Through the Captain's window

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Down in the Doldrums: Suicide at Sea

scream

 

 

 

‘Things just seemed to go too wrong too many times’

Suicide note by Tony Hancock. He was a successful television comedian. A star. But a series of problems, including a severe concussion that affected his memory, conflicts with fellow actors, alcoholism, and divorce, led to his suicide in 1968.

 

It is estimated that around 800,000 people commit suicide every year. For every suicide, there are several more attempts. Suicide is the 18th leading cause of death worldwide. The problem is also prevalent among seafarers; statistics show that over a thousand seafarers have committed suicide in the last fifty years. Sometimes suspected suicide cases are simply recorded as 'lost at sea'. It’s not a new phenomenon though; in in 1828, Captain Pringle Stokes who commanded the HMS Beagle shot himself after a round of depression. It was a sad ending for a Captain of this famous ship that had carried Charles Darwin on his extraordinary voyages.

Matt O´Crowley, an auditor and consultant for both maritime and industrial organisations is currently trying to raise awareness of suicide and mental health issues amongst seafarers by working with a number of groups including the Maritime Wellness Institute. This is his story…

"I came into the maritime industry as a mature student, and after a career that included working on small passenger and work vessels amongst many other things. Whilst it was a formative and wonderful experience, I came into contact with a number of individuals that were frankly underprepared and badly informed of the realities of working at sea and the isolation that it brings. I saw first-hand how poorly cadets were recruited, mentored and developed.

During my time at college, my great friend Matt (another mature student) was scapegoated by those who should have known better whilst he was fighting ongoing mental health issues and situational depression. His story ended with his cadetship being withdrawn, and whilst appearing entirely collected and motivated to pursue other options he tragically ended his life.

My own yarn will be familiar to many, my partner felt abandoned by my going to sea which put an unbearable strain on our relationship. The stress of the situation at home and my work as a maritime auditor in West Africa for 2 months at a time led to me suffering a minor stroke which certainly pulled the rug from under my feet and spelled the end of my career (as I thought at the time). Divorce was on the cards, and of course eventually came. I attempted suicide twice, because I felt that my identity had been taken away from me, and also resented my partner for having a secret life when I was away-but frighteningly the process of getting there was not the tear soaked idea held by many. When the darkness came, I found myself operating fully on autopilot and fully committed to dying. The second event happened after a particularly happy day, where I was literally crying with laughter with good friends. You don’t need to be sad to want to end it all, and looking back on it this is a revelation to me.

Many of the ex-fishermen that I worked with described how they remembered shipmates killing themselves at sea, and how they would find their clothes neatly folded on the deck in a tidy pile; something that at the time didn’t resonate, but now I recognise as a symptom of the cold calculating process we go through to override our innate instinct of survival.

Happily, I am now at my happiest and most content, and the experiences that I went through have made me a better person, both at work and play; but I am ever vigilant of the black dog that could come back and for a reason that may shock you, and in fact meant that at no point I could access any mental health support from the health service.

Suicide comes in many flavours and for me it was THE solution at the time, it was irrational and daft. I called the Samaritans, and frankly they made the situation worse…the problem for me was that I enjoyed the feeling of being close to death and was deeply offended when I was found and cut down. The process didn´t hurt for long, and it actually began to feel good-for me the fear and trepidation of dying was removed which of course led to my second attempt. Again, in retrospect, I have to concede that sailors are a little different-we appreciate direct language and the general well meaning, breathy statements such as “and how does that make you feel” just doesn’t work for large swathes of us. Much as alcoholics may identify as such during sobriety, I am the same with suicide-even though I am ´happy´. For me, it was an autonomous process that once started became an exercise in tying good knots. On one occasion, I self-harmed in order to distract myself, leading to my cutting my arms to ribbons, I’ve never done it again-but it saved my life by breaking the sense of inevitability.

Most people that know me would say that I am a strong person, and I am. Because of the nuances of my attempts I could not tick the correct boxes to get prompt treatment, and because I was cognisant of my actions I was not sectioned. In fact, once the mist had cleared, I felt absolutely fine leading me to understand that what I needed most were tactics to buy time and let the feelings subside-a bit like a cigarette craving.

These days, I am firmly back in the saddle and rarely think about this horrific episode in my life. But recently I was made aware of another classmate from college who had ended his life in a similar vein to myself and Matt, all three of us had our identity taken away and couldn´t cope. I remember as well other members of my class who had come close, had their own crisis and handled it badly and I not only remember, but now realise in all clarity how badly we as an industry recognise and support our families at sea.

