Pros and Cons Of Internet Onboard Ships: A Sailor’s Perspective
Anyone who’s sailed on his or her first ship after 31/Dec/1999 is prone to hearing a common – and often distasteful jibe from Senior Masters / Chief Engineers – “When I was in Uniform, you were still in the liquid form”. Beginning your career in the new millennium has its own plusses and minuses. One cannot take away the fact that seafaring was an entirely different ballgame ‘back in the days’. While one had to endure more hardships and longer tenures, life was a tad better off when it came to port stays, paperwork, commercial pressures, traffic density etc.
In the early 2000s, things were not much different from today. ISM code was already in place, SMS systems were being followed, and there was a lot more emphasis on safety. Crew calling cards were easily available and affordable. However, one crucial element as far as crew welfare was concerned, was still missing – being in regular touch with the family and to be in sync with life ashore. Come latter part of the past decade and things started changing. Without doubt, the rollout of the internet onboard ships for crew use has been the single biggest game changer onboard.
In early 2000s, I was one in a batch of 25 cadets newly recruited by Maersk. I remember an occasion where four of us were invited to attend the company’s Officers Seminar. In an open discussion about onboard welfare, the General Manager asked all the participants what changes / improvements they’d like to see onboard. One of the more adventurous amongst us four raised his hand to speak. He then said that it would be great if there was internet onboard. The entire auditorium burst out laughing, some at the audacity of such wishful thinking while some, mostly old timers that a cadet was SPEAKING. (Haven’t we all, in the past, seen Masters and Chief Officers play hardball with cadets by saying “Cadets are meant to be seen, not heard”!)
Exactly half a decade later, this “wishful thinker” batch mate of mine had the last laugh. In a well-publicised and welcome move, the Maersk Tankers management decided to roll out internet facilities on all ships. And the rest, as they say, is history. Life onboard changed dramatically. No longer did we have to wait to arrive till the next port to hear who had won the Wimbledon Final or won that Test at Lords. Neither did people have to pray for shore leave so that they could bolt ashore and visit an internet café to see pictures and updates from their loved ones. Nor did folks have to open a new email account each time they got back home simply because the earlier one had expired due to inactivity.
Internet on ship.
It’s been several years now since we’ve have had internet onboard our ships (Surprisingly still many companies are devoid of this facility). Here is a list of the pros and cons of internet onboard ships.
1. Keeping abreast with current affairs and sporting events. Gone are the days when one had to wait for the agents to get the past months newspapers onboard. This was followed by the daunting task of waiting for the Master and Chief Engineer to read and then pass on to the lower hierarchy. Present day seafarers are as updated on current affairs as MBA students in fancy business schools.
2. Managing finances by buying / selling mutual funds, emailing your Portfolio Managers on what actions to take, keeping track of the equity markets etc. (The internet speeds onboard are still a far cry from the land based broadband speeds which makes direct equity trading impossible). One can even transfer funds online sitting in his cabin in the middle of Atlantic Ocean. (Unfortunately, this also means that a seafarer now gets email alerts when his wife swipes his card at the shopping mall. Coming to terms with the fact that your last sleepless night during discharging was spent on a Louis Vuitton can be quite daunting.)
3. Serves as a second / back up line of communication with regards to the ship’s official emailing system. Real time troubleshooting by the IT technicians is also possible. In the earlier days, one frequently saw Masters fumbling with the Sat – C terminal to send and receive important messages when the Email system was down. That’s passé. He now simply needs to log in to the ship’s gmail or yahoo account and tell the IT guy ashore to get the issue sorted.
4. Chat Clients. Internet onboard allows seafarers to keep in touch with their families through Chat clients (Whatsapp, Yahoo, GTalk, MSN etc.) or VOIP (Jumblo, Action VOIP, Skype). A big advantage of chat clients is that they use a fraction of the bandwidth and data as compared to their VOIP cousins. What more – they even help you get good at typing.
5. Emergencies at home can be immediately communicated onboard by email, chat etc. When someone at home is not keeping well, it is very reassuring to know that his/her condition has improved, rather than having to wait till the end of the day to make a satellite call.
6. Access to Social Media (Facebook, Twitter). With Social Media increasingly becoming an integral part of our lives, occasional access to these media makes one feel less cut off from the outside world.
7. Scouting for alternate employment opportunities. Everyone has occasions when they feel disillusioned with their employer. Internet gives seafarers an opportunity to interact with persons working in different companies and know whether conditions are better or worse there.
