‘Hero’: person who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities OR person greatly admired for their exceptional qualities or achievements
‘Hostage’: person seized or held for the fulfilment of a condition OR person who is illegally held prisoner until certain demands are met by others
Seafarer during COVID 19: person hailed a hero while treated as a hostage
It is the same story on nearly every ship I have boarded in the last few weeks. Professional introductions complete, radio call made, settling into the pilotage, looking to break the ice. The common thread: Tired. Fatigued. Tired of the hollow words of thanks. Tired of the empty promises. Tired of emails full of praise but empty of action. Tired of hoping for a crew change that never materialises.
I have read a copy of such an email to one crew. The sentiment is certainly touching. In reality, it is not enough.
The Day of the Seafarer was an international celebration held on the 25th June. Many organisations sought to use the day to pay tribute to the continued efforts of seafarers across the globe, maintaining vital supply routes during the COVID 19 epidemic, whilst seeking to raise awareness of their plight. At sea the smiles were scarce.
I spent the day seeking out webinars. Women Offshore hosted their first webinar with inspiring stories of success in the face of challenge. The conversation naturally kept sliding back towards COVID 19 and the fears it carried ashore. The International Maritime Organisation’s webinar was a mix of speeches calling for immediate action; lists of efforts made so far, with varying results; grave concerns for the future, particularly in the Philippines; and an effective Dutch solution which required extensive cross-border collaboration among a wide range of parties but did achieve some successful crew changes.
The Nautical Institute’s webinar was perhaps the most inspiring. It was noted that seafarers are proud, have been quietly getting on with their jobs and dealing with everything as it comes their way. Sacrifice was a key word that struck me but the sacrifice of seafarers is not fully understood by those outside of the maritime industry. Mariners are a crucial yet unseen part of our society.
Indeed, we are a proud bunch; we have every right to be! Maritime history has a rich tapestry dating back to The Flood. Storms come and go, both at sea and ashore. Seafarers are well versed in battening down the hatches, heaving-to and waiting out the weather. When the clouds clear, it is all hands on deck to ride the waves back to business.
As both a person of faith and a veteran of the British Armed Forces, the idea of sacrifice is not new to me. To every mariner, it is well understood that the job involves leaving friends, family and all the comforts of home. Serving military personnel know that there may come a time of no return, that the ultimate sacrifice may have to be made for a higher cause. Yet, the mariner leaves shore with the knowledge that there will be a return. Until COVID 19.
Distressingly, few land-lubbers understand the key role seafarers play in their lives. The distance an avocado travels to reach that smashed breakfast is referred to in terms of carbon footprints and air-miles, with no mention of refrigerated shipping containers or sea-miles and certainly no hint of the seafarer who has lovingly cradled it across oceans.
This July, Seafarers’ Awareness Week is being promoted by Seafarers UK and Maritime UK, coinciding with the Department for Transport’s Maritime Safety Week. Towards the end of the month, into August, is National Marine Week. The intent to raise awareness is certainly there. Yet, how many outside of the maritime industry are truly aware of our seafarers?
Summer 2020 must be a season of action. The UK Government is leading the charge to address crew change at an international ministerial level. In the meantime, we all have a responsibility to acknowledge the role seafarers play in our lives, sharing their stories and their plight. Seafarers are unable to raise their voices or strike for fear of ending up on a blacklist which means they struggle to find a job in the future. I know this happens because they have told me and it is widely reported despite being illegal. We must raise our voices for them: seafarers are keyworkers; seafarers are part of our society. Share their story.”