July 20, 2014

Communication gap

Any seaman will tell you that the single biggest factor that makes his life at sea easier is cheap and easy communication with his family. Shipowners and shipmanagers know this. Yet communication and internet access remains a big issue at sea, although many positive changes have occurred in the last few years. So many shipowners still persist with their old niggardly ways, denying to their seagoing staff reasonable internet access at a reasonable cost that the much hyped MLC2006 is supposed to ensure. 

A new crew survey of 3000 crew from 30 countries by Futurenautics- in collaboration with BIMCO, InterManager and other organisations-  throws up some interesting statistics, the first of which is that a quarter of the crews surveyed did not even have access to a telephone at sea. Crew are spending, on communication, an average of $134 at sea and similar amount ashore every month, making the combined shore based and sea based crew communication market worth $2.6 billion per annum. More than half of all crews report that they have no access to the internet- although a third of crews have some measure of access on board. And internet or communication availability is a much bigger issue on container, bulk cargo or general cargo ships, crews report.

I don’t know if the hackneyed saying about statistics and bikinis being similar (what they both reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital) applies to this survey. I do know, however, that shipmanagers need to remind themselves of a few facts if they want crews to prefer working for them. Because increasingly, cheap or free internet access at sea is the single biggest issue, probably after wages, which influences seamen about where they want to sail. 

Which is not to say that there has been no improvement in communication costs; many of the better setups today provide free email access, even access to social media websites and VOIP. Unfortunately, when it comes to crews and their ‘welfare’- a term I incidentally dislike- the percentage of the better setups is too often on the lower side. 

Shipowners must not ignore the fact that it is not just communication cost that matters to a seaman. Even without a couple of drinks in the good old days, I used to call my wife on the satellite phone at 8 USD. After a couple of drinks it was a much longer call. 

Shipmanagers must remember that sometimes crews just need to have their families tell them that everything is ok at home. They must realise the pressure that a sailor is under if this option does not properly exist, or if there is a problem at home. That is why a smart Master’s first question to a crewmember that is suddenly underperforming is usually, ‘Everything ok at home?’

They must not ignore the fact that many crews don’t have the time -or often the clearance - to step ashore today. That shore leave is also an issue. That they sometimes pay exorbitant sums to a shore ‘phone guy’ who brings a mobile phone in port for crew call business. That crews on fixed runs use their own mobile phones if possible. And that, at that moment, that call- sometimes made at the cost of work, sometimes, even at increased risk of operational safety, but made anyway, because it is now or never- is more important to them than anything else. And it is being made at the wrong time, workwise, simply because there will be no reasonable or cheap access to communication later. 

I have made many such calls. I have taken ships closer to the coast to get better mobile phone signals for me and my crews. I have even announced ‘good signal’ on the intercom, after which everybody finds some space on deck to whisper sweet nothings on the phone. 

Shipowners need to think why I feel I have to do this.

Above all, shoreside managers must remember that seamen are human beings with human needs, and that many are irritated by the fact that high speed internet and cheap phone communication that all of us- including them- are used to ashore is such a big deal on ships. And that the shore-ship gap is widening.

Imagine what would happen if a shipowner or manager told the crew that their monthly communication costs at sea of up to a hundred and thirty four dollars per head (if you trust the survey) would be paid for. 

Roughly twenty crew, so total monthly expense two and a half thousand. That is the total expense. However, the benefit to the shipowner- in crew goodwill, increased motivation, better performance, lower downtime and maintenance costs, happier crew, better calibre of crew wanting to join, etcetera, etcetera and etcetera – is priceless.


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