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


September 2019


Dr Kate Pike, Emma Broadhurst, Nickie Butt, Chris Wincott, Karen Passman, Richard Neale


Executive summary
The Effective Crew Project showed that stable manning strategies can be cost effective and demonstrated clear benefits:

  • for safety outcomes – with improved accountability and responsibility, leading to better vessel maintenance and familiarity with vessel and equipment;
  • for the well-being and competency of the crew – with higher retention rates, a greater sense of ownership, familiarity, trust and loyalty, and increased capacity for on the job learning and mentoring;
  • for longer term financial savings – with improved inspection results, reduced training and recruitment, and improved operational costs.

However, the research also identified various factors that influence the success of stable crewing, including:

  • the effectiveness of the leadership and management skills on board or ashore – which need to be current and sensitive to continuous crew development and efficient vessel operations;
  • the expansion or reduction in fleet size – which means crew stability can be difficult to maintain;
  • the ability to accurately measure the financial implications of different crewing strategies – for precise evaluation of a crewing strategy.

Shipping is the instrument of globalisation and the international community depends upon safe, efficient, sustainable and reliable transportation of commodities and goods to promote social well-being and economic health. Where the industry fails in one or more of these respects it can have a profound impact on communities, the environment and the economy. Given the demands on the industry and the consequences of failure it is important to understand the factors impacting the performance of those employed at sea in order to permit the creation of an optimum working environment where negative outcomes are less likely.

The merchant shipping industry in common with others maintains a constant focus on its cost base. As crewing is the largest controllable part of a vessel’s operating budget it often receives a great deal of scrutiny in terms of salaries and associated costs such as travel. This narrow focus on cost, if taken in isolation, risks missing the contribution of crewing strategies to other value-added aspects of vessel performance, however little research has been conducted in this respect.

The Effective Crew Research Project, sponsored by the Lloyds Register Foundation and the TK Foundation, was a two-year study which examined the benefits and challenges of implementing stable and fluid crews within the merchant shipping industry. The focus was on vessels types with more than 20 crew including: tankers, car carriers, containers, bulk carriers and chemical carriers, although some additional data was collected. The research incorporated a review of literature and collected data from an industry wide survey and 29 interviews with experienced maritime stakeholders and experts from other industries, including healthcare and aviation.

The research has shown that the fluid nature of crewing within the sea-going area of the industry negatively impacts on crew welfare, crew and vessel safety, and does not encourage employment retention. Stable crewing, however, is shown to develop a greater sense of ownership and responsibility which promotes better safety outcomes including improved vessel maintenance and knowledge of specific equipment on board.

Team familiarity generated by stable crewing was also found to promote trust and good working relations, which can increase productivity and provide better mental health outcomes for the crew. Other benefits from stable teams included improved vessel maintenance and reduced maintenance costs as well as shorter handover times and recruitment costs. These outcomes have longer term financial benefits for vessel operations and the shipping company. However, those implementing stable teams, particularly for the top 4 senior officers, should be aware that this can mean fewer promotional opportunities and, over time, an increased risk of complacency. Although there are some clear benefits to stable crewing, the uniqueness of individual shipping companies means that one size does not fit every situation. It is therefore vital that crewing strategies are continuously and consistently evaluated and adjusted where necessary. Changes to a different crewing strategy, or combination of strategies within a fleet, should be considered if evaluation highlights this as the best option for maximising cost efficiency, safety and crew well-being.

Regardless of the manning strategy adopted, it is important to recognise the influence that leadership and management can have on on-board culture. Poor leadership, despite the crewing strategy implemented, can have a detrimental effect on crew wellbeing and safety and ultimately on the budget. Recommendations from this project therefore include greater support for the senior officers both from shore side personnel, and on-going leadership training and development.

It is paramount for the ethical and sustainable advancement within shipping, that the highest levels of on-board team working are understood and achieved. This in turn will promote efficient, safe and sustainable working practices that support the best outcomes for the crew.

