Suicide at sea. A 21st century epidemic

| Safety Blog

Suicide is now the foremost cause of death amongst seafarers at over 15% of fatalities. The Informal Tanker Owner’s Safety Forum (assuming it exists at all) has been reporting a sharp increase in reports of mental illness with a worrying increase in suicides at sea.

Diligent operators are now taking professional advice, training crews to recognise and act on mental illness and trying to shake off dated attitudes ( the age-old seafarer’s “get over it” attitude). However, many reports are of the most vulnerable seafarers – the first tripper – being reluctant to show weakness. It’s not an easy fix.

I once took a short notice job as Mate on a coaster with a six man crew, when my bank manager hinted that staying ashore for too long was a luxury I could ill-afford. I boarded the little ship at anchor off the south coast of the UK one bleak winter’s night and was met by the Master who showed me to my cabin and told me to dump my bag, grab a mug and find the wheelhouse while he got us under way. Once clear, he told me that my predecessor had ‘gone over the wall’. Quiet lad. Never mentioned problems at home. No warning. No note. Just up and went.

“We haven’t touched his cabin, sorry. When you have ten minutes to spare, can you bag his gear up and help me with the paperwork?”

In the early hours, I’d returned to my cabin and taken a look at this poor man’s last moments. A half-smoked roll-up lay in the ash-tray with his cigarettes and lighter. I felt this to be a sign of real determination. Nobody (in those days) left their cabin without their tobacco and lighter. There was an open paperback book face down on the desk. He’d finished the chapter but obviously not the book. Next to it, an empty tea cup. A last brew before going out on deck. No note. No Dear John letter. As the Old Man had said, he’d just gone. I still can’t imagine what desperation had driven this poor soul to leap into almost icy cold water in the dark and watch the disappearing stern light of the ship with its warm cabin leaving him so desperately alone. Bagging his gear was harrowing, and I won’t pretend I didn’t pipe my eye for a stranger I would never meet.

There are changes to life at sea now that can make life harder, despite technological advances. Before Wi-Fi and indeed mobile phones, communications with nearest and dearest was limited to ship’s mail. I once had a Dear John letter which arrived two months after she’d mailed it, which had clearly crossed in the post with half a dozen letters of my own, assuring her of my continued but unfortunately long unrequited devotion. Seafarers would make the odd phone call home if they were fortunate enough to get a shore-phone on board in port or could walk to a call box with a sack of coins. In extremis, there was always an expensive crackling radio phone call via Portishead radio if you could beg the Sparky to get you a line,

“Say again Mum, over.”

Problems at home tended to be resolved before you got to hear of them. There was a general feeling of ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind’ although only the hardiest soul would actually admit that to their partner.

Constant Wi-Fi and access to social media means today’s seafarer gets a live-cam into life at home. Problems are aired to the distant seafarer before the partner back home rings the gas man or the plumber. This helpless frustration is then added to the modern pressures on seafarers, with increased legislation and immediate access from the manager’s office piling on the workload. Facebook allows the seafarer to have live images of life at home. One youngster I spoke to had many sleepless nights and at time had felt close to suicidal. He’d seen a photo on social media of his happy, smiling fiancé chatting with friends sat at a pub garden table with a man’s arm around her shoulder. The man’s face, out of view, was her brother’s.

There was a time long ago that many ship’s crews had a bar for the crew and bar for the officers. A place to gather, to talk, and to spend time with the more experienced guys in a relaxed environment. Bans or severe limitations on alcohol consumption have all but killed off that social gathering. Constant Wi-Fi and in-cabin entertainment systems – computer games and film – have encouraged isolation. The young seafarer off duty now faces empty alleyways and closed doors for company. On more than one occasion in the past couple of years, Cadets have found to their cost that a life at sea is not for them. When a third world family has raised funds and hopes for their child to go to sea, the prospect of going home to disappoint them with a change of heart has proved too much to bear.

Accommodation blocks are soulless places on many modern ships. Fire regulations have killed off the traditional door curtain which, when the door was open with the curtain drawn across it, generally meant the occupier was open to visitors. Soft finishes such as the carpeted mess room with wooden panelling and a few comfortable armchairs were easy targets for number-crunchers to cut costs.

Contrary to popular belief perhaps, the work pressures on crews are greater in port than at sea which means opportunities for shore leave are limited and for the large container ship, tanker or bulker, berths are usually a good distance from anywhere remotely relaxing. The days of Jolly Jack ashore are long gone.

Some Companies have wised-up and recognised that comfortable communal relaxation is not an optional extra for seafarers’ mental well-being. Exercise equipment and more comfortable rest areas are now being included in ship’s specifications, but this is still a long way from a socially rewarding environment, particularly for the newbies.

Organisations such as ISWAN (International Seafarers Welfare and Assistance Network) and the traditional port Chaplains and seafarer’s charities are doing great work but with an ever increasing workload. ISWAN for example provides a 24 hour multi-lingual confidential helpline for seafarers and their dependants as well as running a number of other projects and campaigns in support of seafarers’ welfare. I have heard Roger Harris speak on a couple of occasions and I often encourage anyone with access to an audience of ship-managers, crewing agents and indeed, seafarers to give him some time. Do take a few minutes to check out their website

In 2018 ISWAN dealt with 3,500 cases involving 8,700 seafarers. Roger and his team are an inspiration to us all.

If you’d bagged up a young man’s cabin on a winter’s night in the English Channel knowing his body was out there somewhere, you’d feel the same.