The importance of mutual respect

Shipping is an international, multicultural industry – we all know that. But what does that mean for those at sea?

By Felicity Landon

One word keeps coming up when discussing the priorities around the multicultural nature of ships’ crews: respect. Ships can have seafarers of 20 different nationalities or cultures on board – or of only one or two.

Whichever it is, the importance of respect, and of building a team, remain the same.

“Sailing with an international crew, we consider understanding of different cultures as a step towards mutual understanding, respect and unity, and a great team building technique. It is very important that you create an inclusive environment where diversity of thought is valued,” says Captain Arkadiusz Woszek, master of the Mary Maersk.

Bjørn Højgaard, CEO of the ship management group Anglo-Eastern Univan, says Anglo-Eastern’s ‘one team, one goal, one conversation’ policy captures the idea that “we are all in it together and we have to have space for everyone”. He says: “We very much want to be open to everyone and we expect everyone to treat each other with respect and professionalism. We are very clear that inclusivity is a value and we expect everyone to avoid bullying, intimidation or harassment of any kind.”

But perhaps we should start with that word ‘culture’. Højgaard defines culture as “the normal way things are done around here”.

“The habits or normal way of life in your family may be very different to those of another, even if you are from the same country or living in the same village,” he says. “You can have a ship with 22 Indian seafarers onboard – but India is huge and the difference between north and south, between Delhi and Mumbai, is very pronounced. Some will be Muslim, some Hindi, and there will be many different backgrounds.”

In fact, Anglo-Eastern’s policy on crew nationality is unusual. “We are one of the companies in the industry that puts the most effort into and most emphasis on having as few nationalities on board any ship at any given time,” says Højgaard.

“Most of our ships are single nationality and our policy is a maximum two nationalities on any given ship. Why do we do that? We find that single nationality ships are better performing ships. They seem happier, there is better communication and less space for misunderstanding, which is all conducive to the business.”

However, where there are mixed nationality ships, there is an emphasis on togetherness, he says. If Diwali is being celebrated on board, Filipino crew would join in; if it’s Christmas, you would find Indian crew celebrating too. “That is very typical of how we do things. It is the same in our shore offices – we employ 1,800 people across 25 offices in Asia, Europe and North America, and they also celebrate events together. We don’t single out Chinese New Year for Chinese, Christmas for Christians, and so on. We have celebrations which are inclusive for everyone.”

Celebrating diversity

Stolt-Nielsen has a different viewpoint, being proud of the fact that its ships have very mixed-nationality crews – at least one of its tankers has had more than a dozen different nationalities on board at one time.

Igor Segeda, Stolt Tankers’ global manager for sea personnel, says Stolt employs 20 different nationalities, although the vast majority of its ratings are from the Philippines.

“Yes, people who share a common language tend to share a culture – but typically, because of the demand and supply factor, the seafarer shortage, cost factors, and so on, we would see ratings of two or maybe three nationalities on board as standard,” he says.

It is natural that seafarers of the same nationalities would tend to start grouping with each other, but that can destroy team spirit, says Segeda. “We work to avoid this grouping around nationalities and to create a team spirit on board. Having a strong team spirit means everyone must remain professional – they know they are judged on their competence.”

All Stolt’s officers undergo leadership training, within which there is a big focus on the multinational, multicultural approach. “When they join the company, it is not about having an Asian culture or European culture on board; it is about a strong culture that combines all of these.

People actually respect each other by default. Leadership training really helps people to understand the value of our multinational and multicultural approach on board; it’s a self- reinforcing pattern, system and culture that has worked for many years.”

Segeda says that from this framework of leadership training and supporting people in work to understand what the right team spirit is, officers can create activities to support this multicultural approach – for example, cooking different dishes so that different nationalities get an introduction to other cuisines. “I think it is very important to allow people to learn from each other. But we don’t actively manage that part – it is more at ship’s level; they decide what is more important for them.”

There are sports on board with basketball organised in a protected area, for example. There are competitions and games. Bingo is really popular. Stolt’s ships provide gym equipment and the younger seafarers in particular enjoy making their workouts competitive.

