Education and training

New aid and training ship could increase UK's disaster relief capability

17 December 2018

The UK government is being urged to back proposals to build a specialist merchant ship that would deliver disaster aid and provide a platform for training new seafarers. ANDREW LININGTON went to Westminster to hear more about the scheme…

An ambitious plan for a purpose-built UK merchant ship – or ships – that would deliver humanitarian aid and disaster relief as well as providing vital seafarer training berths has been presented to politicians.

Details of the Britannia Maritime Aid scheme were revealed at a packed meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Maritime & Ports Group in November 2018 by Merchant Navy Training Board chairman Captain Kevin Slade.

The concept – which is backed by Nautilus – has been put together by a group of maritime professionals and training experts. Due to be formally launched in 2019, Britannia Maritime Aid will be a registered charity that will seek government and industry support, sponsorship, crowd funding and public donations to achieve its aims.

'Our objective is to have a vessel to deliver humanitarian aid, with a disaster relief capability, that will operate 365 days a year and provide vital seatime and experience for Merchant Navy trainees and apprentices,' Capt Slade told the meeting.

'We believe we can deliver humanitarian aid and disaster relief in a far more cost-effective way than at present,' he added.

It would be an innovative use of essential and finite funds, increasing the effectiveness of the UK's disaster relief work whilst also increasing the supply of British seafarers to our wider economic and social benefit

Capt Slade said training is a core element of the Britannia Maritime Aid project. 'The introduction of SMarT Plus and the focus on apprentices will result in a severe shortage of UK sea training berths,' he pointed out. 'We cannot expect to grow officer numbers by the promised 50% with the berths available at present.'

The project team propose that the ship's regular crew would be supplemented by 50% maritime trainees, cadets and apprentices from the UK and dependent territories. They would gain ship handling, navigation, boat work and pilotage experience, as well as hands-on engineering training with propulsion, electrical and live plant systems.

Every 10 trainees that the ship carries will free up training berths on a minimum of five commercial ships, Capt Slade pointed out, and the ship will also provide opportunities for training non-maritime industrial apprentices within the aid and disaster relief teams.

The project proposes that the specially-designed ship – which would be permanently stationed in the Caribbean – should be built in a UK yard and managed and crewed by a UK-based company.

The vessel would be able to provide fast and direct emergency response to islands and coastal countries following disasters such as hurricanes and floods, as well as supporting long-term aid, development and infrastructure projects and delivering skills training to local communities.

It would have a minimum speed of 16 knots, and a range to travel anywhere in the Caribbean from Barbados or Antigua – and could stay on station for 21 days unsupported.

The ship would be able to carry at least 5,000 tonnes of cargo, including containers, emergency equipment and vehicles. It would have the ability to deliver and Roffload to areas with no infrastructure or limited berths, using a quarter ramp, Mexiflotes and landing vessels, and helicopters. Fitted with a dynamic positioning and a dock and ro-ro capability, the vessel would also carry an autonomous submersible unit for survey and research work.

In addition, there would be onboard hospital and emergency facilities, as well as classrooms, a simulator suite and workshops. The ship's multi-role capabilities could include support for certain security commitments and backup in any emergency situation or conflict zone, with the ability to act as a regional command and control centre and support vessel for UK naval services in remote areas.

Capt Slade said other countries – including the US, the Netherlands and New Zealand – provide good examples of ships which can undertake such roles. The Britannia Maritime Aid vessel could be delivered by 2024, he added, and a suitably converted existing vessel – such as RFA Argus or HMS Albion – could be used in the interim.

Britannia Maritime Aid also suggests that the ship could carry out oceanographic and environmental research and support, as well as providing a platform for UK trade missions with conference and demonstration facilities.

Capt Slade said the project would contribute to all six themes set by the government’s Maritime 2050 policy package: trade, technology, the environment, infrastructure, people, and security and resilience. The ship could be put into place within current Department for International Development spending and with no impact on the defence budget.

Britannia Maritime Aid will create a significant number of jobs, both ashore and afloat, he added, and it will also serve as 'a visible commitment to the confidence and continuation of British shipbuilding', to follow on from the construction of RRS Sir David Attenborough.

The project team acknowledge the 'tremendous' work done by the Royal Fleet Auxiliary following recent hurricanes in the Caribbean. However, Britannia Maritime Aid notes that there appears to be an increase in both the frequency and severity of natural disasters, and having a dedicated relief vessel would ease the pressure on the limited resources that the RN and RFA can provide.

'In these circumstances it would be prudent to pre-plan the UK's provision, whilst recognising the potential this offers for investment in our maritime skills base,' it adds. 'Transferring contingency relief from MoD assets to a non-military vessel will significantly free up the former.'

Capt Slade said Britannia Maritime Aid would help to ‘strengthen resilience and response to crises' and provide a focus for the UK maritime industry. 'It would be an innovative use of essential and finite funds, increasing the effectiveness of the UK's disaster relief work whilst also increasing the supply of British seafarers to our wider economic and social benefit.'