It was, said Bart van der Helst of Belgian marine transmission specialist Esco Power “an easy transition” from aircraft to the marine industry, “the main difference being that I am usually in the cockpit”.

Bart van der Helst: “The way the water reacts around the hull is very similar to the way planes react in air”

Bart van der Helst: “The way the water reacts around the hull is very similar to the way planes react in air”

He’s covered a fair amount of ground for someone still relatively young: he studied aeronautics, did a teaching degree and also spent a couple of years in industry – but it was a friend with professional links with Esco Power that suggested “the perfect company” was in fact in the hybrid marine sector.

Some rapid research confirmed his intuition that he was not stepping into the unknown: “The way the water reacts around the hull is very similar to the way planes react in air: it’s all fluid dynamics.” More, looking at the tank tests gave him a sense of déjà vu: “After all, when you are designing a wing you place the profile in the water basin – it’s the best way to see the turbulence and the cavitation from the propellers. It’s very much the same thing.”

Further he has a pragmatic approach to the strengths and weaknesses of numerical tools: “Computer simulations can help to get the shape right but it’s only smart as the figures you put in: I discovered that it’s just too easy to miss something small – like a decimal place on one figure or another - but it’s enough to throw the whole design.” He added: “In tank tests you get to something more realistic and it’s possible to see the details.”

While the advent of hybrids have, he admitted “been set back by the present low oil price” he believes that Esco Power is absolutely right in pursuing the technology.

“This is the future,” he told MJ, “We seeing more and more shipyards testing out charging points and there are a number of these projects starting up in different harbours; for example Antwerp is checking out whether it’s possible to use hybrid water buses to get people around the city.” The green agenda “is definitely growing”.

However, he’s aware that it forces a number of changes on smaller fleet owners as it calls for a whole new layer of sophistication; a badly designed hybrid won’t yield the expected results so electronic control strategies need to be both efficient and as flexible as possible, “the idea is to be able to turn the energy to wherever it’s needed, from cranes to propulsion to the coffee percolator”.

Given what seems to be the inevitable adoption of new control technology, the case for autonomous vessels will likewise soon advance: “Again, you can see the development following the same line as the aeronautic industry: Passengers don’t often realise it but planes are landing fully automatically, the pilots often only take control back when it’s on the ground and starting brake. I see boats going the same way,” he said.

According to Mr Van der Helst it’s closer than you’d think: “If you look at dynamic positioning systems you could say a certain level of automation is already here. It has just come in under a different name.”

By Stevie Knight