Monday, 15 August 2022

Seafarers and their Families

A Personal Reflection for Sea Sunday 10th July

Recently I was listening to a choir singing sea shanties and as they launched into 'When Johnny comes down to Hilo' I was immediately transported back to childhood as my father used to sing this to us when he was home on leave. Sea shanties and tales of the sea were prominent in my childhood as my father ŒŒ grandfather, and his father before him. I loved to hear stories of how my grandfather, sailed round the Cape Horn in a sailing ship called the Ochtertyre; and, how skippering his father's Severn Trow he got it stuck in the mouth of the Avon holding up all the other shipping in and out of Bristol that day. I can also remember crossing the Severn on the old ferry which he skippered and going out in his own boat the Firefly.

My childhood also included many trips to see my father on board ship whenever he came into port on the south coast. He was a Captain in the Royal Fleet Auxillary and it was very exciting being 'piped aboard' as we crossed the gangplank onto the ship. It was exciting to go out on exercises and watch them practising refuelling at sea. My father also brought back many exotic presents from around the world, including a Cockatoo which, since being acquired by a crew member in Singapore, had bitten his way around the crew until he landed with my father. My mother who was remarkably unfazed by things welcomed this creature into our home and called him Fred!

This all sounds quite idyllic, but to misquote Gilbert and Sullivan, for many seafarers and their families, 'A sailor's life is not a happy one'! My father was often away between six and nine months at a time, and in pre-internet and mobile phone days, this meant the only communication was infrequent letters. There was always a honeymoon period when my father first returned home but afterwards there could be difficulties as we adapted to the changes his presence meant. Talking to friends who also had fathers at sea, this almost schizophrenic existence was common to all of us. It must have been very difficult too for my father who would each time have found us very different to the children he had left behind previously.

Until speaking to sailors as an adult, I never really appreciated how hard life on board ship could be, not just from the time away from loved ones, but the 24/7 on duty life they lived. It is not surprising that sailors have a reputation for going wild when first in port after being cooped up on board ship for months on end. Mental health never used to be talked about, but the seafaring life can be very bad for mental health, loneliness and depression are very common for both the seafarers and their families.

One of the things that surprised me talking to a friend who worked as security on board ships, is that the risk from pirates is still very real, especially in the Indian Ocean. Cargo ships are often targeted by small boats of armed men who are prepared to shoot their way on board. Security staff are not allowed to carry guns themselves and only have a water cannon with which to repel these pirates. It can be very scary and sometimes it is safer just to let them board and negotiate the safety, and release, of the crew.

Where ships are not registered in the UK, there can be very few safeguards on the pay and working conditions of the crew. Most of you will recall the way a famous shipping company recently sacked all it's British workers and replaced them with lower paid foreign workers. Crews are often exploited, with foreign crews particularly vulnerable. Sailors are also at risk from abandonment, where companies cease communication with their ships, leaving them and their crews often anchored at sea with no money to pay for port costs and wages.

Another group of sailors are our fishermen, who still put out to sea to catch fish for our tables. At school we used to sing a hymn, 'When lamps are lighted in the town, the boats sail out to sea, the fishers watch when night comes down, they work for you and me'. This brings to mind an idyllic scene of a harbour town with little boats chugging out into the night, but the reality is very different. Our small boats now have to compete with large factory ships who decimate the fish population. They are forced to put out even in rough weather and if they are unfortunate enough to fall overboard, even with a life jacket, there is a high chance of death from cold water shock.

In the UK, 90% of our goods and fuels still come to us by sea. Worldwide there are approximately 1.5 million seafarers and despite modern advances, seafaring is still one of the world's most dangerous jobs with extreme physical labour, harsh weather, antisocial hours, no guarantee of a stable income, and months of being away from families. Improved navigational aids have improved safety, but sailors still face many perils from ferries capsizing to ships being struck by rocket or torpedo in a warzone! It used to be said that sailors didn't learn to swim so that if the worst happened, they would die sooner than if they tried, and failed, to swim to safety!

Sea Sunday is on 10th July, the day on which we think of all those who put out to sea, in big ships or small, and their families. No doubt we will sing that most famous Seafarer's hymn, which having been sung at many of my family's funerals still brings tears to my eyes, with the immortal line: O hear us when we cry to thee for those in peril on the sea.

Sr Sue Groves

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