Enriching seafarers’ lives on board

Ship designers should prioritise attractive living standards

By Dr Kate Pike

Ship design has the complex task of considering both the operational environment that seafarers work in, and the space used for their rest and leisure time. By nature, it must be multifunctional, safe and practical but also an attractive and comfortable space for seafarers to live and relax in together. When a ship becomes your workspace, and your home away from home for months at a time, this environment needs very careful attention.

We have recently heard in the news about migrants being housed on a floating barge in Portland, and comparisons have been made with seafarers on board merchant vessels who may experience far less comfort in their accommodation. Needless to say, this is a contentious issue. However, many seafarers have a sense of which shipping companies provide the most comfortable vessels to work on board and which ships to avoid – if a choice is indeed possible – if they have been built in certain countries with a purely utilitarian approach to design. Company reputation and even country reputation based on ship design and comfort is an interesting driver for some, in terms of recruitment and retention within the industry.

The International Seafarers Welfare and Assistance Network’s (ISWAN) Social Interaction Matters (SIM) Project research highlighted several aspects of ship design that did not work well for seafarers, particularly in terms of the impact on their mental health and sleep. ISWAN reported a 56% increase in calls to their free seafarers’ helpline, SeafarerHelp (2022) about the ship and the living conditions on board. Feedback on aspects that impacted their sleep and comfort were obtained and some comments raised the enduring issue of the positioning of beds within cabins, with a preference for beds being set up across the ship, rather than along the length of it, to help combat fatigue and seasickness. The SIM Project highlighted fatigue as a significant issue on board all the participating vessels in the Project and a contributor to mental health issues and safety concerns.

Crew feedback

One crew member interviewed for the SIM Project in phase one comment- ed on the lack of balance between ensuring a vessel is fit for service and ensuring enough space for crew to live and work comfortably: “They’ve forgotten about the crew [is] basically what’s come out of the design. All the Gucci stuff for the operational side but actually when you look at living, we haven’t got the space on there.”

Another crew member interviewed described the psychological impact that the amount of space can have: “I’ve seen some container ships that have huge spaces for parties, social gatherings… and it gives a kind of a notion of that when you have more space you feel more positive… but when you are in a very compact… enclosed space then you feel very low psychologically.”On a positive note, the SIM Project has seen first-hand that it is possible for seafarers to create fun and entertainment for themselves in all kinds of spaces and conditions on board. The research observed evidence of a resourceful use of even the smallest of spaces. One such example was a game of sack toss in a corridor space behind the crew lounge.

The SIM Project guidance, taken directly from seafarer’s feedback about their leisure time, indicates what types of activities can be achieved in different spaces and in various weather conditions and suggests the facilities required for the activities and preparation time, if any.

It is clear that ship design needs to consider all aspects of a seafarer’s life, both when they are at work and at rest. Ultimately, all aspects of ship design have an impact on the safety and the mental health of those working on board in these spaces.

Perhaps we should ask questions as to why only minimum standards are set where ship owners strive to reach compliance? Instead, why not set more ambitious but attractive ‘living standards’, that go beyond compliance, with people’s lives on board truly at the heart of design considerations, with the involvement of seafarers within this process.




  LMB-BML 2007 Webmaster & designer: Cmdt. André Jehaes - email