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Seafaring A-Z Alphabet – “F” is for…


Let’s get this rolling with:



Fatigue – Fatigue is not some vague concept to be confused with feeling a bit tired. At sea it is becoming ever more important and problematic.
Fatigue is a recognised and serious medical concern, and is all about the physical and/or mental state of being tired and weak.

Although physical and mental fatigue are different, the two often exist together. It may seem obvious, but if a person is physically exhausted for long enough, they will also be mentally tired.

So it needs to be given the respect it deserves, and the cause underlying the symptoms need to be addressed. Those with little stress and sufficient rest are less likely to be fatigued – seafarers must focus on managing the balancing act between work, rest and recreation. The possible causes of fatigue are virtually endless. It seems that tiredness is a very potent way for the body and mind to try and get the message that something is wrong through to even the most stubborn person.

So it follows that there are many different causes – but for a seafarer stress and worry are two emotions that commonly cause tiredness. Stress can reach a point in which the sufferer flounders and is “unable to see the light at the end of the tunnel”, which leads them towards despair, which will eventually cause fatigue. Being away from home, working hard, having to deal with difficult situations, the dangers of the sea, and of potentially uncertainty over when seafarers may get home. All these can be draining, and cause fatigue.

Shift patterns at sea can cause problems sleeping – even the normal 4 on, 8 off. However this can be heightened dramatically if work demands increase. The 6 0n, 6 off is particularly hard for people to cope with.

The effect of diet on the body can have massive implications for fatigue. Health and wellbeing rest on a good, healthy diet. So it is important that meals are healthy and nutritious and contain the vitamins and minerals that are needed. Mind numbing routines of eat, sleep, watch for months and months can wear down anyone, and lead to the type of inattentiveness that goes with the transitions from Active Operator to ‘machine minder’. The result of fatigue is impaired performance and diminished alertness. These could have a significant impact on shipboard operations and personal safety.

See our Crewtoo article for more details



Fires – Fires at sea have always been something to fear and dread – even more than ashore. Since wooden ships sailed with wax candles and oil lamps – ships have long have a propensity for flame.

Fires happen all the time on ships…which may sound controversial…they do though, it just so happens they are thankfully controlled. Take welding for instance – this is a fire, but kept controlled and contained. It is the unexpected and uncontrolled flames that can cause so much damage.Thankfully these are still considered fairly rare, but if a fire does break out on a ship – whether at sea or in port, then it can have devastating effects. Obviously at sea things are even more perilous – but any shipboard fire has the potential to kill and to destroy.

At sea, there is no fire department to call – all the crew can do is follow their training and put into practice the skills they have developed, but hoped they would never have to use.
From the earliest days of a maritime career, fire fighting training looms large. Cadets stinking of smoke, with tired blackened faces are a common sight around maritime colleges. They learn about the theory, but do get to taste a little of the drama of real life heat, flame and smoke.

So when a fire does break out at sea – then the emergency response has to be well drilled, implemented properly and swiftly. There is not much time to restrict a fire – but to do so is key.
Ships carry a range of fire fighting equipment – both inbuilt into the vessel, water sprays or gas suppression systems. These are often sophisticated and can be highly effective in the hands of a well trained crew.

Depending on the severity of the flames and where the fire breaks out, even the best shipboard tools may not be enough. The problems for crews fighting fires are numerous and extremely dangerous – lack of ventilation in spaces, water becoming superheated steam, then there are the more normal issues of smoke inhalation and toxic fumes – as well as burns of course. The Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS) is strict on fire safety. In essence it seeks to prevent where possible, but if the worst happens then it states the actions and equipment needed to tackle a fire.

In trying to avoid fire in the first place, then SOLAS imposes a concept of “passive defence”, this includes fireproof compartmentalisation of the ship, the use of fire-resistant material, improved electrical installations, and proper stowage of combustible materials. Secondly comes the “active protection” in the form of fire detection and localisation devices, automatic extinguishers, and fire emergency training.

Training, is a massively important part of this concept – and the Convention on Standards for Training, Certification, and Watch Keeping (STCW) outlines the basic requirements for seafarers on merchant ships, including what they needed to know about how to deal with a fire. In 1995 the STCW was revised to include a new set of training rules, which included learning the basics of firefighting.

Fire onboard ships is a terrifying prospect – over the centuries many vessels have been lost. Whether it is fires starting in cargoes, accidental ignition through smoking or hot work, or whether a collision leads to flames – the impact can be lethal. Perhaps the most deadly loss was that of the ferry “MV Doña Paz”. The Philippine-registered passenger ferry sank after a collision with the death of around 4,375 people, the deadliest ferry disaster in history during peace time.

