The Joy and Perils of being a Seafarer

Don’t just follow your mother’s command that you have to be a seaman.

Shining a light on the lives of seafarers, joy and hardship of life at sea, dealing with death and negative emotions.  Liz Lagniton, Philippine correspondent, interviews 37-year veteran Captain Manolo “Noli” Ebora.

Homesickness, loneliness, boredom, depression, sometimes piracy and harassment are among the perils and struggles seafarers have to endure every day for six to 10 months as they sail the high seas transporting important goods across the globe. 

Captain Manolo “Noli” Ebora.

Like many Filipino seafarers, Manolo “Noli” Ebora, 56, knows full well the hardship of the sea after spending 37 years dealing with these realities since his first voyage in 1984.

As a cadet, Ebora first boarded a bulk carrier transporting goods from Asia to America and Europe and, on a daily basis, the young Ebora often worked 12 hours performing various duties, like maintenance of the deck and at different areas of the ship until his muscles ached. 

“I was assisting the chief mate at that time so I could learn the officer’s duties, then from 4 pm to 8 pm, I would go to the bridge for afternoon duty,” Ebora recalled, comparing the experience to that of going through the eye of a needle. 

“I endured the feelings of isolation, homesickness, seasickness caused by the vessel’s erratic motion on waters,” recalled Ebora, adding that he considered it a test of character and dedication in order to fulfill his ambition of becoming a ship officer, maybe even captain.

He rolled with the punches until he conquered such trials at sea. 

Today, Ebora has been the captain of an oil tanker for more than 11 years, the Liberian-flagged crude oil tanker S Puma owned by a Greek shipping company, his 26th command to date. 

You could see a glint of pride in Ebora’s eyes as he sat at the bridge of the S Puma anchored in China during an online interview with the Maritime Fairtrade.

“My current ship is a tanker. We load million-dollar worth of chemicals, oil, and methanol. We transport this cargo to their destinations in Malaysia, Singapore, and China,” Ebora said, noting that he did not even want to become a seafarer as a boy.

Life at sea is not smooth sailing

“I wanted to be a soldier when I was a kid. But then I have sailor uncles who influenced me to try my luck in seafaring,” he said, comparing his career to the waters he sails, sometimes smooth and sometimes rough with moments of terrifying tumults.

At sea, Ebora acts not only as captain but also as a doctor, entertainer, and mental coach for his stressed crew. 

“We don’t have a doctor here, so I act as a doctor too when a crew member gets sick. But if it is not a simple illness, I call the office and ask for some advice,” he said.

In 2020, several countries sealed their ports and closed their borders to curb the spread of coronavirus, leaving thousands of Filipino seafarers across the globe trapped at sea with expired contracts, unable to get home, and their plight worsened by lack of access to medical treatment.

When one of Ebora’s crew members got seriously sick while they were anchored in Malaysia, the worried captain immediately called a doctor who determined that the illness was not COVID-19 and he agreed to send the sick seaman to the Philippines to get medical attention. 

“Even though my crew was reduced when he left, his health and safety are more crucial. Last I heard, he is on the road to recovery,” said the captain. 

Keeping positive during tough times

Ebora and his officers also serve as entertainers during a voyage to buoy spirits and defeat boredom. They would put up a music bar inside the ship where they have jam sessions, singing and dancing to Ebora’s original compositions which are later uploaded on YouTube. 

“We also play basketball to sweat, especially when the weather is a bit cold,” said Ebora, who started the month-end celebration in thanksgiving for a safe journey. 

For the captain, a good relationship onboard is very important as it helps to get rid of homesickness and boredom. 

“Life at sea is easier when you have a good relationship with all the crew on board. No matter how long your contract is, even if it is extended due to a pandemic, it hastens the passage of time and you won’t even notice that you have already come to your contract’s end,” he smiled.

Dealing with death  

Having good working relationship also helps ease the fears that normally arise in one of the most hazardous occupations in the world, like an accident in January when a Filipino seafarer Jake Marinduque died after being injured by a strong wave that hit the deck where he was working.

Marinduque was on board the bulk carrier that was on its way to Halifax, Nova Scotia in Canada from Norfolk, Virginia in the United States when the ship was met by inclement weather. 

The captain said: “The biggest challenge of seafarers onboard is the unpredictable weather conditions. I encountered many storms in my life at sea, three of them I will never forget my whole life. 

“It was a point of no return decision for me because, at that time, we were almost immobilized. A ship engine is critical, and your weapon against any storm is a strong engine.” 

Ebora said he could feel the fear at the bridge as the boat’s clinometer showed a tilt of 35 degrees to 45 degrees. 

“I told my crew that we should figure out a way out of the current so we can escape it. It was a whole-day predicament, and thankfully we were able to get out of it and we were able to reach our destination safely.

“As captain, I have to take care of the ship as well as the safety of shipment and crew, but it’s a bit difficult due to the unpredictability of the weather. That’s the hardest part of a seafarer’s life.” 

Advice for young aspiring seafarers

When asked what advice he would give to young aspiring mariners, the captain said: “Everyone who wants to be a seafarer should think first. Don’t just follow your mother’s command that you have to be a seaman. You must really want to sail.

“You have to ask yourself. Those stories seen on the internet are not yet the real event for you, when you are on board then you will know the real life of a sailor, so you have to prepare yourself to face life at sea because it is not that easy.” 

Ebora’s six-month contract has expired and he has been away for seven months already due to strict travel restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. He hopes he will be able to go home soon to Batangas City in the Philippines and reunite with his family.

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