An examination of the key benefits of assigning stable or fluid crews within the Merchant Shipping Industry(III)


Optimum time for stable crewing

The research indicated that the optimum time respondents recommended to keep the top four officers on board together varied depending on the stakeholder group, with seafarers putting forward the highest time, averaging 2.5 years, followed by ship owners and managers averaging two years (Figure 11). Variations in the data responses were subjective and depended on the length of the average voyage time experienced in relation to the top four officers’ rotation pattern, and the respondent’s own experience of how this played out. It was also acknowledged that

“[optimum time is] Very subjective and fully depends upon the 4 individuals [top 4 senior officers]. Companies should carry out annual interviews with senior officers and their views on this should be sought (as well as on other matters).”

Some respondents offered different optimum times depending on different job roles.

For example, Respondent, Manager , thought that the Captain, Chief Engineer, Bosun and the Cook should work together for a minimum of five years on board with no maximum time limit. Respondent, Manager 1, felt that the optimum time was two to three years but only for the Master, Chief Engineer and Electrician. Other respondents were more specific about the stable rotation patterns for the senior top four officers, for example:

“They should be together as much as possible, preferably rotating on a 1:1 basis. Then, after 18-24 months changes should be made ensuring the senior officers are paired with other senior officers...”
(Manager 17)

Implementing an optimum time for stable crewing was thought to provide adequate time for the following:
“... [the] development of relationships, understanding of work ethics and preferences. Additionally, allows for implementation of practices and sufficient time to observe results of that. The maximum time then allows for bits of good practice to be disseminated across other ship in the fleet”
(Manager 23)

Another respondent has added that working within an optimum time limit can help engender familiarity and trust which helps to promote trust between crew and officers and more efficient ways of working.


“Over a year leads to huge familiarity on the vessel meaning other crew can ask and get an accurate answer easily.”

However, from the seafarer’s perspective there was one train of thought that suggested there was no optimum time limit and that working together should rather depend on productivity on board.

“ long as the team work well together and continue to do so.” Another seafarer indicated that circumstances beyond their control, such as sickness, will mean that it would be difficult to implement an optimum time on stable crewing.

“No limit [for an optimum time] as promotion, sickness, personal circumstances, ship disposal etc. will cause a split but it would normally be one at a time giving the replacement chance to fit into the team.”





The research data showed clear evidence that if team stability exceeded an optimum time, negative impacts would start to take place, with complacency setting in.

“a couple of years, after that time [optimum time] the team becomes stale and also people begin to get on each other’s nerves.”


An attitude of ‘this is how we’ve always done it’ can set in. This increases risks and can compromise safety

“ .... they’ve always done it their way, and don’t like the inevitable changes if there’s a better way. ”

 “[ The crew can become too] resistant to change and accepting [of] the status quo. ”

The research indicated that by keeping teams together for too long there was also a risk of normalising deviance. For example, taking a safety risk could become the norm on a vessel if dangerous behaviour becomes accepted or unchallenged. This may happen

“Localised deviation from company standard procedures.”

The element of complacency was one of the key components that research respondents noted in favour of fluid crewing, indicating that a pair of ‘fresh eyes’ was important in keeping or raising safety standards and challenging behaviours that had become the norm because they had not been challenged.

“ ... avoid blindness to technical faults of the Engine installation (like it has always been like this  ??!!) So rotating and fluid interchange of personnel, also to avoid fall outs.”

Although the data showed that the optimum time to keep a stable top team on board varied, the on board culture, determined by leadership and management of the top four senior officers could make the vital difference to a good or bad voyage and highlighted the on­going requirement to adequately train senior officers in leadership skills.

Work relationships

Vessels are manned by groups of seafarers who are required to perform as teams. Team working is often defined as:
“A group of individuals working collaboratively to achieve the common goal.”

Understanding the stages a team goes through as it develops and progresses to high performance is especially important in the context of team fluidity and frequently changing crew (within a team). According to Bruce Tuckman’s Team Development Model (1965), there are four fundamental stages that a team will go through as it evolves to high performance: Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing.

