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Maritime Forum

TOPIC: Working Cycles of Seafaring: Transitions between Ship and Shore

Working Cycles of Seafaring: Transitions between Ship and Shore 23 Mar 2015 12:16 #4408

  • Sengupta
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Seafaring work patterns involve periods of leave and sea-time and the associated transition periods as the seafarer moves from one situation to the other. Now we explore seafarers’ and their partner’s experiences of the different aspects of the work cycle.

It begins by exploring the separation between shipboard and home life and moves on to consider specific periods within the work cycle, highlighting issues and problems identified by the seafaring couples.

Shipboard and home lives offer distinct contrasts. Not only are the very conditions of existence considerably dissimilar but also there are few opportunities for these two domains to meet and overlap. Seafarers’ families often have little opportunity to visit the workplace and be involved in workplace social events as might be more commonplace in shore-based occupations. If relationships are established with colleagues, such shipboard relationships rarely extend into leave time due to geographical separations and conflicting leave periods.

Thus it is not unusual for seafarers’ partners and their shipboard colleagues to never meet. For seafarers on long deep-sea voyages, (and without access to email), contact with home may be extremely limited for considerable periods. These factors all contribute to a separation of the domains of work and home.

For the seafarers, this separation is sufficient for seafarers to refer to having ‘two lives’, or ‘two selves’ or existing in ‘two worlds’, as the following quotes by some mariners illustrate:
• You know it is, you sort of split your life in two. (laughs) Well perhaps I phrased that badly (laughs), yeah, there were two sides to your life really. (A Senior Officer)
• I always found it was very much a two life existence, wouldn’t go so far as saying it was Dr. Jeckyll, Mr.Hyde exactly, but it’s very different. And I always found in recent years that once you were back at home, you felt that you were always at home, and as soon as you got to the ship it’s like you were always on the ship. There’s no comparison between the two. (A Senior Officer)
• I’ve always said to [my wife] for me to survive in my industry I have to be two people. This is the good guy, that’s the bad guy right. And then when I go away I sort can you say...I’m back in work mode right. [Ö]. And this other guy he’s less tolerant of people than what he is with his own family. Then in the reverse sector when I come back I try to forget this guy and bring the other guy back up. So basically I think I am two people. (A Senior Officer)
• Yes I think for me patterns of behaviour were place associated. So being at home had its pattern of behaviour and in completely different surroundings being at sea had its pattern of behaviour. I suspect it was more different for [my wife] because she was in the same surroundings with different patterns of behaviour. (A Senior Officer)

Whilst physically located in the same place, without the obvious contrast of ship and shore, women also experiences considerable contrasts in their lives dependent on the point in their partner’s work cycle. Accommodating a partner in day-to-day existence often necessitate significant adjustments, experiences in changes in freedoms and responsibility and the transition from being ‘temporarily single’ (and possibly acting as a ‘single parent’) to being part of a couple again. As some wives explained:

• It’s like living two lives. One life obviously with him away and one with him at home.(Wife of a Senior Officer)
• Sometimes I like him to be away because I think I’ve got used to being on my own and my husband is not around and I’ve got used to it. When he comes home I feel that we have to adjust to one another and adjust to being together again. Because sometimes if you have got used to being without your husband being around by the time he comes home I have to adjust to his presence again. It’s difficult, you have to make adjustments all the time. (Wife of Senior Officer)


It might be reasonable to assume that the period of separation was difficult for couples and that homecomings are indeed joyous and happy events. However reflecting the findings of earlier studies, the data suggest that it is the periods of transition between these two existences, whether from the ship to the home or from home to ship that are experienced as difficult by the couples. Such transition periods are characterised by both seafarers and their partners as tension laden. This is not to say that both parties do not eagerly anticipate the seafarer’s return. Indeed some described the pleasure associated with the reunions as one of the positive aspects of the job. As seafarers and partners comments:
• Coming home to me, it’s, it’s just like Christmas. (A Senior Officer)
• Like as if you’re on your first date again and you’ve got to meet someone all over again, you know sort of butterflies in the stomach and can’t wait to sort of see each other or again it’s that sort of, that’s the nicest part I think is going to meet him at the airport or pick him up from somewhere. (Wife of a Senior Officer)
• Oh I get all excited like an idiot. I do I get all excited I do I think ‘oh I’m gonna clean the house right through and then I won’t have to do anything for a good couple of weeks, you know, ‘we can kind of enjoy ourselves together’ you know. So it’s silly really after all those, it’s not silly I think it’s nice in some ways isn’t it yeah. (Wife of a Senior Officer)

