Seamen must be the first group of people who had an extensive knowledge of the weather. They recognised cloud formations and variations in wind speed that indicated the weather change. At sea, this knowledge could mean the difference between life and death.
Today, a weather forecast is not made with a keen eye but with all kind of technologies like satellites and weather sensors. Nowadays, forecasts still save lives at sea, but also a lot of fuel. That is good news for the environment.
Dutch company MeteoGroup is some kind of all-seeing eye when it comes to weather. They can tell you what are the chances that it is going to rain in Manila in five days or how windy it is going be on the beaches of Portugal next weekend.
What the company also knows is that a reliable weather forecast has a lot of commercial value. They sell their knowledge to media companies who provide it to the general public. MeteoGroup also makes reports for specific groups – for example, a farmer is interested in the information when it is going to rain and a captain wants to know if he sails into a storm.
“We serve a different kind of clients”, says Paul van Vessem from MeteoGroup. For the maritime industry, the company developed several products.
“We focus on safety, monitoring and control and performance.”
One of the company’s products is called RouteGuard. This provides a captain, owner or vessel manager the most efficient route to sail based on the weather information.“RouteGuard allows you to plan pre-voyage, adapt during the trip and analyse post-voyage.”
If a ship leaves the port of Rotterdam with the destination New York, it sails according to the most efficient route that can be made at that moment. But a lot can change after a vessel departs from a port.
It is possible that the ship sails direct into a low-pressure area where she faces strong headwinds. To avoid the bad weather the ship can slow down or change the route. It also can be a combination of the two.
“At MeteoGroup, we combine a lot of data with our maritime experience to form the most efficient voyage plan”, says Van Vessem.
MeteoGroup uses not only meteorological information. Other data, for example, ocean currents, tides and wave directions are also taken in consideration.
“But don’t think the most efficient route is the one without storm. Sometimes it is more efficient to sail into bad weather, as long as safety is kept in mind.”
But a big container ship can take more than a little sailboat. To give a proper advice, the data must be combined with maritime experience. That is where René Snoek comes in. He has spent almost three decades at sea and worked years as a captain. Now he is team leader Shipping Operations.
Snoek knows what it is to be in a storm at sea. “I was a captain on different kinds of vessels, like passenger ships, bulk carriers and container vessels and know how these ships behave in bad weather.”
Snoek is not the only one at the office with maritime experience. From his 23-member team, 18 persons have been at sea.
“This enables us to give tailored advice for every kind of ship. And because of our background, it is more easy to communicate with a captain. We speak the same language.”
Next to that, the MeteoGroup systems apply artificial intelligence to create ship-weather-fuel models to help in the route optimization and analysis.
Snoek emphasises that MeteoGroup only gives advice and support to ships and operators. “With RouteGuard we send out a report with the most optimal route every day and it contains clear route point for every four hours. But it is up to the captain to follow that advice. He is in control of the course.”
Snoek admits this can be difficult sometimes. “We know what we do and what effect a speed reduction or a detour can have. So if a captain ignores our input, it can be challenging.”
In extreme cases, a fleet owner is contacted but Snoek knows that the captain always has the last word.
What kind of advantages brings all this efficiency? It saves time and fuel. This means a reduction in costs. It also means lower CO2 emissions, allowing ship owners to improve their sustainability and reduce environmental impact.
“Our services save fuel. This saves money but it also ensures lower CO2 emissions. This is good for the environment, but it also becomes more important because of new regulation,” says Paul van Vessem.
The new regulation Van Vessem speaks about requires all shipping companies operating vessels larger than 5,000 gross tonnage and calling at any EU port to submit a plan for monitoring, reporting and verifying its CO2 emissions as of January 1, 2018.
Monitoring is required on a per ship and voyage basis and, amongst others, will need to cover amounts and emissions for each type of fuel consumed in total, CO2 emitted, distance traveled, cargo quantity and time spent at sea.
“The new regulations imposed by the EU now mean that reporting is in the forefront of many people’s minds. MeteoGroup has an interactive tool for live fleet monitoring, planning and vessel optimization”, says Van Vessem.
It is called FleetGuard and helps shipping companies fully comply with the EU and IMO monitoring, reporting and verification regulation. This product already provides added value to over 100 shipping companies.
Now that emissions are an issue, measures to reduce them are getting more attention. Weather routing can save up to four per cent. But the biggest drop can be realised by speed reduction. It can reduce emissions respectively 34 per cent.
This has its limitations, because in the world of transport, time is always one of the leading factors. But what if the circumstances allow a vessel to slow down? Because a terminal cannot handle the cargo or the ‘laydays and cancelling’ clause in a charter party allows to do so? MeteoGroup is working on optimising the supply chain by connecting different data.
“We know everything about the weather. So when we know that on the time of arrival there are winds of Beaufort force six and all terminal activities are shut down, we can advise the captain to slow down. Same for laydays and cancelling optimization. Otherwise, the vessel has to wait outside the port until the weather gets better or till she can be presented for the next cargo.”
The future looks promising when it comes to making the supply chain more efficient. “For instance, at the moment we base our advice on the noon report of ships. But human errors in this report can make our predictions less accurate”, says Van Vessem.
If data could be directly downloaded from the VDR, it could make a huge difference. “With evolving algorithm and more data, vessels that wait offshore to enter a port could be a thing of the past.”
This article was previously published in Maritime Holland edition #3 – 2017.