big ship

AP file photo

Is this container ship Chinese or Panamanian? Both.

Fish slime is slippery stuff, as can be attested by anyone who’s had a wiggly fish squirt from their grasp. But it turns out that fish slime also helps fish slip easily through the water — especially the slime found on some of the fast-swimming pelagic species such as tuna.

A Japanese company called Nippon Paint Marine Coatings studied the “mucous layer of tuna skin” (fish slime) and used the research to formulate a special anti-fouling product called “LF-Sea.” Like tuna slime, LF-Sea traps a microscopic layer of water on the surface of the coating, which makes ships slide along more easily.

This results in significantly reduced fuel consumption and reduced emissions of greenhouse gases — so much so that the Japanese government just bestowed a “Government Award for Global Warming Prevention Activity” to Nippon Paint Marine Coatings. The new coatings are currently at sea on nearly 3,000 commercial ships, mostly big stuff like tankers and freighters.

Flags

Some nations have a strong maritime tradition. Others, not so much. For example, the British fleet at one time ruled the world’s oceans. Before that, it was the Spaniards who dominated the global seas, and who in the course of their sailings discovered the New World (unless it turns out that the Vikings beat them, but that’s another story).

The U.S. is a relative newcomer to seagoing prowess, but we now have a major presence on the world’s oceans. We field what is far and away the largest and most powerful military fleet in the world. But we do not rank first in commercial shipping.

We’re not in second or even in third place. In fact, we don’t make the top ten list, and we barely even sneak into the next ten with a ranking of 20th place worldwide, as measured in total registered tonnage of commercial ships. Countries such as Norway, Portugal and the Bahamas, yes, the Bahamas, outrank the U.S. in the tonnage of their commercial fleets. Can you guess the top three shipping nations in the world? (The answer is at the end of the column.)

There is a reason that these and other relatively small nations are able to boast such large commercial fleets: They offer vessel documentation and registration services on better terms than most other nations. A big shipping corporation that wants to save money can work through the paperwork steps necessary to flag their vessel in one of these nations.

The term “flag of convenience” is sometimes used to describe the registrations of vessels that are documented in this way. In the past, some of these flags of convenience were notoriously lax in their oversight of the ships that were registered with them and were havens for marginal vessels that many other nations would not accept. Fortunately, in recent years the international shipping community has worked to tighten up the vessel inspection standards in many of the world’s nations. But still …

Hello, I am a robot

There is a lot of research effort going into the idea of having ocean-going ships operate without any crew aboard. Autonomous shipping seems pretty straightforward, given that oceangoing vessels typically spend large portions of their transit times running on constant headings that require minimal navigational input from their human crews. Obviously there are tricky navigational feats required of certain vessels at certain times, but if ships could perform their own navigation, there would be a potentially huge savings in crew costs.

And the military fleets of the world have an additional reason for operating without crewmembers aboard: They can send ships into hostile situations without worrying about anyone getting killed. The dramatic success of military aviation drones is probably helping to spur the world’s military fleets to look at doing similar things with robot ships.

But there are technical challenges to be met, including some issues that we might not think about. For example, the U.S. Navy has issued a call for proposals for the development of software and hardware that would allow unmanned military vessels to send and receive VHF marine communications with nearby vessels when needed for safe navigation.

So there could come a time in the not-too-distant future when you might be hailed on the marine radio by a robot warship while you are out fishing.

Top shipping nations: Panama, Liberia and the Marshall Islands, in that order. Did you guess any of them right?

Let’s go fishing!

Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Contact him at 941-639-2628 or Captain@KingFisherFleet.com.

Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Contact him at 941-639-2628 or Captain@KingFisherFleet.com.

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