One of the many purposes of the Auckland International Seafarers Centre, like most similar organisations around the world, is to connect seafarers with their families. Times change; for many years the centre provided seafarers with a quiet place to write, and the facilities to then post, letters home. Those needing to speak to their loved ones – an expensive undertaking – had to go to the Post Office to place toll-calls through the operator until international direct dialling became readily available in the late 1970’s. The Seafarers Centre then provided telephone calling services to seafarers and in the 1990’s, for example, often had 8 telephone lines running in the evening and had to limit call times so that all those wishing to call home could do so.

The advent of the internet saw telephone usage slowly diminishing as seafarers spoke to their families using on-line services such as Skype using PCs provided by the Centre. Around 5 years ago, the centre installed a WiFi service so that those with laptops and smartphones could connect. Nowadays the Centre’s PCs are rarely used, and the telephones sit gathering dust while the WiFi system is heavily utilised.

We were recently interested to receive a copy of the latest (2018) Crew Connectivity Survey Report. Over half  of the 6000 serving mariners (of more than 30 nationalities) polled in the survey feel that the internet has damaged the social aspects of life at sea, 53% believing that improved communications systems had seen a decline in social interaction onboard ship. The report noted “a more nuanced approach” developing, with “at least one operator who is reviving the idea of the ‘Internet Cafe’—an initiative which is designed to address the very real issues around camaraderie, interaction and teamwork on board.”

Around three-quarters of the survey participants had access to the internet at sea – albeit that whilst costs are falling, connection can still be expensive. The report, however, also pointed out that the increasing isolation of seafarers due to reducing interaction with their fellow crew-members was also observed on ships without internet access.

The report also states  “What has been clear for several years now is the demand amongst seafarers for a global roaming SIM card, a cheap satellite phone and free in-port WiFi. It remains a source of frustration for seafarers that these requests—which they’ve been making repeatedly since the survey began—appear still to be falling on deaf ears.” As charities, largely funded by donations and grants, few seafarers’ centres can afford to provide free access to the internet unless the port company or another authority provides it. In the case of the Auckland Seafarers Centre, WiFi access is provided on a largely cost-recovery basis.

The report notes that the internet also allows seafarers to contact home without having to wait to get to port to visit seafarers’ welfare centres,  although another aspect of our service is that we provide a safe place for seafarers to get away from their ships! It is clearly a subject with many angles!

The ISWAN report on the Crew Connectivity Report can be read here, and the Crew Connectivity Report 2018 can be downloaded free of charge here.