When things go wrong at sea

A trauma-informed approach to dealing with the aftermath of critical incidents at sea

By Captain Terry Ogg

There is a saying that is sometimes used by English-speaking land-dwellers: “Worse things happen at sea.” They will usually say this phrase in response to some minor complaint or inconvenience.

The phrase originated in the early 19th century at a time when the population of so-called ‘seafaring nations’ still had an appreciation of the risks and dangers associated with seafaring. Given that land-dwellers had the upheavals of the industrial revolution to contend with around that time, it is remarkable that seafaring was nevertheless perceived to be the benchmark for disasters and tragedies.

These days, “worse things happen at sea” seems to have lost all connection with its original meaning and usage, which is likely a reflection of the way in which the public are largely ignorant of what modern seafaring entails. Even among sections of the shipping industry, there seems to be an almost wilful blindness to the stresses under which seafarers live and work and the traumas they suffer when things go wrong.

In addition to the constant attrition- al or chronic stresses they face – now hugely exacerbated by the disgraceful treatment of seafarers as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic – they may also suffer peak or acute stress and trauma due to critical incidents such as piracy, abandonment, detention, criminalisation, and marine casualties. Front line organisations like The Mission to Seafarers deal with situations like these on a daily basis and are all-too-familiar with their effects on crew wellbeing and mental health. In turn, port chaplains and their colleagues can suffer vicariously through the relentless and cumulative effects of dealing with these critical incidents.

Dealing with trauma

When things do go wrong, and result in a marine casualty, the seafarers involved may be both victim and first responder. They may then be required to deal with the aftermath, which can be just as stressful and traumatic as the casualty event itself. This layering of stress and trauma can be very harmful and if not identified and alleviated can result in distress and disruption and lasting personal problems over the longer term.

After 16 years at sea, I have worked as a marine investigator for over 30 years. I have probably investigated every kind of marine casualty on every type of vessel, carrying every type of cargo. One thing that does not change is the crew. They may come from different countries and backgrounds, they may speak different languages, they may be different ages and genders, but they are all human beings with their individual experiences.

A large part of my work requires me to interview seafarers very soon after a casualty and to get them to tell me about their experiences, at a time and place not of their choosing, when they may not have had an opportunity to pause and process their thoughts, when they are concerned about colleagues and family, about losing their job, about being detained ashore by the authorities, about losing their ‘ticket’, in combination with all the other stress-creating worries that combine to sweep over them like a wave.

Over the years I have often wondered whether I have harmed crew members by not adequately addressing their wellbeing during the interview process. Many times, I have seen people in various degrees of stress and anguish and often felt I did not have the tools to prevent or alleviate it. Compassion and empathy are good building blocks, but they can only go so far.

Removing stress

One aspect of stress that is not widely discussed, although it is well-understood by research and clinical psychologists, is the effect of stress on cognitive performance. Among other things, high stress levels during interview (which could have several different sources) can result in impaired memory recall in the interviewee. If the aim of the interview is to obtain complete, accurate and reliable information based on witness recollections, surely it is in both the interviewer’s and interviewee’s interests that, so far as possible, stress is removed from the process?

I recognised some time ago that I needed a holistic approach that put the wellbeing of the interviewee more to the fore. It was not until January 2020, when I teamed up with Dr Rachel Glynn-Williams, a clinical psychologist specialising in seafarer wellbeing and mental health, that I found what – and who – I was looking for. Dr Glynn-Williams introduced me to the concept of trauma-informed interviewing and this led us jointly to develop a new inter- view model for use in marine casualties that we call TIMS, which stands for Trauma-informed Interviewing in a Marine Setting. All marine casualty investigations seek to answer the central question, ‘what happened?’ but TIMS also addresses the witness’s experience directly by asking ‘what happened to you?’

The trauma-informed practice Dr Glynn-Williams and I have established acknowledges human responses to stress and trauma and minimises the risk of further harm in the interview process, which in turn sits within a broader Crew Wellbeing Continuum through which we can prepare, support and guide organisations and crews through responding to and recovering effectively from an incident at sea.

Captain Terry Ogg is a marine investigator at Recall Recover Limited. Terry and Rachel’s services have been supported and taken up by QWEST, a joint venture between WEST P&I Club and C Solutions Limited, in its Crew Care offering. For more information, please visit www.recallrecover.com.