Riding a bevy of black swans

Steven Jones, founder of the Seafarers Happiness Index, on the desperately dark mood out at sea these days.

There’s an old saying about getting one’s ducks in a row when your problems get organised so they can be dealt with. Unsurprisingly there isn’t a comparable saying about black swan events – but suddenly shipping is facing so many that it really does need to think about how they can be collectively managed.

The black swan theory is a metaphor describing an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often assessed only after the fact and with the delightful luxury of hindsight. The term is based on an ancient saying that presumed black swans did not exist. Imagine the shock then when one was first seen.

Unfortunately, the latest Seafarers Happiness Index results from the Mission to Seafarers are driven in part by a row of black swans. Namely a pandemic, a war, and a galloping cost of living inflation crisis. Each of these alone would cause morale to plummet. Put them all together, as we are seeing now, and it’s akin to pushing seafarer emotions over a waterfall in a barrel, with them blindfolded, gagged and handcuffed.

We need to find light where we can, and so it is time for companies to do the right thing, to do the nice things

The figures for Q1 2022 have been gathered and the written responses from crews pored over, and it makes for a very troubling read indeed. The data has dropped down to 5.85/10, but more than that, every single category of question has seen a fall too. This is only the second time this has happened in eight years of the index.

Usually, even on the darkest of days, there will be some bright spot. Some positive to be built upon or grasped close for succour. Not this time. In the past even as all other issues have fallen, there has been positivity in interactions onboard, and there has been food to enjoy and find solace in. Not this time.

Now we have everything falling away – the impact of so long dealing with the many challenges of Covid has shaken seafarers to the core. They are tired of the extra work, they are exhausted by the stress of dealing with people coming on the vessel and potentially carrying the virus. They are fed up with never getting ashore, and so incredibly stressed and frustrated about not knowing when they can go home.

That would be bad enough, a singular black swan. Now, the Ukrainian crisis is further adding problems. While the combined Ukrainian and Russian population of international seafarers may only be around 15%, that doesn’t tell the whole story. What we have heard is of people who have tried to get along, of shipmates who have looked to each other, but who have slowly felt their bonds and friendships loosened by terrible stories from home.

This has been felt across other nationalities too – there are those around the Black Sea rim and region who have been feeling the impact of war. Bulgarians, Turkish, Greek, and Romanians, to name a few all feel caught up in a war so close to home while they are so far away.

There have been stories of arguments onboard, violence, intimidation and a sense of the difficulties in holding everything together. A crew can be galvanised and achieve much, but when fractures in relationships are evident, then everything can fall apart dramatically. The master and chief officer who refuse to talk to each other, the lone Ukrainian seafarers amidst an entire Russian crew, the threats, taunts and mocking of those whose families are in distress in a war zone.

Bad times can bring the best or the worst from people, and sadly the months of conflict are beginning to emphasise the latter. We heard that VHF communications are a constant buzz of nastiness, spite and vile bile. “Your city will die”, “We kill your mother”…anyone who has been to sea has heard the kind of thing, though usually, it has always been racist or misogynistic in tone, not promoting violent destruction and death. Here though, now such childish, ridiculous and nasty foolishness is the spark into the tinder of shattered relationships.

It is so hard this time round to find any positives, though there are still some out there. Alas, this latest report is about the bad things. So, what can we do? What should be happening? The reality is that all the problems are big-ticket items, they are beyond the control of even the most powerful or influential of shipping people.

We cannot stop the pandemic, or at least the kind of zero-Covid responses which are causing such chaos. We cannot turn back the tide of war when one nation decides to roll the geopolitical dice in such a petulant, dramatic and violent fashion. We cannot even stem the tide of rising costs as inflation bites into wages and nullifies the reason for so many to go to sea in the first place.

These are the terrible truths that are facing seafarers every day and are being felt by all. These are the reasons that seafarers cannot go ashore, that they cannot step off the ship and enjoy a bit of peace and quiet, not even a visit to a shopping mall to distract the mind and allow some space between ship and soul.

These are the awful realities which are ripping the social fabric of vessels apart. Causing friendships to fall apart, with violence, spite and aggression the order of the day onboard all too many a ship.

The crushing, relentless misery of rising costs and diminished earnings, means that every day aboard is worth a little less than the last. With concerned families worried about buying food and fuel, and with seafarers left to reflect and ask the awful question, “What on earth am I doing here?”.

So, with all these black swans flying past, is there anything that can be done? The answer is a resounding yes. If you can’t fix the big things…and we can’t, start small and build up. So now is the time to make life better at sea, to invest in better or cheaper communications, to give free calls or time online.

Now is the time to spend more on the feeding rate. Raise the levels, from the oft-quoted $8 per day, to get better ingredients, to improve training for catering crew, to encourage better eating. To put a couple of extra tog in the duvets, and a few more feathers in the mattresses. To make a games room, just that. To have a good TV, sound system, and a gym with great kit.

In the face of the big grinding terrible realities of the world, let’s look inside instead of the scary outside. It is time to change the things that we can. To spend where it will deliver the best return and the best advantage for seafarers. To make the ships better places to live, even if the work itself remains problematic.

From the dark mood of the Seafarers Happiness Index, it seems that we need to find light where we can, and so it is time for companies to do the right thing, to do the nice things. To throw some money at the little problems, which may just lift the mood, raise a smile and for a few moments at least make ships a happier place to be.


Splash is Asia Shipping Media’s flagship title offering timely, informed and global news from the maritime industry 24/7.


  1. so sad to read the plight of our colleagues at sea. I hope those who can make a difference see and read this and dont look the other way. After all where would we be without them.

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