The Maritime Wellness Institute is currently working on a wellness management system to address many of the issues faced by seafarers around the world, and I would urge as many people as possible to get behind this fantastic initiative.

My personal experience became the making of me, but tragically and all too often it is the ending of others.

Anecdotal evidence that I am receiving shows that many suicides and episodes are taking place away from data collection points, and currently we have little idea of the scale of the problem. Vast improvements are required to improve the situation, and it is my personal mission to speak openly and candidly about my own experiences to try and stop others from not experiencing the joy of life from the other side."

at eternitys gate1

At Eternity' Gate, Vincent Van Gogh, 1890, completed months before his own suicide.

 

Matt is remarkably courageous in sharing his own experiences and I admire his determination in doing so to prevent others from going through with suicidal thoughts. I’ve lost some friends and colleagues to suicide – and I’ve seen the devastating effect it’s had on their families. It’s an uncomfortable topic for many but given its impact, we would be doing a disservice to our community by sweeping it under the carpet.

I’ve come to realize that there are not always clear signs or symptoms surrounding suicide. Sometimes, the person decides to go through almost instantly. In other cases, it’s a result of an internal struggle which has been going on for years. Though various tests and scales have been developed to predict suicidal acts, there is no clear evidence that these tests are successful. It is indeed possible for a person to fake the test should the person intend to hide suicidal intentions. Even in my own experience, I found that some of the seafarers who committed suicide had successfully passed psychometric tests.

Until we find more reliable predictors of suicide, probably the best way to prevent them is to be aware of any indicators in our family, friends and colleagues. And perhaps some empathy towards all, even towards those who appear ‘imbalanced’ or ‘not normal’ will go a long way. Do remember that most of us will go through some crisis or grief at some point of life, and we all are affected in different ways. Healthy social interactions on ships help crews to share or dissipate any concerns that may be building up. A word of compassion towards your colleague going through a break-up or a loss will help them rebound from the situation faster.

For those who do are going through feelings of grief or depression, it's OK to say 'I'm Not OK'. Reach out to your friends, family and colleagues and give them permission to help you. Even if you’re down in the doldrums, remember the wind is just around the corner.

 

Resources:

WHO on Suicide

Suicide Predictors; Do they work?

Suicide Help Lines

Suicide Help Line for Seafarers

The Maritime Wellness Institute

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Heuristics in shipboard decision-making

stopwatch Copy2

 

A news reporter interviews an elderly shipping magnate:
‘Sir, what is the secret of your success?’
He says, ‘Two words’
‘and, Sir, what are they?’
‘Right decisions’
‘But how do you make right decisions?’
‘One word’
‘and that is?’
‘Experience’
‘so how did you get your experience?’
‘Two words’
‘Interesting. What are they?’
‘Bad decisions’

 

From the time you and I were around ten years old, up until this moment, our life has been about decisions. All our learning, our values, our capabilities and the value we bring to our jobs – is defined by the decisions that we make.

Research shows that the average person makes over 35,000 decisions in just one day. Some of the decisions are small, and some are big. Many of these decisions will be made subconsciously but some will be deliberate conscious decisions. Since there are so many decisions to make, not acting is also a decision- which usually does not end well- because we simply delay the inevitable. Ignoring a situation does not make it go away but it leaves us with very few options at a later time.

Seafarers too make several high-stakes decisions every day. Plus, they do this in an environment that is constantly changing and unpredictable, thousands of miles away from land. With new technology and faster turnaround of ships, seafarers have not only to be fast and furious but also accurate in making decisions. Of course, we know that not all the decisions made on the high seas end well. there are on average 100 total losses of ships and over 1000 fatalities each year- most of them attributed to human error. This article looks at ways in which we can enable and empower our seafarers, our colleagues and perhaps even ourselves to make better decisions.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed with information required to make a decision, or wait for further information and this can sometimes lead to paralysis by analysis. Both paralysis and analysis are Greek words, and the solution- is also a Greek word. 

Heuristics or evretika is a Greek word made famous when Archimedes ran naked around the streets of Syracuse shouting ‘Eureka, Eureka’ or ‘I got it’, ‘I got it’, after he had discovered why objects sink or float. Even today, we explain the flotation of ships through Archimedes principles of buoyancy.

Heuristics today means the distilling of the issue and finding the solution in its most simple and elegant form- which comes about from experience and deep insight. Heuristics are also referred to as rules-of-thumb. Heuristics has been widely researched and recommended in various fields such as aviation and medicine. There is certainly a wide scope for its application in the maritime industry.

decision at sea

                                                                       Seafarers have to make several high-stakes decisions every day. Not all decisions end well.

