Lloyd's Register of Shipping warned last night that there was a "potentially very serious problem" because equipment might fail on 1 January 2000. And union leaders said they feared the worst because the industry had ahistory of only reacting after a tragedy.
Tim Jones, chief executive of Lloyd's Register, said: "The shipping industry is making a late start ... There could be problems with embedded chips in navigational, propulsion and safety equipment like fire detectors and alarms."
Mark Holford, an executive with Thomas Miller insurers, said: "Ships do not fall out of the sky like aeroplanes. But they may grind to a halt so the likelihood of an accident certainly exists."
Lloyd's and Thomas Miller, which runs UK P & I Club insurance mutual, have developed an Internet web site to try to alert both equipment suppliers and ship-owners of the need to check all their systems.
United States companies are very aware of the problem and United Kingdom companies "quite aware", but Mr Holford said Asian ship owners needed to increase their knowledge at a time when the freight market for dry cargo vessels had plummeted, leaving many companies with serious financial difficulties. Mr Holford said upgrading systems could cost up to $20,000 (pounds 12,500) per ship.
Mark Dickinson, assistant general secretary of the International Transport Workers Federation, said: "It took the Titanic sinking for the industry to wake up to the fact that it should have enough lifeboats on board: I hope we are not going to be in the same position with the millennium bug."
Allan Graveson, national secretary of the British officers union, Numast, said: "There are good ship-owners and bad ship-owners. The good ones will be proactive and sort out their systems, but the bad ones will ignore everything until a disaster occurs."
The industry has many blue-chip operators like P&O but also hundreds of small, privately owned operators with small cash flows and dubious reputations.
Out of the hundreds of ships that pass through the English Channel every week, many are owned by small companies which could be unaware of the need, or unwilling, to upgrade their vessels.
Ships generally have manual back-up systems but inspections by government officials from Port State Control often reveal that such equipment is not always kept up to standard.