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A snapshot of life at sea

April 09, 2024
A snapshot of life at sea Simon main image compressed
Making preparations for loading cargo © Simon Grainge, ISWAN

By Simon Grainge, Chief Executive, ISWAN

In February 2024, MF Shipping Group very kindly arranged for me to spend some time on one of their vessels to experience life on board. After 2.5 years as the Chief Executive of a maritime welfare organisation, I feel that I owe it to seafarers to better understand their working environment, albeit only for a week.

At the outset, I wish to thank everyone involved for their support in making my trip a success. I felt genuinely welcomed and am particularly grateful for the generosity of everyone on board in taking time to educate me on the life of a seafarer. This is an account of my experience together with a few reflections along the way.

Over the gangway

The shore team were very helpful in getting my trip set up and on a wet Sunday morning, I set off to the far west of Wales with a bag of what I hoped would be useful things for life on board. I was due to board the MT Thun London at Pembroke Dock later in the day and was advised that it was best to join the vessel in daylight. However, as every Brit knows, Sunday is not a good day for travelling in the UK. My 4-hour train journey turned into an 8-hour journey but fortunately I could see on vesselfinder.com that my ship was also much delayed getting to its berth.

I eventually got to the security office at the port and did the necessary paperwork before being driven for what seemed like miles down a country lane lit by the lights of the adjoining refinery. It felt like I was going to the end of the world and I tried to envisage what it would be like for a seafarer having travelled halfway across the world to end up on a jetty in the middle of nowhere on a wet, cold UK winter night. I stumbled my way over the gangway to be met by a member of the crew who took me straight to the bridge. There, I met the Captain and Chief Officer who welcomed me and I was shown my cabin and then taken to the galley for something to eat and drink. I could sense immediately that I was amongst professionals and this was going to be a good trip. I was introduced to the cook who quickly produced a meal with a broad Filipino smile and a few questions about whether my cabin had everything I needed.

After eating, I went back to the bridge where I spent a pleasant hour with the Captain, Chief Officer and Chief Engineer drinking coffee and getting to understand what to expect from my time on-board. I’ve met many seafarers before but never in their workplace so I was already able to start piecing together how the vessel worked and everybody seemed happy to answer my naïve questions.

By now, it was getting late so I went back to my cabin which was better than many hotel rooms I have stayed in over the years although as the Pilot’s cabin, I’m told it is bigger than many on board. The main difference I noticed was the noise and vibration that is ever present. I had been given a pair of ear plugs and after spending a while trying to get to sleep, I decided I would use them.

Setting off

The next day, I woke early and made my way to the galley for breakfast where I met more of the crew. Then I was given coveralls, jacket and helmet and given a tour of the ship by the third officer. It was fascinating to see the equipment and machinery that a modern tanker needs and to understand how it all works. I was particularly struck by the emphasis on the safety of crew, cargo and the local environment but it had been made very clear by the Captain that the safety of his crew was always his primary concern.

I was then given a tour of the engine room which was arguably the highlight of the day. Over 40 years ago, I stripped down the engine of my first car and rebuilt it following a manual and whilst I wouldn’t know where to start on a modern car, I am still fascinated by all things mechanical, so to see the inner workings of the vessel was a real thrill. The Chief Engineer kindly indulged my enthusiasm and I think if I had the opportunity to be young again, I would have chosen to do his job.

By 22:00hrs the loading of kerosene, gasoline and diesel was complete, the bunkering barge had done its work and we were ready to set off for Belfast. I heard and felt the main engine start and remained on the darkened bridge to see the entire operation until we were out into the open ocean. For me, it’s always a pleasure to watch people who are good at what they do and this was no exception. I was in the privileged position of seeing professionals working together calmly, patiently and collaboratively.

I was rocked to sleep by the gentle swell and woke early so caught up with some work before breakfast. I then spent the morning either on the bridge or on deck watching the Chief Officer and his team checking the condition of the ballast tanks. Everything was carried out methodically and carefully making full use of the equipment provided and everybody understood what they should be doing. The sky was blue, there was just a gentle swell and I could see dolphins running alongside the bow. I couldn’t have my phone on me for safety reasons and unlike my colleagues, I didn’t have work to do so it was a perfect moment.

We had a whole day of sailing in front of us so I was able to observe the rhythm of the ship and its crew. It was also an opportunity to speak to people and find out what being a seafarer was like for them. One crew member was only 10 days from coming to the end of his contract and feeling really good about it; another was only two weeks into his and stoically getting on with it. Some had young families to be thinking about, others didn’t. Some were content with being a seafarer and would continue for as long as they were able, others were thinking about something else in the future. For someone who is used to living on land and getting around as much as I want, the ship was already feeling small. As a novice, everything was interesting but I could see how the relentless cycle of work and the fact that you live and work in the same place could take its toll.

Travelling across the Irish Sea © Simon Grainge, ISWAN

Shore leave

In the late evening we arrived outside Belfast Harbour and I watched the pilot board to guide us in. I was able to see the whole procedure of entering the harbour and berthing the vessel and saw how it involved the majority of the crew. It’s impressive to see a huge chunk of metal being floated so gently into place with no drama or fuss. Pipes were attached and the discharge of cargo commenced. I could see tanker lorries queuing up nearby; there was to be no pause in the supply chain. I was struck by how everything about the vessel has to happen in slow time but never actually stops. Others still had work to do but I was able to go to bed so I took advantage of it.

