Mental Health Awareness in Seafaring 1

When things go wrong at sea it’s often in spectacular and photogenic ways. Just recently we’ve seen the terrible loss of the Stellar Daisy and the fire on board MSC Daniela. Notwithstanding any loss of life, when the mess is cleared up and the insurers have paid out, there is still a cost and it’s one that is often ignored.

Throughout industry today, much attention is paid to our employees’ mental illness and conditions such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, in the shipping industry, and probably because of the temporary and transient nature of seafarers’ employment, mental health is rarely discussed at all. Employers are, arguably only up to a point, interested in seafarers’ welfare when they’re on board ship. They tend not to bother much about seafarers when they’re ashore and not employed between contracts. They’ll argue that they don’t need to.

There are many causes of depression and PTSD but it’s worth examining some of these in the context of seafaring. Today I hope to illuminate the potential effect on seafarers of relatively common incidents such as cargo damage, groundings, fires and collisions. While there may be no loss of life, these incidents can still take a toll on those involved. Any owner or manager, if they’re interested in their people at all, would do well to consider the effects of these incidents on seafarers’ mental health – it might save a lot of money, after all.

If we don’t consider these effects, we’re building in a cost to our operations that we can do without. Looking after seafarers involves more than simply paying a salary. If we’re really interested in people, and with a view to reducing costs, we might examine what else we can do. If we demonstrate a genuine care for seafarers, I suggest that it’s highly probable that recruitment costs can be reduced, individual and whole crew performance enhanced and then ultimately operating costs can be reduced.

The following example is one of failure – my own failure, I admit – to fully understand the long-term impact that an incident can have on seafarers – and on costs. I should have known better too, as I’m a seafarer myself.

One day, while steaming down the English Channel one of our vessels was damaged in severe weather and began taking on water. The vessel blacked out, broached in the heavy seas and began to roll heavily. The rolling caused most of the deck cargo to carry away which in turn destroyed deck fittings which allowed the vessel to take on even more water. The vessel was listing 35 degrees and we were in danger of losing the vessel.

The Master and his crew battled valiantly to save the ship from loss for many hours. When it was still taking on water and listing heavily, two RNLI lifeboats and two naval helicopters arrived to assist. The master and crew took the decision to remain on board despite exhortation from the on-scene commander to abandon ship. It took 24 hours to stabilize the vessel, but they did and that success (insurers please take note) was entirely down to the Russian master and his team.

The point of this tale is that, unbeknown to me, the incident had severely affected the master. After the incident, we paid the entire crew off and awarded them generous bonusses for their conduct that night. We looked forward to the men returning to duty with us, which after a spell of leave they duly did. It was only then and when the master returned to command a sister vessel on his next voyage, that I realised we still had a major problem.

On his next voyage, the master had loaded a cargo of steel products and was making his way to the Baltic from the Mediterranean. On the passage north, I happened to see from his noon report that he was apparently on a course that was 180 degrees off his expected track… I thought it must be a typo or simple mistake in his report and queried it with the ship operator. We decided to check with the ship and called the master.

When we called him, he claimed he was worried about the weather building up and the heavy rolling he might suffer. He had decided to head out still further into the Atlantic ‘for shelter’. But that course was only going to take him straight into the path of three deep depressions then sweeping across the Atlantic towards Europe. There was no shelter to be had on that on that course whatsoever.

I had to calm him down and suggest he returned to his planned track as he’d at least then be in the lee of the Ushant peninsula within 12 hours or so. He asked me to ‘order’ him to change course, he claimed he couldn’t make that decision himself. I did so and he soon passed Ushant, found a lee and eventually made port in the Baltic perfectly safely.

Suspecting that the master was unwell, we flew superintendents to meet him on arrival in the discharge port. It was clear that he was still badly affected by his previous experience in the English Channel and needed urgent medical care. We repatriated him immediately and took steps to help him with medical care. Unhappily he died while on leave, of an unrelated condition.

The point of this article is to encourage ship managers and owners to fully debrief seafarers after they’ve been involved in significant incidents. Monitor them closely afterwards to see if they might need help, bearing in mind that they may not admit that they do. Come what may, seafarers will remember how you tried to help them. They’ll probably tell their shipmates and, believe it or not, they’ll take comfort from knowing someone cares. That knowledge is worth a few dollars of salary to a seafarer which may well be enough to dissuade them from wanting to move to another operator.

It follows that had we taken more note of the possible effects on the master we could have saved significant deviation, delay, travel and repatriation costs amounting to well over $20,000.

It’s the responsible thing to do after all as it’s the people that really matter – besides, you’ll probably reduce OPEX…

Simon Beechinor is a Commercial Operations Director, Project Manager and Master Mariner with extensive senior management experience of the maritime industries. His background includes the management of a major shipping company as Commercial Operations Director, and subsequently CEO, of a large marine consultancy and cargo services company based in S.E Asia and a Pacific-based regional liner trade.                    @strathmayltd

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