Many moons ago, one of my good friend’s older brothers spent a summer on an Alaskan fishing boat. He returned with a pocketful of money and some truly harrowing tales of the seafaring life, which included a comrade abandoned off the Aleutian Islands and much drunken thuggery. The anecdote of his that I remember most involves the way in which he and his best friend passed the nights: playing poker and shaving little pieces of their heads, until they ended the voyage completely bald.
I thought of that story upon coming across this account of an Australian helicopter pilot who went “sea crazy” after two months aboard a Taiwanese fishing vessel. He was fortunate in that he had the means to flee to Nauru for a spot of chocolate; most crewmen have no option of seeing land for many months, no matter how bad their psychological ailments become.
I plan on exploring the issue of sailors’ mental health in the coming days; I’ve always been fascinated by the lives of modern seafarers, whose culture of toil and trouble is one of the planet’s least chronicled. For the moment, though, I’ll start with a rare spot of good news coming out of England: since 1915, the suicide rate for that nation’s seafarers’ has plummeted (see above). The main factor in the decline appears to be the industry’s growing intolerance for drunkenness:
Alcohol and drug abuse are strongly associated with suicide risks. Many of the suicides in this study involved seafarers who had been drinking heavily in the hours leading up to their deaths. A previous Swedish study reported similar findings. However, since the 1970s, there has been a general reduction in the culture of heavy alcohol consumption among seafarers, which has coincided with several factors, including faster turnaround of ships in port with more limited opportunities for seafarers to socialize ashore in foreign countries, reductions in ship crewing numbers, increased use of Asian and other non-European crews, more extensive medical examination procedures and increased implementation of alcohol screening.
And yet I can’t help but think that moderate alcohol use has some place in the life of professional seafarers. Didn’t the crew of the submarine from Das Boot enjoy the occasional glass of sherry or half bottle of Beck’s?