Please note – the views in the following feature are those of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by Safe Travels Magazine. Before travel, we recommend that you always do your own research, read travel advisories and buy appropriate travel insurance.

Steven Jones FRSA at McWatt & Jones

Email address:
Twitter: @mcwattjones


McWatt & Jones specialises in crisis and media management. Helping clients to hopefully avoid crises, but also being on hand to help them if the worst does happen.

Steven Jones is also the author of the Nautical Institute guides on maritime security, piracy and stowaways – and the next book in the series, Crime at Sea, is due out next year. See for details.

Sense and Sensibility for Seafarers

Shipping is an inherently risky business – money is made purely because there is a marine adventure that someone is willing to undertake. Which means that for centuries, perhaps even for millennia, seafarers have literally been on the front line of this risk.

Dangers at sea

The people who go down to the sea in ships bear the brunt of the obvious threats, challenges and risks, such as the crashing the waves and the howl of the winds. Sometimes though, they are not just pitted against mother nature, but against human nature too.

On all too many occasions crews come across criminality, piracy, and terrorism. For the sons and daughters of the sea, this is perhaps the bitterest pill to swallow. It is one thing to pit your wits, skills and experience against the ocean – but something altogether different when you have to fight for life and liberty at the hands of fellow man.

That is sadly the harsh reality, the risks to shipping are multifarious, and there are those who would steal ships or their cargo, they would kidnap crews and hold them for ransom, and increasingly there are those who would seek to destroy vessels for political ends.

For seafarers this means plotting a difficult course through the maritime security tumult. They have to focus not just on the daily tasks of seafaring and the safety of life at sea, but on the challenges of keeping the crew, cargo and ship secure.

…And trouble on land

Alas, the complications do not end there. When we look at the issue of safe and secure travel, there are many times when seafarers are not onboard the vessel. What happens then? There is shoreleave to consider, though this is becoming increasingly rare. There is also travel to and from the ship, when joining or departing.

Each of these brings its own unique set of challenges, risks and threats to be managed. So, what do shipping companies, manning agents and port agents consider when it comes to seafarer security? The sad truth is, some do not pay much heed to it.

For every good shipping company that cares, and that spends time and resources on keeping their people secure, there are scores more who probably do not even give such matters a passing thought…until something goes wrong.

So, as we have seen, much of the maritime security focus is on protecting the vessel, and it can often be the case that too little attention is paid when seafarers leave the ship or when they are travelling to and from the ship.

There are many dangerous places and the risks to unwitting crews are great. They may range from being scammed and cheated, through to muggings, attacks, and even kidnapping. It is vital that seafarers are aware of the dangers posed to them, and of the need to protect themselves.

Criminal patterns

There are dangers lurking in many ports the world over, and crews should be briefed about the specifics of where they are visiting. Sadly, it is not unusual to hear of crew members being robbed, assaulted and even killed.  Others are scammed and cheated, or even blackmailed. There are so many tricks that criminals use the world over, but they do tend to be repeated, so a proper briefing of crimes which have been perpetrated can be extremely useful.

Easy targets

Seafarers can sometimes be specifically targeted as easy prey – they can appear to be comparatively rich or easy pickings for local opportunists, particularly the younger, less-streetwise crew in unfamiliar surroundings.

Brief and train

The first part of dealing with these threats is to ensure that seafarers are briefed on the potential hazards facing them. They should be trained and prepared for the dangers in certain countries. Simple advice could save their lives should they get into trouble.

Assessing travel risk is of vital importance, as is:

  • managing identification and passports,
  • keeping credit-cards and currency safe,
  • supplying emergency information,
  • managing emergency situations, and providing the safest possible accommodation.

There are certain precautions to adopt when travelling and it is vitally important that employers access the latest guidance possible. While there needs to be attention given to what can go wrong and how contingency plans can be managed and applied.

Each port or trip from an airport will likely have its own unique threats. Whenever possible in port or when travelling in potentially hostile environments, seafarers should:

  • Stay alert and vigilant
  • Ensure they have some knowledge of known crimes in the area
  • Where possible travel in pairs or groups, especially after dark.
  • Inform others in the crew of their planned whereabouts
  • Familiarise themselves with the local surroundings and means of returning to the vessel
  • Try and avoid known problem areas
  • Know who to contact in an emergency: the embassy, local police, hospital, coastguard
  • Keep passport, phone, money and cards safe and secure – and avoid unduly showing them off
  • Have photocopies of passport and air tickets kept securely, keep scanned copies available within an email account
  • Travel light if possible – struggling with many bags is a potential invitation to criminals
  • Avoid drawing attention to themselves
  • Avoid wearing and showing valuables, such as expensive watches
  • Keep a list of key contacts easily accessible

It is not just seafarers or shipping company personnel – the maritime industry is complex and consists of many stakeholders. Employees across the industry can often be travelling to and from vessels and/or ports. Their safety and security are also paramount, and while some employers do take their duty of care seriously, others are less circumspect or prepared.

There have been instances of marine surveyors, who have been despatched to investigate issues relating to vessels or cargo, having been threatened, attacked and even murdered.

In recent years a surveyor was sent to gather evidence concerning a reported piracy attack, his car was blown up by an organised criminal gang which had been allegedly seeking to defraud the insurance company covering the vessel.

There are also risks posed to ancillary workers in the shipping industry. In one ongoing, high profile case, a group of “privately contracted armed security personnel”, were performing armed guarding duties onboard vessels in the Indian Ocean.

The ship they were using as a base, provided by their employer (an US based maritime security company), strayed into Indian waters – and the entire crew, including the guards were arrested. They have just this week been released, after spending three years later in a notorious Indian jail. It seemed that their employer had long ago abandoned them, and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office struggled to free them.

The case of the #Chennai6, as they are known, has caused a real stir. The fact that six veterans of the UK armed forces could be abandoned in such a way and subjected to years of hard labour in dreadful jail conditions is a stain on the conscience of the shipping industry.

The families of the men worked tirelessly to get them freed, or at least to serve their unjust sentence in the UK. The length and troubling case remains a salutary lesson of what can go wrong when employers cut and run, or when they never cared in the first place.

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