Study highlights importance of crew connectivity

25 June 2018: A new crew connectivity report reveals the impact on seafarers of being away at sea for months at a time with little or no internet access.

International maritime charity Sailors’ Society, which helps seafarers and their families with welfare and practical support, and Inmarsat worked with researchers from Royal Holloway, University of London for the study, titled ‘Navigating Everyday Connectivities at Sea’.

The researchers used an immersive study approach on board two container ships for 10 days, one with on board Wi-Fi capabilities and one without. They looked at how seafarers use mobile phones and other digitally-enabled devices in their daily lives during long periods at sea, and the opportunities and risks that such usage introduces.

New talent

The results revealed the fundamental importance of reliable connectivity and the impact it has on mental wellbeing, operational efficiency and safety, as well as its critical role in attracting new talent to the industry.

The report showed that even limited access to Wi-Fi onboard ships helped reduce some of the emotional stresses that come with separation from families. However, the research also highlighted that where there were weekly limits of connectivity, this forced seafarers to ration their allowance to certain periods or to prioritise contact with friends. Restricting usage also meant that domestic issues could not be resolved immediately, adding to personal anxiety.

The ability to connect with family on a regular basis was also understood to ease transition into home life when returning from long periods at sea. In particular, being in frequent contact allowed people to keep up to date with everyday activities, minimising the feeling that they were missing out on home life.

Recruitment factor

One of the report’s key findings was that connectivity is becoming a significant factor in recruitment, particularly for those entering the industry. Young people who have grown up taking connectivity so granted consider the ability to get online a significant deciding factor for a career at sea.

One of the historic arguments from ship owners for not providing onboard connectivity is that it disrupts work and rest patterns. However, this latest research shows that in fact it is not having reliable internet that has an impact. It found that if the only method of staying in touch is using personal mobile phones, seafarers connect when the ship is within mobile signal range, regardless of the time of day or whether they or not are working.

“Digital connectivity at sea has been one of the major talking points of the decade in the maritime industry, which has been slow to adopt technology enabling improvements in connectivity across the world’s commercial fleet,” said Dr Rikke Bjerg Jenson, one of the study’s principal researchers from Royal Holloway, University of London.

Crew observations

“While several studies have used surveys to try to establish the rate of these improvements and their wide-ranging implications, none to our knowledge has taken observations of crew behaviour and conversations with seafarers as their starting point.

Sailors’ Society CEO Stuart Rivers said: “This study offers valuable insights into the huge impact that connectivity can have on seafarers’ wellbeing, which is of vast importance to the maritime industry. We all have a duty of care to those who are the foundation of our businesses – and with mental health playing a key role in their decision-making abilities, if we neglect that duty the consequences can be deadly and costly.”

Drew Brandy, Senior Vice President, Maritime Market Strategy at Inmarsat, said: “With 1.65 million seafarers employed at sea and an industry which is responsible for carrying 90% of total global trade, improving operational efficiency, impacted by crew welfare, is of global economic concern.

“In terms of future sustainability, the industry needs to consider the significant expectations of the next wave of talent into the industry who will see online access as a major factor in their career decisions.”

The report can be downloaded here.