According to statistics issued by the Baltic and International Maritime Conference (BIMCO) and the International Shipping Federation (ISF) there are more than 1,200,000 seafarers in the world today. Its 2000 Manpower Update is described as the “most comprehensive study of the global supply and demand for merchant seafarers that has so far been undertaken” and is a follow-up to studies made in 1990 and 1995.

The Update shows that while there is a shortfall in the supply of officers, there is a significant overall surplus of ratings. The shortage of officers is likely to get worse in the years to come.

To those who spend their lives on land, the surprise may be that people still want to go to sea at all, for there is no doubt that seafaring is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. In the days of sail, especially for anyone who chose to go to sea stood a very good chance of not coming back.
Accidents resulting from poor navigation or the violence of the weather cost thousands of lives over the centuries. Between 25 October and 9 November 1859, a series of storms around the coast of Great Britain resulted in 325 ships being wrecked and 748 lives being lost. The storm was exceptional, but loss of life at sea was not and the toll continued even when steam and diesel power replaced sail.

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The sinking of the passenger ship Royal Charter on her way home to Liverpool from Australia claimed the lives of 459 men, women and children, the worst tragedy of what came to be called the Royal Charter storm. But in the space of two weeks more than 300 ships and 748 lives were lost around the British coast.

An even greater threat was disease. One of the most devastating diseases of all was scurvy. A ship’s surgeon wrote in 1617 that it produced “ a general laziness and evil disposition of all the faculties and parts of the body …their eyes of a leady colour, or like dark violets. Great swelling in the face, legs and over all the body…swellings of the gums, rottenness of the same, with the issuing of much filthy blood and other stinking corruption thence.” The English sea captain Richard Hawkins discovered on a voyage to the Pacific in 1593 that sour oranges and lemons could improve general health and in 1601 Sir James Lancaster made all on board his ship on a voyage to India to take three tea-spoonfuls of lemon juice every day.

Yet it was not until the end of the 18th century the issuing of lemon and limejuice to seafarers became mandatory on ships in the British Royal Navy (the reason why British sailors are still often called “limeys” in the United States). The reason why it took so long for such a simple and relatively cost-free remedy for a universal problem to be introduced was an indication of the general indifference to the dangers that seafarers faced every day. It was as though the dangers of seafaring were seen to be so great that nothing could be done to make conditions any better. Not only was there an apparent indifference to the dangers faced by seafarers, but reformers often encountered opposition to attempts to make things better.

Text Box:  Samuel Plimsoll is forever associated with the Load Line - still often referred to as the Plimsoll Line - which is now marked on the sides of all ships to indicate the safe level to which they can be loaded.

In 1876 the marking was made compulsory on British ships, although it was not until nearly twenty years later that the actual position of the Line was fixed by law. What is sometimes forgotten is the bitter opposition that Plimsoll aroused within the shipping industry. It is said that one disgruntled captain, who felt his freedom to operate his ship unfettered was being interfered with, showed his contempt by painting the Plimsoll Line on the funnel of his vessel.

Samuel Plimsoll, a politician and humanitarian, campaigned to improve the working conditions and safety of seafarers in the late 19th century. His efforts resulted in the adoption of the Load Line (sometimes called the Plimsoll mark), which is still used today to prevent ships from being overloaded.

Until 1871, it was actually illegal for British seamen to refuse to go to sea even on the grounds that the ship they were sailing on was unseaworthy. In 1866, four successive crews refused to serve on a ship called the Harkaway on the understandable grounds that even at anchor in a calm sea the ship took on more than one metre of water a day. They were sent to prison.

