Dr Esteban Pacha, acting chair of the trustees of Apostleship of the Sea, writes exclusively for Splash today.
Hardly a day goes by that seafarers’ wellbeing and mental health doesn’t crop up in conversation.
They were seldom discussed when I was a seafarer in the 80s and 90s, so what has changed?
Globalisation has separated crew management from ship owning, thus crew affinity with the ship has decreased and there is less involvement with ship’s business.
Isolation, anxiety, stress, conflicts on board; these are all very real issues that seafarers face. They can become magnified in the confined space of a ship.
International mixed crews generate less camaraderie and less socialising on board. This combined with realities such as; smaller crews, short turnaround times, increased bureaucracy in port and restricted shore leave, generate higher levels of fatigue that can negatively affect seafarers’ health and social behaviour.
As a seafarers’ charity, Stella Maris (Apostleship of the Sea) plays an important role in supporting crews’ practical and pastoral needs; and yes, their mental and emotional wellbeing too.
We do this through our network of over 1,000 port chaplains and ship visitors in more than 330 ports around the world in 59 countries – by becoming the ‘family’ and ‘friends’ that seafarers can speak to, confide in, and offer the necessary support if needed.
Indeed, Apostleship of the Sea’s (AoS) Life At Sea Report launched in January shows that seafarers still value having a ‘friend’ in port despite better on board internet connectivity and technology.
Face-to-face contact is unique and irreplaceable. It helps alleviate the stresses and strains of life at sea and loneliness faced by seafarers.
In January this year, an AoS ship visitor in Hartlepool visited a cargo vessel which had travelled from South Africa. She spoke with the Captain – everything appeared normal, but just as she was about to leave the ship, the Captain became visibly upset.
It transpired that the Cook, a married man with four young children, had taken ill whilst off the coast of South Africa, rapidly losing weight and becoming bedridden. The Captain and crew took turns to nurse him, while the shipping company tried to get a helicopter and medical advice to the ship.
They were told to head to port, but sadly the Chef died before they got there. This had a devastating effect on all the crew: The AoS ship visitor worked with local agents and the ITF to ensure the crew of the vessel were safe, that the shipping company were aware of the situation, and the crew were given the necessary support and care.
If it wasn’t for the ship visitor being present, the crew would probably have carried on as usual, carrying the grief with them, and the ship owners would have been unaware of the stress their crew was under.
In another case, AoS was contacted by the nephew of a seafarer, who believed his uncle was being bullied. At the ship’s next port, an AoS chaplain met the seafarer who was evidently scared. He said that he had been belittled, insulted and ostracised by the Chief Engineer.
The bullied seafarer had the confidence to speak to AoS about his mistreatment because the ship and crew were well known to the AoS team and had built a strong relationship.
The seafarer made a formal complaint. AoS has a good relationship with the ship manager and owner and worked with them to support the seafarer. Lessons learnt were implemented across their fleet.
Hence, it’s also increasingly vital that other shipping stakeholders – ship managers, owners, P&I Clubs, flag states – work with seafarers’ charities such as AoS so that when crisis strikes, immediate and effective support can be given to crew.