At the outset a group of individuals come together; Tuckman called this the ‘Forming’ stage. People are typically a little anxious, reserved and polite until they work out what is expected of them. The next stage is called ‘Storming’, as individuals get to know each other, there is a vying for position, pushing against the boundaries and conflict often occurs. Differing working styles can cause friction within a team and this phase can feel uncomfortable with some team members left feeling stressed. Individuals may not feel that there is anyone they can speak with, particularly as they will not have had time to develop strong relationships with colleagues during this stage. If the team remains together and differences are resolved, the team moves into the ‘Norming’ phase, where appreciation for one another’s strengths, socialising together and supporting each other will occur. Finally, reaching the ‘Performing’ stage, structure and processes are in place and the team members work seamlessly together. Work appears to require less effort and it can feel like you are part of the ‘dream team’.

Tuckman suggests that when a team member leaves and another joins, the team reverts to the first stage of ‘Forming’ and the cycle repeats. Therefore, it is possible for example, that with a previously high performing team, with a change of command and different leadership style and culture, that this can cause the team to become stuck in the ‘Storming’ phase, perhaps struggling to find common understanding on the previously agreed ways of working together.

Tuckman’s model shows that if a team is stable for long enough and reaches the ‘Performing’ stage, a supportive, ‘team spirit’ environment is developed alongside a sense of belonging. Tuckman’s model highlights the following points which are meaningful for stable and fluid crewing. These points are directly supported by the research.

- Forming relations at work can provide a seafarer with someone to talk to, in turn this can reduce stress and risk of isolation.
- Trust develops between crew once they have passed the ‘Storming’ phase and they are more able to focus on the tasks and look to improve efficiencies.
- If relationships break down between, for example, the top four senior officers, the crew may dread going back to the vessel knowing the friction they will have to face, in turn putting stress on the junior crew.
- It is recognised that breakdown in communications are the most common causes of conflict and tensions in the workplace and are often seen during the ‘Storming’ phase.
-  Frequent changes of crew will put the team back to forming and storming.
- As relations on board improve, so will the communications.
- If crew know and trust their leader, they are more likely to communicate upwards, which engenders improved safety outcomes.
- However, if the top four become a clique, they can ‘distance themselves’ and reduce the upward flow of communications.
- Some leaders may lead through fear, which tends to prevent crew from speaking up; this includes the shoreside staff.



Le Goubin (2012) recognised the importance of good communication between the master and officers and the need for effective leadership in taking charge of their teams. Good communication and trust, which develops over time, are key elements in promoting safe practice and crew well-being on board. It also takes time for crew to feel that a senior officer is approachable and for a good working relationship to develop. Having a stable top four officer team in place alongside strong leadership skills, is more conducive to the development of good working relations and a better reporting culture where safety concerns can be aired without the fear of recriminations. The relationship between the master, shore and charterer also needs to be developed over time and good communication is, again, vital to this process.

“It is important to maintain authority and respect however, also important that you are approachable, and crew can come to you with concerns.”

 “Communication is important and the empowerment to intervene and speak up is also very important.”

Accountability, performance and trust

The research showed that accountability, trust, increased crew ownership and responsibility are developed within a stable crew environment, often meaning that greater care is taken over maintaining the vessel, as the top four senior officers will be returning to it. Individual accountability is also likely to improve, which means that standards, and consistency of applying them, are raised.

“A sense of ownership of the vessel and pride in their work”.

 “.. our employees get a special feeling with their working environment, with their vessels, with the tools they are using... they handle their stuff with care because they are well aware that they have to return...”.

 “And when things go wrong crew can’t blame someone else, because they were the ones on board previous y too. ”

With the knowledge that the top four senior officers are returning to the same vessel and handing over to the same opposite number, the time required for handovers is significantly reduced, as demonstrated by the quotes below.


"... if you get the same crew on the same ship and they know the ship, they’re going to make fewer mistakes, they’re going to care about the ship and I think the standard of maintenance and, literally the condition of the fabric of the vessel, is going to be better with crews who think of it as home.”