It was not until the 19th century and the advent of mass emigration to North America, with a tremendous increase in trans-Atlantic passenger voyages, that the clamour arose for "something to be done". One reason for this, certainly, was the fact that for the first time ordinary people were sailing great distances in large numbers - and were exposed to the dangers of the sea. In 1841, one of the new breeds of trans-Atlantic steamers, the President, sailed from New York with 136 people on board, was seen once and then vanished. Her captain had privately described her as a "coffin ship" but it is significant that he still sailed, which exemplifies the fact that after centuries of unaccountable disappearances, groundings, collisions, founderings and other disasters, seafarers themselves had become fatalistic.

During the 19th century, mass emigration, especially from Europe, meant that more people went to sea than ever before, this time as passengers rather than as seafarers. Throughout the century there were numerous disasters involving passenger ships and it was the fate of the passengers that led to demands for improved safety.

Text Box:  This painting shows the sinking of the Ocean Monarch, an emigrant ship, which left Liverpool for America on 24 August 1848. Six miles off Great Orme's Head, North Wales, a passenger was discovered lighting a fire which quickly got out of control. Many emigrants took refuge in the bows and rigging of the foremast, which snapped hurling them in to the sea. Several nearby vessels assisted in the rescue but of the 322 people on board, 178 were lost.

The President was to be only the first of a melancholy series of passenger ships which were lost while trying to cross the Atlantic. In March 1854, for example, the City of Glasgow disappeared on a voyage to New York, taking with her 480 people. In August of the same year, the Arctic foundered after a collision off Newfoundland: only 45 out of 368 on board survived. A month later it was the turn of the City of Philadelphia, wrecked off Cape Race, Newfoundland, on her maiden voyage. Five months after that, in January 1855, the Pacific disappeared with 186 on board.

The most celebrated - or infamous - of all passenger ship tragedies was the loss of the Titanic on her maiden voyage in 1912. More than 1,500 people died in the tragedy. Many of those lives could have been saved had not certain money-saving features been built into the ship’s design.  The Titanic was divided into 16 watertight compartments by a series of bulkheads. But most of these only extended as far up as E deck, four decks below the top deck of the ship. This was done to save money. But the damage caused when the Titanic struck the iceberg was so great that the amount of water pouring through the 100-metre long gash in her side rose until it reached the top of the bulkheads and then spilled over into the next compartment. As each compartment filled in turn, the bow dipped further until, just before her final plunge into the depths, the huge ship was virtually standing on end.

Even though the ship was doomed, many of those on board could have been saved. But more than 1,500 people subsequently perished because there were not enough lifeboats to accommodate all of them. Plans to install more lifeboats on the promenade deck had been scrapped at the design stage because it was felt that the first-class passengers might object to having their walking space restricted.

Text Box: It was not until the end of the 20th century that annual casualty returns started to include the number of lives lost at sea. Until then, the cost of shipping casualties was normally expressed only in terms of the insurance value of the ships and their cargo.In retrospect, it may seem incredible that safety should have been compromised in this fashion, but taking into account the history of shipping it is not altogether surprising. Acceptance of disaster and tragedy as a way of life on the part of owners and crews alike coupled with the intense competition between shipping companies - and between shipping nations - made people resistant to any attempt to change the status quo, especially if the changes proposed involved additional costs. Despite disasters such as the Titanic, most people knew little of the sea or of shipping and few of them ever saw a ship or cared about ships or seafarers. It was not until the end of the 20th century that annual casualty returns started to include the number of lives lost at sea. Until then, the cost of shipping casualties was normally expressed only in terms of the insurance value of the ships and their cargo.

Perhaps one reason why people were willing to risk the dangers, hardships and discomfort of life at sea was that for many of them life on the land could also be dangerous, hard and uncomfortable. Going to sea was for many a way of escaping, and it gave them the chance of visiting foreign countries and seeing places which otherwise they could only have dreamed of visiting. It also gave some seafarers a great deal of independence and authority – especially if he reached the rank of captain.

