Communications at sea and in port are the number one welfare concern of seafarers around the world, with loneliness cited as their worst enemy.
The issues facing today's seafarers were to the fore during the recent Seafarer's Welfare Conference, run in parallel with CMA 2015. The North American Maritime Ministry Association (NAMMA) along with the International Seafarers' Welfare Assistance Network (ISWAN) brought international seafarers' welfare personnel together with leading industry representatives at the event in March.
Shane Rossbacher, SVP Business Development, Inmarsat Maritime and Ken Hawkins, Executive Director, Mission to Seafarers Seattle, joined one session chaired by ISWAN, to discuss the impact of communications on life at sea.
Rossbacher pointed out that modern society has effectively added 'WiFi' to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. He joked that the most basic need expressed by Maslow's pyramid should, in the modern world, be battery life! Joking aside, the expectation of connectivity as a basic human need pervades the world on board vessels just as it does shore-side.
Crew welfare covers two elements: peace of mind and comfort. "In terms of peace of mind, Inmarsat has brought huge improvements to onboard safety. Set up as an intergovernmental initiative within SOLAS, continuous innovation in this area is still of the utmost importance to us and remains a fundamental driver of our business", explained Rossbacher. "Inmarsat's products now also address the element of comfort when talking crew welfare, with solutions offering voice and video calling, internet access, movies and entertainment. Inmarsat aims to deliver an on-vessel experience that is akin to that taken for granted ashore. This goal is closer to realisation with the launch of the new Global Xpress network, the first high-speed broadband network to span the world, representing a $1.6 billion investment for Inmarsat."
Hawkins agreed about the importance of communications to seafarers stating: "communications connect them to their world; every week I see a sailor call home on Skype and see their child for the first time." Hawkins drove home the point that it is not just about the seafarer's welfare but also those left at home - wives, children and other family members. With average periods away approximately nine months, regular access to communication eases the strain on relationships from all sides.
Hawkins however, raised concerns regarding the increased access to onboard connectivity, saying "communications provide the tether to their world, but I do worry about increased availability onboard vessels where crew already live an unstructured life. We don't want to see a repeat of what happened with gaming. Crew need sufficient rest as well as proper social interaction with colleagues." Rossbacher agreed, commenting: "Inmarsat is working closely with owners and sees a trend in limiting the time of day there is access to services, as well as another for content filtering."
WiFi keeps us connected but also has the potential to isolate us from each other. We often interact with our devices at the expense of real human contact; within the unstructured environment aboard a vessel this can encourage unsociable behaviour, leading to loneliness. However, Rossbacher described examples where the installation of Inmarsat products had a positive impact on crew interaction. "A Hong Kong shipowner recently requested our Fleet Media service on its vessels," he said. "Instead of making it available via WiFi in cabins, the owner wanted it within a social space in order to bring the crew together. It has been very successful. Inmarsat's range of solutions is fundamentally aimed at improving crew welfare, whether this is by increasing safety or efficiency, or tackling loneliness – both physically, by improving social interaction onboard, or by connecting crew with home and the rest of the world."