The realities of life at sea

A ship’s fitter cleaning auxiliary boiler burner

The ship was clearly old, remembered the Chaplin. Paint peeled from the handysize bulk carrier’s hull and the smell of its fertiliser cargo hung on the air. The crew seemed nervous of the stranger making his pastoral rounds during their few hours in the rainy port on Britain’s west coast. None returned his smile. Eventually he came upon a Turkish man in his mid-60s slumped in the eating area who was willing to exchange a few words.
“I retired after more than 40 years at sea”, he told the cleric.  “But times are hard where my family live, so I had to leave home for the sea once again. My wages are vital to my children and my grandchildren, but the work is much harder than when I was young”.
The Turk, and the rest of his crew mates, two Russians and four Filipinos, had been at sea for nearly a year.  During that time, their ship had rarely been tied up for more than 24 hours. Because of highly efficient loading and unloading in modern docks, none of the crew had actually stepped off the ship in over a month.
The Chaplin asked the seafarer what was their last port. A listless shrug was the response. Long periods of unbroken toil has a well-documented disorienting effect on the memory.
The visitor’s jokes about the surrounding docks and the weather were politely received. Then he reached inside his jacket and took out two modest gifts – a bar of chocolate and a £15 telephone sim card. The Turkish sailor was suddenly effusive in his thanks and embraces, before hurrying off to seek out news of his latest grandchild, word of whose safe arrival he had been denied for weeks through lack of access to a telephone.
The Chaplin – who requested anonymity for fear that publicity might make his work impossible – visits around 60 ships each month. This was among the worst – but was not remotely unusual. The Chaplin estimates that about a quarter of the ships he visits, he would rate as ‘good’ with a similar proportion falling into the ‘bad’ category. On all merchant ships, however, hard, dangerous work in return for scant reward for ships’ crews is an all too common characteristic.
Some aspects of this harsh environment are easy to enumerate. Typically seafarers sign on for nine-month voyages but trips can stretch to as long as a year, if, at the end of nine months, their ship is not somewhere from which an inexpensive flight home is possible.
Hours of work on ships are regulated by the ILO Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 as amended. On a ship operated to its precise specifications, seafarers can be required to work for 91 hours a week – although companies who demand more from their crews are not uncommon.
The combination of heavy manual work, and the challenges of the sea itself, makes seafaring among the most dangerous ways to make a living.
A report in the UK Journal of Occupational Medicine completed in 2012, for example, found that seafarers are 21 times more likely to die as a result of a workplace accident than the general UK workforce. The most at-risk, are those seafarers who work on deck. Being hit by mooring or towing ropes, being struck by other moveable objects on board and falling overboard are the most common causes of death at sea.
Then there is the risk of armed attack and piracy.  The International Maritime Organisation maintains a register of notified incidents of this kind around the world. They average slightly more than 20 each month. It is a far greater problem in some parts of the world than others, but anyone who spends a career at sea is likely to experience this kind of attack at least once – just one more of the unique stresses involved in a life at sea.
Because any one of a ship’s crew can perform roles that could affect the safety of the entire crew, there are strict international medical standards for seafarers. All must obtain a medical certificate before joining a ship. This wholly necessary regulation creates a jeopardy for many who make their living at sea, however, particularly as they reach middle age. Impaired hearing or eyesight, as well as non-critical conditions such as diabetes can mean a sudden end to their careers.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given their harsh working lives, suicide is also disturbingly prevalent among maritime crews. According to marine insurers the UK P&I Club, seafaring is the second most suicide-prone occupational group globally. As many as 15% of all deaths at sea are the result of suicide.  Anju Velankar, a senior loss prevention advisor with the insurer told a conference last year: “Depression, fatigue and overwork are the most common causes”.
Fleeting access to news from home, is also an issue, says Valankar. A few moments on social media every few days is enough for seafarers to know that there are issues at home, without being enough time to fully participate in virtual family life.
The greatest proportion of the world’s seafarers come from the Philippines (approximately 250,000 of the total), with China, Indonesia, Russia and Ukraine also supplying significant numbers of seafarers, according to shipowners’ organisation BIMCO.
Regular, hard-currency payments, directly to their families is the main motivation for accepting separation from loved ones in favour of the tough conditions most endure at sea. And low-wage cultures and troubled economies probably mean that will always be a ready supply of seafarers.
According to Phil Parry, chairman of marine recruiters Spinnaker Global, however, there are humanitarian reasons to pay seafarers better: “Salaries don’t motivate, but if you pay your staff unfairly, they can be incredibly demotivating”. Given everything else that ships crews endure to fill our larders and supply our shops, surely a modest increase in basic pay is the least we can afford them?