Once a ship left port in the days before radio it was virtually impossible for the owner to contact it. The invention of the telegraph meant that messages could be sent to schedule ports of call, but the ship might not arrive there for days or weeks. In the meantime, the captain was very much in charge, not only of the way the ship was operated, but also many commercial operations. For the owner, therefore, selecting a good captain was crucial to the success of the company, and the authority of the captain was recognized in the status he was accorded on land as well as at sea. Lloyd’s Register of Shipping, which records the names and other details of all the world’s sea-going ships, used to include the name of the captain, one reason being that the captain would usually stay with the same ship for many years. For other officers and crew members, job satisfaction depended very much on conditions of service, the ship and the personality of the captain, but if all of these were favourable then life at sea offered adventure and a freedom that could not be matched on in most occupations on land.

The shift from sail to the use of steam and diesel powers in the 20th century greatly improved life at sea for seafarers and passengers alike. For many people, the first half of the century was the “golden age of shipping.”

These two photographs from the collection of the National Maritime Museum, London, give an impression of what life must have been like for seafarers in the days of sail. On the left, heavy seas wash across the deck of the barque Medway in 1912. Apart from endangering the ship and those on board, storms at sea always made conditions uncomfortable. A major problem was simply trying to stay dry. On the right, crewmembers go aloft on the ship Parma in 1933. The only way of making a sailing ship goes faster or slower was to increase or decrease the amount of sail. In very bad weather it was necessary to reef or shorten sail as a safety measure: too much sail could lead to breaking of masts and rigging.


Seafaring was still dangerous and uncomfortable, but not so bad as it had been. The shipping industry was dominated by the traditional maritime powers of Europe and North America and generally speaking, shipowners registered their ships in and recruited crews from their own country. The ships themselves changed slowly, so that a merchant freighter of 1950 was not very different from one of thirty years before. The ports the ships visited were also the same. Shipping, in short, was well established and traditional.

Although shipping companies tended to recruit officers and crews from the country where the ship was registered, some also recruited crews from countries with which they traded. In this photograph from 1930, Indian seafarers are shown carrying out a fire drill aboard a ship of the Peninsular and Orient Line. P & O ships ran frequent services from Europe to India and the Far East and Indian crews were then, as now, highly regarded.

An ocean-going freighter, such as the Liberty ships that were so important to the revival of world trade after the end of World War II, would have a crew of around 42. The complement of a typical cargo ship in the late 1960s was very much the same, although the ship would be a little bigger and faster and be fitted with more sophisticated equipment. The crew would consist of a master and three or four deck officers: chief engineer and four or five engineer officers; a radio officer; two electrical officers; a purser and chief steward. Then would come the boatswain, carpenter and second steward.

The rest of the crew might consist of about ten deck ratings, perhaps ten engineering ratings and the catering staff. Larger ships might employ a medical officer or ship’s doctor, and passenger ships would carry entertainment and other staff to look after the needs of the passengers and make their time on board as enjoyable as possible. In the days of the great transatlantic liners, the passengers would be segregated according to class (meaning the cost of their ticket), an extension of the social divisions that existed on shore. The rich travelled first class: the poor steerage.

In many companies, only the officers and selected crew would be full-time company employees. Ratings would generally be hired for individually voyages. Although the officers might all be of the same nationality, the crew might be multi-national, generally reflecting the areas where the shipping company concerned operated. This division reflected the traditional, conservative nature of the shipping industry forty or fifty years ago. Even when officers and ratings were all from the same country, for example, they would not normally eat together or socialise.

In the second half of the 20th century, however, shipping began to change and the impact on seafarers was to be almost revolutionary. One of the first changes was to the ships themselves. Where once there had been general cargo ships, passenger ships and tankers, new types began to emerge – bulk carriers, container ships, ro-ro ships and other special ship types. They were bigger than the traditional ship types, but they did not require so many people to operate them. Where a 10,000-gt ship had once needed a crew of more than 40, by the 1990s, an 80,000-gt container ship could sail with fewer than 20. They might consist of five deck and five engineering officers, two petty officers, two cadets and three catering staff.  But there might be only six seamen, no carpenter or electrician and no radio staff. Their functions would be divided between other personnel. This has been made possible by the development of new technologies and equipment. The radio operator, for example, had always been a separate post because the operator had to know the Morse code. By the 1990s, Morse had been replaced by radiotelephones, which could be used by non-specialists.

