The (not so) happy life of the modern seafarer

David Savage — Trustee of Apostleship of the Sea 

Imagine that you have driven your spouse to the supermarket. You park in a free space at the end of a row and the car is properly parked inside the white lines. As there are just a couple of things to buy your spouse goes into the supermarket alone, leaving you sitting in the car.

A large van, owned by the supermarket, comes into the car park but the driver loses control just as he is approaching you. The van hits your car and although no-one is hurt, there is a lot of damage. Before you know it, the supermarket security and police are on the scene, accusing you of causing the accident. You are handcuffed and taken to jail and thereafter blamed for causing the accident. 
Such injustice is impossible to believe, however, in the case of the ship, Hebei Spirit, this is exactly what happened. 

Hebei Spirit is an oil tanker – a very large one – that carries around a quarter of a million tonnes of crude oil. On 6 December 2007, the vessel arrived off the port of Daesan, in Korea and anchored in an authorised and designated anchorage while waiting to discharge its cargo. The following day, while still at anchor, the vessel was struck by a barge that had broken adrift from tugs that had lost control of it. 

The barge was carrying a crane that hit and penetrated the hull of Hebei Spirit, resulting in the spillage of approximately 10,500 tonnes of crude into the sea. 

A short time after, the Master, Captain Jasprit Chawla, and Chief Officer, Syam Chetan, were taken ashore and jailed. They remained in jail throughout the investigation and court case. Seven months later, in June 2008, the Korean court handed down its judgement which fully exonerated Capt Chawla and Chief Officer Chetan. However, Samsung Heavy Industries, which was responsible for the tow, barge and crane, appealed the decision. As a result, Capt Chawla and Chief Officer Chetan were returned to jail. 

They remained there until the appeal hearing took place in December 2008. At this hearing, the court ruled that Samsung was responsible for only 10% of the consequences of the oil spill. Capt Chawla and Chief Officer Chetan were taken from the court in handcuffs and once again returned to jail. They were finally freed to return home in June 2009, but in a final insult, the Korean court still judged them to be partly to blame. 

Although the treatment meted out to Capt Chawla and Chief Officer Chetan was extreme, it is by no means unique. 

Seafarers are routinely treated to such injustices and a global culture of seafarers’ criminalisation is routine. Where a marine casualty involves oil pollution, regardless of cause, it is customary that the very first act of the local authorities is to jail the master and officers who are alleged to be responsible. 

The scourge of maritime piracy is now viral, particularly in the Gulf of Aden and around the Horn of Africa. In fact, there is now nowhere in the Indian Ocean where ships are safe from attack. There are currently more than 600 seafarers held hostage in Somalia. Sad to say, and probably because these seafarers are not western nationals, their plight is largely ignored. 

There is little wonder, therefore, that the shipping industry suffers from a chronic and ever-worsening shortage of manpower. With incidents such as these, who would blame anyone with a choice to do anything rather than choose a career at sea? 

However, for those seafarers, largely from developing countries, who continue to do the world’s dirty work there is at least one ray of sunshine at the end of a voyage. Port chaplains and ship visitor volunteers from the Apostleship of the Sea (Stella Maris) provide practical and spiritual welfare to seafarers calling at ports in the UK. 

The opportunity of a trip ashore to a dedicated centre where a warm welcome is assured and where computers with internet access and webcams can be found is likely to be the highlight of the trip. To get away from the confines of the ship, talk to someone who actually cares and get the opportunity to make contact with families and loved ones at home is a tonic more powerful than medicine. 

To find out more or make a donation to support the work of the Apostleship of the Sea, visit   



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