Wife of the Seafarer

On September 20th, 2008, IMO Secretary-General Mitropoulos unveiled the International Memorial to the “Wife of the Seafarer” in the Greek town of Galaxidi. As the article below eloquently states, the people we leave behind as we head to sea, often feel a great deal of anguish and need an equal amount of courage. The statue, pictured below, is a beautiful work who’s time is definately overdue. Galaxidi is a small town located 30km south of Delphi on the shore of the Gulf of Corinth and is home to the Nautical Museum of Galaxidi. Click here to read about town’s rich maritime history.

This event was part of the worldwide events celebrating World Maritime Day 2008, the 31st celebration of this event. This year, the International Maritime Organization also celebrates its 60th anniversary; on March 6th, 1958, in Geneva, the IMO convention was adopted.

A long overdue tribute
29 September 2008 Lloyds List

THEY stand upon their stone plinth on the tree-lined headland opposite the small town of Galaxidi, a forlorn little group in their plain, homespun clothes, looking out to sea.

The mother waves her handkerchief, her left hand resting on the shoulder of her son, comforting him at the moment of parting. Perhaps he is wondering when he too will be able to go voyaging like his father. The little girl, perhaps too young to really understand the significance of their parting, stands mutely by. They watch their father’s ship heading out into the Gulf of Corinth. Soon the vessel will be hull down, only her masts and sails visible, and they will take the sad walk back to the town, and learn to live without him, for the unknown extent of the voyage, perhaps for ever.

The monumental sculpture of the Seafarer’s Wife, which was unveiled in Galaxidi the other evening, is a beautiful work by Kostas Ananidas and a reminder that fine representative sculpture still has a place, at least in the country where, 2,000 years ago, it reached its highest form. The thought behind it is perhaps even more elegant, in that it pays long overdue respect to women, all over the world, whose contribution has been completely taken for granted.

The hostile weather of driving rain and strong winds, which raged over the Gulf on the evening of the unveiling ceremony, was regrettable, but might actually have added to the occasion. On such a night as this, masters of ships of the Galaxidi would have seized the opportunity and the wind to make their westing out of the Gulf, into the deep waters of the Mediterranean and well into their voyages. Such tears as might be shed by those left behind, could be hidden by the rain as they trudged back to their homes. And, as revealed by the harsh spotlights illuminating the ceremony, the sad faces of the three bronze figures, were indeed wet.

The face of the seafarer’s wife reveals courage, fortitude and determination, all of which she will need in the long months ahead, when no news will come of the success or otherwise of the voyage. International Maritime Organization secretary-general Efthimios Mitropoulos, whose family is from Galaxidi and whose idea it was to honour the unknown seafarer’s wife, pointed out that this is an international memorial, in which the contribution of these women to the “overall mission of shipping” is recognised.

If there have been any attempts in the past to portray the women that seafarers left behind them, they have concentrated on the pathos; those left on the pierhead as the lifeboat is launched, or those weeping for those who will never return; the “men must work and women must weep” school of somewhat over-sentimental portraiture, which is no longer in fashion.

In this international memorial we are compelled to think of these legions of women, past and present, who kept the home fires burning, who kept the children fed, who were ‘captains of their homes’, managing the finances and shouldering the duties of both mother and father.

And all of this would be accomplished, while trying not to show too much overt concern about the cruel realities of the sea, which, in sailing ship days, had a more than passing chance of leaving the wife a widow. The wife of the seafarer, then, is no romantic heroine, but one who comes down to us through the centuries, capable and courageous, accustomed to disappointment, unsurprised even by tragedy.

It is not a sentimental act to recognise in a bronze sculpture the contribution of these women down through the ages. Mr Mitropoulos freely acknowledges the way in which what these women did was taken completely for granted.

But, alluding to the ceremony, which brought together contemporary seafarers wives from China, Denmark, India, Italy, Norway, Turkey, the UK and from all over Greece, he acknowledges: “At last they saw light and they saw reason — and they woke up and they, the people of the maritime world, converge to this site to recognise the contribution of the wife of the seafarer to the overall mission of shipping.” At least somebody did.

