The Isle of Man Ship Registry has undertaken several initiatives to focus on and improve the welfare of seafarers.
The latest has seen it become a member of charity the International Seafarer Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN).
ISWAN exists to improve the lives of seafarers and their families by providing services including welfare resources, relief funds, help-lines and self-help guides.
The Isle of Man Ship Registry is a regulatory and advisory body as well as a registration authority, which has approximately 8,000 seafarers on Isle of Man registered ships around the world, although both the Ship Registry and the government do not have the figures to hand as to how many seafarers are based in the island.
Director of the Isle of Man Ship Registry, Cameron Mitchell, spoke to the Examiner about both the unique challenges and highlights of working at sea, and what this partnership will mean for the island’s ship registry.
Mr Mitchell said: ‘Our relationship started with ISWAN in 2019 when we created an app called Crew Matters, we did this because we realised there were certain things missing from their lives whilst the crew were out at sea.
‘There are great services in all the ports around the world, however whilst seafarers were at sea, there was very little contact that they could make with charities for instance, and other services that are available at ports.
‘We developed an app, and through that app we joined up with ISWAN to make the Seafarer 24/7 helpline available.’
It is the first app of its kind created by a nation’s Ship Registry, and it includes a 24/7 helpline and a multilingual helpline for families, where they can phone in and discuss any problems.
The development of the app was spurred by tragic circumstances.
Mr Mitchell said: ‘There was a ship that was trading in the North Pacific sea, but registered under the Isle of Man Ship Registry, a cadet went missing on board the ship.
‘He had just completed all his college time and was on his first trip at sea and he disappeared on board. He was lost overboard that was the outcome, the circumstances were never fully understood but we know there was no foul play.
‘That brought it home to us in a dramatic way.
‘How does somebody go from being happy and cheerful on board, which was what all the crew had told us, to then not being on board?
‘I think that incident brought the mental health of seafarers onto the Ship Registry as a whole, so we started to think about how we could hopefully be a part of our seafarers lives in a positive way.’
Whilst the pandemic was not the reason behind the app, its launch coincided with Covid, with it going live in January 2021
At the same time, research has found that crew welfare dropped significantly throughout the pandemic.
Mr Mitchell said: ‘I think it is globally recognised that it has been a really difficult few years for seafarers, with the uncertainty of Covid, and the pandemic impacting repatriation, there has been more of a focus industry-wide on seafarer welfare.’
With borders closing worldwide, Covid made it difficult for seafarers to be repatriated, and in some instances, albeit very few for the island’s registered ships, there were times where contracts were extended.
For instance, a 12-month contract could become a 16-month contract.
This extended period of time away from home, as well as uncertainty as to when crew could get home made it a difficult period.
Mr Mitchell said: ‘Normally you have a repatriation date based upon the completion date of your contract. You will be flying home from Singapore, or Hong Kong, wherever you may be, but because those ports around the world during Covid were not accepting the repatriation of Seafarers, it meant they didn’t know when they were going to get off their ship.
‘That had a big effect on seafarers, but also their families and loved ones.
‘Covid was a catalyst for change, speeding up the recognition of mental wellbeing of seafarers, it is a difficult job, being away from home for prolonged periods of time, but if you enjoy it, then it can be great.’
It is not only Covid that has impacted the mental wellbeing of seafarers, Mr Mitchell explains how the development of technology has impacted their experiences.
He said: ‘Things have changed a lot with the introduction of emails, internet, now there is Wi-Fi on board ships, and with that there is a slight conflict with what we had then, and what we have now, because many seafarers now expect 24/7 connectivity.
‘By going to sea, if you don’t have that connectivity, you immediately become socially isolated in a way, you can’t contact your friends when you want to, or check your emails, or watch Netflix. So in some form it is isolating, but at the same time, having 24/7 connectivity can cause its own problems which are new to shipping.
‘For instance, a seafarer can get news from family, which they may not be able to do much about, but will be playing on their minds, there are those external pressures, if they are from an area of the world involved in conflict, they will be getting reports on that.
‘That feeling of isolation can be profound, especially when it is being communicated from home.
‘Onboard life has also changed significantly, there used to be film nights on ships, which many companies still do, but what was reported is more isolation, and seafarers retiring to their cabins, and connecting to the internet, checking Facebook, Twitter etc, so that interaction with other crew members was diminishing.’
Despite the challenges, Mr Mitchell explained how working at sea can be an enjoyable line of work.
He said; ‘You get paid to travel around the world, and now after Covid you can actually have shore leave again, where you spend a reasonable amount of time at the various ports around the world.
‘There is also a hierarchical structure on board so you have your own duties and responsibilities, so as long as you manage that, your equipment and maintenance, it is good, and where else can you, as a 21-year-old graduate, be responsible for tens of millions of pounds worth of machinery.’
While progress in the industry continues, the next step is finding a way to ensure psychological safety of crew members on board.
Mr Mitchell said: ‘A lot of companies are changing how they look after their seafarers, but a big conversation at the moment is making sure that crew members feel safe enough to speak out if they are unhappy and that there is someone to speak to about their mental health and wellbeing.’
Moving forward as a member of ISWAN, the Isle of Man Ship Registry can access more resources, can participate in welfare research and campaigns and can collaborate with other members among other things.
Mr Mitchell added: ‘The Ship Registry and I are passionate about the welfare of seafarers.
‘We believe that our organisational values and behaviours have made the Isle of Man Ship Registry an internationally respected flag of choice and that we share those same values and behaviours with ISWAN.
‘The Ship Registry and I look forward to collaborating with ISWAN to continue to voice and take action on the welfare needs of seafarers in an ever changing maritime future.’