Past traditions

Segeda, who was at sea himself until 2008, points out that social interaction in the past often centred around the ship’s bar. “There would always be someone in the bar – there would be drinks and conversations and that was an essential side. Of course, that has changed, with alcohol removed from the ships, but unfortunately that means the socialising around the bar has also disappeared. In my time, there were also plenty of heavy smokers – a lot of socialising would be done around the smoking rooms. Things have changed – on one side due to regulation but also because people are more aware today of what is good for them, and the younger generation are more into sports.”

The gap between the old gatherings of seafarers smoking and drinking and today’s online world encourages seafarers to withdraw to their cabins to spend hours online with family and friends thousands of miles away. “The internet means that social activities on board are not as rich as they were in the past because people focus more on connections with home than connections on board,” says Segeda, although he says that on the positive side, the internet has opened up the world. “Youngsters can get so much information and broaden their horizons. They have a wider mindset, cultural traits are being dissolved, there is more connectivity between countries and people have more and more in common with each other.”

As for feasts and festivals, Stolt has a longstanding tradition of celebrating Christmas, providing a special budget to vessels for the Christmas dinner. “That unites all nationalities,” he says.

For Stolt, the multicultural approach is the future, says Segeda. “It is very difficult to find a competent group from just one country; the majority of companies have to stay multinational to have effective costs, a wider choice of competent seafarers. We would want to retain access to all these huge pools of talent to make sure we have the most competent and suitable people.”

Building a team

Captain Woszek has been master of the Mary Maersk, which sails the Baltjysk, Russia to China route via Suez, since 2019. “Team building with respect for cultural differences is very important. This leads to better results and wellbeing on board,” he says.

“We try to make the most of the opportunities on board to celebrate different cultural festivals, whether it be the Indian festival of colours called Holi, or Easter celebrated in Christian cultures. Into the bargain, the crew not only have a good time but also learn about each other’s culture, developing mutual respect, trust and bonhomie.”

The festivals and feasts are always a good opportunity to do something out of the ordinary, bringing the whole crew together, Woszek adds.

“We have been holding events on our long voyages during weekends to lighten the mood of the crew and pep up their spirits. ‘Creativity with no boundaries’ is our motto, and we encourage all on board to come up with great ideas for activities that can bring us together. Examples are horse racing, deck golf and different sorts of team games.

“We use Sundays as days to spice up things in the galley, to give our galley team a break and bring out flavours of different cultures from our talented crew to the table. With our chief officer showing his Indian cooking skills in the galley and the chief engineer showcasing his talents in the dessert section, it certainly brings smiles to everyone’s face!”

Højgaard says ‘social Sundays’ are an important part of onboard life for Anglo-Eastern vessels. “Once a week, if possible, in the ship’s schedule, everyone gets together, to play games, sing songs, whatever – rather than letting people go off to their cabins and social media. I understand that people want to have time with their friends and family on social media, but you need to put in a positive effort to make the team on board. It may be more comfortable to go to your cabin and talk to your family and a little bit more uncomfortable to have a bond with strangers – but they only remain strangers if you don’t get together.”

As a former seafarer – he captained large container ships – Højgaard says the working conditions of seafarers are close to his heart. “It is an important job and we must make it as palatable as possible for the people out there. On the other hand, I don’t think seafarers need our pity – they are stand-up, resourceful people who know what they are doing and have chosen this career knowing what the sacrifices are. In many cases it gives them economic opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise. But onboard culture is really important.”

In the end, he says, shipping is perhaps the most global of all businesses. “It reaches all corners of the world – and if cultural difficulties were prevalent, we couldn’t get anything done.”

Seafarers tend to be adventurous and they go to sea with an open mind, wanting to work together, says Højgaard. But nevertheless, it is important to make a conscious effort in this area.

“We are all social animals, and we have a need to engage with other people. I absolutely think that a happy ship is a good ship, and you have to pay attention to this social aspect of people’s lives and make sure that culturally people get together.”