ACCOMMODATION on ships today, according to seafarers who talk to their friends from the welfare agencies, is indistinguishable from that found in institutions.
Devoid of any real comfort and designed to be easy to clean and impersonal, like what you get in those “bottom of the range” cheap hotels, it is evidently no place like home.

The Mission to Seafarers chaplains get on board a lot of ships and thus are well qualified to assess these complaints, so maybe they ought to be taken more seriously. It is by no means a new observation, as people of a certain age and experience have noted from time to time that the accommodation in modern ships is invariably less spacious and comfortable than that of say, 30 or 40 years ago.

You might suggest that it is all about cost, that the “economy” ships of today are certainly not built with frills and capital costs are regarded as every bit as important important as low running costs, as the shipbuilder struggles to turn a profit on the price the owner is paying.

Creative thinking
Surely it doesn’t cost very much, bearing in mind the small size of a ship’s complement these days, to put a little bit of thought into making the accommodation attractive. A pleasant colour scheme, comfortable furniture and decent fittings wouldn’t break the bank.

The trouble is it would mean that somebody would have to think about these things and time is money, even for thinking, don’t you know?

When I heard of this latest complaint (which was not even slightly surprising) I thought back to a conversation I had many years ago with a prominent shipowner, who had made some controversial remarks about ship’s officers expecting a steward to clean their cabins and silver service in the saloon.
“They wouldn’t get this sort of treatment when they are at home,” he observed, going on to suggest that for his ratings the luxury they enjoyed on board his ships was far in excess of the conditions they lived in when home on leave in their subcontinental villages. Maybe this sort of attitude has come down through the years and is resurfacing today.

I would doubt that there is, in either the shipyards or the owners’ offices, any malevolent intent that inflicts sub-standard accommodation upon the crews who will sail in the ship for the rest of its life. It is probably that the living standards of the crews are no more than an afterthought in the great scheme of ship design, construction and operation.

You see some astonishing designs today, as designers maximise the earning capacity of the ships they are devising.

Containerships with accommodation islands no longer than a 20 ft box and sometimes a good deal shorter, perched abaft the stern frame so far aft you think that the whole thing would fall over the stern.

Odd designs
There is now a fashion for perching the accommodation block on the bow, clearly devised by some hero who has never experienced the acceleration and shocks of a vessel slamming or plunging into an oncoming trough.

There was one of these monstrosities towed into a French port the other day after being disabled by a green sea that broke in its wheelhouse windows in the English Channel, and it wouldn’t be the first. Who would want to live like that, no matter how attractive the internal accommodation might have been?

Another thought is that the person who signs the cheque for the ship is unlikely to be particularly interested in the welfare of the crew, in the sense that an old-style shipowner might have been. The “shipowner” is just a corporate being, who is concerned only with the earnings from that ship.

The employment of the crew will be somebody else’s responsibility, a crewing manager or ship manager and somehow the living conditions of the crew fall between their various stools and are nobody’s real responsibility.

Don’t get me wrong — there are still “hands-on” owners who care about crew continuity and maintain a personal interest in getting and keeping their employees and I would venture to suggest that their concern with welfare will probably be reflected in the sort of conditions lived in by their crews.

Maybe there should be awards given by the welfare organisations to encourage these owners and shame some of the others. It makes more sense than some of the daft gongs dished out in those award ceremonies.

It might seem quite hard to believe it in the context of today, but in the company I sailed with, the responsibility of choosing the soft furnishings — curtains, bedspreads, cushions etc — would be undertaken by a director’s wife. You sometimes met with a ship in which there was something of a style aberration and colours that made you feel bilious, but most ships were tastefully furnished. I don’t suppose they would be rewarded for their efforts with anything more than a bunch of flowers from the shipyard at the handover, so you might say that it was money well spent.

But more seriously, perhaps there should be a concerted effort to make accommodation — which, in an era of shorter port times and scarce shore leave, people live in for extended periods — more liveable and less institutionalised. It would be worth the effort.

Source: Michael Grey - Lloyds List