Back in the old days of long voyages and many crew, on board seafarers embarked on hobbies to pass the time. They learned new skills or played sports. In short it was a golden age for shipboard recreation. So what did seafarers of old do and are there lessons for today’s crew to advice on what things to do in spare time?
Going back Centuries seafaring was a pretty tough gig. The hard conditions on board ship often created a good sense of comradeship, and sailors enjoyed each other’s company off duty.
Traditionally hard-drinking and tough, rews made the best of their cramped living quarters, enjoying games of dice and cards, telling tall tales, playing musical instruments, carving, drawing, practising knots or model making.
There was even time for music – and rhythmic worksongs (‘chanty’ comes from ‘chanter’ – the French for ‘to sing’) sung on board to help repetitive tasks such as hauling on ropes. In Nelson’s Navy, shanties were banned, men’s labours being accompanied instead by calling out numbers or the rhythmic playing of a fiddle or fife.
As times changed, so too did the conditions. As the centuries passed things improved – but even 40 years ago there used to be many, many more people onboard and so recreation was a far more social pursuit.
With time on their hands seafarers of the past used to use it to good effect. They would make things, learn new skills and languages, put on plays and performances, and enjoy all kinds of physical activities.
The community on board was bigger too – so there was more often a chance to find someone to share a game of chess or suchlike. In short more people and more time meant more opportunities for recreation. It is quite a simple equation.
There was real artistry too – seafarers made scrimshaw figures, elaborate carvings made from wood, horn or bone. They built models, made and played musical instruments.
All in all the seafarers of the past were a resourceful, imaginative and social lot. Sadly today many of the same opportunities and resources are just not available. If they were, it seems likely that crews today would be every bit as creative, artistic and imaginative as their forebears…but they’d be posting pictures of their latest scrimshaw on Instagram, and comparing carving techniques on Crewtoo.
Under the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 (‘MLC’) recreation is an important consideration. The MLC states:
So recreational facilities are a “right” – but does that mean that they always deliver a great experience onboard?
It used to be said that seafarers have three hobbies – sleeping, drinking and “cavorting”. Alas the way things are today all three seem like a different world away.
Sleeping can be hard to come by, drinking is either banned or very limited, and as for cavorting – well the least said about that the better.
Today the conveyor belt of global trade relies on seafarers and shipping, and the sanitised, factory approach is all too often felt. For every ship that gets long passages, which has a swimming pool and great atmosphere, there are those who shuttle between ports and fast turnarounds, with barely enough time for work let alone recreation.
The changing nature of shipping has seen a social evolution on board, and it has sadly eroded much of the positives. While shorter trips, 1-for-1 leave ratios and internet access are all hugely progressive, it is a shame that these have sometimes led to the deterioration of life on board. For those still serving long trips and without access to the internet, the death of a social life is devastating. So what counts as recreation nowadays?
Time is a resource which many seafarers no longer have of course, the pressure of shorter times in port, of more calls and fewer people to take up the slack means that the time to relax and enjoy a hobby has been seriously eroded.
Working at full tilt means that sleep becomes one of the most vital hobbies at sea today. Which is a pretty sad indication of the quality of life at sea.
It’s not all bad – but what passes for “fun” at sea today mirrors that ashore. Especially where vessels have internet access – this means that seafarers are consumers just like people ashore.
So life and recreation revolves around movies, video games and social media. With the occasional BBQ and karaoke night thrown in, if you are lucky. It seems that the “art” of recreation has been eroded. No longer are there “deck Olympics”, quoits, deck golf or the race night with hand carved horses “running” the course. Today is more isolated, but that is a reflection of modern life – and just like friends ashore it is access to the internet, movies, TV and games which pass for recreation today.
One area of shipboard life which can provide comfort is when there are good exercise facilities onboard. The Seafarers Happiness Index found that when seafarers do get to exercise the benefits are to be found across the board. They said that with exercise comes increased energy, vitality and an ability to tackle the tough work onboard ship.
Studies of exercise have long shown the benefits to mental health, and many seafarers commented that when they were able to exercise it reduced stress dramatically. Perhaps in the stressful environment onboard this is even more important.
The MLC states, “consideration” should be given to a host of recreational facilities and these include sports equipment, “including exercise equipment, table games and deck games”, and where possible facilities for swimming. Alas for many it seems that such “consideration” has resulted in the answer being no.
Sadly though even on vessels with great levels of exercise equipment, sometimes the demands of port calls and onboard work mean it doesn’t get used, and seafarers don’t get a chance to gain the benefits of exercise.
The message is very clear, the more seafarers have access, time, space and encouragement to engage in exercise and recreation the happier they are – so the right facilities, access and encouragement to use them needs to be pushed, managed and taken seriously.