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Accidents still happen at sea

Accidents still happen at sea
A hundred years ago, coastal communities around northern Europe tended to anticipate the effects of the unpredictable elements and would very often provide a “shipwrecked mariner’s refuge” in a fishing village or port town.  

There was even a sort of global manifestation of this charitable work in the Admiralty “Depots of Clothing and Provisions” which would be maintained on remote and uninhabited islands, to provide succour to castaways.

A 50-year old chart of the Indian Ocean, for instance, reveals one of these on Amsterdam Island, in the roaring forties of the Southern Indian Ocean, but they were once all over the world. They recognised the reality of seafaring risk in more dangerous times, when shipwreck was something not altogether unexpected.

In our thrusting, high-tech 21st century, with ships and shipping rarely intruding into public consciousness, we tend to forget the human side of maritime casualties. Indeed the “shipwrecked mariners’ refuge” will probably have been transformed into a holiday cottage. But just occasionally, we have a rude reminder of maritime risk, as has been the case in the New Year, with its slew of frightening incidents across the world; in the Adriatic and the South China Sea, the Pentland Firth and the Solent, an unusual coincidence of casualty, with its inevitable ingredients of death and fear.

Today, of course, we have the maritime welfare charities, which invariably spring into action, picking up the human beings washed, or more usually helicoptered, ashore from their wrecked or damaged ships. We don’t tend to see this side of the incident, with the stories and pictures focussing on the astonishing sight of the giant car carrier Hoegh Osaka lying on its beam ends, the fire-damaged ferry Norman Atlantic or the upturned hull of the little cement carrier Cemfjord before it disappeared, the awful situation of the sole survivor of the 56,000 dwt Bulk Jupiter, plucked alone from the South China Sea.

We rely on the welfare organisations to be the “first responders” as the shipwrecked come ashore. These are practical people, providing practical help to shocked and distressed people, seafarers who have gone from their ordered, shipboard life to one of chaos and confusion. They probably will not have a toothbrush, they may not have dry clothing, or shoes. They almost certainly won’t have any money, or any of the identification demanded in our bureaucratic world, all left aboard as they scrambled to safety. Their mates might be injured, even dead. They are probably in a foreign land. Some insensitive official might be seeking to interview the master or officers, threatening arrest over some contravention of local maritime law. In some parts of the world, they arrest survivors.

It is the welfare agencies who hold the front line in these incidents, which may well have become human tragedies. They will be relied upon to provide the reassurance to the shipwrecked and comfort to the injured and bereaved. They will stay engaged as long as they are needed, befriending injured seafarers in hospital, looking after their needs until they can safely travel home.

Just occasionally, we get some sort of insight into the work of the welfare agencies, like the assistance given by the Mission to Seafarers and Apostleship of the Sea in the Southampton Centre for Seafarers to the 25 crew of the Hoegh Osaka, whose voyage had come to a terrifying end, just an hour after it had begun. The middle of the night, suddenly ashore, two of them in hospital, but there was warm clothing and food, a mobile telephone to call home, kindness and support, toothpaste and shaving kit, a continuity of care. It is why we should treasure these welfare organisations, supplying a very necessary infusion of humanity in our 21st century, high tech. world, but where accidents still sometimes happen.