Depression at sea: going to the root of the problem

Depression at sea: going to the root of the problem

The problem with buzzwords is that they tend to oversimplify and in effect give a false picture of reality. The latest to hit the shipping world — wellness training — is particularly problematic. The phrase is bandied about by seafarer charities and the maritime press as if training were some magic wand that would make depression at sea go away. This is disingenuous at best.

Those who are repeating the call for wellness training for seafarers are like an army of unthinking mynahs. They are missing one important point: shipowners, manning agents and the whole maritime establishment have created an environment that is hardly conducive to the mental health of seafarers. Why pass on the problem to the latter by telling them to undergo more training?

Ask Duncan Cameron, a British former chief engineer and currently a director of Energuity Ltd, an engineering inspection and energy services company. Unlike the do-gooders pushing for wellness training, he had spent many years at sea and interacted closely with crews from different nations. He enumerates some of the factors which are detrimental to the well-being of sea-based workers:

  • Mixed nationality crewing, depriving the seafarer of interaction with their own cultures
  • Reduced time ashore due to fast turn rounds and maintenance demands
  • Oppressive restrictions on moderate alcohol (and tobacco) consumption
  • Worry about reliability of pay, and in certain circumstances false accounting
  • Excessive paperwork detracting from the job in hand

The list is by no means complete. To it must be added the maritime training overload seafarers have to endure. The burden has become heavier because of the 2010 Manila amendments to the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW), 1978. Now comes the Christian charity Sailors’ Society calling for ILO Maritime Labour Convention, 2006, to be revised so that wellness training would be made mandatory. How uncharitable can they be?

Depression is a problem that is much more complex than the maritime charities would have us believe. The general environment in which seafarers operate may well be a major contributing factor, but it is not all. Depression could be due to the individual’s mental or emotional make-up. Some are simply not cut out for a job at sea and the loneliness and isolation it entais. Moreover, certain cases of depression require psychotherapy or psychotropic medication. For anyone to suggest that the issue can be addressed with “wellness” training is not only absurd. It could be dangerous.

~ Barista Uno

The Marine Cafe Blog

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Filipinos should rethink their fixation on ship manning

Filipinos should rethink their fixation on ship manning

To tell Filipinos to rethink what has been their main maritime activity could be asking for the moon. Ship manning has become as addictive to them as alcohol. It is their opiate — inducing the kind of foggy and false sense of contentment that French artist Michel Ange Houasse depicted in his 1720 painting, Ofrenda a Baco, or Offering to Bacchus (pictured above).

The bacchanalia has been going on since 1974. That was the year when the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos officially launched the country’s labour export programme by creating the National Seamen Board and, for landbased workers, the Overseas Employment Development Board. The two offices were later merged into what is now the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA).

Can the national addiction to ship manning ever be stopped? In 2018 Filipino seafarers sent home a total of USD6.14 billion, up 4.6 per cent over the previous year. For a poor country with a population of 106 million, that is no piddling amount. Throw in the money going to the myriad players in the manning sector, and you are faced with a dependency problem that may require years of rehab.

And yet, it’s about time Filipinos confronted their addiction. Manning other nations’ fleets has diverted the nation’s energies away from fleet development, marine manufacturing and other areas long neglected. During the Marcos era, Filipinos had it own, fairly large oceangoing fleet, including some VLCCs (Very Large Crude Carriers). Latest available official figures show that the fleet in 2016 was down to one benefically owned vessel of 4,028 gross tonnes, the rest (118 vessels) being foreign tonnage under bareboat charter to Filipinos.

The obsession with manning has come at an even heavier, albeit hidden, cost to the nation. It has engendered, particularly in Manila, a kind of mind shrinking paraochialism and created a culture in which seafarers are regarded as commodities. Ironically, those who treat seafarers in this manner also tend to become dehumanised. Having lost their natural power of empathy, they see other humans as a means to an end, not as ends in themselves.

The obsession with manning…has engendered, particularly in Manila, a kind of mind shrinking parochialism and created a culture in which seafarers are regarded as commodities.

