By Paul Jennings, chief executive of North

Few companies can say they’ve been innovating for 160 years.

Through all the seismic historical events since 1860, North P&I Club – a maritime insurer based on Newcastle’s Quayside – has been focused on allowing ship owners and operators to trade with confidence.

It’s remarkable to think our company came to be the year Abraham Lincoln was elected and Charles Dickens published the first instalment of Great Expectations.

Meanwhile, the banks of the Tyne were alive with a new wave of shipbuilding and maritime industry connected to the export of coal – from the North East’s rich coalfields – and manufactured goods all around the world.

It was an era in which shipping was extremely dangerous.

In 1860, the North of England Iron Steam Ship Protecting Association was launched in response. It provided personal injury cover and collision liability cover to its members – the shipping companies that were helping to put the North East on the map.

That was the beginnings of North P&I as we know it today.

By the early 1900s, the company’s offices were on Newcastle’s Collingwood Street. These days, we occupy one of the city’s most prominent sites – just a stone’s throw from the Millennium Bridge and right at the heart of Newcastle’s regenerated Quayside.

Our neighbours are some of the North East’s most innovative businesses. There are digital specialists, such as 3D visualisation experts Zerolight, and worldwide software developers Dontyne Systems and Global mSDS. A whole host of high-profile professional services firms are located nearby, supporting other companies in the region and much further afield.

It means today’s Quayside is almost unrecognisable from the dirty, noisy and industrial scene that North’s founding members would have been accustomed to. In place of today’s recognisable landmarks, were warehouses, industrial hubs and housing for local workers.

Now the modern office spaces and studios in their place
are where world-beating technology is developed, specialist knowledge is sold overseas and the businesses that will define the 21st century are being conceived.

North might have more than a few years on these businesses, but we’re still inspired by their innovation and ambition. It drives us to stay at the forefront of our sector. Providing new products and services for our customers helps us retain more than 12 per cent global market share. In other words, one in every eight merchant ships that trade around the world are insured by North.

We’re a Newcastle business with a global reach. It’s as important for us to support the businesses on our doorstep as
it is to maintain and build our worldwide reputation. The North East has a strong regional identity, tied together by its close geographical links. The professional services sector is particularly strong in the city; alongside our own headquarters on Newcastle’s Quayside are major global names such as KPMG, Grant Thornton, Barclays, Norton Rose Fulbright and Arcadis.

We’ve been in business for 160 years, and have seen the business community of Newcastle and the wider North East change beyond recognition. However, what has stayed consistent is the resilience, creative thinking and supportiveness that defines businesses in this part of the country.

This year has brought even bigger challenges, and with them the need to be innovative.

COVID-19 has rocked the world and of course the shipping industry, which is responsible for the food imported and sold in our supermarkets, the clothes we buy on the high street, vital medicines and many more essentials of everyday life.

The virus has made the already complex job of coordinating international shipping even more challenging, with operators and crews having to adapt at short notice to evolving port restrictions.

Hardworking crews have endured longer periods stranded at sea while restrictions prevent relief reaching them or allowing crews to come ashore.

Many of the North team know first-hand what it’s like to be at
sea, so we’ve converted that knowledge and understanding into support for the ship owners and operators we insure.

Last year, North launched a new digital tool to keep seafarers and ships safe from threats, such as extreme weather, piracy and war. Provided in partnership with geospatial analysis experts Geollect, MyGlobeView is an interactive geographical information portal that gives mariners real-time information to help them avert danger.

It has come into its own as a vital tool for shipping operators navigating their way through this pandemic. The software can assist ships with chartering, operations and help prepare staff for what to expect when arriving in port.

In February, we launched the COVID-19 Online Tracker on MyGlobeView. This interactive tool provides additional port- specific advice, such as whether crew members are allowed ashore for medical treatment. The tracker is constantly updated with the latest information from a variety of trusted sources including the World Health Organisation and International Maritime Organization (IMO) – the United Nations’ special agency for the safety and security of shipping.

Every day brings new developments in this pandemic, and shipping operators need reliable, up-to-the-minute information.

A human challenge is also growing.

An estimated 250,000 seafarers have been forced to remain at sea, as travel and border restrictions have been applied, repatriation refused, and medical attention ashore denied. Crew changes are not taking place, and there are many thousands of sailors now stuck in a stressful limbo away from their families and loved ones, despite many having had no contact with the virus and posing no health risks.

Understandably, this has serious implications for the health, safety and wellbeing of seafarers everywhere. We know full well the strong link between our region and the maritime industry, and as a result, many in our region will also be acutely aware of the strain this pandemic is taking on seafarers. For every individual stuck at sea, there are families, friends and whole communities desperate to be reunited with their loved ones.

This summer we joined the International Maritime Organization in calling for governments worldwide to recognise seafarers as key workers. The status would make it easier for crew changes, paving the way for mariners to be reunited with their families.

We can also work together with international governments and industry bodies to ensure that we prevent restrictions being re-imposed on sea crews in the event of a future pandemic or second wave.

It’s important because shipping remains a vital part of the North East’s identity.

Across the region it’s easy to bump into historical reference points with ties to our company. Among North’s directors in the early 1900s were shipping tycoons Sir Arthur Sutherland, who donated his Jesmond home as the Mansion House of the City of Newcastle and Sir James Knott, whose philanthropic trust endures today, and whose name is shared with the landmark Sir James Knott Memorial Flats that stand sentry at the mouth of the Tyne.

Those flats were completed in 1939, just as the world faced another great challenge.

In August of that year North, along with other clubs, returned from a meeting in London with the Board of Trade and began contacting members to ensure as many of them as possible could return home safely before the war began.

By 1945, North had paid out for 370 total losses. The UK had lost more than 11 million tonnes of shipping during the war, 60 per cent of its pre-war total. However, with a loyal member base and branches in Newcastle, London, Glasgow and Cardiff – and representatives in all major overseas ports – North continued to enable operators to trade with confidence.

That’s a mission that endures today. North has grown to become one of the largest protecting and indemnity associations. In 160 years, we’ve evolved our products and services, opened offices around the world and adapted to all the challenges that have come our way.

Our roots are in Newcastle, with our headquarters remaining proudly on the Quayside. With the recent addition of Sunderland Marine to our business, our links to the wider maritime industry of the North East have been strengthened further, helping us to diversify and meet the needs of today’s maritime sector.