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Reflections on the Day of the Seafarer

June 27, 2019

By Jim Rhodes

Philosophers ask, “If a tree falls in the forest and no-one hears it, did it actually make a sound?”

Yesterday was the International Day of the Seafarer, but you would have had to struggle to hear the faintest peep on the subject in the mainstream media other than a few platitudes from the Usual Suspects.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) honored the annual observation with a call for more diversity in the shipping industry, noting that only a miniscule percentage of senior positions are held by women. While this is a commendable idea to be sure, it’s a shame virtually no public attention was given to the often-appalling conditions faced every day by sailors on ships around the world.

There are said to be over 1.6 million seafarers serving on internationally trading merchant ships, including about 774,000 officers and 873,000 ratings. What a missed opportunity to call attention to their lives and working environment.

If you have romantic notions about going to sea and seeing the world, forget it. A seafarer’s life is one characterized by loneliness, overwork, fatigue and tedium spiced by the constant risk of danger. You can add to the list outright and merciless exploitation by their employers. But as far as the world’s media are concerned (with the exception of a handful of vertical shipping industry trade sources), seafarers are “out of sight, out of mind.”

I take this personally, since part of my misspent youth was serving on a ship at sea, and I have written extensively about the maritime industry through the years. So, I spent a good deal of time yesterday on the Internet researching statistics on ship casualties and seafarer accidents and deaths at sea. You would think that if you googled the question, “How many seafarers died or suffered serious injuries at sea last year?” you’d quickly find lots of answers.

Not so.

The best I could dig up was partial and incomplete data. That’s largely because ship owners, ship managers, flag state authorities, insurers, bankers, crewing agents and lawyers inhabit a world that is inherently murky and secretive, and they like keeping it that way.

Nobody seems to know exactly how many seafarers die or are badly hurt on the job, but one statistic jumped out at me. I saw a claim that at least 18 percent of deaths in 2018 were suicide, although the author thought the correct number may be as high as 30 percent. Other major causes include drowning, fires, explosions, falls and asphyxiation from toxic fumes in cargo spaces and voids

How bad is it?

Consider 2018. The year began with the Chinese-flagged cargo ship Changping sinking on January 2 with 10 sailors lost after a collision. Later that week on January 6, a Panama-flagged crude oil tanker experienced a collision and fire and sank with 32 casualties.  Fast forward to the last week of the year, when three ships were lost at sea — one capsized and the other two sank. On New Year’s Eve the car carrier Sincerity Ace suffered a major fire in its cargo spaces. The crew abandoned ship with four known casualties and one missing and presumed lost.

And just this morning, the day after the Day of the Seafarer, the car carrier Diamond Highway was reported to be abandoned, burning and adrift in the South China Sea, the cargo ship Tirta Amarta was sinking in the Java Sea and a Vietnamese commercial fishing vessel went to the bottom after being rammed in the night by another ship in the Gulf of Siam.

Not to mention the tankers damaged by limpet mines in the vicinity of the Persian Gulf in recent weeks.

If that’s not enough, consider that there were 210 piracy attacks reported on commercial ships during the last year. That’s about one every day and a-half. Some crewmembers were killed by pirates, and others were cast adrift or held for ransom.

And don’t forget about the 741 seafarers who were trapped on ships abandoned by their owners on 44 ships in foreign ports in 2018, many of them with no fuel, no food, no water, no medicine, no electricity and no wages. Take, for instance, the captain and crew of the Azraqmoiah, which has been stranded off the coast of the UAE for over 18 months. They are owed $260,000 in back wages. They cannot go ashore. They cannot go home. They depend on contributions from local charities.

And all this treated with silence from the world’s news media.

To be sure, there are a few lonely voices in the wilderness. Barista Uno, in his superb Marine Café blog (https://marine-cafe.com) in the Philippines, is a ferocious advocate for seafarers and writes often about their exploitation by unscrupulous ship managers and crewing agencies. I also recommend gCaptain (https://gcaptain.com/category/blog-3), another excellent blog, which often covers casualties and accidents at sea, as well as the articles written by Dimitrios Lyrakos on crew welfare and safety in Maritime Executive magazine’s blog (https://www.maritime-executive.com/author/dimitrios). Another good source is FleetMon (https://www.fleetmon.com/maritime-news), which publishes concise daily ship casualty reports written by Mikhail Voytenko.

Finally, if you have a quiet moment, I invite you join me in honoring the Day of the Seafarer by turning up the volume on your computer, clearing your mind, sitting back and listening to the mighty hymn, “For Those in Peril on the Sea.”  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bDjwUzUnNpU&list=RDbDjwUzUnNpU&start_radio=1&t=111).