Catching up with the AIS plot is a great way to take a few minutes out of our workaday lives without feeling too guilty. After all, for those of us who work in maritime, taking a look at congestion off the port of Los Angeles or monitoring the potential for a piracy attack in the Gulf of Guinea is sort of work related, right? And even if that is stretching things just a little too far, watching the sheer number of ships at sea and their movement through the ocean’s pinch points is highly addictive.
Surfing through the AIS plots we appreciate how many ships are moving the cargoes that keep populations warm, fed, fuelled and equipped with all the “things” we seemingly can’t do without.
But how many of us appreciate that each one of these tiny screen icons represents a floating community where a couple of dozen men and women are living and working for a few months at a time? Shipping gives employment to over 1.6 million mariners hailing from across the globe, but mainly from China, India, Philippines and eastern Europe. They disrupt their normal lives to serve at sea and occasionally, and very sadly, give their lives to the sea. Shipping is a hazardous occupation and even though safety is improving day by day, accidents involving seafarers happen all too often.
Alongside improvements in onboard safety, global search and rescue facilities are also becoming more effective and accessible. And even though search and rescue (SAR) activities rely on using the best equipment, at the end of the day their effectiveness is only as good as the people who run them. Often former seafarers, SAR crew are selfless, highly capable and exceptionally brave individuals – and many are volunteers.
Three years ago, it was decided to identify, recognise and honour some of these people in a global ceremony that shared their stories and associated learning points. The instigator is the International Maritime Rescue Federation – a global umbrella for national SAR associations. Ceremonies have been staged in the US, UK and this year in Norway and have honoured some outstanding people including a Finnish first mate from a bulk carrier who jumped into the water to rescue the ship’s cook who had fallen overboard; an Australian coastguard who rescued a father of three from drowning on a local beach; and a Croatian harbourmaster who has personally been involved in more than 200 SAR operations and saved countless lives.
So when we settle down with a coffee to watch the AIS tracks around the world, perhaps we should spare a thought for the people on board those ships as well as those who bravely give their assistance when things go wrong.