Seafarers online: Is internet on board a good thing?

23 August 2016
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One of the unquestioned laws of seafaring in recent times has been: “The internet on board is a good thing”.

After all, the internet and social media in particular keeps seafarers in touch with loved ones as well as the outside world.

That basic need to connect with the people close to us is an innate need shared by all. And indeed the internet has become a powerful enabler, connecting people across time zones and oceans.
But a couple of incidents we have been involved in recently have prompted me to question whether unlimited access to internet, the ability to ‘never switch off’ and ‘always be in touch’ are in fact entirely healthy for the well-being  of seafarers.

The first was a harrowing story of a young officer on board a vessel who took his own life after learning that his wife-to-be ashore had decided to finish the relationship.

The second, a duty officer on the bridge received some bad news from his wife ashore just moments before an accident occurred onboard. The officer later confessed that one of the factors contributing to the accident was that his mind was not entirely on the job.

In both cases, the ability to instantly communicate news to seafarers thousands of miles from home was a negative factor.

This is not to say seafarers should be isolated at sea. They should be allowed access to internet and social media.

But using these powerful tools of communication should be part of a wider educational process, encouraging seafarers to take personal responsibility.

In both cases we dealt with recently, the common factors included seafarers being allowed to spend unlimited time on their mobile devices and laptops whenever they were not doing a shift.

Allowing for the time needed for sleep, this ‘non work time’ period on board amounts to a lot of hours.

Does being able to communicate at all times with the outside world encourage better team work on board?

Does it foster a sense of community and togetherness needed to operate a vessel in the best way?

I suspect the answer to both these questions is a resounding ‘No’.

From what we can see and from speaking to seafarers themselves, the advent of the on at all times mobile device has led to a reduction in ‘community’ time on board vessels.

The seafarer’s life, if not supported strongly by a peer group, can be even more lonely and isolated as a result of the over-use of internet and social media.

For those who are not socially outgoing (and that probably includes the majority of us), the tendency to slink quickly away from the communal dinner table and back to the solitude and privacy of a cabin is strong.

It is because of this factor that operators and managers have to be proactive in terms of educating seafarers in how they use the internet – it should not be about the length of time spent ‘online’ or time allocations.

Seafarers should be aware, for example, that there is a risk of misunderstanding when communicating online.

You cannot read body language through an email or even via a blurry Facetime image. And tone can be mistaken, causing confusion, heightened emotions and conflict.

Whenever possible, seafarers should give one another the benefit of the doubt when something that is expressed in writing just “doesn’t seem right.”

This can save a great deal of frustration. Understanding the limits of the medium goes a long way toward preserving harmony on board – and at home – while apart.

Of course, unlimited access to internet for seafarers has been pushed a lot lately and this has been for commercial reasons. Providers focusing on services for seafarers stand to gain from such a move.

But surely the more responsible owners and managers will sit down and think this through a little more clearly before this happens.

This is not an argument for restriction or denial. But it is clear from the recent cases I have seen, that unlimited internet access may not be the great new panacea for improving seafarers’ lives on board.

For the jilted fiancé and the second mate involved in a scary accident, the opposite turned out to be true.

Ed Ion

T: +65 6222 6375

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