Developments in shipping provide another reason for Filipinos to start weaning themselves away from manning. Whether they like it or not, the age of automous ships is coming. Significant strides in the technology were made in 2018 which the Marine Insight website has summarised in an informative article. In addition, Filipinos are having to deal with rising competition from other crew-supplying countries and their own inability to fix their maritime educational system.

The bell may be tolling for Filipinos. Few would probably hear it. Just like Bacchus’ wine, the money from ship manning can put the participants in a state of drunken stupor and wonderful, mindless contentment.

~Barista Uno

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Mother and child by the sea: art to honour mothers

Mother and child by the sea: art to honour mothers

Few themes in art are as enduring and inspiring as that of mother and child. Throughout the centuries, the subject has seen many iterations, either religious or secular. Its fascination to artists and humanity as a whole is not at all surprising.

Works of art depicting mothers and their children seem to touch a deep part of ourselves, bringing us back to a time when we were in the watery world of our mothers’ wombs. The cutting of the umbilical cord is only a physical event; we remain connected emotionally and perhaps spiritually as well to the one who brought us into the world.

The following paintings all speak of the greatness of the mother — her boundless and unconditional love; her courage and fortitude; and, not least important of all, her ability to provide her offsprings with emotional and spiritual nourishment.

Mother and Child on a Beach, c. 1860
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, (French, 1796–1875) / Philadelphia Museum of Art

“Whatever else is unsure in this stinking dunghill of a world a mother’s love is not.” 

~ James Joyce

Mother and child on the shore, 1902
Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973) /
©   This artwork is understood to be copyrighted. It has been uploaded here under the principle of Fair Use.

“Paradise lies at the feet of your mother.”

~Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H.)

After Bathing, 1915
Joaquín Sorolla (Spanish, 1863–1923) / Google Art Institute, from the Sorolla Museum collection

“The bearing and the training of a child is woman’s wisdom.”

~ Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The Gale, 1883–93
Winslow Homer (American, 1836–1910) / Gandalf’s Gallery on Flickr

“With what price we pay for the glory of motherhood.”
Isadora Duncan

Fisher Girl of Picardy, 1889
Elizabeth Nourse (American, 1859–1938) /
Smithsonian American Art Museum

“Mothers and the sea are the sustainers of civilisation.”

~Barista Uno

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Pushing back on wellness training for seafarers

Pushing back on wellness training for seafarers

The UK-based Sailors’ Society has harnessed social media to clamor for the amendment of ILO Maritime Labour Convention, 2006, to make wellness training mandatory for seafarers. So why not do the same to counter the whole silly idea? As a follow-up to Marine Café Blog’s commentary in late April, I decided to post memes on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter criticising the move.

In this one-man campaign, I feel like Sisyphus pushing a huge rock up a hill (pictured above in a detail of German artist Franz Stucks’ 1920 painting). The Sailors’ Society, after all, is a Christian charity with a worldwide network. It enjoys plenty of prestige. Perhaps more important, it has the manpower and money to sustain an orchestrated drive to push its agenda.

Even so, the very idea of imposing yet another onus on seafarers is so egregious it has to be thumbed down by all right-thinking maritime professionals. For sure, It would only add to the hardship of those who toil at sea whilst increasing the profits of training centres, training consultants and other enterprising characters.

Sadly, the shipping community and the docile maritime press seem to have adopted an acquiescent attitude. The maritime unions certainly have not questioned the plan to make wellness training mandatory. And most seafarers are too preoccupied with jobs, cars, women and politics to give a damn.

But there are some who have openly expressed their cynicism, if not ther anger, over the plan. Here are some of the interesting comments from active and former merchant sailors who reacted to my recent online posts (I have left out the names, although the remarks were made publicly):

“Wellness” training will be some politically correct nonsense that will not improve life at sea one jot. Money would be better spent on onboard facilities.

More expensive and time consuming ‘training’. All on the backs of sailors. The COMPANIES cause most of the issues in the maritime industry, but so many of them are blamed on the sailors and they are always the ones that have to deal with it.

Ouchhh!!! Another mask of exploitation.

Fix the causes of pain for seafarers, not just their ability to tolerate it.

I see plenty of money and soft jobs ahead for whoever it is that is pushing this nonsense, and just more hassle for seafarers.

