An Interview by Paul Gonzalez-Morgan
Barry Bryant (Commodore, RN) is Director General at Seafarers UK, a welfare charity that has been helping people in the maritime community for over 100 years, by providing vital support to seafarers in need and their families.
What are your main responsibilities as Director General of Seafarers UK?
Obviously my primary duty to my beneficiary charities and trustees is to keep Seafarers UK on track legally, efficiently and effectively, making the very most of what resources we have in pursuing our £3 million annual spend on charitable activities. However, in our rather unique position of having such a wide remit across the UK and Commonwealth maritime sectors and as Chair of the Maritime Charities Group, I am in the fortunate position of being able to facilitate more strategic and political actions, including research, sector awareness and career promotion.
Your charity has been helping seafarers and their families since 1917. What has been your focus for this Centenary year?
Our chosen Centenary theme has been ‘Past, Present and Future’ and we designed and promoted three very different but successful projects, a major extension to the Trinity House ‘Hub’ building in Mariners’ Park in Wallasey for older seafarers, initial and ongoing support for the International Port Welfare Project to set up National Welfare Boards and Port Welfare Committees in all the major ports of the world, for today’s serving mariners and finally to supply six mobile Marine Engineering Pathway vehicles, known as ‘Pods’, to persuade Sea Cadets and other young people to take an interest in a technical maritime future.
What are the most common challenges faced by men and women at sea, and how do you support them?
We deal with all seafarers, from Royal Marines in combat zones, to commercial crews with their problems of isolation, communication and multi-culturalism, through to lone fishermen working off the UK’s beaches in an often dangerous environment. They all face different challenges at different times and, working through our many focused service-delivery charities, our job is to get the balance right in terms of the support we can give them and their families to lead settled and fulfilled lives.
What would be your advice to those younger generations looking to develop a career at sea?
Firstly, there are some fantastic and challenging careers out there, many of which do not demand highly academic or technical qualifications, but they do demand commitment, teamwork and mental strength. I would recommend any young person to take a closer look at the jobs and skills on offer, but go into a seagoing career with your eyes open, talk to those who have gone before, and develop longer-term plans, taking advantage of the huge amount of advice and support on offer.
Women in shipping: is gender diversity a reality?
I think the growing success of women at sea in the Royal and Merchant Navies, both in deck and engineering specialisations, in the past few decades has proved beyond doubt that they can equal their male contemporaries in actually doing the job and in many cases they have overcome even greater social challenges to achieve that success. I was very impressed with the attitude and commitment of the 10% of women in Endurance ship’s company. However, for fairly obvious and equally social reasons, I don’t believe we will achieve parity in numbers, offspring and long voyages don’t easily fit together. Maybe the dawn of autonomous ships will ease the burden!
What more can the industry do to support seafarers?
I fear that in most cases, the days of large, paternalistic shipping companies bringing on their own cadets and nurturing their careers are over. Individuals have to take more responsibility for their own futures, planning a sometimes diverse career path with different agencies and companies and taking advantage of professional development opportunities from the likes of the Marine Society. However, I do believe that ‘industry’ in the round can do very much more in working through and with the larger charities to promote these opportunities, and to provide a more substantial safety net when things go wrong.
I always contrast the detailed and complex personnel support mechanism provided by the Royal Navy to its people to ensure that they’re fit to fight, with the sometimes cavalier attitude of the commercial sector where replacements can always be bought.
What does the Red Ensign mean to Seafarers UK?
I believe very strongly that seafarers should be as proud to sail under the Red Ensign as under the White, but until the industry and the charitable sector can work together to provide the sort of support mentioned above given by the Royal Navy, our commercial seafarers will not believe that they are joining something more meaningful than just a job. A senior colleague mentioned recently that we need to “put some soul back into the Merchant Navy” to make it the proud and widely acknowledged entity it was perhaps fifty years ago.
Seafarers UK has been striving to make the Red Ensign more widely known across the nation, and last year we had over 650 ‘red dusters’ flying on public buildings on Merchant Navy Day, 3rd September. We hope to develop this campaign in the future to provide fundraising opportunities for our Merchant Navy Fund.
How do you see new regulation affecting seafarers over the short and medium term?
New regulatory regimes, however well meant, are rarely seen as a good thing by everyone! Some, such as MLC2006, were long overdue and have provided huge benefits at least as long as they are understood and complied with by all. Other fundamental laws such as those mandating human rights (as opposed to labour rights) are often less understood and often more difficult to police. Similarly the increasing raft of environmental legislation, with its draconian penalties, may well be good for the planet but is often seen as weighing heavily on the shipping community, sometimes leading to widespread circumvention. Essentially, the industry and trade unions must maintain a positive dialogue with those who make and enforce the legislation both nationally and internationally, ensuring they understand the real and often human effect of the laws they wish to introduce. Will Brexit make life easier? I doubt it!
What charitable events are planned over the coming months?
In terms of challenge events, we will continue to concentrate on the London Marathon and our very own ‘24 Peaks’ event where teams, often from maritime companies, attempt to climb 24 separate peaks in the English Lake District, all over 2,400ft high, in 24 hours. It’s a remarkable test of endurance and team-building, but much enjoyed by all. In a new initiative, we shall be trying to gain more substantive and enduring support from the industry by showcasing what we do in terms of career awareness and promotion, as well as our more well-known welfare and personnel support work.
Please tell us about your most memorable shipping experience and favourite ship.
A difficult choice, given the hugely varied and enjoyable 34 years I had in the Royal Navy, but I suppose my favourite ship would have to be my last one, in command of HMS Endurance for two wonderful seasons in the South Atlantic and Antarctica. It was good to make much closer acquaintance with the Falkland Islands and South Georgia without being shot at! The ship had three main tasks, defence diplomacy, reinforcing the Antarctic Treaty regulations among the many nations operating in the UK-claimed territory, hydrographic surveying, often in uncharted waters with a seabed that could go from 2000m to 10m within a few hundred yards (that keeps you awake!), and support for the unsung heroes of the British Antarctic Survey, where our Lynx helicopters could often insert their scientists onto glaciers and mountain tops which otherwise they could not have reached. Despite surviving the Falklands conflict and a major helicopter ditching earlier in my career, I think perhaps the most memorable experience was also in Antarctica, when we realised that a huge floating iceberg rather larger than Gibraltar (but not as welcoming!) was about to cut off our escape route and possibly crush the ship into the ice shelf. We had to swiftly launch the helicopter to find a route out, an interesting half an hour, as we contemplated sharing the fate of Shackleton’s original Endurance over eighty years previously!
In summary, after such a rewarding career in the Royal Navy, it’s been a huge privilege to serve today’s maritime community at the helm of Seafarers UK for the last 15 years, and I look forward to spending the next couple of years ensuring the charity is fully ready to face the challenges of our next century.