Fuel efficiency on the high seas

Meet Michiel. He is captain on a container ship. I met him on a train to Schiphol Airport – I was going to Singapore and he was off to Bulgaria to board a container ship. Is clean fuel and fuel efficiency on his mind I wondered? Most certainly! With almost 20 years at sea he knows not only the ins and outs of his ship but also the oceans, seas and straits he navigates. At the start of each trip he studies the weather projections before deciding what route to take to maximize fuel efficiency. During the trip he adjusts the speed depending on the weather and currents. “Revving up the engine does not always result in much higher speeds but costs a lot of fuel,” Michiel explains. “Finding that optimum sweet spot requires experience and good judgement.”

Savings? A whopping 70,000 Euro per month. His management is interested in exploring how Michiel’s practices can be adopted across the company’s fleet. He is convinced change will only happen if incentives schemes are adjusted. Right now, captains must arrive on time at the destination port or risk a penalty. Sometimes the target arrival date is on a Friday but unloading only starts on Monday. Slow steaming can really save fuel. But many captains don’t take fuel into consideration as long as the fuel bill does not exceed the budget ceiling.

Do you get rewarded for saving fuel I asked? The answer is no. Every cost item has a ceiling budget and as long as you stay within that you’re ok. This results in strange situations though. For example, food costs a lot more in Japan than in Australia, but when the food bill in Japan is higher than the allocated budget, food items have to go back to the stores.  His crew are sometimes disgruntled about this. “How do you explain that to your crew when they help save the company a lot of fuel costs?”

Many companies want to do something to protect the climate and people’s health by reducing emissions but it certainly helps if there is a clear business benefit in addition to a moral imperative. Michiel’s story confirmed to me that the same applies to the people who work there. So let’s at least reward these seamen with extra sushi when they do their bit!

19 January 2016
Sophie Punte, Executive Director 


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