Through the lookout’s binoculars

By Yrhen Bernard S Balinis

The evening sky is illuminated by the colourful city lights visible in the distance. The sounds of revving vehicles rushing to reach their destination reverberate. It’s a typical Friday night in South Korea where Gwen is currently berthed.

I gaze from my porthole admiring the festivities thinking, had it not been for Covid-19, I would have immediately grabbed my bag and sports camera to experience life in a foreign country.

If there’s one trait common to all seafarers, it’s that we are born adventurers and explorers. The promise of seeing the world attracted me to this profession. But with this pandemic, that perk has long lost its meaning. The thrill of visiting a country and ticking it off my bucket list can only be lived from the gangway.

As I see it, the inability to conduct shore leave presents several challenges to seafarers who have served six, nine months, and even a year on board. First, it contributes greatly to the detrimental decline of mental health among crews. Without an avenue to unwind and take a break away from the monotony of shipboard operations, seafarers’ wellbeing takes a major beating. Thankfully, we have found solace in connecting to the world via the internet.

Second, this will negatively affect future maritime professionals’ perception of seafaring. If, just like me, one of their primary motivations for joining this profession is to travel the world, but they have not been able to fulfil that, will there still be job satisfaction and will they stay for the long haul? This has been further aggravated by the unresolved crew change dilemma. Will young seafarers still want to embark given the uncertainty of whether they will be able to disembark on time, thereby delaying their own plans and aspirations?

The global health pandemic sent shockwaves not only through the international supply chain but also through the future maritime workforce as well. The industry was already dangling by a thread when it came to attracting and retaining qualified seafarers before the pandemic. Now that thread has further frayed.

On a positive note, the pandemic has put a spotlight on the dependence of international trade on ships and their seafarers. As the virus spread, roads became silent and empty but not so the world’s waterways, which remained busy with ships delivering everyone their goods.

Looking forward, to ensure that shipping remains appealing to future generations, we must instil pride in the maritime profession. The International Maritime Organization’s World Maritime Theme this year is ‘Seafarers: at the core of shipping’s future’, while the theme of this year’s Day of the Seafarer is ‘Fair Future for Seafarers’, both of which are relevant and timely. Next year, why not put cadets, young seafarers and maritime professionals at the centre? Poll their opinions. Consider their inclinationon matters concerning their future. Get them involved in the discussions of the view of the industry ten years from now. Appoint an ambassador for the newcomers in the industry to serve as their lead. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest a World Maritime Theme for 2022 of ‘Young seafarers steer the helm for the next generation’. #IMO2022IBelongtotheSeaToo.

Having sunk deep into my thoughts, I am interrupted by my telephone suddenly ringing. It’s time for my watch – the sea is calling, awaiting my reply.

Yrhen Bernard S Balinis is an aspiring deck officer, an advisory board member for Human Rights at Sea, a member of the Royal Institute of Navigation (RIN), the international and maritime representative for the Younger Members’ Group at RIN, an associate Member of The Nautical Institute, and a member advocate of the 2030 Youth Force in the Philippines.