 “.. you can reduce the hand over periods, so if the two Masters are changing over, it’s not like a new Master is coming and you have to give him time to familiarise himself which could require an overlap of 7 days ....”

Mentoring and progression

Investment in the crew has positive implications for retention within the industry. Crew stability promotes this investment in people and sees it pay back over time in terms of reduction in recruitment costs, shorter hand-over times, and the greater sense of well-being and ownership that crew feel when valued. Mentoring, supporting training and personal development should be part of the investment made by shipping companies, and is particulary beneficial within a stable crew environment which lends itself to the development of work relations and a safer on-board culture (Pike et. al, 2019).

Where mentoring schemes or management and leadership training have been successfully implemented, organisations have been able to reduce expenditure related to safety, health, well-being and crew turnover. Cost savings where, for instance, fewer off -hire and vessel damage instances occur, can be made. Mentoring can be a long-term investment which ideally works best within a stable crew environment where mentor and mentee relationships have time to develop and flourish.

Stable crewing may provide greater opportunities to develop relationships, and the desire to invest time and energy into training. However, the data showed that there may be a risk associated with this investment where individuals may be held back from leaving as they have become too much of an asset to let go.

“.. the Captain’s desire not to lose the chief officer or second officer that he or she really likes is going to breed a degree of selfishness, so bizarrely it could hinder career the same token you’re going to care more about them so you’re more likely to mentor them...”


On the positive side, investment of time and resources into mentoring can provide demonstrable benefits to safety on board and crew welfare (Pike et al., 2019).

Promotional opportunities

A key area of concern regarding stable crewing relates to promotional opportunities when the top four officers are working back to back. There tends to be less movement between jobs in this situation, as the opportunity to move up the ladder is significantly decreased.

The opposite may be expected within a fluid crewing environment, as one recruiter mentioned as a benefit of fluid crewing.

“Room for promotion and improvement.”


One company spoke about promotions ideally taking place on a vessel that the individual was already familiar with.

“...they get promoted on the ship that they are already on – you’ve been Chief Officer on the ship, so you know the ship and then they get promoted..... he knows the ship, he knows the people and you know he has got less to worry about as a Master”

However, it can be hard to find the opportunities for promotion in a stable crewing environment. This points to the use of manning pools within a fleet, so that officers and crews can be mixed within a wider pool, offering greater promotion prospects, but with an element of stability of working within the same fleet and vessel types.

Impact of nationality

Nationality was frequently mentioned in conjunction with different leadership styles and culture. The mix of nationalities on board needs to be carefully considered for the impact it can have on the crew and on-board culture, stemming from varying leadership and communication styles.


“There are certain styles of management which stem from national upbringing, often these do not fit well with other nationalities.”


Potential language barriers were also mentioned, as was the risk of isolation when there is only one person of a certain nationality on board.


“Mixed nationalities often equal social isolation. I've often been the only Brit onboard and it gets very lonely. I'd often be completely unaware of what was going on as I didn't speak Norwegian. Very, very frustrating.”


Well-being summary

The research has shown that stable crewing supports an environment where time and investment in people will produce the most benefit for individual well-being and that of the entire crew by increasing standards and performance.

“If you’ve got a stable team, you’ve got plenty of time to invest in management, leadership, team development, because if you know there’s a very good chance you’re going to be working together for two or three years or longer, then it’s worth investing that time and effort into developing the team into the most effective it can be. ”

It is evident that there are significant benefits to crew wellbeing when there is team stability for the top four senior officers on board. A stable working environment can provide opportunities to build effective work relations, best practice and high standards. However, regardless of the manning strategy adopted, the significant influence the leadership has on the culture aboard cannot be underestimated. Poor leadership whether fluid or stable can have a detrimental effect on crew wellbeing. Organisations, recruiters and the wider industry need to provide greater support to the leaders afloat.

