Sailing Through Life at Sea: Physical and Emotional Aspects of Seafarers’ Welfare

Polina Baum-Talmor

    Research output: Published contribution to conferenceAbstractpeer-review


    Over 90% of the world’s goods are delivered by sea; nevertheless, the group responsible for this trade – seafarers – is under researched. This paper aims at presenting problematic aspects of the working lives of seafarers in the shipping industry, as well as offering tangible recommendations to the parties involved to improve seafarers’ lives around the world. Specifically, this paper addresses physical and emotional aspects of seafarers’ welfare on-board merchant ships. The first aspect is the limited physical space in which seafarers carry out their daily routines, whilst the second refers to the emotional influences of shipboard life on seafarers’ welfare, i.e. seafarers’ unique family life and their temporal out-of-sync with life ashore, as well as their restricted interaction on-board.
    The theoretical framework used in this research is Erving Goffman’s conceptualisation of ‘total institutions’, which characterises the ship as being one type of total institution. The methodology involved two rounds of non-participant observation on-board merchant vessels, lasting for two weeks each; informal conversations with seafarers; and in-depth semi-structured interviews, most of them recorded, with 36 seafarers from different countries.
    The findings of this research suggest that the ship could be characterised as a total institution in Goffman’s terms; however, there are additional sociological and anthropological concepts to bear in mind in order to fully comprehend seafarers’ experiences in terms of their welfare as an occupational group in the global labor market. Specifically, the ship as being a contained space surrounded by the endless sea, in which the seafarers experience contradictory feelings of contained freedom; alternative family configurations that might characterise seafarers’ family life as well as different ways in which time is perceived by seafarers’ on-board, relating mostly to the lack of synchronisation of time on-board and ashore; and finally, the symbolic interaction on-board the ship with significant others that are often accompanied by feelings of loneliness and the desire for fresh communication. Recommendations for improving seafarers’ conditions on-board include but are not limited to increasing communication opportunities between the ship and shore and making it more accessible to seafarers; supporting existing organisations that provide welfare services to seafarers and accommodating the option for families to sail with seafarers on a regular basis.
    This paper offers a feasible contribution to the studied group of seafarers, considering possible interest groups in the maritime industry that, based on this research, could promote seafarers’ welfare. Additionally, as seafaring is a similar occupation to other types of jobs in ‘total institutions’ like hospitals, prisons, etc., this research could shed new light on ways to improve these groups’ welfare. Thus, future research might consider the unique choice of careers among workers in ‘total institutions’ and their career paths, as well as organisational support of their career development.
    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusPublished - 31 Jan 2014
    EventThe Health and Welfare of Seafarers: Past, Present and Prospects: Maritime Historical Studies Centre, University of Hull, in Partnership with Hull History Centre - Maritime Historical Studies Centre, University of Hull, Hull, United Kingdom
    Duration: 30 Jan 20141 Feb 2014


    ConferenceThe Health and Welfare of Seafarers: Past, Present and Prospects
    Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
    Internet address


    Dive into the research topics of 'Sailing Through Life at Sea: Physical and Emotional Aspects of Seafarers’ Welfare'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

    Cite this