The social side of seafaring

Many years ago there was a prize winning short story in a competition for mariners that took the form of a modern-day spine-chiller, telling the tale of the sole watchkeeper on a car carrier running through fog.

The watch’s relief fails to turn up, the lookout has disappeared and when, desperate, he eventually leaves the bridge, he finds the accommodation completely empty.

It was told in a manner to make the flesh creep, but thirty years ago when it was published it seemed like fantasy. Manning levels hadn’t been pruned to the numbers that run surprisingly big ships today and there was always somebody around.

These days I keep reading non-fiction that describes modern seafaring as increasingly being like serving on “ghost ships” and sheer loneliness being a major factor when people decide such a life is not for them.

People, we are told, retreat at the end of their watch or day work spells to the privacy of their cabins. There, behind the closed doors, they bend over their laptops, surfing the internet during the remainder of their waking hours, emerging only to eat in what are largely silent messes where the few inhabitants barely converse.

A recent description by a young cadet – who thought seriously about jumping ship rather than endure such an existence – was that it was like being in a prison. More sociable souls, who have tried to lure their shipmates out of their cabins and into a more cheerful existence, have found it a dispiriting exercise and generally give up, discouraged.

There are many reasons being advanced as to why present day seafarers seem to have turned into introverted recluses. Numbers of course are important and a very cogent argument can be made for the thesis that the complement of the average deep-sea ship is well below that necessary to sustain reasonable social intercourse in a 24/7 society. And where 20 people aboard a big ship might become a cheerful and cohesive team if they could all understand each other, if they instead speak half a dozen languages and have emerged from a similar number of cultures, the difficulties are

When it is hard enough to communicate over unavoidable matters surrounding the working day, why would anyone wish to prolong the agony by attempting to speak with one’s shipmates for a moment longer than they have to? The closed cabin door must appear to be a blessed insulator from the bleak shipboard world outside.

To this unappealing existence, we now must add the ubiquity of the personal computer, which is just what it says on the tin – personal. Call it a comfort blanket or an addictive drug, it is something that is available and will doubtless help to pass the time – to promote forgetfulness of the grim surrounds with its electronic anonymity.

Some suggest that this is a “Generation Y” problem, but this seems far from the case. It is very difficult to prescribe any remedies that might make modern seafaring more pleasant, even fun, a quality that has been gradually leached out of the profession by the slate-eyed accountants who largely run modern shipping.

Some have suggested that just as electronic personal communications have almost killed the art of conversation ashore (I did hear of a wrathful hostess who snatched a guest’s smartphone and dropped it into the soup tureen), it is not going to be very different aboard ship. Think of teenagers who won’t come out of their electronics-infested rooms – you can’t force the antisocial to be social.

So we have a choice of letting modern seafarers go on as they do today, with only sociopaths being able to tolerate this existence (and even these strange folk having to be reintroduced to society at the end of the voyage, possibly with the aid of psychiatric intervention), or we can take this problem seriously. If we want to do the latter, there is work to be done on a number of fronts.

Firstly, people who run shipping companies have to acknowledge that the manning cuts have been far too severe and that if the sea life is to be tolerable to normal people, a more normal life aboard ship needs to be lived.

Secondly, the ludicrous mixtures of multinational manning that make this normality quite impossible must be replaced with a more rational system where people can communicate freely and conversation with one’s shipmates becomes enjoyable.

And finally, tackling the atmosphere of closed cabin doors and solitude over a screen needs to be given some real priority. Seafarers once spent an awful lot of time in “idle” chat and yarning. Being lonely didn’t seem to be much of an option unless you were exceptionally misanthropic.

What alternatives can imaginative leadership devise? Might there be some guidance available from those who believe seafarers are important? The ship’s bar has probably gone forever in our sanctimonious and legalistic age, but pleasant recreation rooms would be a good start.

The appointment of a “ship’s entertainment officer”, with a stern remit from the master to build morale through a bit of collective fun, could also help no end. An enthusiastic master who lets it be known that the voyage is not going to be a bleak and cheerless existence might find it a the social side of seafaring.