External factors

Figure 12 shows the various external factors that shipping companies need to be aware of when considering their crewing structure. These factors include global and country specific regulations, charterer impacts and the global market conditions at the time of consideration. Crew availability, nationality and the agency costs and recruitment process, all have a part to play. Figure 12 highlights the number of times these external factors were mentioned by survey respondents in relation to stable and fluid crewing, with compliance and regulation noted to have the greatest influence on the crewing strategy.


Some of the external impacts (Figure 12) such as audits and TMSA [Tanker Management Self- Assessment], associated with compliance and regulation, were mentioned by a ship owner/manager as underlying causes for having to terminate their stable crewing strategy.

“Unfortunately, there are a lot of factors which destroyed our stable team policy such as: demands of different inspections: oil majors, different standards, TMSA, etc... Recommendations not to replace the crews at once, in spite of the fact that [the] crews [were] working on board this vessel for years. ”

Another manager/ship owner responding to the survey noted that there were other external factors that needed to be considered when conducting crew changes within a stable crew. These included

“ ... duration of voyages, trades, availability of crew, rotation scheme, unexpected circumstances as illness/family issues/crew matrix etc.”

The main advantages of stable crewing are summarised in Figure 13, with the high-level conclusions, including crewing influencers such as external factors, summarised in Figure 14.


Summary of advantages of stable crewing


Figure 14 summarises the high-level conclusions from the research and the primary influencers of crewing strategies which can be followed from external factors through to outcomes that impact on finance, well-being, safety and competency.

External factors are those that shipping companies have less control over but nevertheless are influenced by. These factors include market forces, the labour market, the local regulations in a particular country including Port State Control, the charter’s requirements and the trading patterns that a vessel operates within. Legislation and border control affect whether seafarers require certain visas to enter countries.

Two other significant influencers, which have been previously discussed, include the on-board culture set by the top four senior officers and nationality which influence many areas on-board. Figure 14 shows that these influencers of crewing strategies then have the following four high level outcomes which affect finance, wellbeing, safety and technical competence.




Crewing strategies

The research has shown that crewing strategies can vary substantially and that there are many influencers of these which include:

  • Multi-national crews
  • Multiple vessel types
  • Different employment contracts
  • Different client requirements
  • Matrixes
  • Charter’s requirements
  • Changes in fleet size
  • Different contract lengths
  • Crewing costs – largest single operating cost

The Best Practice section of this reports highlights these areas for consideration when determining the most appropriate strategy for a company to adopt.


Best practice

This section identifies the best practice highlighted by the data in two areas: firstly, to support decision making in selecting an appropriate crewing strategy; secondly, in how to effectively implement a crewing strategy.

Best practice: selecting a crewing strategy

- Review the market conditions for vessel type and availability of crew, to assess the practicality of adopting a specific crewing strategy.
- Define the objectives for adopting the crewing strategy and identify valid measurements that will enable success to be accurately and consistently measured.
- Involve all the relevant areas of the business in the strategy decision, to obtain a balanced view and to understand the implications of the decision.
- Consult relevant crew to assess the potential response to the strategy and identify potential implementation issues.
- Consider implementation options, for example, testing the strategy with a pilot group of ships; implementation by fleet or vessel type and other areas of concern.
- Involve the top four officers in planning the implementation of the crewing strategy.
- Involve the top four officers in finance decisions affecting the ship in order to gain buy-in and commitment, and ownership of the strategy.
- Strengthen the leadership and team-building skills of the top four officers.
- Consider the impact of the proposed crewing strategy on the change in relationship between the office and the vessel and how this can be managed for the best transition.

