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Seafarers - Are you happy in your work?

Seafarers - Are you happy in your work?
Seafarers do not go to sea for laughs. They are there to make money, or they endure the life because of their inability to find decent work in their own countries.

But when you listen to them, or read what they are saying, you have to be struck with the increasing cheerlessness of their existence in modern shipping.

This is not a moan from the past, from somebody who recalls the so-called “golden age” of seafaring, before containerisation, mega-ships and the identification of seagoing labour as a commodity. It is what contemporary seafarers are saying today, and it is really very depressing, if you believe that an industry success will depend upon its human capital and the willingness of bright and intelligent people to enter maritime-based professions.

Here is the second officer of a sophisticated offshore craft, operated by a world leader in the business, who writes in the British maritime magazine about the way in which the “social” side of seafaring has changed for the worse during his ten years at sea. “These days, the people I work with feel more like colleagues than friends”, he writes. He refers to the “self-segregation” imposed by language barriers in the multinational complements that are found at sea. These are “dry” ships with no socialising around a bar, people living as little islands of self-sufficiency, spending their off-watch periods on their various “devices” and seldom socialising. Frankly it suggests a miserable existence, in which a combination of prescriptive oversight and manpower policies has leached all the fun and laughter out of sea life.

It is a phenomenon which has been noted by people whose job it is to monitor the social fabric of the seafaring workforce. Writing in her Annual Report, Professor Helen Sampson who heads the Seafarers International Research Centre at Cardiff University quotes a chief engineer she met last year. “I am back at sea now and everything is going as usual....slow and boring”. The SIRC team are good commentators to reference about these matters – being trained social observers who make frequent trips to sea, so when she writes about the boredom and frustration experienced by modern seafarers, people ought to take notice. “For many seafarers, voyages that were once punctuated with moments of fun are frequently mundane, featureless and dull”. She writes about what is so often missing in a life triangulated by work, eating and sleeping – “the sorties ashore, barbecues by the pool, birthday parties – the pleasures of the moment”.

She also points out that the changes which have removed the fun-factor from seafaring “have passed almost unremarked”. I don’t know that I would agree with her there, because it is something that is reflected fairly obviously in wastage rates, despite increases in remuneration and shortened tour lengths. If you bring up the subject with ship operators, you will not find much dissent, rather a weary resignation about the situation and the fact that “this is what is on offer and people better get used to it!” It is all that can be afforded, when ships of all kinds are under-rewarded. It is why the intensity of ship operation is such that it is; the crew just one of the assets which, to employ today’s horrible parlance, “must be sweated”.

Sea life has always been set apart from that ashore, but people who live on land don’t tend to be surrounded by people they can barely speak with, such are their language or cultural differences. The thoughtful second mate suggests that “we are missing an essential ingredient” to a normal social life. Whether we are old enough to recall the golden age of seafaring, or are rather younger, most of us would probably agree. But can anyone do anything about this dearth of the “fun factor”, which many people ashore would suggest divides the normal world of work from one of loneliness along with hard and remorseless labour.