With ocean cruise sailings suspended and life for some crew seemingly in limbo, Tom Parry assesses the mental health strains faced and hears how they are being supported.
“We’re a charity that’s been running for more than 200 years, and I don’t think we’ve ever seen a humanitarian crisis like this within the maritime industry.”
Having supported the seafaring community since 1818, this stark assessment from Sailors’ Society director of media and advocacy Melanie Warman goes some way to understanding the pressures Covid has placed upon those who work at sea.
Throughout 2020, with its port closures, travel restrictions and an inability to operate, thousands of crew – onboard cargo liners to cruise vessels – are experiencing far different voyages to anything they’ve known before.
The United Nations’ International Maritime Organization estimates globally around 400,000 seafarers are still on their ships, unable to be repatriated. Another 400,000 are believed to be at home due to restrictions, unable to join ships and provide for their families.
Sailors’ Society has worked throughout the pandemic with different maritime sectors to comfort and connect crew, reaching out to 23,000 seafarers every month across 21 countries.
These are people who often find themselves far from loved ones during this most worrying of times. Hearteningly, when it comes to cruise, chief executive Sara Baade tells TTG the charity believes crew have been “well looked after” by their lines.
The society has helped in a number of different ways – from boosting spirits by delivering more than 200 packages a month to crew in Southampton before Christmas (the team even organised a gift exchange between workers on two ships), to organising the distribution of unused supplies to food charity FareShare.
Its network of port chaplains has also been on hand throughout the pandemic – whether simply providing “a friendly face to talk to at the bottom of the gangway” or acting as a lifeline – buying soap, snacks and phone sim cards for an Indonesian CMV crew member stranded in Tilbury for five months before he was repatriated, for example.
Like many lines, P&O Cruises is currently operating a “skeleton crew” of around 100 on each of its slumbering ships. Vessels may be empty of guests but the value of those still onboard clearly isn’t lost on the company.
From complimentary WiFi and “enhanced” food menus to fitness facilities on open decks and socially distanced quizzes, P&O president Paul Ludlow says supporting the crews’ physical and mental health over the past year has “been of critical importance”.
With the pandemic continuing – and no word yet from government as to when lines may look to restart – it’s the mental health of crew Sailors’ Society is concerned about.
“When you’re away from your family and you don’t know when you’re going to get home, mental health issues are going to creep in,” says Warman. “You may not be with crew you’re particularly close with or who share your culture – there could be all kind of things that make you feel isolated.
“Just going back to your cabin and dealing with these issues night after night is really tough on people.”
The society is urging the industry to utilise its Wellness at Sea training programme, which gives seafarers advice on how to cope with their situation and recognise mental health issues that could affect crewmates.
Reflecting that need, P&O has put in place its own initiatives, with mental health awareness courses and webinars on how to manage work pressures and broach the subject with colleagues.
“Whilst we cannot wait to once again be providing our guests with amazing holidays, it is vital to provide crew and employees with the pastoral care needed at this time,” Ludlow stresses.
Similarly, Royal Caribbean Group crew and their families can access online support and education tools in more than 100 languages, and can also speak directly and confidentially to counsellors whenever they need to.
“We’re staying in regular contact with our crew, providing them with news and updates to keep them fully informed and engaged,” says Jo Rzymowska, Celebrity Cruises’ vice-president and managing director EMEA. Royal Caribbean International counterpart Ben Bouldin adds use of its support programmes this past year “indicate the services have been welcomed by our crew and we are adding to them”.
MOUNTAIN TO CLIMB
Crew wellness will continue to be a top priority for Sailors’ Society this year, with “more readily available e-learning”, says Baade, and an upcoming industry campaign being readied for launch. The charity will also keep running its support helplines, which have seen “a significant increase in calls”.
“We will be building on [wellness], as never has it been more needed than now and in the future,” adds Warman.
The charity is determined to continue its work but is also aware the crisis is far from over. With Covid “dominating work and resources this past year”, like many charities, it is in need of a helping hand itself.
Cruise industry professionals are being encouraged to reach out and get involved with volunteering and fundraising events. A team is also being assembled to climb Kilimanjaro in August.
“The demand for the charity is increasing and yet the resources we need to do our work are getting harder to secure,” explains Baade. “We are there for anyone whether it’s a cruise or cargo ship – we want seafarers to enjoy their life at sea, and we’ll keep doing our very best to be there for them.”
To find out more about Sailors’ Society and for information on the Kilimanjaro climb, visit sailors-society.org/events/kilimanjaro-challenge-2021