Mental Health Awareness 2: We don’t know why the captain chose to die that night.

We don’t know why the ship’s master, the captain, chose to die that night. We only know that he died at some time after dark. He went to the bridge to write his night orders for the Officer-of-the-Watch and subsequently returned to his cabin. Sometime later he went out on deck, he climbed over the safety rails and dropped into the sea.

The purpose of this article is to highlight one incident that occurred in my own industry, and ask that you as a business manager, pause for thought in the management of people in your own industry.

The vessel was on a routine passage to Hong Kong from the Pacific Islands, and crossing the Celebes Sea before the final run across the South China Sea. That night the weather was flat calm, it was one of the airless and starlit nights that are common in that region, and the visibility was good. We never established why the master decided to take his own life, only that he must have done so deliberately.

As an experienced seafarer he will have known, as he left his cabin unseen to go out on deck, that if he fell overboard for any reason, it would be hours before his absence would become apparent. In the morning and when he was found to be missing, the ship was searched by the crew. They turned about to search back on the vessel’s track, but… how far back should they steam? How far would the currents have carried a man from the point where he fell into the sea? How would they expect to see a man’s head, no larger than a coconut, in that vast expanse of sea? He was lost.

I had said ‘cheerio’ to the master a few days previously as he passed through the final Pacific port. He seemed perfectly content as his ship was loaded with general cargo and containers including coffee, tea, copra and palm kernels. He showed no sign whatsoever of a troubled state of mind. I had only met him for the first time that week, and he impressed me as a decent man that was in full command of his vessel. His crew were alert and efficient, his vessel was clean and well-found.

What then could have prompted him to take his own life? I can only try and describe to you what his life on that ship was probably like. Perhaps those conditions might have contributed to his state of mind and pushed him, literally, to the edge?

Ships are large steel structures where most of the interior space is given over to the carriage of cargo and the machinery that provides power and services to the ship. Those spaces can be vast and be the size and capacity of cathedrals. That part of the vessel that’s given over to the crew to live in, is tiny by comparison. A ship’s accommodation is functional and clinical in appearance, lighting is usually harsh and there is a considerable amount of permanent ambient noise. The noise and vibration of the main engine and the auxiliaries provide an unremitting background of sound that’s only exacerbated by the heaving, rolling and pitching as the vessel moves in a seaway.

Any seafarer, the master included, is often expected to join a vessel immediately after an air flight of many hours. Some familiarisation and training on-board will be required and, in theory at least, the seafarer will try and get some rest before going on duty (and that’s a tale for another day). The seafarer will then be expected to remain on that vessel for many months, possibly for as long as a year. He (and it is most often a ‘he’) will have no choice as to his fellow seafarers on that ship. He may be the only person on board of his own nationality, or he may be one of several in a crew of about 20 people. Commonly there will be several nationalities on board.

The seafarer will probably have limited opportunities to communicate with his own friends or family at home. He may have no internet or mobile phone access – for months. The seafarer’s diet will usually be adequate but is often unimaginative, and a healthy ‘balanced diet’ may be the stuff of fiction. His work pattern will vary and include periods of ‘day’ work and shift work or watchkeeping, that is disrupted and extended by the vessel’s arrivals and departures from port. His working hours are long and his rest periods can be fragmented.

A master may also experience the ‘loneliness of command’. He will be responsible for the continuous operation and management of his crew and vessel for 24 hours each day. He will be continuously bombarded by emails from his employers, managers and cargo interests, each with their own competing demands and priorities that he must juggle to keep everyone satisfied. In port, his burden is exacerbated by the demands of port officials, agents, inspectors and cargo operations. A seafarer, and especially the master, is never ‘off duty’. The seafarer will experience this way of life for months at a time.

It isn’t surprising then if a seafarer begins to feel isolated, or even overwhelmed, as the conditions I’ve outlined above impinge on them for many weeks and months at a time. The cumulative effects of these conditions over years of service are rarely, arguably never, considered. In such circumstances, we don’t have to be very imaginative to begin to understand the pressures exerted upon our seafarers and why their mental health may be at some risk.

There are some organisations, such as seafarers’ charities, that go some way to relieving these pressures. The charities may provide a place of respite for seafarers, where they may buy snacks or make a phone call home. Sometimes there’s a friendly person to talk to who isn’t one of their shipmates and they can ‘sound off’. Some organisations will supply books or videos to try and help relieve the isolation and monotony of their existence on board.

Seafarers are generally a tolerant and self-sufficient bunch. They’re used to a multi-cultural working environment where religion and politics are, by unspoken agreement, left ashore. As a result, there are few instances of conflict such as arguments or instances of nationalism or racism among crews.

Nonetheless it doesn’t matter how tolerant they are, or how much they enjoy the companionship of their shipmates. When people are confined on-board in small groups, or alone, and separated by culture, nationality, religion or intellect, there can be little to prevent them suffering from a growing sense of isolation and dislocation from all that they hold dear.

That feeling of loneliness and isolation can easily grow into a feeling despair in an industrial environment where a cry for help will, likely, go unanswered. Perhaps we can begin to understand then how the oblivion, or ‘peace’, that may be offered by the inky blackness of a sea at night could begin to have some appeal to a troubled mind.

If you are a manager, and responsible for the management of people, please just be aware.

This is the second post in a series on seafarers’ mental health.

Part One may be read here.

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.

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