Crew management

As discussed above, crew familiarisation and therefore invested crew management, is key to safe ship operations. Powell (2015) noted that crew have a preference to work directly for the ship owner. Agency and manning only agreements, although frequently used, can distance the crew from this relationship. Powell defines a range of crewing options from owner employed and agency employed crew which include the following:
    1. Owner employed and technically managed
    2. Owned agency employed with owner sponsored benefits and bonuses and technically managed
    3. Owner agency employed with owner sponsored benefits and bonuses and third party technically managed
    4. Third party agency employed, combined with third party technical management with owner sponsored benefits and bonuses
    5. Third party agency employed, combined with technical management
    6. Third party agency employed with owner sponsored benefits and bonuses
    7. Third party agency employed

Powell suggested that the further the distance from direct employment, the more potential there is for safety issues to occur.


Project definitions

Different definitions have been used to describe different crewing strategies. Following a review of published literature to determine the most common terms applied within the industry, this research uses the following definitions.

Stable crewing

The top four senior officers returning to the same vessel for more than one voyage.

Fluid Crewing

The top four senior officers and the rest of the crew randomly assigned to any appropriate vessel.


Manning pools

The top four senior officers rotating around a fleet of ships, usually of the same vessel type, where they are likely to be reassigned to the same vessel over time.

Crew composition and assignment are an essential component of the efficient running of a ship but can vary considerably. In the merchant shipping industry, there are companies operating stable crewing strategies where the same senior officers (top four) operate on a back to back basis and return to the same vessel for several trips, with all four joining and leaving the vessel at the same time. More usually, companies operate a fluid system where senior officers are assigned to any appropriate vessel and will sail with different senior officers every trip; the companies will generally avoid changing all four senior officers at the same time. In some cases, companies have opted for a hybrid approach where senior officers remained within a fleet of vessels, so that they regularly sail together but not necessarily on the same vessel. This is usually referred to as a ‘manning pool’ system.


Seafarer’s employment

Seafaring employment varies considerably ranging from a stable environment where seafarers may return to the same shipping company and sometimes the same vessel, to those that are deployed onto different vessels and perhaps different vessel types, voyage after voyage (Walters and Bailey, 2013). The current employment norm for seafarers is one of a fluid nature and lacking in work-place specific familiarity. Leong (2012) suggests that this fluidity of employment means that the seafarer labour market is often considered to be of a homogeneous nature. The STCW contributes towards this position by enabling certified and trained seafarers to be employed at sea on any vessel type without the requirement to obtain further qualifications (Devereux, 2017). However, the ISM code provides familiarisation training to counter this issue, focusing on the actions to take in an emergency and the use of mandatory safety equipment.

Basic training is also required before commencing work on-board. Seafarers joining a ship for the first time are meant to receive vessel specific familiarisation to enable them to use the equipment on-board safely and become familiar with the vessel and operational standards. However, Devereux (2017) found that the practice of the ISM code and familiarisation guidance was not always followed on board, despite it often appearing to the shore office that the requirements had been met (Devereaux, 2017 and Bhattacharya, 2009). Often, there is little time for seafarers to have the required training as many will have to start work as soon as they join the ship. This can be compounded by the senior officers being particularly time pressured just before they leave port, making the familiarisation training, which generally occurs at a similar time, a lower priority.

Devereaux’s research also highlights the point that despite SOLAS specifying mandatory equipment that needs to be held on board, the makes and models are not standardised. This means that even within the same fleet, there may be different versions of equipment, further emphasising the need for familiarisation of the vessel and its equipment before every voyage. Lack of workplace specific familiarity can therefore negatively impact on personal safety and the perception is that this is worse at the start of a voyage. The lack of specific vessel familiarity was thought to be an issue for all the crew, rather than just the individual concerned and something that could affect the operational safety of the vessel (Devereaux, 2017). However, it should be noted that shipping companies do not collect data concerning injured seafarers and their familiarisation with the vessel, despite Hansen et al (2002) demonstrating that seafarers returning to the same (familiar) vessel are less likely to be injured.


Legislation and maritime safety


Shipping is governed and regulated by multiple organisations. The interaction between these and how they impact on vessel operation and management is complex, but the regulatory requirements dictate the way in which a vessel is operated and managed on a daily basis (Figure 1).

