Tale of diminishing liberties of a sailor

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This is A Tale of Diminishing Liberties of the Sailor from 1990’s to 2021

The beginning of an era

I was fortunate to see a glimpse of the ‘good ol’ times’ of shipping, before it all quickly faded. I had joined shipping in 1997, and GMDSS was still being introduced in my first company. The Bridge had a bevy of instruments – Decca, Loran, RDF, two rudimentary radars, a separate Radio room, and the lifestyle on board ships was laid back. It was a time of telex, morse codes, HF communication. There was a Purser for paperwork, and Radio Officer for communication on board.

Multiple families would sail on ships; there were regular parties and I never felt homesick. Port stays would be an opportunity to venture out and discover a place, have fun even if I didn’t have any money (I was a Cadet).

Shore management was equally laid back, a position report once a day was enough to ensure peace of mind. Once after departing from China, our Fresh Water Generator went kaput, and then our ship called a nondescript fishing port in Japan – Ishigaki Shima, just to get clearance, so that we may be allowed to call a Taiwanese port and take fresh water! In Taiwan, we stayed over a day, as it was the Chinese new year – waiting to take fresh water.

Post GMDSS 1999 Era

By this time the GMDSS installations were complete on all the company’s vessels, and Radio Officers were told to leave. Deck Officers would now have to carry out the communications. GMDSS made communication easier, and the demands from shore offices started increasing, they started asking for more reports – daily, weekly, monthly; more forms to fill. ISO 9001 was on the way, and the ship wasn’t under the sole command of the Captain, control was shifting to the shore.

Post ISM – 2000 Era

By 2000, I had ventured out of my parent company, and had a rude shock! There were computers installed on the ships, and we were supposed to do our work on them – I was a fish out of water. In these private companies, which were managing ships on behalf of Owners, there were no Pursers. I was the Third Officer, and had to prepare the Port formalities as well. Soon ISM manuals arrived with trunkful training videos

There was another interesting addition – the QHSE department (Quality, Health Safety and Environment), and they had overriding authority over others ashore. This meant more jobs ashore, and more work on board. But as long as we were calling ports, and letting our steam off, it was OK.

Sometimes we didn’t even have to go ashore. Once I joined a ship in Samarinda, and found a bustling market on the poop deck. Women from the neighbouring shore lines had set up shop with all kinds of stuff – food, handicrafts, knickknacks. Some of them had even made temporary boyfriends out of the sailors on board.

Post ISPS – 2001 Era

Then the Big Bang happened in the 2001 – 9/11 attacks! It shook up the world, and the shipping industry. Suddenly all ships were a security threat, and ports were secure zones. New Security Manuals were created in a huff. There were protocols for each level of security, and everybody had to be trained for it.

There was another addition to the shore management setup – the Security Department, and now ‘they’ had overriding authority over all other departments. Although ISPS came about in 2002, it didn’t come to full effect till 2003. Many countries had not yet ratified or enforced the rules strictly.

There were still outsiders coming to the ports freely, stuff were still bought and sold – there were scrap dealers who would give a reasonable price for the condemned stuff on board, and this was often used to buy videos and games for the ship’s club.

All these came to a halt with ISPS. Security Levels were declared in each port. There were restrictions on sailors from going ashore. Many ports completely banned it for sailors, some put strict timings. There were a complete ban on people from outside to visit ships.

Criminalisation of seafarers

With the advent of ISM, there were other changes too. Suddenly Port States started exercising control over the ships that visited. Most of the rules were made with a pre-conceived notion that all Seafarers are criminals who take sadistic pleasure in polluting the sea, and flouting rules. People started going to jail for non compliance of the Owners/ Managers. Thanks to the QHSE departments, all non-compliances / accidents / incidents were attributed to ‘Human Error’ – to be precise – Humans who were working on board.

Rise of the Box Ships – 2002

By 2002, there were only huge container companies, like CMA CGM, MSC and Maersk. They were gobbling up smaller companies as in a Pacman game. Subsequently, general cargo vessels had died a silent death. There were no more long port stays, or specialised cargo.

On one of these GC ships, we had a swimming pool, a basketball court, a gym and a sauna (built in Poland, for a company with French sailors). Tiny swimming pools were the standard feature of many ships. With the advent of Asian sailors, Owners decided that we don’t deserve these amenities anymore, and we silently concurred.

Drug and Alcohol Policy – 2003

By this time, there was increasing pressure from the QHSE department and Tanker Pool Managers, and it was decided that the favourite pastime of all sailors is to drink and pass out. Oil Tankers banned consumption of alcohol first, followed by some others. Today many Ship Owners, irrespective of the type of ship they’ve got, have a No Alcohol Policy on board. Even after this, most of the world visualises seafarers as characters from ‘The Pirates of the Carribbean’.

Post MLC – 2006 Era

With rising freights (and profits), lower manpower costs with Asian sailors, many shipping companies were finding it difficult to run companies, and had started cutting down further on the crewing. There were a myriad other issues, which led to rumblings from the seafarer’s unions.

To address them, Maritime Labour Convention was effected in 2006. It standardised the sizes of crew accommodation, the sizes of a toilet, but left out the gymnasium and few other amenities. Gymnasiums and Smoke rooms (common rooms) have shrunken gradually alongwith the Sailor’s fate. On many ships there’s no Conference Room, no Owners’ Room, no Tally Rooms.

The Corona Outbreak – 2020

First it was a global calamity. Then, it was a global opportunity. There was absolute ban on shore leave for the sailors, even if all on board were completely fit. Restrictions on sign on and sign off, restrictions on provisions, even fresh water are now the norm. MLC be damned, the sailors have to carry out their contracts and even more. Owners are paying money right? So there is no question of going home once you join a ship, be it for a year or more.

With this opportunity, standard contracts have been extended, and Port States are happy to receive or export their cargo, but will not let Sailors go home. With so many powerful Owners, management companies, so many Unions, and the ITF, there couldn’t be a concerted effort to address the issues of the sailors. Well, there was a call from ITF to ‘lay down tools’, but with the immense trust sailors have on their Unions, and the silence from the Management companies, the movement fizzled out. Job insecurity and material aspirations have moved sailors to accept whatever changes are coming their way – longer contracts, restricted movement, lower wages – whatever may come their way.

With our liberties gone, and life on board approaching bonded labour status, all we are left with is an “International Seafarer’s Day”. Shall we rejoice? Most of us don’t consider ourselves contractual professionals, but loyal employees, who have been brainwashed into subservience. I still have some sailing years left, and often I wonder how many more changes shall I witness, how much more fall before we reach rock bottom

– From the heart of a Sailor (Unknown as of now)


The following is a rumination of a totally personal nature, on the state of the industry that I work in, and is not a commentary on any particular Ship Owner, or Management Company or the Regulating Authorities.

This is an old forward I received in my WhatsApp I’m not aware of the original author of the tale. I would like to know the individual who wrote this post if you know him or if you wrote this tale do write down in the comments section.

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Ashutosh Ghate

Ashutosh Ghate is a marine engineer, blogger, aspiring writer, and geeky nerd. He is working on an oil tanker for a shipping company. He loves to write about technology and is always ready to help people on their queries. Apart from his day to day work, Ashutosh loves to read books and blogs, hence he started his own blog.

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