Skipper Shortage: Supply Not Keeping Pace

Supply of skilled pilots not keeping pace with expanding fleet of oil tankers.

SOUTHHAMPTON, England, Jan. 4, 2007— -- The Warsash Maritime Academy trains 200 pilots and skippers a year to man an ever-expanding global fleet of super tankers.

They'll take the helm of some of the 6,000 new oil tankers and container ships will hit the water in the next five years. Why so many? Because of our continued reliance on oil, China's manufacturing boom and because, well, no one has come up with a better idea.

The Knock Nevis is the biggest vessel on earth, at a quarter-mile long. The super tanker is nearly twice the size of the Titanic, longer than the Empire State Building is tall.

"You are talking a matter of miles before you're able to stop it," said Barry Sadler, a ship's pilot in Southampton on England's south coast.

It takes 5@#189; miles to stop the ship, and the turning circle is 2 miles wide.

"You look at them as a small boy, and you think, 'I know what I want to do when I'm older,'" Sadler said. "I want to drive those."

If something goes wrong on a ship like this, it goes spectacularly wrong. Think the Exxon Valdez.

"It takes a long, long time to train somebody to be in charge of it," said Sadler. Shipping is booming, ships are getting bigger and harder to handle, and there aren't enough men and women to take charge of the ships.

"There is now a gap in qualified personnel," Sadler said.

So, this reporter wondered, could I fill that gap?

I went to Warsash Maritime Academy where there's a scale model of the real thing, an exact replica, one-30th the size of an oil tanker.

"You're taking something very big, filling it up with cargo and taking it relatively slowly to somewhere else," said Sadler.

Gordon Maxwell, the senior lecturer at Warsash Maritime Academy said that students often get things wrong at first, "quite often."

Sadler is a graduate of the academy and said that "It gives you the basics of ship handling and lets you see the dynamics of ship handling without you having to go to one of the captains of one of these ships to ask if you can borrow his ship for the day just to have a little practice."

So leave your mishaps on the training pond. Because on the high seas: the stakes are high.

"This one man has quite a bit of responsibility on his shoulders," said Maxwell. "Let's say 200,000 tons of crude oil up on the beach: The clean-up costs are astronomical."

That's what happened to the Sea Empress at a Welsh port in the winter of '96. The clean-up took five years. We re-created what happened that day in the academy's simulator: Heavy swells, snow, a crosswind. And then …

"She ran wide on that turn, which got her up into the bay, and she touched bottom," explained Nick Harding from the Maritime Academy.

Why do this job and risk having an oil spill on your conscience?

"I was attracted by the idea of traveling the world at a slow pace and seeing places I'd only ever read about," said Harding.

But times have changed. Loading is more efficient, and shore leave isn't what it used to be.

"Typically here in Southampton a container ship will be in for a day, and then it's off to the next discharge port," said Harding, "whereas in my day, when I first went to sea, it was probably a week in each port. … It was lovely."

But the money is still good, and even at slow speeds, you've gotta love the adrenaline rush. If the money doesn't encourage new recruits, maybe the excitement will.