Crew change dagger in the back

Steven Jones, founder of the Seafarers Happiness Index, is acutely worried about the plunging morale at sea.

In asking seafarers how they feel, there is a tendency to look back not forward. Now, as Covid once again threatens to derail crew change plans, I am extremely worried about the impact this could have on seafarers globally.

I have heard the voices from crews, I have read their words, their hopes and their desperate need to get home.

Every quarter I report back on the findings of the latest Seafarer Happiness Index. Usually, I talk through reflecting on what has happened, how crew were feeling, and of how life felt during the reporting period.

Using the data as a retrospective snapshot, and in normal times that is good enough. The industry finds out what is vexing or pleasing crews, and we can look to learning lessons or making improvements. Now in such unprecedented times, things are moving and changing fast. To such an extent I felt the need to try and extrapolate the words of seafarers. The problems of a second crew change spike will be like a dagger in their back.

For a little context, there have been some creeping signs of optimism from crews, and it could be that in being hopeful then the impending problems will cause even greater issues. In the most recent Seafarers Happiness Index report we found an uptick with responses, with a rise to 6.46/10, up from 6.37 in Q4 2020. There is a temptation to think this is a good sign, but I sense like a barometer before a hurricane, the rising high will mean an even deeper low.

So indeed, while the figures seem healthy, the written responses of crews hint at some major problems ahead. The feedback in our latest report was to a backdrop of dropping global infections, and the world seemed to be a very different place from a Covid perspective. This was the reason for the modest upturn in mood, as many responses were coloured by that most dangerous commodity, growing signs of optimism, hope and of looking forward to getting back to families, loved ones and friends. Back to life, back to reality.

The responses from seafarers last quarter were like hearing a huge sigh of relief. There was a sense of joy at the thought of going home, as they spoke of how bad things had become. They were feeling happy because they were set to escape the rising tensions onboard. They spoke of feeling so relieved that they would be going home soon.

These were voices raised in hope and the sense that the worst of the crew change crisis was behind them, and that better times lay ahead.

This sense of hope is likely to be crushed, and that is hugely concerning. As India suffers the incredible ravages of this deadly disease, nations around the world are once again looking to batten down their metaphorical hatches. It seems likely that all this hope of seafarers is set to be dashed. I cannot overstate how devastating the effect of the repatriation rug being pulled from under them again, is likely to have.

It looks like we are set for an even worse problem. In taking the temperature of the mood for the past few years, I have never been more concerned about what is coming over the horizon, and the incredibly damaging impact it is likely to have onboard. Without wishing to exaggerate or be overdramatic, I can foresee huge problems ahead. If the crews who were feeling optimistic have their hopes dashed once more, then it seems very likely we will see satisfaction levels drop off a cliff next time round.

Indeed, I am extremely concerned there will be a breakdown of relations on some vessels. There has been so much talk of the growing difficulties onboard, it seems that there could a downward spiral in which the mood grows ever darker with all the potential problems that entail.

With key ports banning crew changes, and with spikes in infection across leading maritime labour states, the logistics alone seem set to fire a further scrabble for travel. Add to that the fear, uncertainty and stress that outbreaks and ill relatives at home brings, and we have a powder keg of tension waiting to go off.

The loom of funeral pyres reaches seafarers, the sound of desperate sucking for oxygen is heard out at sea, and crews are patently aware of how bad things are in some nations, and they are scared. They resent not only being trapped on the ship but there is a deep human desire to be at home, to be part of helping their families in time of need.

So, the real recovery in seafarer wellbeing rests on very fine margins. The gains we have seen late in 2020 and early 2021 are set to be obliterated. Collectively, seafarers are tired, they are irritated and feeling angry that they are constant pawns in the logistical chess of geopolitics in a pandemic. We are facing a mental health crisis, not just a crew change one, and the impact onboard some ships could be catastrophic.

The future happiness levels are very much likely to hinge on whether repatriation and relief are possible. It is often the hope that kills you, and echoing the words of leading shipping voices, and reflecting the needs of the Seafarers International Relief Fund we must hammer the message that we have to get seafarers moving once more. We have to urge governments to do all they can in practical terms to get this problem sorted before it is too late. Which sadly it may already be.


  1. It’s a gimmick. Anyone who has been to sea knows what makes us happy. If l thought this device had half a chance of improving a seafarer’s lot l would jump on board. What will happen to your findings? Who will use them to make a shred of difference to a seaman’s happiness? The shipping industry seems to be knee-deep in well-meaning projects of this kind. Some outfits espouse the rights of seafarers, but over the years have not come up with one recommendation. All this strenuous crunching of numbers has not spawned one tiny improvement in a seafarers quality of life. They are not zoo animals, to be studied like specimens. They are human beings, and the things that make you happy make them happy. Count them….better pay with overtime compensation , better food, shorter tours of duty, more time with their families, better accommodation, better shore leave, safety gear and off-watch entertainment, just for a start. All provided by the company, gratis. All the rest is mere fluff.
    I have been involved in seafarers’ rights and the quality of shipboard working life issues since l went to sea in 1964.
    If a shipowner has a need to improve his crews’ lot he needs no prompting from you or me. He’ll just do it. He knows what to do. And if he chooses not to neither you or l will move him. I am prepared to be wrong, but so far l’m batting 100% where these studies and surveys are concerned. Prove me wrong. Show me how your “Happiness Index” will make a fig of difference to a seafarers lot.

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