However, whilst return home is much anticipated by both partners it is equally a time which could be fraught with tensions each person adjusted to the new situation.

Stress and unwinding
Problems in the transition period between ship and shore are attributed to a number of different factors. Increased workloads have been identified as a cause of stress within the industry. Changes in the industry such as increased automation, decreased crewing levels, increased work load and decreased job security have put pressure on seafarers to put in extra hours to keep their jobs.

Such pressures have resulted in increased levels of stress and fatigue. These increased hours of work and occupational pressures appear to expand beyond the confines of the ship to impact on home life. One of the most common problems during this transition period identified by seafarers related to the stress associated with their job and the problems they have ‘switching off’ when they returned home from a tour of duty.

Officers attribute this to increased work-related stress to reduced crewing levels and new regulatory systems which involves considerable amounts of paperwork, both of which lead to longer working hours and more pressure whilst in the work environment.

These problems are also recognised by seafarers’ wives who find that it took their partners some time to unwind after the trip and that they were often physically exhausted. As two wives explained:
• Yeah it normally takes about a week cos he’s normally really het up about being at work, and he’s just starting to come down after that. […] It’s usually a week of up and downs, you know, and then its okay. (Wife of Junior Officer).
• You know if he’s happy I’m happy too, sometimes he’s been home and perhaps there’s a lot going on and he’s going back to a certain situation he hasn’t been himself all the way through his leave and I know because it’s this job is on his mind or he’s got to go back to sort out this and sort out that. (Wife of Senior Officer)

Adjusting sleeping patterns

Shipboard temporal schedules and routines often differ dramatically to those followed at home. Seafarers’ working hours are often organised by shift-work(watch system) which can cause problems with sleep patterns and indeed the problem of fatigue on board is currently the subject of a large research investigation and has been linked to high rates of seafarer suicide (as quoted in Telegraph, 1999).

Shift-work, sleep loss and disruption can lead to a build up of fatigue. Such working conditions aboard ship could manifest themselves as excessive tiredness upon the seafarer’s return home. As one seafarer has noted:
Yeah, no, it’s not good, I don’t think, so you don’t really notice it until you come home and then your sort of, the first thing you notice is, not bad headaches, but you know just strain cos you’re so tired -so it does a week or two - I get a bit stressed -, to calm down. (Junior Officer)

Interestingly, despite the fatigue experienced by seafarers, sleeping problems are also frequently mentioned as an issue when the seafarer returned home from a tour of duty. These problems are attributed to shipboard routines such as irregular watch keeping hours or the need to sleep lightly to listen for alarms. The effects of these work conditions could be compounded by the presence of jet-lag and the simple factor of the unfamiliar presence of another person in bed.

The following quotes illustrate the difficulties seafarers faced in readjusting their sleep patterns during their leave periods:

• Yeah, I can never have a full night sleep, I never have a full night sleep, on and off continuously. When you’re used to work, living on, see the type of ships I’m on are small anyway yeah. So you hear every noises slight engine change noise anything like that you hear it. And the slightest noise wakes me up, I hear the baby wake up long before [my wife] ever does. It’s just you get tuned in subconsciously to these sort of things and I never have a full night. (Senior Officer)
• Yes, physically you know, getting into sleeping patterns again, that’s the awkward thing, you’re used to being up all hours and so you kind of have to readapt to a full night’s sleep every night. (Senior Officer)
• The worst thing is jet lag to be honest with you, especially since I’m working mainly in the far east, it’s an 8 hour difference and I come over and, now it’s 8 hours on it would be say 12 o’clock here I’ll be knocking off I’ll be waking up at 2 in the morning because you know it’s my waking up time. And that takes about 3 or 4 days at least. (Senior Officer)

These sleeping problems also effected women as studied and they will vouch on their husband’s difficulties adjusting temporally and the problems they experiences in marrying their own, and their partner’s temporal habits and routines.

