At sea, stress management is now a critical part of the job

I was working on a crude oil tanker, running between Valdez, Alaska, and the West Coast. On the same day and at the same port that I joined the ship, the second mate, Peter, did as well. A graduate of an East Coast maritime academy, he exhibited the quiet confidence that comes with having years at sea, cutting a scholarly figure that reminded me of a college professor as he laid out our voyage plans. The captain liked him, as did the chief mate who trusted him to do a good job during cargo operations. Everything was running smoothly, until midway through the work tour when he got a letter from his girlfriend ending their relationship. The news hit like a ton of bricks, thrusting him into a depression. The clean-cut professional mate I had been working with stopped shaving regularly, wore unwashed clothes and seemed to care less and less about the quality of his work. Dark circles and bags under his eyes told me he wasn’t sleeping well, and at meals he’d pick at his food without finishing. Needless to say, his job performance began to suffer. 

Peter now was in a disagreeable mood all the time and began to make simple mistakes, such as getting the noon slip to the captain late or not logging important entries while in pilotage waters. The captain started complaining to him about his messiness and bad attitude, and the rumor around the ship was that he was close to getting fired. Not long after we docked at Long Beach, Calif., I was out on deck preparing for cargo operations when I watched him leave the ship with his bags — a month before he was due to get off. 

Every mariner reacts differently to the stresses of being at sea. I recall being a cadet on a containership years ago, back when the crew could buy cases of beer from the ship’s slop chest. I happened to walk by the third engineer’s stateroom one day and saw several cases of beer stacked up next to his bed. A huge guy with a bushy red beard, he noticed me looking at all those cans of Budweiser and said, “Stop staring, cadet. It’s not easy working on a ship — I need a couple of beers at night to help me relax.” Many merchant mariners worldwide still enjoy a couple of beers to de-stress at sea, as it is common for foreign-flag ships to come equipped with a “bar” on board for crew use. 

A 2012 medical study out of Italy is the latest to conclude what mariners already know, that going to sea is a stressful profession. It identified long hours, lack of proper sleep and the strain that going to sea puts on personal relationships as some of the main causes of seafarer stress. When problems come up at home, the feeling of being so far away and powerless makes it even more difficult to handle life at sea — so much so that it can result in a professional meltdown like the one the second mate on the tanker had. 

These days, with alcohol prohibited on most U.S.-flag vessels, American mariners have had to find other healthier ways to reduce stress. Medical studies have shown that exercise helps the body produce more mood-elevating hormones, and it can even help the brain function better and more clearly. John, an AB I sailed with on a car carrier, exercised in the ship’s gym daily. The gym itself was in a room equipped with an excellent stereo system, treadmill, universal machine and some free weights. I had never been interested in working out on board ship before, figuring I did enough walking and ladder-climbing each day to make up for a whole session at the gym. Finally, he convinced me to give it try. After a hard workout on the treadmill and some muscle-building, I did feel calmer and more relaxed and slept better.

It’s been proven that when a person is under pressure for a long period, the excessive release of the “fight or flight” hormone cortisol can cause health problems ranging from high blood pressure to impaired brain function. To counteract the physical effects of stress on the body, a change in diet can help. Cutting back on caffeine, eating more complex carbohydrates such as whole wheat bread and pasta along with more fruit and vegetables, are all recommended by medical researchers to alleviate stress. 

A personal technique I have found successful in reducing the psychological effects of stress on board is breathing relaxation, or meditation. I first started doing this over 20 years ago while working as a third mate on a product tanker. Stressful days were common on that ship, with equipment problems and an unhappy crew. I’d sit in my room quietly for 15 minutes every day, focusing on my breath and not on my thoughts or feelings. Any time a negative thought came into my mind, I would let it go instead of dwelling on it. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University and Harvard Medical School have found that mindfulness meditation can reduce anxiety, sleep problems and other negative effects of stress by calming the person down — something I can say from experience is true.

In my opinion, while at sea all mariners should be aware of and, when necessary, take advantage of some of the proven techniques for reducing anxiety and nervous tension. Coincident with that, it is a positive development that there are now some maritime companies that use stress management programs to make their workplaces more “user-friendly.” Top-notch vessel operators have begun providing things such as shipboard Wi-Fi access for all crewmembers, making it easier to keep connected with friends and loved ones at home. Quality exercise equipment in a designated area, alternate watch schedules for improved rest periods and shorter work tours are other ways savvy maritime companies are trying to reduce job stress on their vessels. It’s time for the maritime industry to fully recognize the detrimental effects job stress has on seafarers and how it impacts vessel operations and safety — and to mandate that all shipping companies establish programs to minimize it on board. 

Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin’.

Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at

By Professional Mariner Staff