Can we really compare the life of that lonely woman and her little family with that of those left behind in the 21st century maritime world. Galaxidi, which prospered as a shipping and shipbuilding community in the second half of the 19th century, was just that, a town whose fortunes were founded on wealth from the sea. It built fine ships, some of substantial size, which were were owned locally and crewed by mariners of the community. The seafarer’s wife might not, in an era before effective communications, have any news of her husband’s voyage, but at least she would have had friends and family to support her, all of whom would fully comprehend her life as the rock upon which that family was founded.

Are there still communities in 2008 where the nuances of ships and seafaring are wholly understood, as they were in Galaxidi more than a century ago? There are still some Greek island and coastal communities where shipping is not wholly alien, where shipowners are local heroes, although tourism and the numerous attractions available to well-educated youth contributes to the dispersion of knowledge. You could argue that when there are other choices available, the attractions of the sea life swiftly pale.

We might have to go to the Philippines to discover the same level of maritime solidarity, with family support groups at home helping the wives and families of those left behind. But, in most places, the broad understanding of the importance of ships and seafaring has been diluted, fragmented and scattered in a depopulated industry, below the horizon of understanding in so many of the countries where it once flourished.

It is interesting to see how the execution of this sculpture, and the sentiments behind it, resonates with a good deal of contemporary thought about seafaring, the maritime industry and the need to rebuild its human capital.

Would the seafarer’s wife not persuade her son, and indeed her daughter, to choose any other career than that which forced her into a life of separation? It is said that a Greek mother will do almost anything to ensure that her children undertake a degree course at university, and would not look in a friendly fashion upon any alternatives which would see her offspring gaining ‘only’ a master’s or chief engineer’s license. It has certainly been one of the factors which has persuaded a number of administrations to enrich the syllabus for maritime professional qualifications to degree level.

Would the seafarer’s wife of 2008 tolerate her husband following a profession in an industry that is still curiously oblivious to the importance of human communication in an age of electronic interconnectivity. They sail on ships with enough electronic communication equipment to enable some spotty clerk in a shipping office to harass the master 24/7 in any part of the world, but the crew still have to plod ashore through piles of spilt iron ore a mile up the road to the Mission to Seafarers or the Apostleship of the Sea to talk to their families in privacy and at a reasonable price. It is changing, but not nearly fast enough.

The seafarer’s wife may well have a career of her own. Has the shipping industry really got to grips with the social changes that are spreading around the world? We furrow our brows and rack our brains as we wonder how to find 150,000 extra seafarers to crew the ships due to enter service in the next couple of years. We wonder how best to recruit, but above all, how to retain the people we so painfully and expensively train. The seafarer’s wife may actually offer some answers, if we ever thought to ask her.

I was talking to a seafarer just recently about the crewing crisis and how it might spur owners into some really original thought about the length of tours, or the package that is offered. He demurred, suggesting that there is already a tendency, when the chips are down, for the expected relief not to appear, and the disappointed seafarer anticipating leave, merely finding another voyage, of possibly several more months, facing him.

In the Marine Society’s anthology Voices from the Sea is a sad poem by John Agnew, a chief officer in a fine old British company, who at a time when seafarers signed two-year articles in the 1970s knew, like all seafarers down the ages, of the sadness of lives apart from those they loved.

In his Unwritten Letter, which would be fully comprehended by the seafarer’s wife, he wrote:

My girl, my darling girl she weeps And sews her way through winter’s nightPraying for the spring of my return.“What ill-comfort do I bring herwhen I writeOf places in the sun and peopleWhom she’ll never meetAnd other girls.“Worst of allThe voyage that was soon to endHas been extendedAnd must go onAnd onAnd on.How can I write and tell her that?

It is very easy to be cynical in age where we are cautiously rediscovering the importance of the human element. The International Memorial is a beautiful reminder of the forgotten factor in an essential industry that still touches nearly every person in the world, even though, like the husband of the Galaxidi wife, it is hull down and over the horizon.

This article has 1 Comment

  1. Thankyou for this article, to acknowledge the struggle of women like me is a good step towards increasing support and creating friendly policies for wives and families in shipping companies.

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