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) is the UN Agency with responsibility for development of regulation relating to the safety of shipping and protection of the marine environmental impacts from shipping. These are commonly perceived as the ‘regulators’ for the industry. The four key pillars of international regulation for the maritime industry include MARPOL (International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships), SOLAS (International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea), STCW (Standards of Training Certification and Watch-keeping) and MLC (Maritime Labour Convention, 2006) (ILO,2019). However, any proposed regulation that is drafted by the IMO has no legal standing until it has been embedded within the national law of the Flag state, where the ship is registered by the ship owner. Additionally, vessels must comply with Port State Control (PSC) requirements of any states’ ports or waters they are operating in and with any additional regional regulation. There may also be further requirements that govern specific sectors such as OCIMF (Oil Companies International Marine Forum), International Oil Tanker and Terminal Safety Guide (ISGOTT) and International Marine Contractors Association (IMCA) that cover the oil, gas and offshore industries. Requirements concerning seaworthiness fall under the remit of the Classification Societies who issue class certification and conduct audits for both the class and on behalf of Flag states.

Failure to comply with regulations can have serious ramifications for the safety and well- being of those on board, and for the environment, and may potentially lead to significant financial losses if a vessel is taken off hire for mechanical breakdown or compliance failure or possibly detained in port. Regulatory compliance is therefore the cornerstone of the safe management and operation of a vessel, which is directly linked to the knowledge and technical competence of those on board (and ashore), particularly that of the senior officers. The research findings clearly demonstrate how the competence and technical knowledge of senior officers on board impact on the safe management and operation of a vessel and the relationship with regulatory compliance.



Crewing strategies and well-being

The research showed that seafarers’ well-being is improved by crew stability within a team. Well-being as defined by the Oxford dictionary is “the state of being comfortable, healthy and happy” (Oxford University Press, 2019). However, it should be recognised that well- being is a broad concept that should include a longer-term view of an individual’s reality and satisfaction of life in total. Sense of purpose and the control that is felt in relation to being able to change circumstances is also a fundamental aspect of well-being (Mental Health Foundation, 2015). The New Economics Foundation (2012) has a more specific definition of well-being which states that “Wellbeing can be understood as how people feel and how they function, both on a personal and social level, and how they evaluate their lives as a whole” (New Economics Foundation, 2012). The Office for National Statistics (2019) offers 43 indicators to measure well-being, including:


      • Personal well-being (EG. Happiness, and mental well-being amongst others).
      • Relationships (includes, loneliness, unhappy relationships and people to rely on).
      • Health (EG. Healthy life expectancy and depression or anxiety and others).
      • What we do (EG. Job satisfaction, unemployment rate and satisfaction with leisure time and others).
      • Where we live (EG. Feeling safe, access to natural environment, belonging to neighbourhood and others).
      • Personal finance (EG. Difficulty managing financially and others).
      • Education
      • Governance
      • Environment

Crew stability within the Merchant Navy has been recognised as a way to improve seafarers’ psychological well-being and reduce symptoms of mental health (Andrei et al. 2018).


Financial viability

is essential for the successful operation of any shipping company. Many costs are associated with vessel operations including primary ones such as fuel, maintenance, logistics and crewing costs. As we move into the digital age, it is even more important to have accurate measures to justify expenditure, and crewing costs are an essential component of this.

As highlighted earlier in the report, crewing costs represent approximately 50% of the ship’s operating budget. Overall operating costs are beginning to increase further after a period of recent stability in the industry (Drewry, 2018). Therefore, many shipping companies are experiencing a sustained period of financial pressure and this has been reflected within the research findings.

“With such a long period of a poor market in shipping across the sectors, cost focusbecomes more and more important.”
 “Ship downtime = loss of earnings. All shipowners want to make a profit, it is notan altruistic form of employment.”
Vessels are considered long-term assets, which generally influence decisions that are made about ship operations. Financial sustainability requires a broad understanding of all the elements that influence ship operations for longer term cost benefits, including the safety and well-being of the crew. A manager interviewee made the following response in the research survey that sums this up.
“…[It’s] Not just wages and repat. figures, but the long-term effect on ship performance of a well-integrated team on board”

In terms of crewing, the associated costs identified from the research, stem from a number of areas which are displayed on Figure 5.