While most of the passengers slept during the night, the ferry collided with the tanker “Vector”, which was carrying 8,800 barrels of gasoline. The impact caused a fire which quickly spread to the “Doña Paz”, as well as lighting the surrounding water on fire. The life jackets aboard the Doña Paz were reportedly locked up, forcing passengers to jump into flaming shark-infested waters in order to attempt escape.

It is not just vessels which can suffer – in 1917 the city of Halifax, Nova Scotia in Canada was obliterated when a fire onboard a ship ignited ammunition. The “SS Mont-Blanc” exploded killing 2000 people in and around the city.

In modern times it has been containers which have shown to be incredibly challenging to deal with is ignited. Both the “Hyundai Fortune” and “MSC Flaminia” suffered with container fires. While other recent cases included “UASC Barzan”, “MSC Katrina”, “Safmarine Meru” and the another container ship the “Melbourne Strait”. The problems of box fires are increasingly problematic – and while issues such as the Verified Gross Mass (VGM) of containers shine a spotlight on the actual contents, there are still boxes of dangerous goods which are misdeclared.

Placed in the wrong position these can jeopardise the crew and indeed the whole ship. Fighting box fires is increasingly hard as the size of ships continues to grow.

Figure Head


Figurehead – A figurehead is a carved wooden decoration found at the prow of ships largely made between the 16th and 20th centuries.Seafarers have long sought to give some character to their vessels, and long before figureheads the bows of Greek and Phoenican galleys often had some form of bow ornamentation – eyes were very popular adornments.

The Egyptians placed figures of holy birds on the prow while the Phoenicians used horses representing speed. The Ancient Greeks used boars’ heads to symbolise acute vision and ferocity while Roman boats often mounted a carving of a centurion representing valour in battle.

In northern Europe, serpents, bulls, dolphins and dragons were customary and by the 13th Century, the swan was used representing grace and mobility. Viking ships were also known to do similar. The role of superstitious, and the menacing appearance of Viking figureheads served a supposed protective function of warding off evil spirits – while the dragon shaped head now doubt struck terror into those being attacked.

In Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, it was believed that spirits called “Kaboutermannekes” guarded the ship from sickness, rocks, storms, and dangerous winds. If the ship sank, the Kaboutermannekes guided the sailors’ souls to the Land of the Dead. To sink without a Kaboutermanneke condemned the sailor’s soul to haunt the sea forever, so Dutch sailors believed. There was a lot of superstition around shipping back in the day.

As ship designs evolved and improved it became possible to put more substantial structures on the bow. The development of a forecastle and stemhead allowed galleons of the 16th century to really embrace the artistry of what was the golden age of figureheads.While superstition was always to play some role, it has also been suggested that the purpose of the figurehead was often to indicate the name of the ship in a non-literate age, where so many could not read.

The figurehead also had a role in demonstrating the wealth and power of the owner. This especially important in naval vessels, and the figurehead projected the might of expanding nations globally. In most instances the figurehead was decorative – it certainly had no structural purpose. Indeed it was becoming increasingly obvious that a large figurehead, being carved from massive wood and perched on the very foremost tip of the hull, adversely affected the sailing qualities of the ship.

At the height of the Baroque period (1600 to 1760) some ships boasted gigantic figureheads, weighing several tons and sometimes twinned on both sides of the bowsprit. The effect on performance, and cost considerations, led to figureheads being made dramatically smaller during the 18th century, and in began to be phased out altogether around 1800. It is still common practise for warships to carry ships’ badges, large plaques mounted on the superstructure with a unique design relating to the ship’s name or role. For example, Type 42 Destroyers of the Royal Navy, which are named after British cities, carry badges depicting the coat of arms of their namesake. Merchant ships too occasionally have the company logo or shield on the bow – a modern nod to the history and art which made vessels in the past so exotic and interesting.


First aid

First aid – First aid is the assistance given to any person suffering a sudden illness or injury – the aim is to provide rapid assistance and care to preserve life, prevent the condition from worsening, and/or promote recovery.

It includes initial intervention in a serious condition prior to professional medical help being available, such as performing CPR while awaiting an ambulance, as well as the complete treatment of minor conditions, such as applying a plaster to a cut. First aid is so important because it is generally performed by a layperson or amateur – just a member of the public or work colleague can become a lifesaver without any indepth medical background.

