Thursday 20th Sep, 2018

THE SHIPPING LIFE: Strains of a life at sea

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

THERE are so many aspects of this form of existence in the latter parts of the 1900s. Crew didn’t have entitlement to vacations and returning to their jobs, so a new job application would have to be filed at the government-run seamen’s employment agencies. There was no certainty of returning to the old ship or indeed to one owned by the previous employer, so there was no sense of belonging or feeling of continuity of any permanent employment. Absurdly, crew with many years of loyalty to one company had to make very special arrangements in order to enable return after leave.

It all left a sense of drifting, but this didn’t apply to officers and engineers, who were assigned jobs directly by the shipping line. Not that this did much good when a 21-month long assignment away from home could be imposed with its obvious stress on marriages and the quality of life overall. Or even a routine six-month round trip to Australia. It all created an increased focus on the life at sea, its complexities, drawbacks and stresses. There was certainly no feeling of romance with the stars as your partners or a love affair with your ship, as some German sentimental ‘Seemangesange’ songs would have it. There developed permanent areas of seafaring problems and complaints. For myself, as I didn’t have a single day’s leave from age 16 to 24, I wasn’t suffering like normal sailors did.


A permanent international grievance at sea, be it on passenger liners or be it down to modest tugboats. The perceived monotony of the cargo ships’ crew menus was a permanent complaint coupled with a reluctance to adjust them to the climatic conditions. A hot +40C and nonair-conditioned day in North Queensland might see the regular Scandinavian cold winter food the Thursday hot pea soup with pork instead of fresh fish and salads. On occasions a group of crew members would join together to buy in a port anything different to take on board to eat; I recall sardines and canned potatoes.

There would be unhelpful company memos telling us to spread the unsalted (to make it tasteless) margarine only on the flat side of the crisp bread in order to save the company the cost of filling the cavities on the other side. This is true, circa 1954. And, please try to have no more than two pieces of bread per day (“we must all pull together to save the beleaguered shipping industry”).

When a 20 minute mid-morning coffee break was introduced it was suggested to the crew that they should confine toilet visits to that period, no matter that there might be only one loo for every 15 people. Fresh fruit may have been an apple a week treat. To make up for it, unsweetened lime juice was provided to protect against scurvy. This disease on modern cargo ships in the 20th century wouldn’t read well.

Health and VDs

The ship’s officers had basic training and a wide range of medical equipment and medication in the ship’s ‘hospital’. But anything serious had to be referred to the international shipping aid Radio Medico in Rome, unless the matter could await the next port call.

Apart from my educational study circle with the crew on the ship Kookaburra in my 2nd Officer days, I added sexual hygiene to the curriculum in an effort to reduce my hospital queues of VD sufferers after each port.

I also developed a treatment protocol for gonorrhoea consisting of a one-shot only of one million units of penicillin (as distinct from the recommended repeat shots of 200,000 units, and yes, it was safe). If injected at 1.30pm, the symptoms would usually be gone by dinner time. Great care had to be taken with penicillin allergy shock tests done before the shot, or the patient may expire. Doctor’s visits when at port would be done as required.

Dental pains

There was, however, no provision or entitlement at all for any dental attention. When us young and poor sailors developed cavities and toothache, the only remedy was aspirin, which would not be given out for toothache. So sleep was dramatically affected, and with it the safety of, for example, watch-keeping duties at sea. On occasions two sufferers would make a pact trying to pull out one-another’s offending teeth with pliers. This was usually aborted after the horrible self-inflicted pain (don’t I know). The Swedish welfare society allowed for free medical and dental care for all. To compensate for its exclusion of its seafarers from this, a special Sailors’ Tax rate was introduced, reducing my own tax bill from $10/month to $6. From a monthly wage of $65. So it didn’t pay for outside treatments.

Mental strain

In general, our training and seamanship combined to handle most incidents, from a passenger’s child birth, to multiple leg fractures, to deaths and burials at sea. But a serious difficulty area was depression and suicide attempts, sometimes successful.

It always gave me a feeling of despair as not knowing every one of my crew well enough to spot the symptoms.

One 19-year old sailor was sent off work by me at Rabaul, PNG due to some drunkenness, and when checking on him in his cabin he was on the floor with both wrists cut and a big puddle of blood at the starboard listing side. We got him to hospital, and he survived and was discharged from the ship for hospitalisation. I still harbour guilt, even if I don’t know why.

There is a syndrome that the officers, even at age 24, have a responsibility to look after their crew.