Let’s start with some simple heuristics for anchoring:

Do not anchor in more than Beaufort Force 6 or above.

Do not anchor in depths of over 80 metres.

Do not let go the anchor from the brakes in depths of over 25 metres.

There are several instances of ships which have either dragged or lost their anchors in heavy weather and then grounded on the lee shore with dramatic consequences. There have also been cases where anchor with chain was completely lost after letting go from brake in deep waters.

Good heuristics are not just random numbers but based on science and observation. For example, the IACS rules contain various formulae and statements to specify the operational capabilities of anchors. However, all this information is not readily accessible to navigators on the dark wheelhouse of a vessel at 3’o clock in the morning in rough seas. For decision-making, it’s much easier to remember a rule of thumb which says ‘Don’t anchor in Beaufort Force 6 or above’.

Not all problems, even complex problems need complex solutions. around 80% of all the situations we face are routine and we can build heuristics to enable decision making. Heuristics also help clear up some ambiguity around traditional shipping rules. The collision regulations for instance, talk about things like good lookout, ample time, and good seamanship. Your definition of ample time and safe passing distance could differ from mine; that’s why I recommend that companies should establish heuristics such as:

Alter course/ speed when at 5 nautical mile range/ 15 minute TCPA.

Aim for final passing distance as 2 miles in open sea/ 1 mile in coastal waters / 0.5 nm in traffic separation scheme but with escalated watch level.

It’s also quite important to have heuristics for passage planning. Heavy weather is the number one reason for all total losses at sea, for example, the El Faro, the and the Green Lily. Heuristics such as ‘do not enter in wave-heights more than 7 metres’, or ‘do not manoeuvre in ports (unassisted) with wind speeds exceeding 25 knots’, could help mariners make rapid decisions, or at least consult with their offices when the operating environment is outside the normal envelope.

You can have heuristics in the engine room as well - when the oil mist detector sounds, stop the engine. There have been cases where the Chief Engineers have rather opted to change the circuit board, or clean the lenses of the oil mist detector. Surely enough, a crankcase explosion followed, disabling the ship at sea.

Decision making is an important part of our daily activity, both ashore and on the high seas. It’s not always easy as one must often choose between a good option and a better one and with incomplete information. But at the same time, 80% of these decisions are usually routine, or foreseeable and we can plan for them. This is where heuristics help.

In closing, I’d like to recommend two words for you: Heuristics Inventory

Figure out with your colleagues, the various rules of thumbs you can use for your daily operations. Debate them and later formalize the heuristics within your organization- both on board and ashore. Build a heuristics inventory.

Enjoy the eureka moments along the way.

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This article was also published on the Safety4Sea website (link)

The Golden Stripes Podcast on the topic can be found here

This was also the presentation topic of Capt. VS Parani at the Safety4Sea Conference at Limassol on 20th February 2019 ((link)

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Emergency Response - We've had a Collision; What Next?

This is my article which appeared in the October 2017 edition of the newsletter of Navigate Response

NavigResponse

The complete newsletter is available at Navigate Response Newsletter (October 2017)

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The Cost of Piracy

Sharing my article which appeared on International Maritime and Port Security journal (Jan/Feb 2018)

piracy article

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A leader with a backbone

back bags1

 

 

My first experience with back-pain started when I was a Second Officer on a break-bulk ship. We had loaded refined wheat flour in bags from Italy to Yemen.

At Aden, with a tenth of the cargo remaining to be discharged, we found bags with mold in them. The affected bags had become green on the outside and hard to touch. The consignees would not accept the cargo and the stevedores stopped working.

To reduce the quantity of damaged cargo, the Captain ordered us to segregate the cargo- good from bad, so that the still intact ones could be discharged by the stevedores. So, our crew, me included had to manually remove the damaged bags. I was in my early twenties so I was working away furiously with the team. Even when others would take a break, I would continue- kind of ‘showing-off’ my youthful strength. Little did I know that this would instead be a mistake which would cause me troubles for many years to come.

At night, I got up from my sleep to get a glass of water. Just as I reached for the glass by my bedside, a searing pain shot up from my lower back. It was so intense that I believe I passed out. In the morning, I woke up on the floor and my back hurt like hell. I could not even make it to the dining salon. It took me two days of complete rest and multiple doses of painkillers for me to keep watch. Not only was I off the cargo removal duty, fearing that other crew would also end up with back pain, the Captain had engaged trained stevedores to finish the rest of the job.

