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Maritime non-fiction / Current affairs

Powerful academic appraisal of life at sea

Sea-Time: an ethnographic adventure, by Helen Sampson

image77z4.pngFew people have done more than Professor Helen Sampson to raise awareness and understanding of the lives of the world's seafarers. In almost one-quarter of a century of pioneering work for the Seafarers International Research Centre, she has not only delivered important research reports but also fostered a much deeper perception of the actions, emotions and motivations of maritime professionals.

In Sea-Time: An Ethnographic Adventure, she distils her experiences of nine varied voyages gathering in-depth observation and analysis of seafarers at work – reflecting not only upon her research results, but also on what they have taught her and what more could be done to improve their lives.

Sampson's book is frank and vivid – and from the frustrating uncertainties over the dates of joining and departing a vessel to the difficulties of sleeping on the uncomfortable mattresses supplied to many ships, she offers genuine insight into the realities of life onboard.

Sampson notes how much has changed since her first voyage: most notably the way in which the post-9/11 security rules have eroded already limited opportunities to go ashore. She also highlights the way in which increased shore-based control of shipping operations has seen the skills and experience of seafarers devalued by endless paperwork, checklists and a strict compliance culture.

She is honest about the challenges she faced during her research – ranging from sexual harassment to wilfully obstructive shipmasters – and the book describes the sometimes difficult process of gaining the trust of seafarers often reluctant to share their feelings.

Especially powerful passages capture the rhythms of shipboard life, veering from frantic time in port to the more predictable patterns of being out at sea. This leads into some profound reflections about the way seafarers handle their odd relationship with time: sea-time, shore time, 'free' time, and the impact of time zone changes onboard.

Warning that shipping has 'lost its rock and roll', Sampson tells of the stress felt by seafarers facing regulatory requirements exposing them to criminal sanctions. And she notes how the rights of seafarers were so swiftly dumped in the drive to keep global supply chains running during the Covid pandemic.

It would be easy to become depressed by Sampson's haunting and humane portrayals of the damaging impact all this has had upon so many seafarers. But the book concludes with her timely and thoughtful list of ways in which 'motivated companies' could make a real difference to their lives.

  • Listen to Professor Helen Sampson and Nautilus Council member Captain Stephen Gudgeon in the BBC World Service documentary Hungry at sea (available until April 2025)

This book is the Nautilus Book of the Month for May 2024, and will be sold at a discount in the Nautilus Bookshop throughout the month

Sea-Time: An Ethnographic Adventure
By Helen Sampson     
Routledge, £35.99      
ISBN: 978 10325 76060

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