Areas of cost impact


Market conditions


Market conditions make up one of the external factors that influence the crewing strategy selected by a company. The stability or volatility of the market can dictate whether a company decides to invest in more ships and expand their fleet or to sell ships on or even send them for scrapping. If the market is stable and fleets are not being expanded or reduced, then it is easier to maintain a stable crew. A volatile market favours fluid crewing, allowing for the rapid recruitment of seafarers with no obligation to re-employ if they are not required. This short-term approach has implications in many areas, not least crew well- being, as people become dispensable in declining markets. Thus, market conditions, vessel supply and availability of seafarers (including the specific skills required) will have an impact on the crewing strategy a company selects.




Stable crewing and improved crew retention have the potential to reduce recruitment costs over time. Fewer crew changes mean lower costs in areas such as the number of actual repatriations, visa applications, ID checks or in recruitment (including advertising, interviews and induction for example). Stable crewing also leads to a greater commitment from senior officers to the vessel they work on. Conversely, financial benefits have also been associated with fluid crews which may include deploying cheaper resources to reduce crew costs. However, the research indicated that this practice has in some cases been undermining experience and skills within the industry, as noted in the quote below.

“ ….. a lot of the good experienced people have now been lost to the industry in favour of cheaper.”

The data indicated that fluid crews would ultimately cost more in terms of management resources and vessel maintenance, due to the lack of stable employment of the top four senior officers.
“increased costs to maintain vessel, more management resource”


Charterer requirements


Charterers will hire ships from ship-owners for either a single voyage or for a given period. Within a time-charter agreement there may be very specific requirements in the way in which the vessel is manned. This could relate to experience, competence and training of the crew on board. There may also be specific restrictions with the number of crew changes, days available to undertake maintenance and costs associated with time ‘off hire’. Additionally, in some sectors (most often oil, gas and offshore) the charterer may insist that the vessel owner ensures vessel compliancy with additional sector specific requirements.

There was a sense that charterers needed to be accommodated as,
“ ….. they're the ones paying the bill and you need to keep them happy”

The charterer’s decisions concerning the length and the type of charter, which is based around the best price for the vessel, was thought to have a strong influence over the general environment on board.

“The length and type of charter has a major bearing on the motivation on board andthe money spent on board the vessel by the company chartering the ship.”


Crew changes


The research respondents identified a range of criteria which can impact crew changes which included flexibility, logistics and crew travel. Crew changes refer to the frequency of crew joining or leaving a vessel at the start and end of a voyage; the regularity of which is determined by the crewing strategy that is in place. Although the regularity of crew changes may be influenced by the crewing strategy, the expected duration of voyages is set down within the contract of employment. This is usually a trip duration of between 3 and 6 months or 5 weeks on 5 weeks off.




Flexibility surrounding the scheduling of seafarers on board vessels, based on factors such as availability, rotational shift patterns, periods of leave and illness, was considered important by all respondents. Managers and ship owners assigned 5.8 out of 7 for this aspect and, unsurprisingly, recruiters assigned the highest value for flexibility at 6.3 out of 7.

Flexibility in relation to crew fluidity is key, as the quotes below demonstrate.

“Flexibility is extremely important; changes can occur at short notice & we need seafarers who are flexible [with] joining/leaving arrangements & this is partly reflected in the manning strategy.”

 “There should be flexibility but within limits as continuity and ability for cooperation should also be taken in account”.

 “Of-course this is important but there are also other factors [such] as costs andhaving enough seafarers [on] standby”


Crew travel costs


Crew travel costs are a relatively small part of the ship’s total operating costs but are significant in terms of the organisation required and present potential visa issues, which are discussed in the next section. The quote below makes the point that it will cost the same to transport a cheaper officer as it would a more expensive one.

“… less important than the quality of the officer, travel costs are [a] small element compared to wages and total crew budget. It is no good recruiting cheap people. They are often no cheaper to recruit and move from A to B than high quality crew. In certain markets where charter and vessel day rates are critical this would not hold when owners are operating on marginal profits.”

There was conflicting opinion on the issue of crew travel, with some people experiencing increased crew travel costs with stable crewing, and others experiencing reduced crew travel costs.