Wellness cannot come from training. It’s like training for happiness. How does one train for that?

The Sailors’ Society do-gooders are not likely to pay any heed to such sentiments. Mesmerised by their own rhetoric, they sincerely believe that they are doing seafarers a favour. Never mind if their good intentions might have unintended consequences. In this sense, they have become one body with the maritime establishment.

~Barista Uno

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Ballet at sea: six striking paintings of sailboats

Ballet at sea: six striking paintings of sailboats

I know very little about ballet, and I have never been to a ballet performance. However, sailboats make me think automatically of ballerinas — like the ones depicted by the great French artist, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, in his 1885 painting Ballet Dancers (pictured above). As with Toulouse-Lautrec’s dancers, sailboats at sea epitomise grace. More significantly, they evoke that inner sense of freedom humans yearn for. All six of the following paintings represent a kind of choreography as wonderful as any that could be witnessed on stage.

En la costa de Valencia, 1898
Joaquín Sorolla (Spanish, 1863–1923) / Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Argentina

Joaquín Sorolla has been called the Spanish master of light, and rightly so. This iridescent painting is typical of the many he painted depicting the sunny beaches of his native Valencia. Sorolla renders sunlight as though it was liquid bathing the sails and figures with a joyful glow. Even the shadows have a certain luminosity. Adding a bit of charm to the scene is the small boy in the foreground playing with a toy sailboat.

La Vague Verte (The Green Wave), ca. 1866–67
Claude Monet (French, 1840–1926) / The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The amplitude of the sea in Monet’s work is underscored by the high horizon line and the silhouette of a sailing ship in the distance. The undulating carpet of green looks heavy and light at the same time. The boat in the foreground is moving in rhythm with the waves, suggesting a dynamic harmony between man and nature.

Seascape with Sailboats, 1925
Léon Spilliaert (Belgian, 1881–1946) / The Athenaeum

Léon Spilliaert was a Belgian symbolist painter best known for his mysterious and often melancholic works. In this piece, executed in watercolour and gouache on paper, he deconstructed reality to make a subtle statement on the human condition. Sand, sea and sky are demarcated by strips of colour which create a sense of fluid movement. The two sailboats are some distance from each other and seem to float in a surreal landscape. The image is emblematic of the unbridgeable space that separates humans. One is reminded of the words of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke: “I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other.”

Two Black Boats Sailing up Dark Grey Waves
Alfred Wallis (English, 1855–1942) / New Walk Museum & Art Gallery, Leicester Arts and Museums Service

Alfred Wallis, a Cornish fisherman and self-taught artist, depicts two fishing boats wrestling with a mighty swell in a small seascape measuring 17.8 x 23.8 cm (7 x 9.4 inches). The subdued tones of black and brown and the sombre card background make for a stark drama at sea. The painting is childlike yet compelling.

The Full Moon over a Sailing Boat at Sea, c.1823–6
Joseph Mallord William Turner (English, 1775–1851) / Photo © Tate
Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported) licence

Art critics often use the word “atmospheric” to describe the works of J.M.W. Turner. In this instance, poetic might be a better term. The splashes of blue-green and ochre conjure up a dreamscape, beautiful yet surreal. The moon is just bright enough to show the outline of a sailboat. The edges of the  sheet are noticeably jagged as though the paper had been torn on the sides — giving the impression of some lost artefact or a fragment from the artist’s memory.

Seascape at Saintes-Maries, 1888
Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853–1890) / Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts

With its vibrant colours and use of vigorous brushstrokes, this seascape is immediately recognisable as the work of none other than Vincent van Gogh. It is one of several paintings the artist made during a trip to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer on the Mediterranean coast. The energy is palpable. One can tell that Vincent was inspirited by the sea and the fishermen who struggled daily with its power. As he gushed in a letter to his brother, Theo: “I’m writing to you from Saintes-Maries on the Mediterranean at last — the Mediterranean — has a colour like mackerel, in other words, changing — you don’t always know if it’s green or purple — you don’t always know if it’s blue — because a second later, its changing reflection has taken on a pink or grey hue.”

~Barista Uno

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