Best practice: implementing a crewing strategy


- All departments within an organisation should be involved for maximum buy-in and the ultimate success of the strategy’s implementation. Communicate the purpose, objectives and details of the implementation plan to everyone involved in crewing.
- Consistently use the defined measurements to assess the impact of the chosen strategy.
- Involve all relevant areas of the business in reviewing and interpreting the data related to the crewing strategy so that informed changes can be made if necessary.
- Assess the performance of the top four officers over a number of voyages to identify trends and issues and areas for development or change and sharing of best practice.
- Identify any additional leadership skills required by senior officers and ensure training is provided to address the necessary areas.
- Monitor communication between the ship and the office to assess the impact that changing the strategy has on working relationships and cooperation. Issues should be addressed immediately as the office and shore relationship, and the management and leadership of the two, were identified as key factors impacting on the success of any crewing strategy.
- Conduct a review of the impact of the crewing strategy and provide feedback to everyone involved.
- Develop a culture of mentoring and on the job training to support communications and standards on board and improve relationships.
- Obtaining crew feedback after each voyage was a procedure implemented by one of the research respondents in their shipping company. This allowed regular assessment of the company culture and the organisation’s procedures to be examined against the well-being of the crew and the safety outcomes of each voyage. Crew were contacted immediately after leaving the ship to ask for anonymous feedback which was then assessed and acted upon to improve the on-board operations or issues that the crew were having. Best practice was shared amongst the fleet. This could be a role conducted by the superintendent who could sail on board for several days to observe both good practice and areas for improvements. This initial investment would provide long-term benefits including crew retention, morale and the reduction of incidents, which significantly outweigh the initial costs.
- Maintaining a stable four top officer team within a fleet manning pool could provide the solution for combatting complacency and ensuring that a ‘fresh pair of eyes’ are brought into the team mix. This still allows the crew the opportunity to develop good working relationships that engender familiarity, trust and ownership.


The following conclusions have been made based on the research findings.

- The research shows that there are some clear, measurable benefits to stable crewing for safety outcomes, crew well-being and long-term financial performance, although this is not applicable to every shipping company. One size does not fit all, and each shipping company will have their own set of conditions to consider when planning the best crewing strategy, based on their specific requirements such as vessel type, fleet size and trading patterns.
- The use of consistent data and metrics is necessary to evaluate the success of changing manning strategies. Without these it is difficult to accurately measure cost savings.
- Many companies are not collecting reliable data over time to inform their crewing strategies. The metrics used may be consistent, but the research has shown that unexpected events, such as unscheduled engine maintenance, can impact the statistics and generate unreliable data.
- Stable crewing often means that new relationships between ship and shore are developed. Crew going back to the same vessel have an increased sense of ownership and responsibility, which can promote better communications which is reflected in their relationship with the office. The value of the ‘sense of belonging’ has positive repercussions for crew wellbeing.

- Stable crewing reduces handover times and increases crew retention however, promotion opportunities maybe restricted by the lack of ‘movement’ amongst the top four senior officers and especially if stability extends beyond this to other ranks.
- Stable crewing can reduce recruitment and training costs.
- Familiarity with procedures on board was shown to strengthen the on-board safety culture.
- Reducing staff turn-over through maintaining stable crews offers opportunity to develop stronger mentoring relationships on board, build trust and extend support networks.
- Complacency associated with stable crewing has been shown to become an issue over time if stable teams exceed their optimum time to stay together. The optimum time, suggested by the research, was approximately two and a half years, beyond which can lead to complacency, the normalisation of deviance and compromise to safety standards.
- The benefits of implementing a stable or fluid crewing strategy were directly linked to leadership behaviour among the top four senior officers This has significant impact upon the on-board culture, with repercussions greatly influencing crew welfare and safety.


Further to these conclusions, the research team make the following recommendations:
- Work is needed to develop measures that accurately assess the overall performance of a vessel and the impact of the crewing strategy adopted, so that decisions concerning crewing are better understood, implemented and evaluated.
- Investment in on-going leadership and management development for all those responsible for leading teams on board and ashore is recommended to help establish the best working and safety cultures for whichever crewing strategy is in place.
- Collaboration, between industry leading shipping companies that are operating stable crewing and working to improve safety and well-being standards, is recommended to share information and best practice to others.
- The research offers conclusive evidence that stable crewing can improve safety, well-being, and over time, financial outcomes. However, as the report mentions putting hard figures against the cost benefits has been problematic due to inconsistent data sets provided by the case-studies and measurements taken over time. Future research, using shipping companies that operate both fluid and stable crewing and carefully defined comparative metrics, should be conducted within the same fleet to generate data of the cost benefits of different crewing strategies.



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