All photographs of this blog are shot by: Karanvir Singh, Location: Port of Rotterdam
Somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Morocco, an officer in the Merchant Navy, Karanvir Singh Nayyar took off some time from his busy ship schedule of 12-14 hrs to have a conversation with me on his life in the Merchant Navy and about seafarers at large.
He believes that sea farers lead a ghost life, they come and go and people don’t know about the challenges they face in their daily job role.
People spend a fortune on a cruise trip, to be in the sea for a short period of time; the bright side of being a seafarer is that you’re paid much more than that to travel the world and to live on the deep blue oceans.
To join the Merchant Navy, the perquisite is to have PCM in your 10+2 in school and then enroll in a Naval Academy College. Placements are pretty good post college and a starting salary is around 2 Lakhs per month, which is awesome for a fresher straight out of college! Karanvir, a Third Officer in the Merchant Navy at the age of 25, has sailed to almost all the continents and across all the major oceans.
He is aboard the Emma Maesrk which is the largest ship, way bigger than the Titanic and is the size of almost two football fields.
You do have some recreational activities on it like a swimming pool and good amenities but well, it’s no holiday!
A daily routine of a marine officer includes-checking the density of water using a mechanical apparatus, navigational duties, keeping a check on the cargo and the weather conditions, communicating with radio stations on a timely basis and a lot more things. They don’t get a single day off on the ship.
Studying doesn’t end for them in college. They give a bunch of exams, study maps and geographies to a large extent.
On the ship, ‘Safety First’ is the most important thing. They often have drills so they would be prepared in case of a fire or a ship wreck.
Fire in the engine room is deadly, there was a case of a ship in the Indian Ocean that got struck with fire and it took 10 days for it to reach the coast and the fire was still on.
There are 2 life boats on the Emma Maesrk with a capacity to hold 36 people though there are only around 25 on board. It also has small rafts for a rescue situation.
There are no medical facilities onboard except for basic first aid. If someone has a serious ailment and is deep in the ocean somewhere, even a helicopter cannot come to rescue as that would take too much fuel. Only when the ship is around 200 nautical miles from the shore, then some help can be arranged. There is a medical radio network that be contacted to ask what kind of medication should be done to a person injured/unwell.
Because of the Covid pandemic, a lot of seafarers were stuck in the sea for 10 months to a full year, away from their families and native countries. Only very recently, have they been allowed to come back home.
Even now, social distancing is being maintained at the ports, the temperature of every person is checked by the port staff before he/she steps into the ship to unload the cargo at docks.
The risk of even one person on the ship contracting the virus would be dangerous for everyone on the board. A Japanese cruise ship was abandoned in the sea for months because most of the people had been infected.
Karanvir spoke about the importance of mental health for a seafarer. As much as the job is adventurous and would make you witness the prettiest horizons and natural phenomena of nature such as rainbows, it is essential that one stays strong. A sailor is away from his family for so long which can really be hard when one needs to be with them.
You’re all alone on the ship though yes; you have your crew members as company but no one to show you love, affection, a sense of belonging. A full 5-7 months on the ship away from civilization, suicide at the sea is common in seafarers.
You won’t believe it but the threat of pirates still persists in some areas such as Somalia, the Strait of Malacca in South China Sea, in the Indian Ocean etc.
The merchant ships are unarmed with no weapons except for a few guards on board. These ships carry bulk cargo up to 1,50,000 tons which no airplanes can cover, everything from oil-clothes-food; almost 80% of the trade globally is done through these ships.
Though the Navy patrols such pirate infused areas frequently, if pirates do attack, life has more importance over cargo so they can’t really do anything except let them take the cargo. It’s like some burglars have invaded in your house but well, in this case, the house is on the sea so you can’t escape anywhere.
I was also curious to know what happens if you see a distressed, stranded soul in the sea like it was in the movie ‘Life of Pi’. It is their duty to help such a person irrespective of his/her nationality and inform through the ship radio so the person can be dropped to the nearest port for rescue.
If red sirens are left by a ship, the international law commands that any ship that sees’s this has to follow it and help the other ship even if it wasn’t on their specific route.
There are certain problems of the land that you might also experience on the sea, on the ships. Since there is international crew on these merchant ships, sometimes there are incidents of racism, the food can also be a problem since you won’t find your native food here but more of an international cuisine. For vegetarians and vegans it’s a nightmare as the food primarily consists of meat since vegetables don’t last for so long.
Another major reason for concern is the responsibility to not harm the environment and reduce the impact of climate change which the ships add to. After human life, the environment and the sea life is of utmost importance, more than the cargo. Oil spills in the ocean have to be avoided at all costs and in case it happens, the international authorities need to be alerted so they can clean that area in the sea and control the damage.
Though ships are referred to as ‘she’ since they are guiders of the sea and protectors of the seafarers like mothers, ironically, the men: women ratio is an alarming 300:2, there are very few women in the merchant navy, often none on a ship.
There was an ancient myth that is was unlucky to have a woman on board but some of the captains got their wives along and this myth is now buried in the past as more women have started joining the merchant navy though still very less.
Talking about myths, Karanvir helped me to break a lot of assumptions that we all have about the sea,
For example, the Bermuda Triangle which we all have read or heard about, a stretch of water in the North Atlantic Ocean where ships and even airplanes have sunk is a pure legend. Ships often sail through this route safely now and there really isn’t any magnetic field out there. Karanvir, has crossed this route 5 times and said that it is like any other part of the sea.
It’s common to spot a variety of beautiful sea animals- dolphins, jellyfish and sailors often wake up at an early morning hour, the ‘whale hour’ in certain places to spot the gigantic whales in the ocean.
You would think that living at the sea, you might get fresh sea food but fishing is banned on ships, the risk of catching a random fish which may turn out to be poisonous and could harm the whole crew and well, one can admire the seas as much as they want but jumping into the sea off a ship, especially a marine ship is totally banned.
In rough weather, for anyone in the ship it’s quite hard to sleep, you keep feeling the ship moving left, right, up and down because of the rolling and pitching of the ship as a result of waves and external sources.
But well, the highest kind of wave, the tsunami actually doesn’t harm the ships. Your safest bet to survive a tsunami would be to be on a ship and far from the coast. The tsunami is a large wave that deeply affects the land but for a ship in the ocean, it’s just another wave!
Hope all this gave you a great insight into the ghost life of seafarers and has inspired you to keep going on and to take every challenge that comes to you with a positive attitude and also celebrate every milestone once it has been knocked off 🙂