First aid in the sense we know it today only has a relatively short history. It is around 140 years since the skills and practice evolved from the teachings of the Royal Humane Society and military surgeons, who saw the wisdom of training in splinting and bandaging for battlefield wounds.

In 1878 two Aberdeenshire military officers, Surgeon-Major Peter Shepherd of the Royal Herbert Military Hospital, Woolwich, London, and Colonel Francis Duncan established the concept of teaching first aid skills to civilians. This radical new enterprise, conducted under the auspices of the newly formed “St John Ambulance Association”. Shepherd conducted the first class in the hall of a school in London using a comprehensive first aid curriculum that he had developed. It was actually a maritime disaster which first saw these skill tested on a large scale. Within months of that first class, local Woolwich civilians used their skills when the pleasure boat “Princess Alice” sank in the Thames, killing 600 people.Within a decade, the new discipline of first aid spread rapidly throughout the world, and by the end of the 19th century, hundreds of thousands of St John first aid certificates had been awarded in four continents.

The ability to treat crew at sea is vital – and while senior officers will have a greater level of medical knowledge, it is important that seafarers are all trained in the basics of first aid. The training and certification at the most basic level is the STCW Medical First Aid at Sea course. This is an introduction to the aims and priorities of first aid. It also covers resuscitation techniques, and assessment of the causes of unconsciousness. There is also work on the circulatory system and of how to deal with wounds, bleeding and blood loss. Other important issues the course covers is dealing with shock, eye injuries, burns and scalds. As well as bone breaks, and how to move patients safely.

Flags of Convenience

Flags of convenience

Flags of Convenience – One of the key elements of any ship is its registration. This is when a ship is documented and given the nationality of the country to which the ship’s details have been recorded.

Having a flag State is a necessary part of any ship being able to trade internationally. International law requires that every merchant ship be registered in a country. A ship is then bound to the law of its flag state. Ship registration is like all other vehicle registrations in the sense that the owner will pay taxes and abide by safety laws based on the jurisdiction in which the ship is registered.

A ship’s flag State exercises regulatory control over the vessel and is required to inspect it regularly, certify the ship’s equipment and crew, and issue safety and pollution prevention documents.The organisation which actually registers the ship is known as its “registry”, and these can be governmental or they can actually be private companies – and this is where it all can get a little complicated.The terminology is that a ship sails under this flag of the country of registration, whichever nation that may be. Which implies that shipowners have a choice as to where they register their vessel.

In the past this was almost always the country of beneficial ownership. For example, a British owner would proudly want the red ensign on the stern and Liverpool, London or Southampton on the stern. This was the closed registry approach – in which registries were only allowed to register vessels from their own nation.
These were “closed” registers – they were only available to ships of its own nation. Whereas registries that welcome foreign-owned ships are known as “open registries”, and some of these are classified as “flags of convenience”.

The term “flag of convenience” has been in use since the 1950s, and it is a business practice whereby a merchant ship is registered in a country other than that of the ship’s owners, and the ship flies that country’s civil ensign. Owners of a ship may register the ship under a flag of convenience to reduce operating costs or avoid the regulations of the owner’s country. The use of the term “flag of convenience” (FoCs) has become contentious – and is almost certainly used disparagingly about a registry. There is a lot of ill will harboured against FOCs by unions, especially the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF).

The modern practice of flagging ships in foreign countries began in the 1920s in the United States, when shipowners frustrated by increased regulations and rising labour costs began to register their ships to Panama. These open registries became a tool developed for maritime business to pick their way through the labour, safety and tax regulations to find ones that suited them best.

The use of open registries steadily increased dramatically in the latter decades of the 20th Century, and as far back as 1968, Liberia grew to surpass the United Kingdom as the world’s largest shipping register. The majority of the global fleet is registered with open registries, and the Panama, Liberia, and Marshall Islands are the biggest players in terms of deadweight tonnage. Flag-of-convenience registries are criticised, but there are arguments that this process is a natural product of globalisation. As for standards, well the big FoCs have worked hard to shed their historic image – and many are now extremely well and professionally run. The P-L-M flags all feature on the IMO White List, and do perform well in port State control inspections.



Flotsam – In maritime law there are often different types of wrecks, derelict vessels and floating objects at sea. These have specific terms – and include, flotsam, jetsam, lagan, and derelict.

