During my career I have had the opportunity to meet some wonderful, interesting and complex personalities all around the world who speak the universal language of the sea. By this I don’t mean English, of course, but the idiosyncratic way that we constantly seek out non conformity, have circular conversations about how things used to be, how much the competitor is paying and how much our “mates” are earning.
For some, our ways could seem a little boring and repetitive and the pride that we take in keeping fire hydrants and sight glass valves looking better than new is certainly not universally shared ashore unless you happen to be an enthusiast of vintage engines! But, we continue on; we train the next generation skills that they will never use and that we have already forgotten such as morse code and celestial navigation in order to stretch our minds and continue some of our traditions which invariably bond us together. Frankly, we are unique both amongst ourselves and certainly within the wider world where the extent of our maritime education is mistakenly assumed to be limited to steering a vessel left, right and occasionally backwards without hitting anything.
It is this uniqueness that both binds and isolates us in equal measure, very often it is said that it takes a sailor to understand one; but the question is-do we give each other the time to do just that?
From within my original classmates at college, at least 3 colleagues have attempted suicide; 2 being successful. In recent weeks I have heard further such stories from other institutions as well as instances where officers keeping a lone watch attempted the final act, crewmates that have gone ashore to drink themselves to death and others who kept the stresses of land life which had carried on without them whilst at sea bottled so tightly to avoid looking weak or lazy to their crewmates that when the final straw came they broke so dramatically that they became catatonic and unemployable. In fact, thinking back to when I was a cadet I remember hunting for a member of the crew who was hiding from monsters in the engine room whilst suffering from alcoholic delirium.
We spend so much time at sea that we mistake the ship for home, universally failing to recognise that home is where the heart is, not a place that we go to make money-regardless of how much time we spend there. Many forget that home is a place where we go to love and be loved, to cook and care for each other and openly express our feelings and emotions without fear or shame; home is a place of laughter and tears, not watchkeeping schedules, company issued mattresses and a rulebook for daily life written and enforced by people you know only by name or occasionally a photograph on the bulkhead. Importantly, home is a place where we have free will and self determination.
This misconception and consequent failure to manage it, coupled with the erosion of the traditional “sea family” with the Captain as the Old Man at the head, is having serious consequences on the mental health of both long established seafarers and especially newcomers who are often woefully unprepared for the reality of life at sea. If we are to combat this, everybody must pull together, nobody must be excluded or bullied (regardless of how much you may dislike them) and new social skills need to be learnt.
As I continue on my own personal journey to try and improve things from the outside with the Maritime Wellness Institute and my work as an independent compliance and improvement consultant, my fears become more and more justified-people really are dying both physically and metaphorically, but currently we simply don’t have an accurate measure of the scale of the problem-other than knowing that it is BIG.
We must define the culture and onboard experience for our crews and crewmates and professionally manage it if we are to have any success in preventing further tragedies and hopefully make being at sea a pleasurable experience for all…including those we leave behind ashore.
By: Matt O´Crowley BV Recognised Consultant, Global Compliance Director (Maritime Wellness Institute)