Drinking and alcohol actually played little part in life aboard ship. Many of the crew were watch-going and could not drink any at any time. In port, when time allowed, there were shore visits where sailors sought out “dances and sheilas”, with drinking being all part of the fun. But the expression “drunken sailor” was and remains misleading. Of course, on occasion we had to cope with one or two Delirium Tremens cases, who would be promptly signed off and repatriated. Some would be keen fighters after several drinks, one of whom routinely left his false teeth in the messroom sugar bowl ahead of a fistfight, asking me to mind them. But a Christmas at sea would always be trouble-free with its seaborne version of goodwill to all. The whole crew bonding together in their home away from home.


In their misguided plan to remove young gangsters from its shores, the Swedish government came up with a plan to send them to sea for discipline, not realising the tight system on an oceangoing vessel is no correction institution. But it took a few years for the legislation to be reversed.

Meantime, one such misguided youth was allocated to be my watch partner. He had been a wonder-child at the Academy of Music as the best young violin player in Europe. He was also an excellent knife-thrower and showed me how to hit the King of Spades in the eye at 15 paces (I still may have the skill but hardly ever use it). Visiting bars he would often bring him the violin from the band and the place would fall silent listening.


Landlubbers always had difficulties in not associating sailors with sinful habits, typically involving girls and grog. But the reality is quite different. The physical and mental bond that follows with close quarters and the permanent presence of your fellow crew creates stress, and this must be overcome with practice.

Aside from senior crew like able seamen, two fellows sharing three by five metre cabins with double bunks was standard, and if you didn’t get along during a six-months round trip to Australia, you shouldn’t be there. So, for sure there was stress from living in confined quarters and needing to share everything with maybe 25 other crew around you. I myself only got my own cabin after three continuous years at sea.

There were also sources of culture available. The United Stated Information Service (USIS) would visit our ships in American ports and lend us both a projector for a year and masses of documentaries including a whole range of famous composers with their symphonies also on tape. And they would be played over and over at the crew intercoms. The same applied with various arias from famous operas, which would have an instant backup choir from the listeners who knew every Italian word, if not the perfection of the tune.

Other organisations would supply free libraries which would be changed periodically and with mainly educational and documentary contents. Added to our own on board educational program, in which I was happy to have the leading role, our crews were getting a very much rounded general and specific knowledge of many matters.

There was also a host of religious organisations seeking to mend our supposedly tortured souls, mainly by having minibuses picking us up for dance tea parties at their churches, but not as good as it may seem.

Often one had to sit through some religious service before we were left free go with the tea and cucumber sandwiches before being forced to do the barn dances and classic waltz with the Christian off duty nurses all twice your age or more.

At some places the authorities would arrange something, and I have a fond memory from the Port of Baltimore, Maryland laying on a day long bus trip for all our crew to check out Washington DC on Remembrance Day. This was just excellent for an 18-year old already fond of Americans.

During the many strike-affected days in Australian ports we were bound to be approached by local families checking out the ships and inviting us home for meals and maybe a trip to the Blue Mountains. My friendly, fellow future countrymen provided plenty of inducement to become one of them, as I did. And never looked back.


The relationships between seafaring men and “their women” were mixed, almost always suffering from the stress imposed from long separations. Whether married or not, the whole situation was abnormal, and many marriages and other relationships went aground.

There was always a thought hanging over the heads of most sailors: how to get a job ashore? Meantime, most men deprived of the company of women over many months at a time would at least look at the local femininity wherever it could be seen, but the prospects of finding a girlfriend, who might be visited a few times annually, were small.

In the fullness of time, seafaring conditions improved to the effect of crews having equal times off, enabling spending a normal life ashore for 50% of the time.

This concession should never even have been questioned, but it took centuries to achieve this degree of maritime civilisation. Nor did international shipping drop dead bankrupt as a consequence.

Some large container vessels have a crew as small as 10 with unmanned engine rooms, living off frozen packed food and always looking forward to better things. Compared with conditions in the airline industry, there is still a way to go, and considering the now often minimal impact of crew costs, there seems to be still more room that could be done for the benefit of the seafarer family as a whole.

* Readers seeking support and information about mental health can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14

From the print edition September 28, 2017

* Captain Harry Mansson AM is a Master Mariner, a retired ship’s Captain, with a subsequent varied background as an international consultant to the United Nations/World Bank to a shipping management entrepreneur. He has enjoyed a stellar career at sea and onshore.

Starting with the Swedish Merchant Navy, he also served as an officer in the Swedish Royal Navy sweeping active mines. In 1972 he established Orient Shipping Services Pty Ltd as the general agent for the entry of the Orient Overseas Line (now OOCL) into the Asia/ Australia trade. In 1993 he was deservedly awarded the Order of Australia for services to shipping and international trade.

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