• We asked two senior mariners for advice on keeping spirits up during lockdown.
  • Here's what they had to say about managing crews, maintaining morale and keeping boredom at bay.

Lockdown will be a tough new reality for many of the nearly 3 billion people around the world who now find themselves confined to their homes. Families and flatmates who might be used to occasional contact are now living on top of one another. Underlying conflicts can burst into the open. Bad habits will become magnified. Boredom and frustration can find unhealthy outlets.

Cabin fever, in other words, can set in. It’s a nautical term; ships’ crews can often find themselves rubbing shoulders with their colleagues in a relatively small space for weeks or even months at a time. So how do those in charge of managing crews at sea ensure smooth sailing - and what advice might they have for anyone in charge of an inexperienced crew?

We asked two mariners for their thoughts. Captain Jens-Christian Schou is responsible for the 120,000 tonne container ship Cap San Lorenzo, operated by Maersk, which is currently under sail off the coast of Brazil. Captain Chris Brandon, now retired, served in the British Merchant Navy for 19 years; as chief officer of a BP oil tanker he was responsible for crew management, including on one 14-week journey from Kuwait to Rotterdam.

What are your priorities when it comes to managing a crew during long voyages?

Captain Schou (J-CS): It is important to find the balance between keeping the crew safe and getting the job done. In general, the safe execution of all our work is my daily priority. An equal priority is to keep my crew happy and the ship well-stocked, so we can continue to do what we do best - delivering the cargo where it is needed.

I talk a lot to my crew onboard to see how I can help them - in case they have some private issues that they need help to solve. That comes with the job description. You are a bit of everything as a captain - mother and father, priest, police officer and the person to whom you can let off steam when needed.

For us seafarers, it is not only our own wellbeing we are concerned with but also our loved ones far away. I am worried about my own wife and kids, even more now during the COVID-19 crisis, and I am very open about this onboard. It is important to talk about it; we need to be able to express ourselves and trust each other. My crew know that they can come to me whenever they need me, if they want to express their worries or complain about anything - and believe me, seafarers complain a lot; I am always there for them. We captains know that if seafarers stop complaining then something is wrong, so we know if it is happening then everything is as it should be.

Captain Brandon (CB): Maintaining good morale and preventing boredom becoming an issue were my top priorities. We did this by keeping the crew gainfully or meaningfully employed, or by keeping them entertained with activities such as deck games, quizzes, films, competitions and training exercises.

It was also important to monitor the crew's social activity and to avoid the formation of cliques or bullying. I also kept an open door; listening to their concerns and being seen to have listened, and then making them part of the solutions to any problems.

What are the biggest challenges in this regard?

CB: Maintaining good morale without compromising discipline can be a challenge, and finding meaningful tasks can be difficult after a couple of weeks once routine tasks are completed.

Intolerance can become a dangerous social issue if not identified and managed early. While someone’s less acceptable traits may be tolerated over short periods, they can become irritating over an extended period and can lead to open hostility.

What do you find most difficult about being at sea for long periods, and what strategies do you use accordingly?

CB: Boredom is the biggest enemy. People use different strategies; having a hobby is crucial, as is maintaining good social interface with one's fellows. Inexperienced seafarers often need guidance and mentoring because they aren’t used to the conditions.

J-CS: It is all about keeping yourself busy. If we have tasks to carry out, we don't speculate too much about things we can´t do much about anyway. So keeping the routines is very important, as is talking to each other onboard to see if anyone needs extra attention.

How do the crew members themselves adapt?

J-CS: Crews are just like every other part of society. For example, right now some want to discuss the coronavirus all the time, while others have become more private and would rather avoid it. In these difficult times most of us think more about our families back home and we communicate more with them to check if they are OK. We are lucky to have good internet on board as it helps us to stay connected.

CB: Crews generally adapt well; more experienced crew members understand the situation and make efforts to maintain harmony. As well as books, modern technology means everyone has a laptop or tablet, films are stored on flash drives. It could even be said that while all these gadgets might be harming our social structure on shore, they are essential while on board a ship.

If you could give advice to those about to go into long periods of domestic isolation - particularly those with a ´crew´ to look after - what would it be?

J-CS: It's about keeping yourself busy and maintaining focus. Out here at sea we are used to being confined in a small space, and most of us deal with that by sticking to daily routines, and by being as social as we can be. Also, and this is the difficult advice, try not to speculate too much about the issues you can't change right now.

CB: Give everyone their own space and do not intrude; be sensitive. Recognise that everyone needs private time, even kids. Do not rely on other people to keep you amused or entertained, don’t be selfish, and - above all - be as tolerant as you would expect yourself to be tolerated.