Most seafarers will, at some point of time in their tenure, feel that they’ve made the biggest mistake of their lives by choosing a career at sea. It could be multiple machinery breakdowns that lead to negative thoughts or it could be due to the demanding schedule of the vessel that leaves no time for anything other than work. Even missing family members and feeling homesick can bring out such feelings.
I such situations, how does one prepare himself to stay relaxed, motivated and focussed during such times?
Over the years, I discussed this topic extensively with several seafarers – both experienced and freshers.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common things seafarer can do to beat stress and stay focused on board ships:
1. Exercise – Almost everyone I spoke with felt that exercising is the best way to beat stress and stay motivated. Now before you dismiss this point by saying that you do not have enough time to exercise, we clarify that by exercising, we do not mean that one needs to spend hours at the ship’s gym and build 18 inch biceps. Exercise could be anything that makes you sweat outside of work. A quick 20 minute run on the treadmill could do the trick for some while pumping iron for 30 minutes could work too. Even a quick 10 minutes push-ups work out can have a great affect. I once sailed with a Second Engineer, who never missed his daily exercise regime in the gym. I asked him how he could have the energy to work out after spending 8 gruelling hours in extremely hot conditions (we were doing the Summer Red Sea run then). He said that physical exhaustion in the engine rooms, needs to be overcome by making your body stronger and increasing the endurance levels. Sometimes pt 141 helps. His daily workouts helped him achieve that. Not having enough time should not be an excuse. Even in ports, one can salvage just enough time to do some basic stretching and exercises.
2. Read a Book– The second most common view held by seafarers in beating stress was Reading. With the advent of laptops, smartphones and the internet, you barely find seafarers reading books these days. Even the ship’s library which in the earlier days was full of books is now full of DVDs or glossy magazines at the best. A bit of bedtime book reading can help one sleep better as compared to dozing off after spending time on your smartphone or watching a movie. Research shows that spending time on electronic gadgets before sleeping can adversely affect your sleep quality. Watching action thrillers just before bedtime can increase your heart rate thereby making it difficult to fall asleep quickly. Reading though can be very relaxing and is the perfect recipe for good quality sleep. It can also prove to be very motivating. A friend of mine who sails for long durations once told me that he read Nelson Mandela’s ‘A Long Walk to Freedom’ while at sea. He said that reading about the great South African leader’s struggle and determination during his time in prison at Robben Island made him feel that his life was far more comfortable and that he shouldn’t be complaining about anything. It would be worthwhile to pick up a couple of good biographies or autobiographies of great persons. Reading about people’s struggles and eventual success can motivate you to go the extra mile.
3. Listen to Music – Now who would argue that music can help you relax. Often described as the elixir of life, there is music for every kind of mood. Be it Metallica for the metal heads, Eminem for the Hip Hop aficionados, Pink Floyd for the Psychedelic fans or even Phil Collins for the pop lovers, any music that you like should be played as often as possible. Research has shown that listening to music has a positive impact on the mind and body and is a great way of staying motivated and relaxed. A Captain once shared an anecdotal experience where the Chief Cook always prepared great food while listening to music on his portable player. But once his portable player broke down. This was followed by a drastic degradation in the on board food quality. The Captain then decided to permanently install a music system in the galley. It was a win- win situation for all. Good quality portable speakers are very affordable these days and you could consider packing a set in your bags the next time you set sail.
4. Write a Journal – For some people, putting their thoughts on paper can be a great way to unwind and relax. It also serves as a good archive of all the work that has been done and could be used for easy future reference. Many people these days use an electronic diary for jotting down their day to day activities. It need not be very detailed either. Quick notes on your daily activity shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.
5. Make friends on board: Seafarers share a unique relationship with the people they work with – they also live with the same people. It is in your best interest to have friendly relations with everyone on board. After all, you would not fancy someone you don’t get along with sitting right in front of you at the dinner table. At sea, you simply cannot avoid your colleagues. Having a civil relationship with everyone on board is a must. But it would help you if you can connect well and be very good friends with at least one person on board. Having someone to share your ups and downs can be a great way to stay relaxed. Be it the birth of your first child or venting frustration about your superiors – talking about your inner feelings always helps. Having someone to share your ideas and thoughts with can be a great way to stay motivated.