The next day was spent unloading so I caught up on my own work and in the afternoon decided to take some ‘shore leave’. It was easy getting off the vessel and out of the secure area but then I had to walk a considerable distance past warehouses and wasteland before getting to see anything of the city. Even though I was still in my home country, it was an unusual experience arriving in a city by unconventional means and then venturing into it like some alien creature. I did some shopping for the Chief Engineer and then the invisible umbilical cord stretching back to the ship started to pull me back. I tried to imagine what shore leave would feel like if I was in a foreign country and I hadn’t been ashore for several weeks or months and the pleasure of seeing something other than steel and water.

In the evening, we had to move to another berth so I was given the opportunity to see what happens in the engine room when getting ready to get underway. I was able to experience the noise and vibration and was glad of the ear defenders to protect what little hearing ability I have left. It was also a chance to see the contrast between the bridge and engine room and the people who inhabit them. I saw no divide, just a healthy mutual respect and relaxed banter.

No job for the impatient

The next day I woke to the smell of a cooked breakfast. There is something about the location of my cabin that I can smell every meal whilst it is being cooked and I found myself thinking about food much more than is good for me. The cook provides three meals a day for every day of his six-month contract, seemingly without complaint. When I asked him about it, he said: 'It’s my life'. He goes above and beyond expectations, baking bread and cakes and varying the menu. He is an essential ingredient of a happy ship and I was personally really pleased he was there.

We left Belfast and this time I could see the whole process in daylight and I now have a greater appreciation of what is meant when people say ‘the view from the bridge’. The coordination between Captain, Pilot, tug and crew looked seamless to me and it’s hard not to be impressed if you know nothing about it. The Chief Officer then invited me to spend some time with him on some inspection tasks and I gladly accepted the invitation. He spent time explaining things to me and answering questions as we went; nothing seemed to be too much trouble.

Tug preparing the vessel for departure in Belfast Harbour © Simon Grainge, ISWAN

The rest of the day passed slowly and I was beginning to adjust to a new rhythm where I wasn’t constantly thinking about emails and meetings; I had time to look at the horizon and feel the sun and wind on my face. In shipping, there is no point in rushing anywhere because there are so many things out of your control. The weather can change, a pilot may be delayed or a berth may not be available; this is no job for the impatient.

By now, I was beginning to get a sense of the dynamics on board the vessel. In a previous role, I lived for four years in an all-male closed community where people lived and worked together and it was a very intense way of life. I recognised a lot of my own experience during my time on board and was very comfortable with it but I also know how delicate the balance is between a happy community and one where you begin to hate everybody. A community like this is constantly changing and needs to be constantly nurtured; ignore things and it can go badly wrong. I can imagine it would it would be a fascinating laboratory for anyone interested in human psychology. A random group of people in a confined space for months on end, what could possibly go wrong?

I was particularly interested in seafarer perceptions of bullying and harassment which is a hot topic these days. Such terms mean different things to all of us depending on our cultural background and life experience. I have not been subjected to bullying since my school days and I have worked for the majority of my life in primarily male environments where I have not had to fight for my place so am perhaps not the best person to judge what constitutes bullying. I saw a relaxed, respectful and calm environment and I could not imagine anything else being tolerated on board this particular vessel but it was not hard to envisage it being otherwise with a different group of people. I can see that the impact of any bullying or harassment would be magnified enormously in such an environment so the issue has to be taken seriously. I could also see that any interventions to prevent bullying and harassment need to be well considered if they are to have an impact in this unique environment.

Lessons and reflections

The rest of the voyage to Pembroke took place through the night with the vessel rolling a lot more than I had previously experienced. I had to learn a new way of walking, eating and drinking and I regretted the decision to take a shower in such conditions! I went up to the bridge expecting us to be preparing to anchor for 24 hours but the plan had changed and we were to go straight into our berth. I had mixed feelings about this as I was not ready to leave the ship but also wanted to get home. Once we had berthed, I had reconciled myself to leaving and had my bags packed only to discover that there would be no gangplank for another three hours. I had heard from crew members about the challenges of getting to and from vessels and it was not hard to imagine the frustration of waiting another three hours when you have been at sea for six months or more. Whilst waiting, I reflected on the week and what I had seen.

Coming into Pembroke Harbour © Simon Grainge, ISWAN

At ISWAN, our work is to promote and support the welfare of seafarers and so we get to hear many grim stories from around the world of exploitation, bullying, abandonment, piracy and the criminalisation of seafarers. We run projects and programmes to encourage the good health and wellbeing of seafarers, provide helplines for seafarers who are struggling and emergency funds for when a crisis hits them, so inevitably our focus is on what is wrong in the maritime sector. I learnt very little about these issues on this trip because the vessel was expertly managed, well maintained and properly supported with a huge emphasis on safety. Seafarers were not exhausted, hungry, being bullied or exploited, they had good quality equipment, supportive management and internet connectivity. The big lesson for me was that all these things are possible if the will is there. With all the privations associated with seafaring, does it not make sense to do what you can to support your workforce? As a former Police officer, I’ve led people into some very difficult and dangerous situations and when I’ve asked them to do it, they’ve complied without question because they knew I would support them.

I’m very conscious of the fact that I have only seen a limited snapshot of life at sea and that what I have seen is not comparable with the experience of most seafarers but it will be very valuable in my work nonetheless. The experience will stay with me for a long time and has given me much to reflect on. I can see that in many ways it’s an unnatural and tough way of life – living and working in the same space, long hours, danger, no time ashore, disrupted sleep, at the mercy of the weather, schedules and shore based operations, missing family and friends and yet despite all that, when I stood leaning on a rail looking out to see in the fading light of day, the deck swaying beneath me and the wind in my face, I felt something else. Perhaps it’s the same something that has drawn seafarers to the sea for thousands of years?

Simon Grainge, Chief Executive, ISWAN

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