Where a vessel had an unpredictable trading pattern, crew changes may need to be made in remote and inconvenient locations and could lead to increased travel costs. Despite this, some companies attempted to continue with the planned crew change irrespective of the location of the vessel and made the arrangements centrally with little interaction with the officers concerned. In these cases, the crew travel costs tended to increase. Other companies involved the officers in the crew change discussions and even delegated the decision to the ship with the proviso that the overall crew travel budget was achieved. In these cases, the crew travel costs tended to reduce. This was another example of leadership and decision-making being a significant influence on the impact of whichever crewing strategy was adopted (Case-study 2).


Visas and nationality


The nationality of a seafarer often has a bearing on a company’s decision about crewing. Companies commented on a range of issues linked to nationality that they tried to consider when selecting crewing strategies. These included ease of obtaining visas, maintaining a balance of nationalities onboard, avoiding certain combinations of nationalities, taking into account perceived national preferences about fixed periods of employment and return dates.

“East European officers are placed on vessels calling in Europe, whilst Asian seafarers are connected at most cost-effective port[s] within Asia”

Visa issues are complicated, with some companies paying for visas and associated expenses such as crew working in certain locations or for staff joining a vessel in a specific country. Other companies expect these costs to be covered by the seafarer. To facilitate seafarers travel, the ILO108 Seaman’s Card (ILO, 2017) was intended to be an internationally recognised document that enabled seafarers to join and leave vessels with less stringent visa requirements. Unfortunately, the cards do not have global recognition and countries operate many versions of the system. Therefore, obtaining visas for certain nationalities to operate out of certain ports can be problematic. Issues arising can increase the time and cost of employing certain nationals.




Logistics, within the scope of this research, refers to the planning of a seafarer’s availability and the physical placing of a seafarer on a vessel; this may involve international travel.

Recruitment and travel requirements for hiring and deploying a seafarer to a vessel are also part of logistics’ planning. Different companies adopt different strategies which are influenced by how the cost items are identified in their budgets and detailed in their reporting systems. It can be suggested that the more visible the logistics and travel costs are, the more people feel the need to demonstrate that they have managed them effectively.

“We try to manage crew changes in key ports where we know costs can best bemitigated & fully reflected in manning procedures ashore.”

 “If there is the choice to deploy somebody whose place of residence implies lesstravel costs, we would prefer him/her, provided suitability for the Job.”

 “Money  always   has   an   impact,   but   we   would   reduce   the   number   of nationalities/markets for sourcing and thereby compensate.”

Flexibility surrounding the seafarer’s ability to join and leave a vessel, providing more options in logistical planning, was highlighted as an important consideration in the recruitment process, which can be reflected in a crewing strategy. One respondent has noted that a fluid crew could

allow for greater flexibility in the rostering of vessels and cost effectiveness inflights and agency costs”


Company loyalty


The research indicated that fluid crewing strategies do not foster company loyalty and often encourage seafarers that are looking for the highest remuneration over anything else. Additionally, some companies reported higher retention when they adopted stable crewing.

“Company loyalty is almost non-existent these days. Unfortunately, this now even seems to extend to the vessel and the other persons onboard. Many seafarers are only there to get paid, even if they do not admit it.”

 “The seafarer will always desire the best remuneration he or she can obtain. Thisis the mercenary element.”


Vessel maintenance


Maintenance of a vessel has financial implications which are impacted by different crewing strategies. Vessel maintenance refers to the overall upkeep of the vessel, including routine, non-routine and proactive upkeep. As crews develop stronger relationships and greater knowledge of the vessel and its equipment over time, the accountability, trust and performance amongst the team increases leading to greater responsibility for one another and the vessel.

“So that means that he knows how the equipment is working so he will be more confident when he has to take [a] decision, he knows how things operate, maintenance should be higher and then we hope we can generate a higher feeling of belonging every time he comes back to the same vessel.”

 “They handle their stuff with care because they are well aware that they have toreturn.”

“Depends on the requirements of the Client to run either a vessel at minimum costs or to properly maintain the asset, i.e. for selling purposes.”

“This is as important in managing the cost-effective operation of the vessel as any other factor. Poor maintenance costs, and it costs a lot compared to high quality crew and effective PMS [Planned Maintenance System].”