These are specific kinds of shipwreck, and each phrase has a specific nautical meanings, with legal consequences in the law of admiralty and marine salvage:
• Flotsam is floating wreckage of a ship or its cargo
• Jetsam is part of a ship, its equipment, or its cargo that is purposely cast overboard or jettisoned to lighten the load in time of distress and is washed ashore
• Lagan (also called “ligan”) is goods or wreckage that is lying on the bottom of the ocean, sometimes marked by a buoy, which can be reclaimed.
• Derelict is cargo that is also on the bottom of the ocean, but which no one has any hope of reclaiming (in other maritime contexts, derelict may also refer to a drifting abandoned ship).

Such distinctions are important when it comes to wreck recovery, protection of sensitive areas and salvage. They also affect the responsibilities and rights of wreck owners and salvors, and how wreck material needs to be reported.



Fog – Fog is a visible mass consisting of cloud water droplets or ice crystals suspended in the air at or near the land or sea surface. Fog can be considered a type of low-lying cloud and is heavily influenced by nearby bodies of water, topography, and wind conditions.

The term “fog” is typically distinguished from the more generic term “cloud” in that fog is low-lying, and the moisture in the fog is often generated locally (such as from a nearby body of water, like a lake or the ocean). By definition, fog reduces visibility to less than 1 kilometre (0.62 mi), whereas mist causes lesser impairment of visibility. Mist and fog are often used interchangeably – and they are closely related – but there is a key difference which depends on how far you can see through them.

By international agreement fog is the name given to resulting visibility less than 1 km. Whereas, mist is defined as ‘when there is such obscurity and the associated visibility is equal to or exceeds 1000 m’. Like fog, mist is still the result of the suspension of water droplets, but simply at a lower density. Mist typically is quicker to dissipate and can rapidly disappear with even slight winds, it is also what you see when you can see your breath on a cold day.

There is another related meteorological phenomenon, that of “haze”. This is slightly different as it made up of a suspension of extremely small, dry particles in the air (not water droplets) which are invisible to the naked eye, but sufficient to give the air an opalescent appearance. Fog begins to form when water vapour condenses into tiny liquid water droplets suspended in the air. It normally occurs at a relative humidity near 100%. At this high relative humidity, the air cannot hold additional moisture, thus, the air will become supersaturated if additional moisture is added. The drastic effect of fog on visibility has long affected shipping, and it is a major danger still – despite improvements to technology. Vessels still rely on sound signals too when navigating in or near an area of restricted visibility.

The International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea 1972 (Colregs) covers this issue in “Rule 35 — Sound Signals in Restricted Visibility”. This covers what are colloquially called “fog signals.” The main signals are that a power-driven vessel making way through the water shall sound at intervals of not more than 2 minutes one prolonged blast. A power-driven vessel underway but stopped and making no way through the water shall sound at intervals of not more than 2 minutes two prolonged blasts in succession with an interval of about 2 seconds between them.

While a vessel at anchor shall at intervals of not more than one minute ring the bell rapidly for about 5 seconds. In a vessel of 100 meters or more in length the bell shall be sounded in the forepart of the vessel and immediately after the ringing of the bell the gong shall be sounded rapidly for about 5 seconds in the after part of the vessel. A vessel at anchor may in addition sound three blasts in succession, namely one short, one prolonged and one short blast, to give warning of her position and of the possibility of collision to an approaching vessel. There are many other signals for smaller craft, or those engaged in various type of activity.



Foundering – A shipwreck is the remains of a ship that has wrecked, which are found either beached on land or sunken to the bottom of a body of water. UNESCO estimates that worldwide over 3 million shipwrecks, some of them thousands of years old, lie today on seabeds globally.

An important factor in the condition of a wreck is the level of destruction at the time of the loss or shortly afterwards due to the nature of the loss, salvage or later demolition. There are many different examples of severe destruction at the time of loss are grounding, collision, allusion, explosion, fire, etc. Also in this list would be “foundering”.

Foundering occurs when a vessel takes in so much water that buoyancy is lost and the ship sinks. Some of the most well-known disasters have come about through foundering – and include the “RMS Titanic” and the “HMHS Britannic”, as well as vessels which are overcome so rapidly as they carry dense heavy cargo, such as iron ore. Such vessels often break up when sinking quickly, such as the accident which accounted for the tragic loss of the “Derbyshire”. While hitting a rocky seabed can also lead to foundering.

The Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) specifically mentions foundering – and the financial loss and lost work that a seafarer may suffer as a result. Seafarers should be paid for a period after the loss. In ancient times – if a vessel was deemed to be in danger of foundering – the crew would often all pledge to a pilgrimage if their vessel and lives were spared. The cost of this proposed holy pilgrimage was paid by all parties involved in the vessel.