Music, barbecues, wifi: how to manage the morale of idlers at sea
A lot could keep container ship captain Markus Grote awake at night as he crossed the ocean, but lately there’s another kind of shipwreck feeling that worries him: crew morale.
While many of the world’s 400,000 merchant seamen still struggle to take time off and return home, sailor fatigue remains a problem as the second pandemic holiday season approaches. And not just for the sailors. Their bosses worry about mental health as work swings between frenetic activity and more downtime.
As of Friday, 665 container ships were anchored waiting to enter ports, according to data from Seaexplorer.com and Swiss freight giant Kuehne + Nagel International. This is about 10% of the total currently in service worldwide. Some will not move for a week or more.
Ships stationed outside Los Angeles, for example, wait on average more than 12 days at anchor before they can enter port. It takes almost as long to cross the Pacific from Asia. There is rarely a shortage of work to be done, but such delays force captains to find ways to boost morale for those stuck at sea.
“It’s probably the thing that keeps me awake most of the time,” Grote said in an interview.
Grote, who works for Hamburg, Germany-based Hapag-Lloyd, said to liven up the mood, off-duty crew members enjoy playing basketball, video games and ping-pong. pong, or use the pool and gyms available on many large ships. Some have taken to guitar or drums, forming groups with colleagues on board. Others prefer another form of musical escape: karaoke.
Maritime container ships carry at least 21 crew members and officers. While at sea, the crew perform routine duties such as equipment maintenance, cargo security and deck stowage, while officers work eight-hour shifts monitoring instruments and radio traffic.
For everyone on board, the busiest days are those spent in port, as containers get on and off the ship, paperwork is processed, supplies need to be restocked, and larger mechanical repairs are undertaken.
Sitting at anchor is something in between, neither underway nor in port. Crews are often close enough to shore to access local telephone networks and need to communicate with family and friends, but not close enough to get land deliveries easily or cheaply. Shore leave has been reduced due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.
Regular maintenance has yet to be done and watches ensured, but there are ways to relax while waiting to enter a port.
“We have some good live bands from time to time,” said Grote. “I hope we can keep the crew happy with barbecues, team events like watching movies together or playing sports.”
The catering team can adjust the menus to suit the different tastes of the crew – the menu ranging from Asian to European cuisine, he added.
So after a long shift day, say, a scorching day in Singapore, could the crew relax with a cold, frothy drink from the galley?
“If you like to drink a beer, you can. Normally we have it in stock and you can have it, ”Grote said. “Of course, you should always be prepared for emergencies so that there cannot be excessive things.”