TALKING POINT: Seafarers’ welfare amidst a pandemic - A captain’s perspective

January 31, 2022
Captain 2

Talking Point has returned for 2022! Each month, we will share a discussion piece written by a member of the maritime industry who can offer a unique or interesting perspective on an aspect of seafarers’ welfare. You can join the conversation on our social media channels – Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. We are kicking off the year with our first piece written by Captain Stephen Gudgeon.

Captain Stephen Gudgeon has worked as a captain on tankers and container ships for 20 years after starting his career as a deck cadet in 1972. After a 10-year break in the 1980s when he became a police officer, Stephen returned to his first love, the sea. He is an elected member of the Nautilus International General Council and a recent Freeman of the Honourable Company of Master Mariners. Stephen is currently waiting to return to sea following the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a captain, my door is always open. I take the welfare of my crews seriously not only because I would not be able to do my job without them, but more importantly because they are my colleagues and companions in a tough world that few experience. We have to look after each other.

My recent time spent ashore amidst the crew change crisis has given me the opportunity to reflect on my most recent experiences at sea, which were shaped by the pandemic and all the challenges it brought our industry. It was no surprise to me that seafarers stepped up to meet the challenge because they are a tough breed and, let’s face it, they had little choice.

Although vessels are trading as normal and the world’s supply chains have withstood the pandemic, the same cannot be said of seafarers and ship life which has been anything but normal.

Just consider what has changed for seafarers since the pandemic began – no face-to-face interaction between ship and shore, no shore leave (not even a walk along the jetty), medical attention refused at ports and changes to contracts resulting in financial loss. All this whilst dealing with anxieties about the health and wellbeing of family in countries which report limited and confusing information about the pandemic.

Even when fully vaccinated, seafarers have still had to suffer quarantine restrictions when joining and leaving ships and continue to experience extended tours of duty, some of which are against MLC rules.

Every seafarer, including myself, knows how it feels when you leave home for a 3- to 4-month tour of duty and end up doing 8 months, or you are trying to get home to family having been on board in excess of 12 months. You are tired and a danger to yourself, your colleagues and the ship.

As the captain, I was painfully aware of how this was affecting my colleagues on board and how my workload had increased. It is the captain’s responsibility to fight to maintain the best for their seafarers every hour of the day. I know the only time that crew welfare was not at the forefront of my mind was when in tricky navigational situations like Suez Canal, Singapore Strait or entering and leaving port. The remainder of the time was fully focused on the various problems which the pandemic has highlighted in the daily life of the seafarer. The list is long and has affected all of us.

© Fran, Deck Cadet, Croatia

Of course, the Senior Management Team also bear much of this responsibility whilst dealing with their own anxieties. They manage the additional monitoring and support that is put in place to protect tired seafarers and are very careful that nobody on board finds themselves alone dealing with any job that has safety concerns. It is always on the captain’s mind that if anyone has an accident, shore-based medical facilities are almost impossible to access. Onboard medical resources administered by the designated medical officer and supported by shore-based radio medical teams are all very well, but nobody is a doctor.

When was the last time anyone asked the captain how they feel? Very few people in the industry realise the effect the pandemic has had on captains. All captains care, some more so than others, and I would suggest that the more they care about their crew, the more their own mental health and wellbeing will be affected.

So now, two years into the pandemic, our colleagues still struggle to get on and off ships and the future looks far from rosy. What will the new normal look like for seafaring? Will conditions improve? Will the MLC be respected?

Many international shipping industry bodies have issued declarations which look good on paper but in reality have little effect on the welfare of seafarers. There has been a notable decline in the duty of care to seafarers shown by some employers. Whilst it’s true that some companies have rewarded their employees, including seafarers, with bonuses for keeping the supply chain moving whilst enduring the hardships as mentioned, others have not whilst generating huge profits.

Everybody can point to someone else as being the problem, and it’s true the industry is complex with multiple stakeholders and a general public that doesn’t really know or care, but the working conditions of this great industry must improve; ignorance and apathy towards the problem is no longer acceptable.

If improvement does not happen soon seafarers will continue to find employment elsewhere, either with companies that care or to employment ashore. The result might be that we will have to deal with a more significant skills shortage than that which already exists.

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