What really matters to seafarers?

Crews give their views on what’s needed to improve a career at sea

By Felicity Landon

Access to the internet, good food, comfortable accommodation, a gym, decent pay: much of the accepted wisdom is that these are the magic ingredients for keeping seafarers happy and keen to continue their onboard careers. However, we can all ask a question and expect a certain answer. For those spending months at sea, the reality is more complex. The answers can be unexpected – and even tremendously sad.

Yes, seafarers want connectivity, but that doesn’t just mean the internet.

Yes, seafarers want to be part of a competent team at sea and (it is hoped) find their work rewarding, but what about kindness and understanding from colleagues?

A junior engineer serving on board a bulk carrier sent an email while anchored off the West African coast – “19 days in anchorage and still counting” – and said: “I have been seafaring for five years now and with this I experience a lot of loneliness, even up to depression – but I am able to overcome it. For me, what matters the most is the character, personality and attitude of every crew member on board. That’s why I would like to suggest to shipping companies, principals and even manning agencies to search not for someone who is good in his or her job but look more at the personality of the person you are hiring.

“I believe that every human is capable of doing things when it comes to any job or work but not all humans are capable of having the right kind of attitude, character and personality that is needed in this field. That’s why, please look for someone who’s kind enough to understand each person that he or she is dealing with on board ship.”

This seafarer said he didn’t ask for help but kept his problems to himself. “I just tried to overcome it until the time I signed off. I just make myself busy.”

Life isn’t easy, he said: “But at least we should try our very best to survive as seafarers living on board.” His conclusion: despite the comms technology available, seafarers are the only ones that can help and cheer themselves up; there should be much more awareness amongst seafarers of mental health issues; and, above all, there should be more emphasis on teaching people how to be kind and look after others.

Connection in the broad sense

In answer to the question ‘What truly matters to seafarers?’, Danica Mae Madela, former deck officer and now fleet co-ordinator at Rederiet Stenersen in the Philippines, says: “One word: connection. It is the most important thing for any seafarer. I’ll even bet it is for anyone else in the world. And by this, I don’t mean just the internet connection on board – connection goes beyond that. Connection to home, to their loved ones, to their work col- leagues and to their jobs. A seafarer who is met where he/she is, is a fulfilled seafarer. A seafarer who is understood is a safe and peaceful seafarer. And this creates a ripple effect; a seafarer who is connected to things which are important to him will also want to share that connection with everyone else he meets. Connection makes the world go round; connection makes a seafarer – a person – go on.”

Hearing the lonely seafarer’s comments, Ronald Spithout, managing director of VIKAND’s OneHealth, proactive healthcare solutions for the maritime industry, says: “Another 50,000 sailors could have sent the same message. It is not uncommon to see this – mental depression is a big issue.”

It is vital to look at the vessel environment to develop a mentally fitter person on board, he says. “It makes every difference whether someone sees sunlight on a regular basis, breathes clean air, eats the right food, gets enough exercise, sleeps well. If not, they will develop some form of depression, anxiety or fatigue. When we provide our services, we also make recommendations to do something about all these aspects.”

Spithout says some companies he advises are working on tools that bring seafarers back together. One is bringing in low bandwidth TV channels – not for use by the seafarers on their mobile phones or other devices, but for viewing on a big screen. “The idea is that once in a while the crew will be sitting together to watch the news, sport, etc., to bring social interaction – otherwise they only have their phones and are sitting in their own cabin,” he says.

‘Family building’ on board the vessel is very important, he adds: “Digital tools should not only take people away from each other and be used more individually, but should also bring them together. Having meals together could also be contributing to that.”

Connectivity pros and cons

Internet connectivity enables seafarers to maintain their social life at home but this can also generate a lot of stress, he notes. “The older generation were right in some ways – they left home for six months and had no conception of what was happening at home, if someone got ill or the kids were not doing well at school. Now you can call home and find these things out – but not be able to do anything about them. A social life is nice if you are part of it but not so nice if you can only hear about it.”

In contrast, if you are in a situation with colleagues where you don’t have access to the ‘outside world’, he says: “You deal with what you have, like a new family life around you. You live with what you have more easily.”

Of course, no one wants to go backwards in that respect but the counterbalance, he says, is that seafarers need someone to talk to outside their social environment. “They need a listening ear, a buddy – this should be a professional service offered to all seafarers. It is a big hurdle to go to your captain and talk about the problems you have. It could even cost you your job.”

Shipping companies like to describe their people as their most important asset but Spithout questions this. “Imagine, nobody would take a technical asset and run it until it breaks down, then call the engineer. But that is exactly what happens to people. I speak to ship managers and ask them: would you do that to your engine? Why does your engine rarely break down?

It’s because you maintain it and replace its parts on time. Why wouldn’t you do the same for your people? Give them a check-up regularly, call them once in a while, ask them how they are doing. We need to make sure that people don’t get sick either physically or mentally. We need preventive maintenance for these most important assets.”

