations is suitably qualified shore staff and the growing LNG carrier fleet will require, in addition to seagoing staff, injections of appropriate management experience ashore. When searching for a technical superintendent to manage a fleet, or part of a fleet, there is no better candidate than a seagoing officer that previously served on the ships in question.

In a sector competing for scarce officer candidate material the wise ship operators will be those who work with their crewing managers to offer candidates a long-term career trajectory that enables a stimulating seagoing phase to be followed by an equally rewarding shore-based management role. In such long-term seedbeds company managing directors and chief executive officers are fostered.

One area where the current LNG fleet growth phase differs from the previous one is in its increased diversity. In addition to the large number of conventional LNG carriers, the current orderbook also encompasses floating LNG production (FLNG) vessels, floating storage and regasification units (FSRUs), coastal LNG carriers and LNG bunker vessels.

The list of LNG vessels on order also encompasses a wider range of propulsion and containment systems than ever before. Most notable has been the recent introduction of low-speed, dual-fuel engines in which cargo boil-off gas (BOG) is injected at high pressure. Waiting in the wings is another low-speed, dual-fuel engine alternative in which the gas is introduced at low pressure.

Improvements in the designs of the containment systems specified for the most recent LNGC orders have resulted in a marked reduction in BOG levels. These lower BOG volumes are aligned closely with the reduced fuel requirements of the latest, more efficient propulsion systems when they operate in the gas-burning mode. All the most recent LNGC propulsion options are supported by sophisticated power management and computer control systems.

The more diverse nature of today’s portfolio of LNG vessel types itself introduces challenges. Faststream points out that one such is the offerings, to experienced LNG seafarers, of higher pay and shorter rotations by the emerging FLNG sector.

Another development that is having a major impact on the LNG training sphere is the emergence of LNG-powered vessels that are not LNG carriers. In recent weeks the number of such vessels in service and on order has passed the 100 mark and virtually all industry observers are predicting a rapid growth in this fleet in the years ahead.

The bunkering of ships that are not LNGCs with LNG will introduce a large number of people in the maritime community to this new cryogenic fuel for the first time. The LNG shipping industry’s hard-won license to operate will depend on the ability of these newcomers to maintain what is an unparalleled maritime safety record.

In this respect it is encouraging to see that crew training requirements for such vessels are being laid down in IMO’s new International Code for Ships using Gas or other Low Flash-Point Fuels (IGF Code), the drafting of which is now nearing completion. In the risk-based approach adopted for these provisions, three categories of training are identified. Level A is a basic safety course for all crew members, while level B is an advanced course specifically for deck watch officers and level C is an advanced course directed at engineering officers.

Flag administrations participating in the development of the IGF Code are evaluating exactly how these provisions will apply within their own jurisdictions. However, all are agreed that if shipboard LNG fuelling systems are designed properly and crew members are trained adequately, natural gas-powered ships can be operated safely and efficiently.

Owners of LNG carriers and ships powered by LNG stand poised at the start of a bright new era. The cyclical, boom-or-bust nature of fleet growth poses challenges for those planning their manning and associated training programmes. The successful owners will be those that plan early, take the long-term view, adhere to the highest standards and ride out any temporary periods of over-tonnaging as new projects come on stream and build to plateau levels. The rewards are certainly there for those prepared to make such a commitment.

Editor's Note:
Mike Corkhill is a technical journalist and consultant specialising in oil, gas and chemical transport, including tanker shipping and chemical logistics. A qualified Naval Architect, he has written books on LNG, LPG, chemical and product tankers and is currently the Editor of LNG World Shipping.

Feature articles written by outside contributors do not necessarily reflect the views or policy of BIMCO.