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Seafarers online: Is internet onboard a good thing?

Edward Ion from Navigate Response on the thorny issue of web use among crew.

One of the unquestioned laws of seafaring in recent times has been: “The internet onboard is a good thing”.

After all, the internet and social media in particular keeps seafarers in touch with loved ones as well as the outside world.

That basic need to connect with the people close to us is an innate need shared by all. And indeed the internet has become a powerful enabler, connecting people across time zones and oceans.

But a couple of incidents we have been involved in recently have prompted me to question whether unlimited access to internet, the ability to ‘never switch off’ and ‘always be in touch’ are in fact entirely healthy for the well-being of seafarers.

The first was a harrowing story of a young officer on board a vessel who took his own life after learning that his wife-to-be ashore had decided to finish the relationship.

The second, a duty officer on the bridge received some bad news from his wife ashore just moments before an accident occurred onboard. The officer later confessed that one of the factors contributing to the accident was that his mind was not entirely on the job.

In both cases, the ability to instantly communicate news to seafarers thousands of miles from home was a negative factor.

This is not to say seafarers should be isolated at sea. They should be allowed access to internet and social media.

But using these powerful tools of communication should be part of a wider educational process, encouraging seafarers to take personal responsibility.

In both cases we dealt with recently, the common factors included seafarers being allowed to spend unlimited time on their mobile devices and laptops whenever they were not doing a shift.

Allowing for the time needed for sleep, this ‘non work time’ period on board amounts to a lot of hours.

Does being able to communicate at all times with the outside world encourage better team work on board?

Does it foster a sense of community and togetherness needed to operate a vessel in the best way?

I suspect the answer to both these questions is a resounding ‘No’.

From what we can see and from speaking to seafarers themselves, the advent of the on at all times mobile device has led to a reduction in ‘community’ time on board vessels.

The seafarer’s life, if not supported strongly by a peer group, can be even more lonely and isolated as a result of the over-use of internet and social media.

For those who are not socially outgoing (and that probably includes the majority of us), the tendency to slink quickly away from the communal dinner table and back to the solitude and privacy of a cabin is strong.

It is because of this factor that operators and managers have to be proactive in terms of educating seafarers in how they use the internet – it should not be about the length of time spent ‘online’ or time allocations.

Seafarers should be aware, for example, that there is a risk of misunderstanding when communicating online.

You cannot read body language through an email or even via a blurry Facetime image. And tone can be mistaken, causing confusion, heightened emotions and conflict.

Whenever possible, seafarers should give one another the benefit of the doubt when something that is expressed in writing just “doesn’t seem right.”

This can save a great deal of frustration. Understanding the limits of the medium goes a long way toward preserving harmony on board – and at home – while apart.

Of course, unlimited access to internet for seafarers has been pushed a lot lately and this has been for commercial reasons. Providers focusing on services for seafarers stand to gain from such a move.

But surely the more responsible owners and managers will sit down and think this through a little more clearly before this happens.

This is not an argument for restriction or denial. But it is clear from the recent cases I have seen, that unlimited internet access may not be the great new panacea for improving seafarers’ lives on board.

For the jilted fiancé and the second mate involved in a scary accident, the opposite turned out to be true.

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Comments

  1. Edward is on to something, but I suspect we are not going to turn the clock back. Bad news could always be delivered by the agent’s boat with the same awful consequences, although its immediacy might be an issue. But ship’s life is different to shore side life and the use of electronic media and “devices” need to be treated in a shipboard context. Some sort of training is a good idea, not least to get people out of their closed cabins and into a more social life aboard, and combat loneliness, which is a serious matter with tiny crews and multi-cultural manning.

  2. Training is a good idea…though how, where , by who is always an issue. But there is no going back in time for seafarers as the rest of the world becomes more connected. As an example Filipinos spend more time on social media than any other nationality – at about 3.7 hours a day. Social media penetration is around 47%. If we think there is pressure to proved internet now, try in 5 years time.

  3. Hello to all.
    I would say there is a point in all of it. But lets ask ourselves. How the world leave with internet 24 hours a day. How the plans, and factories are operating. How the planes are fly. How the track drivers are driving the cars, and so on. How is possible in this world that the Pokémon was created. So lets limit everybody, or think what to do with an internet ashore, and why it is so widely opened.
    The real question is not what to do with internet on board(to limit it or not), but to unlimit it once for all. The excitement happens to the seafarers when they are suddenly having an internet, once a month, once a week . They forget about things, do not sleep, feeling bad I have some bad news and so on.
    If we will have internet on board every day I will feel much better. I will take care of my job better, because I connected to the world, to the family. I do not thing that I have to finish my contract on board the ship as faster as it possible and go home. I will tread the ship as good environment to work, with a better life. If I am talking to my family and want to sleep, I will go to sleep, because I know I will have internet tomorrow, will call my wife tomorrow, and had internet yesterday and we discussed so many things yesterday.
    What we all reading is not an excusable excuse. All we know that an internet is expensive to install on board. All we know that no ship-owners want it. But we are not against to pay for using the traffic.
    So if we will have the internet on board, the seafarers will adopt to that style of life. The work performance, work quality , social life will be better, it is a matter of organization on board, for that reason we have management on board.
    Thank you
    Best regards
    Chief Engineer

  4. I would put the following epigraph to this article, citing Lord Stowell’s judgement in The Minerva (1825) 1 Hag 347 where his Lordship described seamen at p.355 as:

    …set of men, generally ignorant and illiterate, notoriously and proverbially reckless and improvident, ill provided with the means of obtaining useful information, and almost ready to sign any instrument that may be proposed to them; and on all accounts requiring protection, even against themselves.

    Capt. Igor

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