Seafarer study shows tough life on tankers amid pandemic and hijackings

More than 2,500 crew members were asked about life on board commercial vessels at sea

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A happiness index of seafarers’ well-being across the world has fallen to the lowest levels in years amid the coronavirus pandemic and increasing vulnerability of tankers at sea.

The Seafarers Happiness Index is the shipping industry’s barometer of issues facing those at sea, with crew asked 10 questions about life on board.

More than 2,500 seafarers contribute to the survey each quarter by answering questions about day-to-day life and working conditions.

Results showed a steep decline overall, from 6.46 out of 10 reported in the first quarter of 2021, to a score of 5.99 out of 10 from April to June.

There were clear indications that the ongoing issues relating to crew travel, uncertainty over contracts and an almost complete and universal ban on shore leave are taking a negative toll on seafarers
Steven Jones, report’s lead author

The scores fell in every category.

“There were clear indications that the ongoing issues relating to crew travel, uncertainty over contracts, and an almost complete and universal ban on shore leave are taking a negative toll on seafarers,” said Steven Jones, the report’s lead author and project founder at the Mission to Seafarers charity.

“Even areas that usually hold up well, such as social interaction on board, were struggling, and the responses received painted a picture of stress, fatigue and frustration.

“There was a growing sense of weariness with the problems at sea, compounded by perceptions that ships are working harder than ever to deliver on the demands of trade. Seafarers spoke of feeling constant stress and pressure.”

Trouble at sea

The pandemic has delayed many signoffs for crew, that would usually allow seafarers to rotate, come ashore and return home.

Many have spent longer at sea than their contracts would have stipulated because of restrictions on international travel.

Recent hijackings and major incidents aboard giant shipping vessels in the Middle East has placed the welfare of those on board in the spotlight.

An investigation by the flag state of the MT Gulf Sky hijacked off Khor Fakkan in 2020 revealed the anguish felt by crew held at gunpoint.

In January, the captain of the MT Sea Princess, also anchored off Khor Fakkan, reported the suicide of a young Indian crew member.

Captain Ayyappan Swaminathan, a commercial sailor from India, has gone back to sea after recovering from an 18-month abandonment anchored off the UAE in 2019.

Bhupendra Shri Suresh took his own life on board the vessel as he waited to go home after a prolonged period at sea.

In July, a drone struck an oil tanker linked to an Israeli billionaire off the coast of Oman, killing two crew members. It further highlighted the perils of shipping in some of the most strategically important shipping lanes in the world.

In another case, Capt Ayyappan Swaminathan and 30 other crew were left high-and-dry, abandoned without pay in 2017 when their employer, Elite Way Marine Services stopped paying their salaries.

A two-year fight ensued before Capt Ayyappan was freed from the MV Azraqmoiah and allowed to return home to India.

He is now back at sea on a tanker in the Gulf of Oman shipping oil to Khor Fakkan.

Although he is paid regularly and working in good conditions with a 12-man crew, he said anxiety has increased on board after word spread of recent hijackings nearby.

“We hear of these hijackings and incidents happening in this area, so all we can do is keep our company informed and updated with our situation,” he told The National by satellite phone.

“I am watching the radio all the time as we are all very worried about this.

“We have taken certain precautions and we know we must stay calm. The company is supporting us and the crew is all fine.”

The Mission to Seafarers is providing pastoral care and counselling to the crew of the MT Mercer Street, and is on standby for the MT Asphalt Princess, a vessel also threatened with hijack this week in the Gulf of Oman.


The index found there was little variation in happiness levels across age groups.

The 45 to 55 year-olds managed to scrape to the top with an average happiness score of 6.86.

Although the largest proportion of crew who responded to the survey had been on board less than six months, 9 per cent had been on board for more than a year.

It also revealed the overwhelming majority of commercial sailors were men, with just four per cent of those who responded to the survey women.

Most of those who answered questions online were from South-East Asia, with Indian crew the second biggest group of respondents.

Several tankers abandoned while anchored off the UAE in recent years have made international headlines because of the poor living conditions on board for crew.

Often unpaid and living on basic rations and fuel to supply air conditioning units and generators, life on board these “ghost ships” can be horrific when shipping operators hit financial problems.

However, a new UAE government resolution to address the rights of seafarers will levy harsher financial penalties on shipping operators who step out of line.

A framework outlined by the Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure will protect the rights of seafarers on board ships in UAE waters and ports.

Owners of abandoned vessels will be fined Dh20,000, with an additional Dh10,000 fine incurred for each seafarer on board.

“Conditions are otherwise good on board, we are getting paid on time, so it is a new life for me compared with before,” Capt Ayyappan said.

“Now I am back to sea, thanks to the support I have had, I have a second chance in this career.

“We are all facing the worry of not getting signed off the vessel in time because of the problems caused by the pandemic.

“Hopefully things are beginning to improve, so we can fly home soon once we arrive in port.

“Already some crews have been waiting for nine months to return home.”

Updated: August 07, 2021, 4:50 AM