Seafarers waiting for Godot

Steven Jones, the compiler of the Seafarers Happiness Index, on the realities of staying at sea for so long.

People are inherently good at rising to meet problems. Heroes emerge in disasters, tales of good from tragedy. We are great at facing down seemingly insurmountable odds. Humans rise to challenges and love doing so. Where we are less fantastic is dealing with mundane, unstinting, flatline lives of sheer boredom.

This is why the latest responses to the Seafarers Happiness Index (SHI) from the Mission to Seafarers are a real cause for concern. It’s not just that the numbers across all questions have plummeted, though that is worrying. It’s more the nature of the answers and the fact that in addition to feeling forgotten, unsure about when they will get back home, or if they will be getting vaccinated, on top of all this they are feeling bored rigid!

The average SHI results showed happiness levels of seafarers for the second quarter of 2021 at 5.99/10, a steep and concerning drop from 6.46 in Q1. The responses saw a drop across every category. The levels of happiness are tumbling as seafarers lose faith and hope. The coping mechanisms they have relied upon seem to be failing them. Optimism is giving way to pessimism.

That is not to say they are bored sat around with nothing to do. Far from it. Seafarers reported a growing sense of weariness, with work piling up and no signs of any respite or relief. They are just working longer and harder, and all without any real explanation. The expectation is to just do more, all the time.

People who are involuntarily celibate are frequently afflicted with feelings of anger, frustration, self-doubt and even depression

Covid has increased onboard workload. Obviously, hygiene doesn’t just happen – so there are new and interesting ways to ensure that vessels stay virus-free. Which seemingly include having to wash work gear after every shift. For those in a watchkeeping pattern, that can mean any otherwise free time is spent faffing around in the laundry. Not a great way to spend the day.

Then there is the need to spring into action whenever someone wants to conduct an inspection. Seafarers complained that they are now doing the job not just of the crew, but of auditors and inspectors too. Is there no end to their talent?

To this backdrop of additional work comes the double whammy of relentless, bothersome and insidious boredom. The mental health impacts of so long spent in the same environment are creating huge spikes in negativity and tension.

Lack of stimulation or a sense of reward in their work is leading to “zombie crews”. This zombification of the maritime workforce has massive implications for safety and standards.

Indeed, work at sea is in danger of becoming less meaningful as seafarers have lost the excitement of going home or ashore to look forward to. With no sugar to sweeten the bitterest pills of being trapped onboard, a heavy emotional toll is being exacted.

With this boredom comes a kind of lethargy, born of sheer mind-numbing monotony. This is where accidents and incidents happen, as people naturally struggle to keep themselves on top of their game. The eye comes off the ball, as it were.

The zombification of the maritime workforce has massive implications for safety and standards

The working culture at sea has always been about the positives which surrounded working onboard, without things to look forward to we are getting a “boreout” situation.

This happens when a job lacks a positive surrounding culture, when boredom pervades and when rewards are not readily apparent, obvious or sufficient. When work becomes monotonous, especially safety-critical tasks, then this is a recipe for disaster.

Seafarers are fed up with the same surroundings, bored with their food, “the same meals week in week out”. They are frustrated with emails from their “colleagues” ashore, always asking urgent questions which most of the time have been answered many, many times before.

They are fed up with not knowing when they will be going home. Frustrated with never getting ashore, instead just working longer, harder and for what? For the chance to work longer and harder the next day, and the next, and the next.

Seafarers are like the characters in the Samuel Beckett play “Waiting for Godot”. They try and talk, to have conversations, to stay engaged all while waiting, waiting, waiting for something to happen. Our seafarers are waiting for the arrival of the mysterious Godot, who continually sends word that he will appear but who never does.

Just as in the play, they encounter other unfortunates, who discuss their miseries and their lots in life, and yet they wait. they do not know why they are still on the ship; they assume there must be some point to their existence, and they look to Godot for enlightenment as they hold out hope for meaning and direction above this increasingly futile shipboard existence. No one comes.

Which brings us rather neatly to the final point made by seafarers about their happiness…that of…hmm, how to put it delicately? Well, ships crews are made up of predominantly youngish men. These men have interests, and we’re not talking football, cars or real ale here. We’re talking, in the words of Salt-N-Pepa, ‘bout sex baby.

Being trapped on a ship for many, many months means for some a sense of forced celibacy. This is important because, according to a US study, people who are involuntarily celibate are frequently afflicted with feelings of anger, frustration, self-doubt and even depression. Exactly what we do not want at sea.

Now obviously, this is a tricky problem and not something which can be easily or readily fixed, indeed it is problematic even raising the issue. However, it is there, it is real and it needs considering as it is having an impact on the quality of life for seafarers. Even those who don’t feel the need for intimacy will likely be impacted by the frustration of those that do. So, we are risking the ripping apart of the delicate fabric of shipboard society. Though perhaps the less said about delicate fabrics the better. Grrr.

Extended trip lengths are impacting their health. Seafarers feel tired, sick, fatigued, apathetic and in dire need of detox and enjoyment through life back ashore. More work, longer hours, lengthening tours of duty, have eroded any sense of goodwill. The message from seafarers is of the pressing need to make life better. We all believe that seafarers are key workers and essential, but we need to start treating them so. Patience at sea is running out.

You can read more here.


  1. Well said! Unfortunately I bet there will no any changes. Since pandemic starts we saw the real power of all maritime organizations toward our rights -BIG ZERO. With or without IMO, ILO, you name it, is the same.

  2. Very well said. This state of affairs leads to career seafarers, absolutely fed up with being cooped up in a steel box for months, not being in any hurry to do more of it once they do get home on leave. This is the hidden side of “Covid and the seafarer” – people wanting to stay at home a little longer, and looking for shore jobs.

  3. “ No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned… a man in a jail has more room, better food, and commonly better company.”

    Doctor Samuel Johnson speaking to James Boswell, his biographer, who recorded it twice.

    1. Great, Andrew! A bit of culture creeping into the debate. Dr Johnson was pre-Plimsoll Line, so seafaring must have been really horrific in those days. As an experience l conclude that it has gone downhill since the break-bulk liners of the 70s, despite more modern and better-equipped ships. The sort of run the ‘Wakashio’ was on must have been soul-destroyingly monotonous. Remote terminals at each end. 24-hour loading and discharging. Back and forth! Very few people on board to interact with. With an unmanned engine room who did the 2nd Mate talk to at the end of his graveyard watch. Nobody to sink a beer with before going to bed. I can see how valuable those snatched cell-phone calls off places like Mauritius must have been. The shipowner should allocate some Sat-phone time for the crew to phone home.

  4. From the Department of Few Surprises. Really glad you told me this. I would never have guessed.
    Loved the way you danced around the issue of sex. Worthy of a village priest. I think you’ll find that most seafarers today are married or hoping to be. A night “on the tiles”, having your “ashes hauled”, your “end away” etc in a brothel ashore are rarely available to the modern seafarer, who never spends long enough in port or is near a town. For example, in 1970 there were over 80 seaman’s “bars” in Kobe-Osaka catering to every peccadillo, and every nationality. Ships could be in port, downtown, for a week, with cargo worked only during the day. It was a huge part of seafaring for young men, the run ashore at night, in a flock with your mates. 3 years later, after switching to remote container and bulk terminals, there were only about 12 left in Kobe. I doubt that sort of thing goes on much anymore, even if it was available. But l would be interested to know how they manage it if they still do. Finally, l’m not sure that you can extrapolate the experience of being at sea from a survey. It’s a fairly unique occupation. No substitute for experience.

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