Tackling Tension and Conflict at Sea

Life at sea today has many potential pressure points, and sadly these can often spark disagreements among crew – and they can even lead to violence. Just how can seafarers be spared from such tensions, and life made better?

Life of Tension

Fighting at work
Tension at work

The harsh potential realities working on board ship came to the fore recently as two cases of violence amongst crews grabbed the headlines. The first saw an alleged mutiny break out, while the other consisted of an abandoned crew reaching breaking point.

When an alleged fight erupted in the engine room amongst the mixed Filipino and Taiwanese crew on the Liberian-flagged “MV Benita”, the bulk carrier ran hard aground in Mauritius. It was initially claimed the fracas was started by the Chief Engineer, who was arrested after locking himself in the engine room. One crew member, another engineer, was injured in the incident and had to be flown to a local hospital.

While the tensions and frustrations on board an operational vessel are capable of sparking violence, imagine then, just how stressed seafarers who have been abandoned by their employer can be. Over the past year the crew of the “New Imperial Star”, a casino vessel, have been fighting the vessel owner to get the wages they are owed. Sadly, the situation on board also saw them begin to fight as tensions flared aboard the ship.

It was reported the Captain and two Chinese crew experienced a brutal altercation over a can of coffee. For crew to live, work, eat, and sleep in such close proximity, there are inevitably problems which can occur. They are thankfully rare – especially with regards to full blown mutiny and near riots, but the potential for discord is all too real.

No Silver Bullet


The Maritime Labour Convention (MLC2006) exists to make life at sea better – but it is no silver bullet, it cannot cure the ills which can begin to fester when crews are tense, when they are frustrated or there is a social breakdown on board.

Given just how hard it is to be a seafarer today, it is perhaps surprising there are not more reported incidents. Of course not all people on board a ship will get along – there may be personality clashes, there can be disputes and even anger, but thankfully the systems, structure and discipline are usually maintained.

To rely on discipline though, to hope that people can fix their problems is perhaps asking rather a lot. The modern crew structure, and indeed numbers on board have been rationalised heavily over the past 20 years or more.

While this may of course mean there may be less people to fall out with amongst the crew, the implications when people do can be disastrous – as has been seen with the grounding of the “Benita”.

Heading off Conflict

Potential for fatigue and tiredness

With a high pressure environment, potential for fatigue and tiredness, and the tinder box of emotions and frustrations, then conflict can arise between seafarers – and even groups of people on board. Different departments, nationalities, ranks, there can be times where people find themselves at loggerheads.

Any potential conflicts need diffusing and tackling head on – so what can be done to deal with clashes on board? Just like any workplace, these issues need careful and sensitive management. Unlike other workplaces there is no escape as people live and work together.

For any shipboard manager, the first stage is to display leadership. According to academic research leaders in shore workplaces spend around 25 percent of their time resolving conflicts. Unfortunately at sea very often the management skills, conflict management experience and time to deal with such issues are not as they used to be.

With fewer people, greater demands and ever more input from shore managers, it seems that we have lost some of the leadership that perhaps senior officers would have had before. Action is needed though, and if conflict is likely, then seafarers need to be able to head it off or deal with it.

Seven Steps to Dealing with Shipboard Conflict

  1. Tackle it fast and head on: When conflict arises, the people involved need to be made aware – they need to be spoken to about it, and it needs to be highlighted. The message has to be that this is not acceptable.
  2. Listen: Those on either side of the conflict need to be spoken too separately. The senior officer needs to understand who thinks what and of why the conflict exists. What has happened, when did it happen, why has it happened, how can it be fixed?
  3. Come together: The parties need to be brought together, listened too and allowed to share their version of the events or issue.
  4. Common Ground: Each side of the argument needs to be encouraged to find common ground, and the gaps between them need to be closed. Even an agreement that such arguments are damaging morale on board is a common ground and good point to be at.
  5. Find Compromise: For the sake of working together, each party must be willing to give in a little. Invoking the spirit of seamanship, and explaining the detrimental effect of conflict should hopefully defuse and push people towards concession.
  6. Confront Negative Feelings: Hurt, pain, frustration, anger, betrayal, whatever the feelings and thoughts that arose during the conflict stage have to be worked out. They need to be aired, and then they can be addressed. Something has provoked the conflict, so it needs to be heard and addressed.
  7. Lead and Help: Senior officers can help ease tension, they can defuse the situation and make each party realise that being at sea needs them to find answers, to rise above squabbles and to be part of a team. Stress the positives and lead people from conflict to calm.

Making Life Better

Ticking Time Bomb
Ticking time bomb

Alas stress is something that does generate conflict – and stress is common place. It would of course be better to head any tension and conflict off altogether. So what can be done to make life better, more relaxed, enjoyable and sociable at sea?

This means that most vessels are today a ticking time bomb, with arguments and breakdowns in shipboard relationships just waiting to happen. To head them off takes an investment in time, effort and resources. It takes a commitment to both understand how conflict can occur, and to ensure that steps are taken to head it off.

For KVH Media Group we are proud to provide solutions which have long been making life better for seafarers. The services, products and content we can provide can make the difference at sea. From reading news from home, through to watching the latest movies and shows, life at sea does not have to be a relentless boring, disconnected slog – life can be made better, more social and enjoyable.

We talk of welfare and entertainment in the same breath – because they are intrinsically linked. Satisfied, content and entertained people are less likely to succumb to negatives. So investing in crew welfare can have a huge impact on the quality of life at sea, diffusing tension and perhaps even heading off conflict.

About Rob Parkin 16 Articles
Rob has worked in the maritime communication and content industry for over 18 years, during which he has gained great experience and insight in to this essential and sometimes misunderstood service sector. Coming from a media background, Rob has developed a passion for the welfare and connectivity of those at sea. Rob is very excited about new technologies and media services that are heralding the beginning of a new digital chapter in shipping.