Everything ‘ ship-shape’ ?
Other problems associated with the seafarers’ return related to the contrast between ship and home life. Several women can describe their anxieties as they prepare for their husband’s return. Concerns related to their perceptions of their husband’s desire to return home to a tidy house which mirrored the high standards of tidiness and order they have become accustomed to whilst aboard ship. This issue could be particularly acute for the households with children: both seafarers and their partners will tell about the seafarer’s difficulties accepting the disorder created by children, as been noted in the study of SIRC:
I get more regimented than anything. I get into a ship routine and then I come and I’ve got to get out of it then.
What kind of things do you feel regimented about?
• I tidy everything up. [My wife’s] not as tidy as me, I enjoy doing that and it drives me mad when she doesn’t leave it tidy. (Senior Officer).
• My wife is ‘[he’s] coming home’, scrubbing everything and I’ll be through cupboards and I’ll have pans out and I’ll say ‘Right I want that that way’ you know and ‘I want that cleaned that way’. Quite a nutter really. (Junior Officer)

Indeed this could be such an issue that it cause rows and conflict between couples. As one seafarer explained:
[We row about] Kids not clearing away their shoes, you know, mostly being fussy I suppose, I’m a bit … I suppose being at sea in that sense you get to value physically space and things, I can’t stand clutter and I’m always …. my wife’s more of a hoarder, and I think ‘Christ we can chuck that, and that’s untidy!’ …. (Senior Officer)
Problems could increase as seafarers rose in rank and reached the status of Chief Engineer or Captain. Women may talk about husband’s bringing their ship-board status into the home, making them feel like ‘junior officers’. Women who have successfully been managing the household, (from paying bills, to chauffeuring children and managing DIY), can report experiencing a tension between their husband’s need for them to be independent and capable in their absence and then become dependent and defer responsibility to them upon their return home. As wives explained:
• [He’s] used to running the ship and his crew, now we’re at home ‘yes sir’ ‘yes sir’. But it doesn’t work like that, that can cause problems. So it caused a few rows that did. Um, and I’m sure that must happened in lots of households. […] Here am I running everything and all of a sudden I’m like junior officer you see. (Wife of Senior Officer)
• When I’m on my own I’m the boss and when [my husband] comes home being a ship’s master he’s used to being the boss I take second place. (Wife of Senior Officer)
• It’s just like he doesn’t have to do it while he’s away but you’re not good enough when they’re home then you know and they sort of take the responsibility away from you so. So yeah it is a big difference, I suppose you have to change personality as well you know from when they’re away to when they’re home. (Wife of Senior Officer)

These periods of adjustment are perhaps particularly significant for those seafarers who work on relatively short rotas. Conflicts associated with the transition could absorb a significant proportion of the beginning of the leave and are often combined with a similar periods towards the end of the leave when both parties began to adjust to the realities of the seafarer leaving home again. As two wives explained:
• After 2 weeks you’re thinking ‘oh I’ve only got 2 weeks to go and he’s going back again’, so you don’t have that relaxation period in between where you sort of sit back and think, ‘yeah well you got another couple of weeks’ and it’s like the clock. And then you get edgy with each other then, you start getting ratty you know, little arguments will start cause we’re both on edge, thinking ‘oh only a couple of weeks and then he’s going back again you know’. And it spoils the leave then because no sooner you sort of keep winding down and relaxing then he’s thinking about going back again then so it goes from one extreme back to the other, so your constantly sort of thinking about him going off again and go back away. (Wife of Senior Officer)
• I found it horrendous, he would come home so tired absolutely zonked out cause he was still a second mate and he’d come home absolutely shattered took him days and days to get over it and then half way through he would come alive and then be worried about going back to work the fourth week. So you’d have always 2 out of the 4 weeks that were useless. (Wife of Senior Officer)

