Seafaring takes a look into the future
June 25 marks the international Day of the Seafarer, a celebration – depending on your point of view – of the contribution the marine industry makes to the world economy or the contribution that working men and women make to the marine industry.
It might be splitting hairs but I suspect that any one of those seafarers unable to change ship, disembark or perhaps keep in regular contact with loved ones might see this well meant idea as a fairly empty gesture.
For seafarers, rarely can the stakes have been higher than in mid-2022. The war in Ukraine is taking a new toll on personal safety, lockdowns continue in China and the emergence of serious misconduct and harassment charges continues to occupy the headlines.
In an attempt to help the public understand the issues facing modern day seafarers, insurer and risk manager Allianz Global invited two masters to reflect on the changes they have seen since they were both sailing. Rahul Khanna is already known to our readers, having written about leadership on the bridge, while Nitin Chopra has over 20 years’ experience in the marine industry on bulkers and tankers.
The pair are now risk consultants at Allianz but as masters of large vessels, what were the most significant challenges they faced?
Both agree that life at sea is tough, more like working in a complex industrial environment than a standard workplace, with health and safety concerns comparable to factory work or even mining. “But there are issues unique to seafarers, including time away from friends and family,” says Khanna. “Crew can be on board ship for anything from one month to a year, working in high-risk environments, without the support of loved ones. I remember paying $10 a minute as a trainee on meagre wages to make satellite calls home.”
Chopra thinks ‘life at sea’ is a misnomer: seafarers don’t go home to normal life at the end of the day and it takes a strong will to make a career out of seafaring. “One issue I found consistently challenging was the limited workforce on board and having to comply with the regulated hours of rest for the crew while maintaining the operational safety of the vessel,” he says.
The potential criminalization of seafarers is not a new phenomena – Khanna recalls the stress of dealing with accidental issues in ports where the weight of the law was a constant threat – but Chopra adds the big change from when he sailed is the day to day pressure on time.
Chopra says advances in technology and increased automation in cargo terminals have shortened turnaround times but shorter stays in port create pressures on crew, with shore leave virtually a thing of the past.
“Digitalization has enhanced safety and efficiency too, but new technology requires the upskilling of seafarers at a faster rate than before,” he adds. “Ships are now operating in a heightened regulatory environment, as well as an increasingly unstable geopolitical landscape.”
Seafarers have always risked being collateral damage in any conflict, and that hasn’t changed with the Ukraine crisis adds Khanna but the piracy model has certainly become more dangerous, with armed gangs prepared to rob crew, loot the ship and steal cargo, all with greater violence.
The roll-out of internet and broadband onboard has made it easier for seafarers to stay in touch with loved ones and both men see a positive change here. Khanna was once stuck outside a port in Argentina because of congestion and bad weather. With no way of contacting his fiancée he had to beg a ride on a supply barge to shore, find a phone and reassure her he wasn’t getting cold feet about their upcoming wedding.
Given the enormous contribution of the shipping industry and seafarers to the world economy, the industry’s talent shortage makes it essential that the industry makes the job more attractive with improved working conditions. Neither thinks the way the industry treated seafarers during the pandemic makes for particularly good marketing.
“Stories of crews stuck for months on board vessels, has done lasting damage to how shipping is perceived,” says Khanna, and while some initiatives are pushing for change, “the fact that the seafaring community often feels like second-hand workers compared to those on shore must be addressed by the ship-owning community and stakeholders.”
Crew facilities have shrunk as ship designers have sought to maximize cargo space, and the resulting space needs to be of higher standards and cater to seafarers’ physical and mental health, he adds. “Mental stress has a direct correlation with safety on board ships as human error is one of the primary causes of incidents. Decent shore leave is also important for seafarers’ wellbeing – seeing the world is a highlight of a life at sea.”
He is still keen to emphasise the positives of seafaring to the young men and women who are willing to explore it; “it’s a steep learning curve that can build great skills for a future career, it can pay reasonably well and take you all over the world.”
Chopra terms his time at sea as rewarding, enriching and character-building. He’s inclined to anticipate better times ahead for those who decide to choose a career on board and thereby inspire the next generation of seafarers to take on the adventure at sea, but he has a warning too.
“Dealing with contingencies and crises can be a trigger for personal development like emotional intelligence and self-management – essential traits for an effective leader,” he says. “With post-pandemic pent-up demand for goods being released, shipping companies are seeing record profits. Is it unreasonable to expect them to allocate more resources to the wellbeing of their crew?”