Reflecting on her own time at sea, Madela describes her experience as ‘a vague equation of woe plus bliss’, a mixture of happiness and loneliness.

“The fact that you are far away from your loved ones, isolated, will really get you at times while on board. However, with the presence of your crew mates, especially with good management, life at sea can still be worthwhile,” she says. “You get to develop new friendships with your colleagues, have people you can share your life stories with and have people you can depend on and help too in work. It is a floating community with a diverse set of people – all different as they may come from different countries and with different cultures, but all the same as they come and work together as a team on board one vessel.”

‘Unique and cool’

Among the positives of a maritime career, she says: “You get to be unique and cool. There is pride in saying that you are a seafarer; I believe everybody can do it, it’s just that not everybody is willing to do it. It takes a lot of courage to heave up your anchor and sail away from home.”

A seafaring career can be rewarding and fulfilling, and can make you appreciate life more, adds Madela. “Practically speaking, it is one of the highest paid jobs in the world, plus – as the cliché goes – you get to ‘travel the world for free’. And once you opt to quit sailing, maritime – being a vast industry – has a lot of opportunities.”

She lists the negatives as being away from loved ones for long periods, the feeling of isolation and loneliness, the demanding work with voyage orders mostly coming unexpectedly, and a high risk of accidents and danger on board.

Madela says seafarers value an internet connection, gym, karaoke, basketball, movies and games consoles. As for improvements, she suggests: “A virtual presence of office personnel during monthly safety meetings could be a help. In that way, if there are concerns which require office/ shore assistance, these can be tackled or resolved. In addition to that, the presence of office/shore personnel can indicate that they value the crew on board and creates a bridge of communication between shore and ship.”

Being away from loved ones for too long has always been a problem for seafarers, she says. “But I believe this can be solved by proper planning and rotation – shorter contracts and enough vacation on land.”

Yrhen Bernard Sabanal Balinis, seafarer and journalist, says that what matters to him as a seafarer is a clear career progression and a company that he can contact whenever he needs them. “That is why I have been advocating as well for the ship businesses, crewing offices and their personnel so that they can better assist their seafarers. I like the term ‘crewingat’, an amalgamation of the words crewing and the Filipino word ingat – take care.”

Insurance and demands

Among other comments from seafarers contacted by The Sea was one that called for seafarers to have insurance ‘like any employee in a serious company’ and support in the event of an accident or trauma. “Seafarers need committed lawyers to defend their rights,” one respondent said.

Another noted that some say it has been harder to employ younger seafarers because of their ‘astronomical demands’, which was not the case for the ‘old salty seadogs’, i.e. they did not demand the same when they were starting out on their careers at sea. “But the thing is, this new breed has more options on what industry or profession to go to, instead of being stuck at sea,” said a seafarer.

This seafarer also noted: “The seafarers who are old in the industry are discouraging their own children and friends from embarking on a seafaring career. The other side of the coin argues that there is still hope, albeit small, if the industry can be branded as progressive and no longer archaic.”

What will the future bring? Steve Yandell, assistant co-ordinator in the ITF’s Seafarers and Inland Navigation Section, highlights the impact of crew sizes being so much smaller than a few decades ago.

“With fewer crew around and everything run so tightly in terms of the hours of work regime, with people going on watch or another group in the engine room, there are not the numbers to gather a group of people together,” he says. “They come together a bit when they have food but even then obviously not all together, because of keeping the ship running.

“I think this is a problem going forward, because with automation we are potentially looking at even fewer seafarers in the future. This idea of having two or three seafarers on board, as opposed to around 23, which container ships might have now, is a concern. Most people need that human contact.”

Personality and interpersonal skills are important and will be increasingly so as the industry moves forward with new technologies and the transition to alternative fuels, says Yandell. “The future will require a lot of new skills. Seafarers are going to have to think on their feet much more and work with different kinds of people. This will be a big change in the work environment, so those human skills are going to be more important.”

The ITF is pushing for a ‘just transition’ to involve seafarers in the move towards a more sustainable shipping industry. “Companies can’t just expect this to happen on its own. Some of these fuels can be extremely dangerous – for example, ammonia. What are we doing to make sure seafarers are safe? What would happen in emergency situations?”

The industry has to get better at training people, as opposed to poaching trained people from each other, he adds. Shipboard culture and facilities must be changed to accommodate more women coming into the industry. On the plus side, Yandell says the image of the industry may change as new technology emerges – and that might interest more young people. However, those young people also need to feel confident that there is a career path for them.

As to other issues for seafarers: “There are a lot of things that everyone onshore takes for granted they are able to do, that people at sea can’t. As a profession, seafaring is nowhere near as valued as it should be. Covid-19 raised the general consciousness of the importance of shipping for a time – but I think it is still not so visible.”