Going back to sea

As the return home is problematic so too is the return to work also characterised by stress and unease. The period directly prior to departure could result in seafarers becoming emotionally withdrawn or anxious about completing practical tasks before their return to the ship. Immediate partings could be highly emotionally charged and several couples reported opting for partings at home rather than at the airport or railway station in order to minimise the emotional trauma for themselves and their children.

Two women explained how they attempted to minimise the distress associated with their husbands’ departures:
• If he goes away and he’s got to go by plane we never go to say ‘bye’ he always goes in a taxi because they[the children] just get too distressed, they just cry and it’s not fair on them to get them so upset and then he gets upset. So we don’t do things like that he just goes in a taxi and it’s easier then. (Wife of Senior Officer)
• I think the best way we’ve found, especially when the children were younger was if he hired a car and drove to the airport because if I drive him to the airport and that was –oh very traumatic. And then it was putting him on the train but that was bad enough, I don’t know trains are awful sad when you’re waving goodbye to people. But I found then when he hired the car and drove himself to the airport we’d just say ‘cheerio’ just going down the car on a road like if he was just going to the shop or going somewhere, it wasn’t so traumatic. (Wife of Senior Officer)
Women may talk about the problems adjusting to an empty and quiet house after their partner’s departure. Strategies to cope with this included staying with extended family members, and use of the television or radio as a means of ‘company’. In this aspect, women with children appeared to fare better than their childless contemporaries as they continued to have company within the home and not the dramatic contrast of an empty house. One recently married women talked about her feelings after her husband had first returned back to sea:
It probably doesn’t really hit you […] until you come back in the evening, when you’ve come home for the last 3 months, the lights have been on there’s been a TV on, the kettle’s been on you know there’s hustle and bustle. And I always know that whenever I come back into the house the first thing I do is put on the TV for background noise just to have something there. And I’ve got, especially in the winter, just timers on so it looks a bit homely when you come in, instead of just complete darkness. (Wife of Junior Officer)

Additional stressors

Problems could be amplified where there was a degree of uncertainty as to the exact date of departure and indeed arrival home. Dates could be so unreliable that one seafarer and his wife adopted the strategy of him informing her of his return date only when he had left the ship and was safely on dry land.

Some women avoids the unnecessary distress delayed arrivals caused to their children by not informing them of their father’s imminent arrival and thus minimising the risk of disappointment.

For partners and families, and indeed seafarers, who are awaiting the end of their trip with some anticipation and longing, such postponements could have significant emotional consequences. One woman recalled her experience of waiting for her husband to return home:

Towards the end of the trip, now this time you know they wouldn’t let him off the ship, you know it was - it kept on being ‘next week’, ‘next week’. I said ‘if you’re not home by Friday I’m going to the doctors and I’m going to scream and scream and scream and cry and cry and cry, I can cope until Friday, but another day - I can’t cope another day with it all’ (Wife of Junior Officer)

Transition periods are uniformly mentioned as the most difficult period. However some women also feel the middle period of the tour of duty to be a difficult time where they feal overwhelmed by the duration of their partner’s absence. These type of women all had in common the fact that their partners do longer tours of duty (as in main-ocean going merchant fleet, 3 months or more). As one
wife explained how the time she found most difficult was:

About in the middle of the trip, and yet I think you just think it’s been such a long slog to the middle and then you think ‘oh I’ve got all that time to do again’, you know it just seems never ending. So that, I’d say that was the worse part, apart from the first couple of weeks and then the second, the last 2 months of a 4 month trip they don’t, none of it flies really, I couldn’t say that flies or that drags, it all drags. Um but you’re on countdown, crossing the days off the calendar. (Wife of Junior Officer)
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