Day of the Seafarer

Who among us hasn’t, if only for a moment, daydreamed about leaving our desks and running away to sea?  Even in an age where the globe has been explored and charted, when there are no new lands left to discover, the life of a sailor is still synonymous with adventure.  Especially in a profession which breeds a taste for other cultures and climates – as localisation certainly does – the salty tang of the sea is never far from our thoughts or keyboards, even if we wouldn’t dream of ‘upping sticks’ (raising the mast for departure)!

Sailors, vice versa, have always been polyglots – picking up at least a few words from the cultures they visited, and bringing them home again.  They also have plenty of colourful language of their own.  In a seafaring nation like the UK, our language is ‘by and large’ shot through with naval jargon even where we try to ‘give it a wide berth’ – the former phrase referring to a vessel which could sail ‘by the wind’ or ‘large’, with the wind from the stern; the second showing its ‘true colours’ quite obviously!

Sailors of course have used other ‘languages’ over time – semaphore, signalling with flags, morse, and many others have been used extensively at sea.   Flag signalling is fascinating in that all the standardised messages come in nine languages – English, French, Italian, German, Japanese, Spanish, Norwegian, and, since 1969, Russian and Greek.  That the sender and receiver(s) might use different languages is immaterial; each language has a book with equivalent messages keyed to the same code.

Of course life at sea in real life is nothing like in books and films.  Historically sailors had it really tough, going to sea at a young age and working in harsh conditions.  And because of its international nature, beyond national boundaries, it is one of the last industries in which such conditions remain: not only are there still pirates in parts of the world like Somalia, and stormy seas to contend with, but sailors are often drawn from poor countries and modern slavery on board is widespread.  Efforts to fight this kind of exploitation are ongoing.

That said, there are over 50,000 cargo vessels trading internationally with an estimated seafaring workforce of 1,600,000, and their operations make up around 5% of total world trade.  They are the oil that keeps the global economy turning.  On the International Maritime Organisation’s ‘day of the seafarer, please spare a thought for those on board who risk everything to plough the waves.

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