Seashell Series 2020
Original Photos by Barista Uno
It is not only the fragility of life that the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted. It is also the fragility of the thing called “globalisation“. Borders have been sealed off. Nations have barred the entry of ships and planes. The flow of tourists and migrants is put on hold. Suddenly, the global village Canadian futurist Herbert Marshall McLuhan wrote about in the 1960s seems to have exploded and scattered into self-contained little islands.
Many beaches have been emptied of tourists and holidaymakers as the coronavirus epidemic drags on. No worries. Winslow Homer, the 19th century American artist best known for his marine subjects, can transport beach lovers beyond the boundaries of time and space.
Entire cities and countries are in lockdown because of the coronavirus. Millions are forced to stay at home, marooned like the pirate in the 1903 drawing by American illustrator and author Howard Pyle (from his Book of Pirates). Humans being hopelessly social creatures, it is a miserable state of affairs. Even so, I hope the following works of art, together with my random reflections, would help mitigate the misery of those who are not used to being isolated from the crowd.
Plagues do not come very often. But when they do, they cause a great deal of fear and consternation. The present coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has disrupted supply chains, wreaked havoc on stock markets, and sent people panic-buying in the supermarkets. The following quotes should provide some food for thought and perhaps even solace in this terrifying time.
There is a culture of greed in maritime Manila which reminds me of Gustave Doré‘s drawing of the greedy and indulgent pushing rocks in Dante’s Inferno. Not all have succumbed to the greed. I have known a few spirits whose kind-heartedness and generosity have helped preserve my faith in humanity. However, many folks, particularly in Manila’s manning community, have capitulated to Mammon, to the siren call of money. The following are two of my personal encounters with them, both excerpted from my e-book, Close Encounters in Maritime Manila:
Non-EU countries supplying crews to EU-flagged vessels undergo periodic inspections by the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA). Some may see this as outside interference, an assault even on national sovereignty. But that is just the way things are. Now, the EMSA inspectors can be a bit pedantic when it comes to the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW). They may nitpick or find fault in small details. The following may help maritime officials and training institutions brace themselves for the dreaded visit by EMSA:
To be sure, not all manning agents are bad. Some are scrupulous and treat seafarers fairly. In Manila, however, there is a culture of greed to which many crewing companies have succumbed. I am reminded of an 1881 illustration (pictured above) from the 19th-century weekly newspaper, L’Illustration européenne. It shows an old man taking bags of gold coins to his deathbed and exclaiming “Alas, must I leave you my dear lambs”.
It is not only loneliness that seafarers have to endure. Away from their families, the shopping malls and their favourite watering holes, they often have to deal with boredom. There is really little to do on board a ship after one’s watch is over. What better way to spend those idle hours than to read a good book?
Between 2005 and 2019, the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) made a total of 74 visits to non-EU countries — from Israel and Tunisia to Indonesia and the Philippines. This shows how seriously the EU takes the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW). However, in no instance did EMSA make public its findings. The lack of transparency may save some countries from embarassment, but ultimately, it is neither good for them or their seafarers.
Many years ago, I learned about Baduanjin (also known as Eight Pieces of Brocade), a Chinese qigong exercise whose origins go back to the 11th century, during the Song Dynasty. The term qigong consists of the characters “qi” (vital energy or spirit) and “gong” (cultivation or mastery). Baduanjin is easy to learn. Probably the best place for performing the exercise is by the sea, but it can done anywhere that is quiet and comfortable.
For the nth time since 2006, the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) is conducting another inspection in the Philippines to verify its complaince with the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW). It normally inspects non-EU countries supplying crews to EU-flagged ships once every five years. This entire thing has been a never-ending fandango. All the dancers have been going round and round to the STCW music. They must be tired by now, so why not cut to the chase? In my view, the EMSA team needs to ask only three questions at this stage.
There are good and bad manning agencies, but I personally would rather have a hiring hall do the crew selection and deployment. I have seen enough in maritime Manila to say that crewing companies are a necessary evil. But they are not going away anytime soon. The best that seafarers can do is be discerning enough to deal only with the decent ones — definitely not an easy task if there are so many to choose from.
It is not always easy for seafarers to assert their rights. The mere act of complaining (even on social media) may put them in disfavour with manning agents, ship masters, and others in authority. Reporting non-payment of wages and other abuses to the ITF (International Transport Workers’ Federation) could get them blacklisted.