YEAR OF THE SEAFARER | The thankless task of a career at sea

Michael Grey | LLOYD’S LIST

SEAFARERS are often reluctant correspondents. They know very well that the industry does not take too kindly to criticism, and that any ideas about job security with even the best companies can vanish as fast as the dew on the decks on a tropical morning, if the wrong messages reach head office.

This is a great pity, because seafarers are such huge contributors to the success of a voyage, and their motivation ought to matter to any shipping company management worthy of the name.

“Don’t make waves!” is regarded as good advice to any thrusting young officer if he is not to be regarded as a potential troublemaker.

That is a shame. I remember very well the stern advice given me by the master of a ship I was serving in when I showed him the draft of a letter I was proposing to send to the company. I thought I was being useful — he was appalled, voiced his stern view that the receipt of such a letter would not enhance my promotion prospects, and virtually forbade me to send it. He was probably quite right, and I took his advice.

The trouble is that such attitudes, which are still endemic, have helped to make the ship-shore gap ever wider. Nobody knows what seafarers really think about the job, or their life at sea, because they are nervous about voicing their views, lest they be seen as unhelpful or “just the seafarers whingeing again”. It is good to read something a bit considered.

Which is why I read with increasing interest and excitement an article on the global crewing crisis in the Annual Review of the International Federation of Shipmasters’ Associations.

Written by by Ashoke Bansal, an individual member from India, this is a well-argued thesis on motivation, the status and attitudes of mariners and what the industry needs to do to recruit and retain highly skilled professionals.

Because the fact is that insufficient numbers of bright young people are interested in a marine career. It is not a matter of money. Capt Bansal points out that in Poland, where jobs are not that plentiful, out of half a million high school graduates only 1,000 could be persuaded to consider a sea career, even though it was better rewarded than many shore-side jobs. This, he suggests, might be typical and should ring alarm bells.

He is not the first senior officer in recent months to emphasise that the treatment of seafarers, both those caught up in incidents and by shore-side officialdom quite routinely, affects the perception of young people who investigate the possibilities of a sea career.

He compares the life of aircrew to that of shipmasters, the former treated as heroes after an emergency, the latter vilified as criminals. He notes that the former work less than an eight-hour day and have no maintenance, management or operational worries. After rest and sleep in comfortable hotels, “they go to an aircraft made ready for them to fly”.

He recalls the aircrew taking the fast-track “crew only” queue at the airport, while the ship’s crew is “investigated, inspected, interrogated and treated as suspects or criminals”, regardless of the fact that after a vital voyage they still perform managerial, security, legal, commercial, operational repair and maintenance tasks, seven days a week.

He makes increasingly important points, every one of which needs to be confronted and supported by seafarers’ and employers’ organisations, which should be camped outside the doors of the authorities demanding changes be made that will see seafarers treated much better.

This forgotten, abused, neglected profession needs to be given a major status upgrade and working conditions modernised to those more acceptable to 21st century people.

Capt Bansal pictures the thoughts of a young junior officer, who sees his “exhausted, worn down, unsmiling senior on board, loaded with work and worries”. “Do I want such a job?” he will ask. It is obvious that he does not, because of the rate of wastage and its consequence of inexperienced people accelerated into ranks before they are ready for them.

This is a thoughtful, serious statement by a senior officer who deserves to be listened to, because he has something essential to say.

Effectively, he is asking those who could make a difference to examine their consciences and consider why top-class seafarers are worth their weight in gold and need to be nurtured. He spells out the value of a competent, motivated crew but also warns of the damage that can be done by disgruntled or demotivated seafarers sitting on the shipowner’s prize asset.

He offers sensible, basic remedies to show seafarers they are valued, that they have some ownership of their careers, that loyalty is a two-way matter. It is common sense but needs, above all, a change in attitudes for it to be implemented.

Take a look at this important essay by a modern, thinking shipmaster. He is so very right, in that there is arguably far too much focus on technology and modernity in ship design, with clever people racking their enormous brains about environmental sustainability and fuel economy, with but a fraction of the thought ever going into the welfare or happiness of the seafarers who can make, or break, that ship.


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One response to “YEAR OF THE SEAFARER | The thankless task of a career at sea

  1. Pingback: » Maritime Monday 226; Smile, You Son of a Bitch!

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