 “Of course, vessel maintenance is of utmost importance operationally as it ensures a vessel is able to keep up to its ETAs and good efficiencies.”

A stable, engaged and motivated crew will keep the vessel operating in the best condition. This not only prevents mechanical failures, but also maintains the vessel to legislative standards and removes potential problems from the inevitable port state control inspections.

A slightly different perspective was offered from a seafarer.

“Much of the pride in a ship comes from the top down and this includes shore management making funds available to carry out this work (time, tools and materials).”


Measurements and decision making


It became apparent (particularly from Case-study 2) that although many shipping companies have sophisticated measurement systems in place to monitor a wide range of performance areas, some of the relevant measures were not always included when making business decisions about which crewing strategy to adopt. In some cases, the decision to move to a new crewing strategy was based on only one main area of operation, for example, the technical performance of the vessel or the ease of being able to provide suitably qualified crew for the vessels (Case-study 2).


Use of key performance indicators (KPIs) and measurements


The use of KPIs and regular performance reviews, based on a range of pre-defined measurements was found to be widespread among the shipping companies contributing tothe research. It was also common for the impact of the crewing strategy decision not to be formally reviewed against any agreed measurements to enable the business to assess the impact of the strategy selected.

One of the companies involved in the case studies shared two years of data comparing measurements for vessels that had changed from fluid to stable crewing. Analysis of the data identified several areas that appeared to have been impacted by the change in crewing strategy. When this was discussed with the company it transpired that there were several other factors that affected the vessel’s performance which were not shown in the standard measurements used to review performance every month. This raised questions about the value of the large amounts of data being collected, analysed and presented in regular management meetings. It also highlighted the need for any measurement system to be carefully designed and reviewed to provide comparable and consistent data on which to base crewing strategy decision making (Case-study 2).


Summary of financial implications of stable and fluid crewing


The research identified financial implications associated with stable and fluid crewing. Crew stability promotes 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. Fluid crewing offers increased flexibility around recruitment and provides access to wider labour markets with shorter term cost benefits for fleets in rapid expansion or decline. Various viewpoints were offered on some key cost areas, however, there was little evidence of a systematic, measurement-based, decision-making process being consistently applied.


Financial benefits

  • Reduced maintenance costs.
  • Improved compliance with Planned Maintenance System (PMS).
  • Improved quality of maintenance.
  • Reduced breakdowns and rework.
  • Fewer port problems.
  • Fewer cargo problems.
  • Improved audit and inspection results.
  • Reduced handover times.
  • Greater knowledge of the vessel and equipment leading to improved performance and faster problem solving when problems occur.
  • Increased sense of ownership and accountability from senior officers.
  • Improved communication between the ship and the office.

“So, we know that our stable crew is slightly more expensive .. but we know on the other side that in costs including shipyard periods, in water survey periods and normal spare part procedures and [the] like, that we are less expensive than outsourced vessels. And on the other side, on the safety side, we know we have less accidents on our vessels.” (Interview 14)


Financial challenges


The research identified certain, predominantly financially driven circumstances where stable crewing can be less attractive to shipping companies. These include:


  • rapid changes in the size or make-up of the fleet, resulting in the need to employ new crew or move crew to vessels in which they had relevant competence.
  • the need to rapidly introduce new vessels or new technology.
  • specific charterer requirements, particularly concerning the need to comply with various matrices; this can create the need for crew to be allocated to specific vessels to fulfil the specification of certain matrix requirements, even if that means disturbing an existing team.
  • the lack of good leadership and team building skills amongst the top four senior officers.

Other challenges with stable crewing include:

  • Reduced flexibility for deployment of crew.
  • Issues with travel and visas for some nationalities.
  • Complacency amongst crew if a team is kept together for too long.

Due to the distinctive nature of each shipping company it is not helpful to offer a standard solution for an optimum crewing strategy. Rather, there are many different solutions that can be adopted depending on the individual circumstances of the company, such as the company size, growth projections, geography (in view of applicable legislation and proximity to supply of seafarers for example), age of the fleet and vessel types. These factors are primary when considering the best crewing strategy to implement and the financial bottom line affecting the company.






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