Seafaring: a tough job that someone has to do (Credit: iStock)
The term ‘automation’ in shipping covers a vast array of technological solutions all designed to reduce costs and improve efficiency and safety. Already onboard are support systems that automate certain procedures, such as collision avoidance technology, e-navigation systems and of course the AIS system that powers MarineTraffic, which shows where vessels are, anywhere in the world. Remote-operated ships are also under discussion as a next step, and there is no doubt that the role of the mariner will continue to adjust as new technology sets in.
Many industry commentators, however, believe that true automation featuring totally uncrewed vessels is unlikely in the foreseeable future. And so it follows that seafarers will continue to crew vessels in the years to come, albeit aided by a growing number of automated technologies. Which is why the theme chosen by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to celebrate today’s World Maritime Day – Seafarers: At the core of shipping’s future – gets to the crux of where our attention should be focussed.
A life at sea is not for everyone and those that choose it, give up the support networks from friends and family that us, with land-based jobs, take for granted. Despite the new technologies found onboard, there is still a great deal of tough, manual labour, which is shared amongst crew in shift patterns.
Couple these challenges with those imposed upon seafarers as a result of the global pandemic and you end up with what the United Nations has described as a humanitarian crisis. Their designation as key workers is still not recognised by certain nations, and travel restrictions continue to make crew changes extremely difficult to organise and often result in crew being onboard past their contracted date.
IMO’s secretary general, Kitack Lim says in his World Maritime Day message: “We all must do better to support our brave professionals who continue to deliver global trade. The dedication and professionalism of more than one and a half million seafarers worldwide deserve our great admiration and gratitude – but most importantly, immediate action.”
These seafarers operate the world’s fleet of around 50,000 vessels, and MarineTraffic data reveals that there were a total of 5,276,797 port calls from 1 January this year to the end of August and it is these seafarers that make it all happen. This figure accounts for all port arrivals for commercial IMO vessels, including passengers and ro/ro vessels.
Port arrivals by vessel time – 1 January to 21 August 2021 (Source: MarineTraffic)
Number of arrivals Vessel type
225570 Dry bulk
3408899 Passenger ships
500504 Dry breakbulk
62789 LKPG carriers
578002 Wet bulk
10347 LNG carriers
341373 Container ships
Seafarers are a vital part of the supply chain and as David Hammond, founder and CEO of Human Rights at Sea points out in his blog today, a critically overlooked sector. He writes, “The truth is that it has taken a global pandemic to refocus the shipping sector’s attention on the real critical vulnerability of the assessed $17 trillion supply chain: the seafarer, along with the protection of their fundamental human and labour rights.”
He later writes: “Yet, even that global coverage is now waning as the popular press moves on to the next story, while national priorities continue to dominate and take precedent.”
So how do we keep the conversation alive?
Show your support for seafarers on social media, share your views on their treatment with politicians, and donate (if you can) to the often underfunded local and international seafarer organisations that offer vital emotional, physical and financial support to those at sea.
Technology has improved the lives of seafarers who are, and we are sure always will be, irreplaceable. Let’s focus on how we can make their efforts more visible and put their plight high up on governments’ agendas.
And when your next parcel arrives on your doorstep, consider that it almost definitely would have been shipped from another part of the world, and spare a thought for the seafarers that made it happen.