6. Communicate with your family: Now most of us already do this by calling up home every few days while out at sea. The lucky ones with internet on board have the luxury of staying in touch with their families more often. Make it a point to get in touch with your family at least once during the day by whatever means possible – It could be a quick telephone call or a short email. This daily ritual of connecting with your loved ones can go a long way in keeping your mind at peace.
7. Socialise on board – With the advent of internet and personal computers, the good old era of evening smoke room get togethers has greatly reduced on most ships. Try not to stay confined in your cabin after work. Make it a point to mix around and socialise. The more you stay separated from everyone, the lonelier it can get. The sea is a hostile place to work and we all need help often. Being a social animal and having people to like you can be a great way to make your life easier.
8. Eat Healthy Food – Without our wives to watch our plates, a few of us with an adventurous palate can go a bit overboard with the food. Binging on junk and unhealthy food make your mind and body less able to take the stress out of your work. Ensure that you follow a balanced diet on board. Go easy on those beers (applicable to only those lucky enough to still have alcohol on board) and soft drinks. Unnecessary calories should be avoided. Those extra calories will not only make you unfit, but could be detrimental to your survival abilities during emergencies on board.
9. Meditate / Pray: Prayers have a very solemn influence on our minds. It gives us perspective and keeps the mind at peace. Even a short prayer after waking up can be a great way to kick start a demanding work day. For those who aren’t really religious, simple meditation techniques such as breathing, voice aided meditation etc. can help to remain calm, focussed and motivated. Some people perform Yoga which combines exercises and meditation. Whatever works for you must be made a part of your daily activities.
10. Watch good movies and Documentaries: Watching movies is a great way to relax. But do not let it become the only way you spend your free time. Carry a good collection of documentary movies that interest you. It will only help you enhance your knowledge.
11. Build up on your hobbies: A lot of us think that when we are out at sea, we should not indulge in hobbies that we like. But it is in fact the other way round. Do what your heart pleases. Some people like writing while some others prefer cooking. Do not hold yourself back on doing anything that you like. People with interest in photography should consider investing in a good camera. The sea presents some of the best opportunities to take spectacular photographs. Do not miss out on these.
12. Play by the Rules: Now this is easier said than done. In today’s highly regulated shipping industry, there is bound to be temptation to bend the rules every once in a while to get out of a situation. It could be a simple thing as not making a permit to avoid paperwork or pumping out bilges using the infamous magic pipe. Doing this will be of absolutely no good for you professionally and will only cause problems in the longer run. Your mind will never be at ease knowing that you are doing something which is wrong. What’s worse is that some people have the wrong notion that they are helping out their companies by doing illegal things such as pumping out bilges or hiding dangerous defects. This false sense of loyalty is very dangerous and should be chucked out of your system soonest possible. Companies will never support you if you are in the wrong knowingly. All the sweat, blood and grime that has gone into building your career will come to a naught by one senseless act. Playing by the rules is vital in today’s shipping. It might require a little bit of extra effort in the short term, but will ensure that your conscience remains clear. A clear conscience will only help you remain stress free, focused and motivated.
13. Fake it till you Make it: We all face times when no amount of pep talk or any of the above activities help. In such situations, it is best to just pretend to have a positive outlook. Force yourself to have a positive body language. Lie to yourself that you are motivated, driven and kicked. Eventually, this will become your normal outlook and things will automatically fall in place. Coming out of the rut is very important. Kick yourself in the ass, before someone else does!
While these are the things most commonly used by sailors to stay motivated, there are some other things that a few seafarers indulge in which are not recommended. Watching pornography, smoking, drinking, drugs etc. are things which will only prove to be counterproductive. Anything that forms a bad habit is not good. On the contrary, anything that forms a good habit is always welcome. With time and practice, staying motivated and relaxed will become second nature to you. As the old adage goes “an empty mind is a devil’s workshop”. It is vital to keep yourself occupied on board. Be it work or anything that pleases you. A healthy mind in a healthy body is the classic recipe for a successful career at sea.