Sea blindness: UK maritime in the public eye

According to a poll by ComRes on behalf of the UK Chamber of Shipping, 84% of the UK public correctly identified shipping as the principal mode of transport for the country’s imports and exports. Does this show that ‘sea blindness’ is a myth?


UK maritime

There’s consensus that the UK’s maritime industry has, over the last few decades, struggled to captivate the public imagination. Whether it be through word of mouth, media attention, or the jobs on offer, other sectors, such as automotive, aerospace and aviation, have climbed the ladder of awareness to such an extent that the term ‘sea blindness’ has now entered the maritime lexicon.

“Out of sight and out of mind,” is how Nick Harvey, campaigns manager at the charity Seafarers UK, describes it. “We take the view that sea blindness is very much a real issue. The contact we have with people through our campaigning work indicates that young people, in particular, are not receiving information in schools or in their family units.”

But, according to a recent poll, people do understand shipping’s importance to the country’s imports and exports.

Trust in the polls?

“I’ve lost track of the number of times people have complained to me that the public and our politicians don’t understand the importance of shipping to our trading economy,” wrote UK Chamber of Shipping communications director Jonathan Roberts in May. “I was concerned not only of the enormous time and energy being devoted to solving ‘sea blindness’, but that it was also potentially diverting resources away from more pressing matters.”

The Chamber, therefore, undertook a poll with ComRes, asking 2,026 members of the British public and 127 MPs which mode of transport was principally responsible for moving international trade. Results show that 87% of MPs and 84% of the public identified shipping.

Is that to be expected, or a surprising finding? “I think this idea that people don't understand where our goods come from is a myth,” explains Guy Platten, Chamber of Shipping CEO. Platten does, however, qualify his answer, agreeing that to some extent the public’s relationship with the maritime industry has changed over the years, adding: “What I’m finding as I speak to people and journalists is that they suddenly find it interesting. We can sometimes do ourselves down a little bit. I think the profile will continue to rise.”

"If you look at the national media, maritime is seldom a headline story."

There’s also the caveat that comes with any poll – how accurate is the result and were people simply guessing at the answer? Speaking after the publication of the results, Maritime UK chairman David Dingle said: “This opinion poll shows without doubt that shipping is in the minds of the public and our politicians,” while an article on the Chamber’s official website was titled ‘Opinion poll confirms 'sea blindness' is a myth’.

Yet such a statement seems premature when coupled with Harvey’s thoughts and, indeed, the opinion of trade union Nautilus. There’s no doubt, says a Nautilus spokesperson, that sea blindness is a challenge, “with a widespread lack of public and political awareness about the vital role of ships and seafarers in our society.”

“There’s certainly evidence to show some alarming gaps in knowledge about the maritime sector,” the spokesperson adds.

Back in 2014, another poll – this one commissioned by Seafarers UK as part of the annual Seafarers Awareness Week – found that just four in 10 people knew that the majority of food imported into the UK came by sea. Of the 1,000 people surveyed, 27% said air and 20% road.

Harvey adds: “Some of the research we have done among children, even those living in coastal towns and port cities, shows they don't have much of an inkling of what's going on right under their noses.”

Why has maritime slipped?

So, why might the maritime sector be losing public awareness? The reasons are complex. Globalisation has somewhat diminished Britain’s status as the pre-eminent maritime nation. Seafarers can now be employed from almost anywhere in the world, often on lower wages than their British counterparts. Consider also Harvey’s point that the majority of business takes place “out of sight, out of mind”.

Young people now have more career options. Education, in particular higher education, is now more readily available, meaning that school leavers are less likely to follow parents or other family members in their choice of job. Moreover, in the UK people look back on the country’s maritime heritage with a great deal of fondness. Is there too much focus on the past and not enough on the here and now?

“You have hit the nail on the head,” says Harvey. “We take the view that 30, 40, 50 years ago, there was a feeling that everyone knew someone who worked at sea.”

Platten argues that “we have tended to be a bit inward looking at times,” while Harvey adds that it’s also “the fact that maritime gets on with its business; it does what it does.” In essence, it is away from the media glare. If you look at national news programmes or newspapers, maritime is seldom a headline story, although Platten is eager to point out that the Chamber had over 150 mentions in the mainstream media last year, up from 13 in 2013.

Still, there is concern that unless more is done, recruitment will be damaged. In January, the government’s shipping minister, John Hayes, spoke of how “the sea and those who work on it and for it” are significant for the economy, contributing “about £13.5bn” and employing over 110,000 people. It is, he added, “important to what we are, who we are, as a people. An island race. A maritime nation.”

It is conceivable that this status will come under threat if the sector does not ‘sell’ its story to the next generation. “If you look at the merchant sector,” says Harvey, “seafarers are getting older. If those gaps aren't filled [in the UK], they will be filled by seafarers from other countries.

“If the ordinary man or woman in the street doesn't have a feel for the country's dependence on seafarers, then they won't be very sympathetic when charities like ours ask them to help seafarers when they fall on hard times.”

Government figures released at the start of year show that in 2016 the estimated number of UK nationals active at sea was 23,060. A total of 1,860 officer cadets were training in the financial year 2015/16, a decrease of 3% on 2014/15. Meanwhile, the number of new entrants under the government’s Support for Maritime Training (SMarT) scheme was 750, a drop of 9% compared to 2014/15.

Awareness, awareness, awareness, and cash

It may seem modest, and predictable, but awareness is the priority. “We have to tell the story of seafaring from the beginning,” explains Harvey, who, alongside his colleagues at Seafarers UK, is currently preparing for Seafarers Awareness Week, which takes place on 24-30 June, and this year focuses on careers.

Seafarers UK is also running a 'fly the Red Ensign' event for Merchant Navy Day on 3 September. This involves asking local councils – “we're hopeful that we'll have as many as a 1,000 participating,” says Harvey – to fly the Red Ensign on civic buildings. “The very act of it being flown is quite helpful, because people don't commonly see that flown ashore,” Harvey adds.

Platten and the Chamber of Shipping, meanwhile, want the government to double its funding for the SMarT scheme. "At the moment we get about £15m worth of support. Around 800 new cadets start each year, but we'd like to get that to 1,200, then 1,600 over time. I think £15m extra is a bit of a drop in the ocean. They can get an awful lot of bang for their buck.

"We are changing perceptions every day."

“We've had parliamentarians back this campaign – we believe it is the right thing to do.” The government was approached for comment but was unable to respond because of pre-election purdah rules.

Furthermore, the Chamber is working with schools, sending in ambassadors on a weekly basis to outline careers at sea. The government’s Maritime Growth Study, released in 2015, also makes numerous recommendations to keep the sector competitive.

And, with Brexit thrusting the economy to the forefront, there’s a chance for shipping – as the leading facilitator of global trade – to embed itself within the collective consciousness.

“I think we are upping our game,” says Platten. “Momentum is starting to build, and we are changing perceptions every day.”