RCL innovators are big names at new research center

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Hubris won’t float a boat. To prove his point, Kevin Douglas need only mention a so-called “unsinkable ship” that went to the bottom on its maiden voyage early last century.

Though many safety factors were built into the ship, a fatal one was missed. The watertight bulkheads that were to prevent flooding from an accident didn’t reach all the way to the ceiling. When the water got too high in one compartment, it just poured on through to the next and so on.

Today’s ships are much safer because of that incident and others since, and will doubtless be even safer in time because of the new Maritime Safety Research Centre (MSRC) at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow.

It’s informed by some of the best minds in maritime design and safety, including three innovators from Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.

There’s Harri Kulovaara, the iconic executive vice president of maritime and newbuilding; Xavier Leclercq, senior vice president of newbuild and innovation; and Douglas, vice president of technical projects.

While RCL can’t take full credit for starting the MSRC, it was integral, Douglas says.

“Harri is usually at the upper headwaters of many of these thoughts and ideas, and it’s something that’s been on the table for a while,” he explains. “I think for Tor, Harri and Dracos, this has been very close to their hearts for quite some time. They are the guiding lights behind it.”

Tor is Tor Svensen, a highly experienced maritime expert and honorary professor at Strathclyde. Dracos is Dracos Vassalos, a longtime collaborator with RCL who sits on its Maritime Safety Advisory Board.

“I think the point we’re looking to make is that we have a continuous focus on the subject [maritime safety], and we’ve reached the point where our own endeavors are perhaps not sufficient,” Douglas says. “What we’re really after is developing a wider base of clever young people who can develop thoughts and ideas that can look at safety in a much more holistic manner in ways that we haven’t thought of before.”

It means pushing the boundaries not of what exists, but of what could be, and of contributing to legislation with well-considered solutions instead of kneejerk reactions.

Some maritime safety rules are outdated, Douglas says, particularly in the huge Oasis and Quantum-class ships built in the last few years. He cites an example that limits fire zones to 40 meters, when the newer ships are around 48 meters in the beam alone. However, the international treaty SOLAS (Safety of Life at Seas) takes a more common sense approach, Douglas says.

“What can you do to make sure that your detection is immediate, your containment is fast and your extinction is right on top of it, along with your evacuation,” he says. “That’s much more important than just saying yes, we are 40 meters.”

MSRC’s innovators aren’t so “crass or naïve” to think they’ll ever eliminate fire and flooding as top safety concerns.

“But our goal is to make step-by-step improvements in these areas,” Douglas says. “And hopefully they will prove to never have been needed.”