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Music, barbecues, wi-fi: managing morale for those idled at sea

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Plenty of things might keep container-ship captain Markus Grote up at night while sailing across the ocean, but lately there's another kind of sinking feeling that worries him: crew morale.

With many of the world's 400,000 merchant mariners still struggling to take time off and go home, seafarer fatigue remains a problem heading into the second holiday season of the pandemic. And not just for the deckhands. Their bosses worry about mental health as the work swings between frenzied activity and more idle time.

Last week, 665 container ships were anchored waiting to enter ports, according to data from Seaexplorer.com and Swiss freight giant Kuehne+Nagel International. That's about 10% of the total currently in service globally. Some won't move for a week or more.

Ships sitting outside Los Angeles, for instance, wait an average of more than 12 days at anchor before they can pull into port. It takes almost that amount of time to cross the Pacific from Asia. There's rarely a shortage of work to do, but such delays are forcing captains to find ways to buoy spirits for those stuck at sea.

"This is probably the thing that is keeping me up most of the time," Grote said in an interview.

Grote, who works for Hamburg, Germany-based Hapag-Lloyd, said that to brighten the mood, off-duty crew members like to play basketball, video games and ping pong, or use the pool and gyms available on many larger vessels. Some have taken to the guitar or drums, forming bands with colleagues on board. Others prefer another form of musical escape: karaoke.

Ocean-going container carriers carry at least 21 crew members and officers. When they're at sea, the crew does routine chores like keeping equipment maintained, cargo secure and decks tidy, while officers rotate on eight-hour watches monitoring instruments and radio traffic.

For everyone aboard, the much busier days are those spent in port, as containers are moved on and off the ship, paperwork is processed, supplies need restocking and more extensive mechanical fixes are undertaken.

Sitting at anchorage is something in between -- neither underway nor in port. The crews are often close enough to shore to access local phone networks need to communicate with family and friends, but not close enough to get deliveries from land easily or cheaply. Shore leave has been curbed because of Covid-19 travel restrictions.

Regular maintenance still has to be done and deck watches staffed, but there are ways to unwind off the clock while waiting to enter a port.

"We have some nice live bands from time to time," Grote said. "Hopefully we can keep the crew happy with some barbecues, some team events like watching movies together, or playing some sports."

The catering team can adjust menus to suit the different tastes of the crew -- with the menu ranging from Asian- to European-style food, he added.

So after a long day of watch on, say, a steamy day in Singapore, might the crew be able to kick back with a cold, frothy beverage from the galley?

"If you like to have a beer, it's possible. Normally we have it on stock and you can have it," Grote said. "You, of course, always have to be ready for emergencies so there cannot be any excessive stuff."

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