8. Referring to the vast information database to enhance onboard troubleshooting. This could be as simple as putting a question across on a Facebook group or marine insight forum or referring to an equipment manufacturer directly.
9. Downloading digital manuals for onboard machinery to enable easy search functionality. Why browse through cumbersome hardcopy manuals when a simple search function in a pdf file can save the day.
10. Quick reference to new regulations being enforced. While most of these are promulgated by in house company circulars, more information can be easily obtained by visiting relevant websites.
11. Benefits Supernumeraries. Long voyages on some ship types such as VLCCs can be boring for supernumeraries. There may be occasions when the vessel might call only SBMs thereby not presenting an opportunity for shore leave. Internet allows wives onboard to kill boredom and spend their free time browsing (thereby shielding them from the infamous galley gossip :).
12. Online Applications: With growing digitalization, banks and academic institutions are moving towards online application process for loans, accounts, admissions etc. Internet onboard streamlines this process for seafarers who would otherwise have had to wait to get home. A lot of time is saved in the bargain and holidays can be spent for what they are really meant for – Relaxation.
13. Technical and Operational Managers ashore have the flexibility of using chat clients, in lieu of expensive satellite calling, for routine communication with the onboard management. It is sometimes easier to put an instruction or thought across on paper rather than communicating it on the telephone to a person whose language skills might prove to be a problem.
The legendary author Mark Twain had once rightly remarked ‘Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.’ Sadly, whiskey is no longer found onboard. So we’re left with some of the bad things about internet. Here they are:
1. Onboard Social Life – With vessel’s turning dry (zero alcohol policy), the social life onboard was already strained. Internet proved to be the last nail in the coffin. It virtually brought the social life onboard to a grinding halt. With the advent of laptops and smart phones, you very rarely find folks huddling up in the smoke rooms indulging in good old camaraderie. Gone are the days when the dinner table discussions revolved around what movie was to be played in the evening. These days you barely find people chatting in the mess rooms. All the chatting is reserved online. Everyone just wants to rush through with dinner and get wired.
2. Arguments / Misunderstandings: Needless to say, internet data usage at sea is expensive and is hence limited. Many a times, the onboard access has to be controlled due to excessive date usage. This brings about grudges, misunderstanding between colleagues.
3. Rest Hours: Unrestricted and round the clock internet access brings the inevitable urge in a few to use the facility unnecessarily and at inappropriate times. Many a times, the Master or Mate has to pull up the offending crew for using the internet when they should’ve been fast asleep.
4. Bridge Watchkeeping: With increased digitalization of bridge equipment (eg: ECDIS, Nautical Publications etc) there is a growing need to allow internet access on the bridge for updates and downloads. The Master needs to make it absolutely clear in his standing orders and bridge discipline meetings that none of this should interfere with watchkeeping. Use or smartphones or personal laptops on the bridge even during off time hours should not be tolerated.
5. Adult Content: Although there are inbuilt filters in the system, these are more often than not bypassed by over enthusiastic crew members to gain access to questionable content. Especially, accessing explicit content related to children is a serious offense and is punishable by law with far reaching consequences.
6. Social Media: Posting data / pictures which could be damaging to the company is morally wrong. With regulators watching the internet, a harmless banter about something could prove to be much serious in the eyes of the big brothers (regulators).
7. Troubleshooting: There is a growing tendency to every small problem that comes up onboard. Problem-solving skills are not being honed appropriately in this manner.
8. Distraction: Several times you notice seafarers distracted in their work due to some communication they’ve had with their family. Complete focus is a must on the job for your own or others safety. The management should frequently guide personnel on this matter during meetings and trainings. Personal and professional lives should be kept apart at all times.
9. Offensive Posts: There is also a growing tendency amongst some seafarers to vent out their frustration by means of offensive posts on the social media. The urge to discredit your superiors or the company just because of a reprimand or a delayed sign off should be avoided.
10. Internet Piracy: The temptation of downloading the latest blockbuster on a torrent client can be huge. In several countries, this has been made illegal with the downloader facing court action. This also hogs a lot of precious data which is not in the best interest of everyone onboard.
11. Social Media Addiction: Outside of work, there can be very little onboard to keep your mind occupied. With constant access, it is very easy to get addicted to Facebook and Twitter just like on land.
Clearly, the pros far outweigh the cons. However, with just a little thought and appropriate internet guidelines, the cons can be completely weeded out. It is entirely up to the crew and onboard management to ensure that this great invention is made use of for wellbeing and betterment.