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The Seafarers’ Happiness Index and aspirations

The Seafarers’ Happiness Index and aspirations
Michael Grey | Aug 17, 2023

Michael Grey explores whether we should be surprised at the declining index for seafarer happiness and the expectations of different generations.

There has been some concern expressed that the Seafarers’ Happiness Index, that admirable measure of contentment periodically compiled by the Mission to Seafarers and the Standard Club is on the way down again. It is a confirmation, as with so many things in life, that things don’t automatically get better and a warning about complacency. It is also a signal to maritime employers that if they really are worried about shortages in the pipeline, they better start demonstrating their concern in a meaningful fashion.

We maybe should not have been surprised that the index of satisfaction, on several different fronts, has reversed its ascent. Covid might remain a very recent memory, and the earlier improvement in the index was surely inevitable and a reminder that things could not have been worse while the pandemic raged.

But it was not unreasonable to expect that the general contentment of seafarers would flatline at the very least, once a measure of normality was resumed. So it is of concern that some very basic complaints, such as the absence of shore leave and quite appallingly, shortages of drinking water, were headline issues in the latest iteration of the survey.

One must be cautious in jumping to conclusions about the conditions lived by people afloat. Many years ago, I recall being gently reproved by a chaplain after writing in rage about an old logger, aboard which the crew were apparently sustained by a pound of rice and a tin of pilchards every second day. It could be, said this charitable man of God, that this ration was far better than they would have been accustomed to ashore and a menu that more than satisfied their expectations.

But that was then and this is now the enlightened 21st Century. Is it that seafarers, like farmers, or for that matter, freelance journalists, whinge rather too much? As a former seafarer and champion whinger, it is a justifiable observation, but it is important to take account of the passage of time and changing generations.

I sailed in some very old ships in a company which believed that a 25-year old was just nicely run in. It was recalled that one of our ships, when new, was the first ship to arrive on the Australian coast in which the sailors did not live in a single space in the forecastle (as in the old sailing ships), but in separate, two-man cabins. There was even a washroom, wrote a breathless dockside correspondent, in an article about this amazing modernity and people from miles around flocked down to the ports to see this epitome of maritime design. Thirty years on, reflecting their changing aspirations, no self-respecting seafarer would sail on such old bangers – they expected decent, spacious and preferably air-conditioned cabins, situated amidships.

Expectations do change, and you should not have to refer to endless complaints about those of “Generation Z” or the demands of Millennials to be remotely surprised that the needs of seafarers reflect exactly those of people ashore. An earlier generation was content to wait for the agent’s boat to bring out the crew mail when the ship had arrived. When people in

developing countries, living at the very extremes of deprivation, regard a mobile phone and connectivity as their right, why should seafarers be different? And if the technology is available and the company and ship able to transmit gigabytes of data on demand 24/7, why should the same access not be available to all on board?

Problems with water may well result from people being reluctant to drink what is described as “potable” in the vessel’s tanks, demanding bottled alternatives on account of the peculiar taste or smell, which is of itself a measure of competence. You might suggest that any ship manager who cannot find drinkable water in sufficient quantities needs to improve their act.

Shore leave is also something that the big battalions who run large fleets and can demand their customer rights with the port authorities ought to be exercising their collective muscles. It is a human right, as it always has been within the needs of the ship, and this is a demand that is basic, important, and certain to increase, as with all the expectations and aspirations represented in this useful measure of a changing world.