Looking Forward to Going Ashore

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By manjit Handa 2017-06-23 00:00:06

From the IMO website:

This year our theme is "Seafarers Matter." For 2017, we want to particularly engage ports and seafarer centers to demonstrate how much seafarers matter to them. The idea is for ports and seafarer centers to share and showcase best practices in seafarer support and welfare. We want them to organize special activities for seafarers on that Day, for example: social event organized in port to celebrate seafarers public open day at seafarer centers free wi-fi in port for a day etc.

As a seafarer, I cannot but shake my head in disbelief at the ability of the IMO to consistently avoid what is important. Ports might remove all the stops on June 25, but what about the rest of the year? 

Ports avoid seafarers’ welfare simply because it costs them dollars if they must give an expression to any altruistic tendencies that they might find within themselves. In fact, ports and terminals prefer using the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS) to deny anything that makes seafarers’ life more comfortable.

Thankfully, seafarers’ centers are a different matter altogether. These are very few, but where they do operate, (such as in Canada, Australia and South Africa, and some ports of the U.S.) they provide a great service that usually goes beyond anyone’s expectations. It is amazing how these centers function purely on the volunteers’ contribution of time, effort and money, even if they are always struggling to keep their heads above water. None have yet given up though.

Do seafarers deserve rest and recreation during port stay on a regular basis? 

Let us look at this issue as a comparison between the life of a seafarer and a landlubber. On land, everyone goes through their daily grind in a kaleidoscope of interaction with men, women and children. By the end of the day, our senses have been filled with a variety of human contact. 

We also enjoy the beauty of the nature through our view of the sky, the land and maybe water too. A seafarer on the other hand gets to see only water and sky, and the same 25 odd (mostly) men who are both his workmates and his social club; cooped up in a steel box suffering six degrees of motion. 

The deprivation of this less-than-full sensory feed is corrosive to the human soul. (There are only two other confinements which could be worse, a jail or the International Space Station, but any astronaut at least gets to be a celebrity for the rest of his life.) 

Every seafarer, therefore, looks forward to going ashore in port. 

What happens when a ship docks in port? A crude oil tanker may never come alongside at all, loading/discharging at a single buoy mooring far removed from any city. Container vessels have such short port stays that the time in port is just a blur of activities. In China, a bulk carrier can be discharged in less than 18 hours when they put a slew of cranes that disgorge the cargo so fast that the crew doesn't have enough time to fill up the ballast. For the engineers, there are some maintenance activities possible only in port. Then the crew must keep time aside for inspections and audits too. Even if there is any time leftover to go ashore, one can frequently expect a denial of shore passes on the pretext of security. 

Those lucky enough to get ashore will usually have to walk to the gate, hire a taxi (which in true international style is always a rip-off) and then hope to enjoy the local sights. Then back again quickly to return by taxi to the gate and walk back to the vessel. All this only during a seafarer’s own quota of rest hours, so usually he is back to work on arrival on board. 

Because of these difficulties, some seafarers prefer not to go ashore at all. That has a detrimental effect on their mental health.

What can be done to ease up this aggravation of a seafarers’ experience during port stays? Port authorities around the world need to adopt the good practices developed by seafarer’s centers and provide free transportation from the vessel to the nearest high street and back, with a guide if possible. This single facility will go a long way towards resolving a whole lot of impediments.

In general, port authorities must accept the seafarers’ desire to go ashore as an absolute necessity.

Captain Manjit Handa is a bulk carrier master.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.

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