In the 1960s, the ship’s crew was expected to carry out routine maintenance. This was possible because the ship would spend days or even weeks in port during the course of a voyage, as cargo handling were a long and complex business. The introduction of containers and bulk cargoes meant that turn-round times spent in port were reduced. Routine maintenance was limited and major work was often deferred until the ship went into dry dock for a statutory survey.

Some of the attractions of sea-going became things of the past. The giant ships of today no longer go to city centre ports, but to terminals located many miles away. Some oil tankers do not even go to terminal on shore, but to special moorings located well offshore, where they will stay for only a few hours before setting off on the next leg of their voyage. It is almost impossible for seafarers to go ashore – and even if they do, there is nothing much to do when they get there.

Text Box:   In many cases, the link between the company and the sea-going personnel is more distant now than it was fifty years ago. Management companies, rather than the ship owner operate some ships. Crews are selected by manning agencies. They are far more international than they were in the past. Generally, this means that the ship operator selects seafarers with one eye at least on how much he will have to pay them.

Seafarers on board a Norwegian-owned bulk carrier.
On the other hand, the ships of today are generally much more comfortable than they used to be and conditions on most ships are much better. Even so, there is no doubt that seafaring at the beginning of the 21st century is very different to what it was a hundred or even fifty years ago and it seems likely that it will change even in the years to come.

According to the BIMCO/ISF survey referred to earlier, there are at present 404,000 merchant marine officers and 823,000 ratings. The traditional maritime countries (mostly members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)) are the most important source for officers, although the Far East has increased it share. The Far East – and notably the Philippines – is the biggest source of supply for ratings. The survey calculates that there is a shortage of around 16,000 officers and a surplus of more than 224,000 ratings.

The survey comments that “the current moderate shortage for officers will worse unless training is increased or measures are taken to address the rate at which seafarers leave the industry.” The Update suggests that officer recruitment and training levels need to increase from 1 in 10 to 1 in 7, which indicates approximately 1.5 trainees per ship.

During the last few decades, manning levels have rapidly decreased, but the Update suggest that this trend may be nearing an end: “There is little scope for further manning reductions if account is taken of the impact of international regulations such as working time legislation and because back-up requirements may well need to increase to accommodate additional training or increased leave.”

The shortage of officers is the most worrying aspect for the future and the Update points to the need to reduce the number of seafarers leaving shipping to take up careers ashore: around 30% of officer trainees fail to complete their training. The situation could deteriorate still further in the next few years, because more than 40% of officers from OECD countries are more than 50 years old and 18% are over 55. Most of these are in senior positions, as masters or chief engineers.

While some people assume that officers from developing countries will fill the gaps that appear, the Update says this may not prove to be the case. Relatively few officers from the Far East or Indian sub-continent choose to remain at sea after the age of 50 and there is no indication that this is likely to change in the future. It seems clear, however, that in the future the greatest demand will be for officers rather than ratings and that, in an age of increasing technology, the greatest requirement for all seafarers will be proper training.

Parties included on the “White List” at 8 June 2001

Antigua and Barbuda
Cote d'Ivoire
Czech Republic

Islamic Republic of Iran
Marshall Islands
Micronesia (Federated States of)
New Zealand
Papua New Guinea

Republic of Korea
Russian Federation
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
Solomon Islands
South Africa
Sri Lanka
Trinidad & Tobago
United Kingdom**
United States
Viet Nam
China (Hong Kong SAR)***

* Includes: Faeroe Islands
** Includes: Isle of Man, Bermuda, Cayman Islands, Gibraltar
*** Associate Member