1 Sep


Then and now - the hopes and fears of young merchant seafarers.

1 Sep, 2023

In advance of Merchant Navy Day our CEO Sara Baade has been thinking about the young merchant seafarer lives lost in two world wars and how today's Gen Z seafarers are approaching a very different life at sea:

This Sunday the Red Ensign will be flying above Sailors Society headquarters, as we, like so many others, will be honouring the sacrifices of our merchant navy seafarers in two world wars.   

As CEO of a maritime charity, I know that during both wars we relied on merchant ships bringing supplies from across the North and South Atlantic. I know that the seafarers on board those ships lived with the very real and constant fear of attack from an enemy that could launch torpedoes from invisible submarines as well as barrages from their own vessels. 

But I was shocked to learn that it was common for those ships to have crew as young as 14. As a mum of teenagers, I was also heartbroken to learn that so many of these young people were among the 30,248 merchant seamen who lost their lives during the Second World War.  

Teenage seafarers, like brothers Ken and Ray Lewis, died aged just 14 and 15 when the SS Fiscus was sunk by a U-boat. 

I cannot imagine how terrifying it must have been for those young seafarers, or what long-term trauma the young survivors carried with them for years afterwards.  

Back then wellness awareness and support were almost non-existent. Advice on how to cope with life at sea would have been limited to that given by seafarers in the family or through the false bravado of fellow crew members. That bravado would also have been the closest they got to peer-to-peer support. 

I am so grateful that for today’s young seafarers - thankfully a lot older than 14 – strong and informed advice and support is now there for them. This is especially important as, for many, their first post will be their first time at sea.  

It’s why we launched our Wellness at Sea Maritime Schools’ Conferences, now in their third year and available to cadets across the world. 

Without these conferences, for many, the advice would still come from seafaring family members. Without our Peer-to-Peer Support Groups for Cadets, they would still have to rely on that false bravado for support. 

Thankfully the fears of these new Gen Z seafarers don’t include U-boat attacks or facing death on a daily basis.  

But that doesn’t mean they have no worries. And for a generation with above-average anxiety, concerns about separation from family, getting a job and getting a caring employer are playing heavily on their minds and can affect their wellbeing. 

How do we know this? Well, we don’t only offer advice and support via top industry experts at our virtual conferences, we also listen. And then we share what we have learnt with the wider industry through our acclaimed Cadet Reports that present and analyse all the data we collect. 

If we needed proof that, even in the 21st century, these conferences are needed, then we only need to look at the record-breaking numbers that are attending, with more than 2,000 at our first 2023 event and the fact that more than 98% of attendees want this advice and support to be mandatory on their curriculums.

This year we are also holding our first event especially for UK cadets. And it seems fitting to mention this here, as was for the right to grow up and go to sea in a free country that their young merchant navy forebears sailed and died in those two world wars.  

So, on Sunday, I, with thousands of others, will pause to remember and honour those merchant seamen and women who sailed and served during two world wars. Especially those young men who went to sea so unprepared for what they were about to face.  

But I’ll also say a grateful prayer of thanks that we are helping today’s young seafarers to be better prepared, to be able to take their welfare into their own hands and to live their best lives at sea. 

If you want to know more about our Maritime Schools’ Conferences, go to https://www.sailors-society.org/msc23 and look out for an announcement on the launch date for our 203 Cadet Report. 

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