I’m going to raise a rather small problem, when compared to the state of the markets, but a steadily growing one.
Twenty years ago, I needed a seafarer’s medical and, being in Manila, I dropped in at a new clinic in Intramuros which had just been set up, for the sole purpose of carrying out seafarer’s medical examinations, with the backing of, as I recall, the UK P&I Club. Having been found fit, I had a chat with the charming and efficient Filipina doctor who ran the show. “Surely”, I said, the Filipino seaman’s diet must be wonderfully healthy – all those fish, rice and vegetables?”
“Yeah!” said she, “Fried fish, fried rice, and then they sprawl in front of the TV with a six pack of beer!”
In the past two decades, things have not improved. Not only are we still getting the ‘old chestnut’, well known to all companies who employ East Asian crews, of kidney stones and related kidney problems – the common result of eating dried fish and not drinking enough water, a habit that has spread from Filipino crews to Chinese crews, but today’s Jolly Jack is much more likely to be overweight than to be drunk.
Two things are happening. One is that food onboard is almost always available in quantity – the days when shipping companies were discussed among crewmembers ashore as “good feeders”, implying that others were not – and two British shipping companies were nicknamed “Hungry …” and “Slow Starvation…” no doubt for good reason – and the other is that the seafarer’s work is becoming somewhat more sedentary. If you have just climbed out of a bulker’s hatch after cleaning between cargoes, or you have just finished doing battle with lashing rods and turnbuckles on a boxboat, you may find this observation hard to accept, but it’s true. There’s a whole lot more sitting down, these days.
Obesity does not do much for life expectancy, of course, but things are getting to the point where the generously padded frames of many seafarers are a danger to themselves and to others.
Transfers to and from vessels usually require, if not actual athletic ability, at least the ability to support one’s weight using upper body strength – plus of course the ability to handle your baggage.
Rather more spectacular was the recent case where a lone watchkeeper managed to fall overboard; it seems that he may have been trying to attach a light to a lifebuoy.
The common reaction to this problem is to instruct the cook to make sure that the meals he prepares are healthy; there are only two problems with this.
The less serious issue is that whilst this can work where the Master is keen on physical fitness, it works less well for the rest of the ships in the world’s fleet.
The rather more serious problem is that the cook and the steward have to work within the daily feeding allowance, which has a distinct tendency not to run to regular supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables in ports far away and out of mind, and particularly not to supplies whilst waiting for a berth off a ‘less developed’ port.
“Ships have gyms, don’t they?” Well, some do. But all ships have personal computers and screens in their cabins, and the temptation to sprawl in front of the TV, not indeed with a six-pack of beer, but very possibly with a sugary soft drink, is very great.
This is a distinctly 21st century issue; the world has never before had to cope with overweight sailors.
We can probably write the rest of the script now – the IMO will have a meeting of the Human Element Training and Watchkeeping Sub-Committee of the Maritime Safety Committee and will, eventually, bring in compulsory fitness tests for seafarers, along with the medicals that have been required for some time, and another forest will be decimated. This will take place in about 2050.
Meanwhile, think about the victualling allowance, and how and where it is spent.