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Sea sickness: a history of madness at sea

2 January 2019

Is seafaring worse for a worker’s mental health than other professions? It’s difficult to be certain, but there is a large body of evidence attesting to the 'madness' of mariners over the centuries. ANDREW LININGTON meets an author who has come to some interesting conclusions after delving through the archives…

'You dont have to be mad to work here, but it helps'. Signs with that message used to be common in many offices – and it's a phrase that repeatedly springs to mind when reading the latest book from
maritime writer Nic Compton.

A nominee for the 2018 Maritime Foundation Mountbatten Award for Best Book, his 280-page work – Off the Deep End: A History of Madness at Sea – comes at a time when the industry has been paying increasing attention to the mental health of seafarers.

Described by reviewers as 'horrifying', 'engrossing' and 'gripping', the book examines the particular pressures and factors that can challenge sanity at sea.

From stress to scurvy, mirages to 'cabin fever', it goes a long way to explain why, for instance, the Royal Navy's Physician of the Fleet once concluded that sailors were seven times more likely to go mad than the rest of the population.

Nic – who has written 18 books – hadn't set out to produce this one. 'I came across an old book about the psychology of sailing, written by a German professor, and put together a proposal for an updated version,' he recalls. 'I was looking at a chapter on madness and once I started out it was clear that this had to be the main subject – it’s just full of gripping and surprisingly untold stories.'

He started work on the book about five years ago, and his extensive research included trawls through 'musty boxes at the National Archives in Kew', analysis of academic studies and historic accounts of 'psychologicalepisodes' dating back to the 1600s.

In many ways, Nic suggests, it's no wonder that mental problems are prevalent at sea. Living in confined spaces far away from friends, families and emotional support for months on end, dealing with the stress of unpredictable and frequently testing conditions, and coping with the physical and mental disorientation caused by roll, pitch, heave, surge, yaw and
sway would be enough to test anyone, he points out.

The book explains how marine phenomena such as the Fata Morgana mirage can play tricks with the mind, and it explores the condition known as calenture – which results in a sort of delirium that has been linked to seafarers (and, it is believed, the media tycoon Robert Maxwell) being lost overboard as a consequence of an uncontrolled desire to jump off the vessel.

The book notes the way in which the sea has historically attracted what society might class as 'misfits', and there are sections which consider whether Columbus and Captain Bligh suffered bipolar disorder, and how Fitzroy suffered from intense depression while in command of HMS Beagle during Darwin's trail-blazing research voyages.

Nic's father was a naval officer in the Second World War, and survived after his ship was torpedoed in 1941, so it is perhaps not surprising that there is much in the book about shipwrecks, survival and posttraumatic stress.

Shocking stories such as lifeboat occupants having to resort to cannibalism to survive or succumbing to the awful effects of dehydration after drinking seawater vividly describe the extreme experiences of some seafarers.

There are some remarkable 19th century accounts of seafarers – and masters in particular – who 'flipped out' and attacked shipmates, climbed rigging or jumped overboard. 'With more and more ships going on longer and longer voyages, it's not surprising that some of the skippers found their responsibilities too much to bear,' Nic notes. 'There are all-too frequent stories of captains abandoning their ships, locking themselves up in their cabins, setting fire to their ships, shooting at the crew and, in many instances, shooting themselves.'

Sadly, such stories didn't end in the 19th century, Nic notes, citing a recent example in the port of Vancouver where a ship's cook and a mechanic had to be tied up after they 'snapped' and threatened their colleagues.

The book refers to a Dutch study which found that today's seafarers continue to have higher rates of psychiatric illnesses, neurosis, suicide and alcohol abuse than the general population – and it highlights the impact of modern pressures such as long working hours, the threat of piracy, limited social interaction and little or no internet access.

'My background is in yachting, and I had not realised before I did my research just how big an issue mental health is for merchant seafarers,' Nic says. 'I could almost have done a whole book on that alone and I think it is in many ways one of the sectors in which it is most difficult to resolve the problems.

'The difficulty for merchant seafarers is that so much of the shipping industry is unregulated,' he notes. 'How do you begin to address this when so much is determined on the basis of price and how little you can get away with as an operator?'

What are the answers? Nic's book explains how Admiralty concerns over the shocking levels of insanity in the Navy during the 18th century resulted in some forwardlooking measures – including improved diet – to address the problems. In the 1980s, he adds, research into crew relationships on racing yachts identified the need for clear chains of command and communications, plenty of social interaction, cooperative approaches to problem-solving, awareness of each other's personal space, and the creation of private areas.

The book ends on a positive note, describing some of the healing properties of the sea and the remarkable success of sail training ships in delivering lifechanging experiences to troubled young people and traumatised war veterans.

Nic is encouraged by the way in which the shipping industry has opened up debate on mental wellbeing in recent times. Ending the stigma about psychological problems is vital, he adds, pointing out that his father was of the generation who carried their emotional scars with them for the rest of their lives without even discussing their experiences with close friends or family.

Similarly, Nic argues, greater transparency within the shipping industry and improved public knowledge about the conditions that many seafarers have to endure may also shift things along. 'The ultimate decider will be public
awareness, as there is almost zero awareness of the issues around shipping at present,' he adds. 'With the Fair Trade and Fair Transport campaigns, little by little that understanding may increase and the power of the wallet may kick in.

'If this book helps to stimulate discussion of these issues and encourages a broader acceptance of the lows as well as the highs of life at sea, then it will have been worth writing,' Nic concludes.

Top image: Author Nic Compton has written 18 books, mostly about nautical subjects.


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