For several years after that, even as Chief Officer and Master, the pain surfaced every now and then, though thankfully not to that extent. It would appear after I had inspected a few double-bottom tanks with my back bent for several hours. I soon started wearing a back-support strap when I expected to go up and down cargo tank in the drydock.

Surprisingly, in my first few years working in the shore office, I still had episodes when the back pain was too much and I worked from home instead. But these were different. I’m right handed so the stiffness usually was on the right side of my torso. Besides the physical pain, back pain can make us irritable, and we’re not at our best as a leader.

Over the last few years, I’ve researched the condition in depth and have taken preventive steps. It has worked and I will share these with you. I haven’t taken a day off over the last five years because of back pain, even though I still perform weighted deadlifts, squats and back-rows in the gym.

Back Pain Parani

First, a few facts:

1. Worldwide, back pain is the single leading cause of disability and one of the most common reasons for missed work; it is estimated that two work days are lost per year for every full-time worker.
2. Experts estimate that up to 80% of the population will experience back pain at some time in their lives.
3. Back injuries (disc herniation and lumbosacral strain) are the number one reason for permanent disability claims among seafarers in the Philippines.
4. Low-back pain costs Americans at least $50 billion in health care costs each year; add in lost wages and decreased productivity and that figure easily rises to more than $100 billion.
5. Back pain is the third most common reason for visits to the doctor’s office, behind skin disorders and osteoarthritis/joint disorders.
But back pain need not be dangerous:
6. Most cases of back pain are mechanical or non-organic—meaning they are not caused by serious conditions, such as inflammatory arthritis, infection, fracture or cancer.
7. Most people with low back pain recover, however reoccurrence is common and for small percentage of people the condition will become chronic and disabling.

Causes of back pain:
Back pain can be caused by disease of the internal organs, such as kidney stones, kidney infections, blood clots, or bone loss. However, the most common back pains are sprained muscle (like I did) or the serious slipped disc- due to accidents and sports injuries. In addition, poor posture, obesity, and psychological stress can cause or complicate back pain.

What can you do about it?
I’m not going to give medical advice as this is for you to consult your physician and chiropractor. Do it without delay.
I can however suggest some preventive actions to avoid work related injury like I did.
1. I should not have lifted those bags by bending my back. Instead I should have lifted by exerting my legs. It would have helped if I had kept the bag close to my body and had I not twisted my torso to throw the bag. Better still, I should have taken on a partner for lifting those bags. In my later years, I would repeat this caution every morning during our tool box meetings.
2. Warm up and stretch before you start your work- whether on ship, or in an office.
3. Maintain proper posture. Like my mother used to say “don’t slouch”.
4. Whether you’re standing during the navigational watch for hours, or sitting in front of the computer, or working in an uncomfortable position. Take a break every hour. Breathe deeply and stretch to minimise back fatigue.
5. Sleep on a mattress of medium firmness to minimize any curve in your spine. If you’re a ship operator, keep this in mind when ordering mattresses for your ships.
6. Smoking impairs blood flow, resulting in oxygen and nutrient deprivation to spinal tissues.
7. Wear comfortable, low-heeled shoes.

Be a leader with a backbone. A strong backbone.

++++++

Many thanks to Dr.Rajesh Botchu for his expert medical inputs for this article. He is a Consultant Musculoskeletal Radiologist and Orthopaedic Surgeon. More about what he does at www.mskradiology4u.co.uk and www.bonesradiologist.co.uk

References:

  • An educational video on safe lifting for the maritime industry
  • A video on simple back flexibility exercises. In yoga, they say that “you’re only as old as your spine”
  • Hoy D, March L, Brooks P, et al The global burden of low back pain: estimates from the Global Burden of Disease 2010 study Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases Published Online First: 24 March 2014. doi: 10.1136/annrheumdis-2013-204428
  • Vallfors B. Acute, Subacute and Chronic Low Back Pain: Clinical Symptoms, Absenteeism and Working Environment. Scan J Rehab Med Suppl1985; 11: 1-98.
  • Rubin Dl. Epidemiology and Risk Factors for Spine Pain. Neurol Clin. 2007; May;25(2):353-71.
  • Hartvigsen J et al. Low Back Pain Series: What Low Back Pain Is and Why We Need to Pay Attention. Lancet, June 2018; Volume 391, Issue 10137; p2356-2367.
  • Gard P&I Club, A crew claims statistical analysis, 2004.
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