Crisis to canvas: Sea conditions attached

3 August 2017
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The seven-by-five-meter canvas of a historic wreck is as close as some of us get to the horror. Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa is a graphic depiction of catastrophe as a French frigate sinks off Senegal; the desperate seafarers at the full mercy of a storm, the sea …and each other.

Turner’s The Loss of an East Indiaman captures the full force of a wreck as a Dorset community responds to the incident; Captain Pierce and his daughters among the many souls lost as the Halsewell, bound for Madras, was blown on to the rocks in 1786.

Both calamities would go from crisis to canvas – via reportage and folklore – igniting controversy and outrage to shock both nations.

Crews had to cope with the worst of conditions, live with the lice and expect the inevitable, as wooden vessels frequently foundered on the pioneering trade routes, or just meters from the coast.

The weather today remains as fierce; El Faro a more recent casualty. But at least commercial shipping has long dispensed with wooden hulls, of little use in a perilous storm – other than lashing together planks for a raft – when smashed against rocks or mountainous waves. With so many lives lost at sea over the centuries, mariners today can be heartened living in different times, whilst facing new pressures.

New Philippine legislation to greatly improve conditions for its seafarers will lift the spirits of a global island workforce. A ‘Magna Carta’ for mariners, the Bill seeks to uplift social and economic prospects for crew and their families. It covers Filipino sailors working in any capacity, hired domestically or internationally, including those aboard foreign flagged ships.

As the world’s largest supplier of crews, the Philippines is giving its mariners the right to a safe and secure workplace, with medical care and welfare among social benefits. Fairer terms and working conditions will see sailors’ salaries, hours and rest periods improve in line with international maritime conventions.

The Philippines has had its share of maritime disasters – for decades notorious at home for overcrowded ferries. I met a lady who survived the sinking of one of them, pulled to safety above a sea of circling tiger sharks. Mindful of her story, I boarded a ferry – with a noticeable list to starboard – days after a typhoon had smashed the central islands. The typhoon turned fishing boats to matchwood; palm plantations had been flattened in submission; many homes levelled to rubble – the wooden ones had disappeared.

Thanks to technical advances in design, navigation, crisis response and international maritime protocols, seafarers globally fair far better when up against the elements. Some issues remain of course. Limited connectivity at sea is one bug-bear as the industry charts the 21st century.

I guess most sailors would sooner seek cabin comforts; would rather have contact on Facebook, than be captured on canvas. Some comfort too for families – on the far side of the world – who take pride in their people being their nation’s biggest export.

The difference between a natural disaster and a human one can be slight. But when your ship and crew are up against the worst, knowing you have done your best – for both – is peace of mind when an unrelenting crisis becomes a perfect storm.


Jonathan Spencer
Crisis Response Manager

T: +44 (0)20 3326 8466

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