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Viewpoint: Combining aid and training

Only ships can land the heavy plant and equipment, the tonnes of supplies and shelter that are needed when a natural disaster has wrecked a local economy. It is time a vessel dedicated to this purpose was placed in the Caribbean, a part of the world that can expect more than most to deal with disasters

The call to locate a multi-purpose disaster relief vessel in the Caribbean is one the shipping authorities should heed 

WHAT’S not to like about a scheme that will address two serious problems simultaneously?

There is scarcely a month goes by without some sort of natural disaster overwhelming people who have a very limited capacity to deal with it. Hurricanes, typhoons, tropical revolving storms and cyclones, we are told by earnest climatologists, are becoming more frequent and more dangerous.

You might argue with this; suggesting that these patterns have always been cyclical, and that so much of the damage is caused by wretchedly poor infrastructure and too many people building close to floodable areas, but there is no dispute about the need for regular humanitarian aid and disaster relief, when these regular catastrophes occur.

There is also no arguing with the need for a maritime sealift as the most effective way of dealing with these emergencies, backed up with helicopters.

Only ships can land the heavy plant and equipment, the tonnes of supplies and shelter that are needed when a natural disaster has wrecked a local economy. But not every ship is suitable, as the chances are that any port will be unusable and that equipment may have to be landed on open beaches. You will probably need landing craft, pontoons and portable jetties.

The other problem that will not go away is the difficulty of providing adequate training places for UK cadets, giving them the sea time and sea experience that they need to progress.

In the bad old days, fine British shipping companies trained their own cadets and apprentices, many employing their own training ships for the purpose.

They have, like the companies themselves, long gone. And in the days of international manning, with training judged by many to be too expensive, there is a paucity of training places, despite a number of public- spirited owners and managers doing their bit.

So could there be answers to both of these two problems? A charity, Britannia Maritime Aid, proposes just this solution, with a multi-purpose disaster relief vessel to be stationed in the Caribbean, an area of regular and demonstrable need.

Disaster relief vessel

As a concept, it has moved quite far and fast, with a design for a ro-pax vessel, which could be also employed to train good numbers of UK and Commonwealth cadets and other trainees. The charity has a design devised by the naval architects Leadship and at the recent London International Shipping Week announced that Cammell Laird would be the constructor of the vessel.

Drawings of the proposed vessel reveal a conventional ro-pax configuration, but with an extensive helicopter landing area at the after end of the ship and sizeable davit launched landing craft deployed on the sides of the vessel.

The stern door and ramp gives access to a capacious cargo deck in which modules for whatever task is needed can be easily accommodated.

The organisers have clearly looked outside the box and suggest that the craft would also be capable of a range of other functions, from scientific, environmental uses and even providing a ferry service if there is a demand. Moreover, such a ship, when not involved in humanitarian assistance, could provide mobile exhibition space for British exporters. The ship would be permanently stationed in the Caribbean, arguably a place of great and regular need.

On the face of it, it is a brilliant concept, lacking only a substantial amount of money to see the scheme under way. Where is the money going to come from? You could probably make a very good argument that a substantial slice could be contributed from the UK’s aid budget, which is regularly under attack for its misspent millions.

As a worthy recipient for charitable giving from both industry and individuals, it would surely make a very good case. And the charity has also indicated that in order to get the show on the road, before the new ship can be completed, it would be possible to acquire a cheaper, interim vessel, which seems eminently sensible.

Could it work? It is a convincing case, although the multiple role of the ship will need careful handling to avoid confusing the issue. A donor to humanitarian aid may find it difficult to reconcile the donation that is apparently funding a maritime training operation.

Those with cadets to train will find it easier, although they will wish to know that the training regime is relevant to their subsequent career. Some might even suggest that there is no place for trainees in the aftermath of a huge humanitarian disaster. But it deserves to fly, for all the reasons above.

There is thus a convincing case for both sea training and disaster aid. I was talking to a team from Mercy Ships at the recent Interferry conference and that organisations has demonstrated the efficacy of a maritime dimension, albeit for medical assistance. Mind you, its staff are volunteers, which must make a huge difference to its affordability.

Others have suggested alternative ideas for disaster relief. The Australian designers Sea Transport have a design adapted from one of their transhipment port craft, which can support a substantial aviation component.

There has been much interest in the US Navy’s Forward Operating Base ship design, which has seen additional units ordered and is effectively a mobile port with huge helicopter and landing craft capability. A ship with an on board floodable dock, like the useful Royal Fleet Auxiliaries, would obviously offer other possibilities. Cost is obviously a major sticking point with any one-off design and a “conventional” ro-pax obviously is less of a risk.

But where there can be no argument is over the needs that the BMA charity hopes to address. The UK used to be a “maritime nation”. Now we are regularly visited each year by beautiful big sail training ships operated by countries, with far more modest maritime credentials.

They think sea training is worth the investment. Combining this obvious requirement, with the provision of humanitarian assistance ought to be worth the effort.


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