The world of the seafarer has two aspects. There is the light side, which one sees in the pictures of smiling seafarers on social media. And there is the dark side, which comes to the surface through news photos of abandoned crews or the deplorable conditions on board a flag-of-convenience vessel. The world would not know about the latter if not for ITF inspectors, Port State Control authorities and the news media. The duality calls to mind the Chinese philosophy of yin/yang, the two opposing and complementary forces that underlie all natural phenomena and all aspects of life. [Click here to learn more about yin/yang.]

Happy faces on board the Sypress owned by Jo Tankers (2013)
Photo credit: International Maritime Organization
Licence: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Abandoned crew of MV Angelic Power cry out for help. After up to 17 months on board the ship, all were finally repatriated in July 2021.
Photo credit: International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF)

Hard work with some play

Then as now, working at sea entails hard work and the risk of accident or death is ever-present. Today’s seafarers are fortunate, since ILO Maritime Labour Convention, 2006, has put a cap on work hours and introduced other regulations to ensure the safety and comfort of ship crews. Despite all this, crew fatigue remains a problem. Officers, for one, have to cope with so much paperwork on board in addition to their regular duties. Overtime pay might be delayed or not released at all to the hard-working seafarer.

Crew of the four-masted steel barque Magdalene Vinner in a boxing match (1933)
Photo credit: Australian National Maritime Museum

Crew men pulling on a rope near a mast on board Magdalene Vinnen (1933)
Photo credit: Australian National Maritime Museum

Two faces of the sea

Any seafarer worth his salt knows what it is like to be on a ship in a stormy sea. It is during such times that one realises the fragility of life and the puniness of man. As Joseph Conrad, the great Polish-born British writer, put it in his 1906 novel ‘The Mirror of the Sea’: “The sea — this truth must be confessed — has no generosity. No display of manly qualities — courage, hardihood, endurance, faithfulness — has ever been known to touch its irresponsible consciousness of power.”

Calm sea and rough sea, happy days and sad days — the seafarer must learn to embrace it all.

View from the bow of the ship on open sea (no date)
Photo credit: Steve Hillebrand, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Wind and seas from astern. Storm in the North Atlantic, Beaufort 9 to 10 (1957)
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons


Another interesting article you might like:

Five sea poems full-blooded sailors would love

~ Barista Uno

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