When a Seafarer Becomes Terrestrial

John GattiBy John Gatti10 May 202215 Minutes

We are born with a “basic endowment” provided by nature, enriched by the parents and completed by an “unknown ingredient” that makes us unique.

When we come into the world, we are like a big book yet to be written. Our name is printed on the cover, but the pages are almost entirely blank.

In this text, we will not tell our story, but it will show how we will live our lives, depending on how we will be “programmed”.

From the moment you are born and throughout your life, you receive input from the outside: sounds, images, thoughts, smells, procedures, truths, and lies. Anything is data to be processed and managed.

There are an immense amount of signals, but how does the brain defend itself from information overload? In its incredible efficiency, it creates “programs” that activate “automatisms”.

Driving the car is a practical example: steering wheel, gearbox, clutch, accelerator, and brake; operations in succession must be carried out with proper timing. When you learn to drive, you need to think about what you are doing, about the correct sequence at the right times. The repetition of gestures creates a program in the brain that allows you to act automatically without thinking and questioning what needs to be done.

An electrical circuit is created between several neurons called a “synapse” whenever we remember something we learn. In this way, the information we store can interact to shape more profound thoughts and knowledge. Once created, this synapse is no longer questioned (fire burns = don’t touch it, lower the handle = open the door, tie your shoes, write, read, etc.).

Once a specific competence has been acquired, it is managed by that part of the brain that deals with automatic processes that no longer need to be verified.

When the book is empty, the programming processes are linear and straightforward, but what happens if, years later, the automatisms created are no longer current? When do you find yourself having to adapt new concepts to old ideas? When does nature lead us not to question the “certainties” already filed?

It is not easy to reprogram a brain circuit, overwrite a synapse, to radically change your mind about something.

In practice, over time, there is a risk of making decisions based on programs that are no longer correct or outdated but which, in any case, are not called into question. Programs that, beyond our control, influence our thoughts.

What does all this have to do with “a seafarer who becomes terrestrial”?

The above can be the basis for many arguments.

Open-mindedness is the ability to question oneself and the predisposition to change habits so that automatisms do not become limits. Realise that nothing is forever: the presuppositions, the circumstances, the subjects, the right and the wrong things, the possible and the impossible things change, and therefore they can and must change, the ideas and the positions are taken.

The difference between seafarers and terrestrial is similar to that between sea fish and freshwater fish: creatures adapted to deeply different environments. Comparing them, judging them, or simply talking about them is anything but simply because there are too many things that change everyone’s reality.

For seafarers, it is necessary to consider where they lived and worked because life onboard a passenger ship is very different from that on an oil tanker, on a tugboat or onboard a ferry, and so the experiences that develop over time. The nationality of the crew, the routes they follow, the ports they touch, the rank they cover, the length of the contracts, etc., all combine to make it difficult to categorise the “typical” seafarer.

The terrestrial person can be an employee or an entrepreneur, work in a large company or on his own, commute or smart worker, and so on for many variables.

Let us now deepen, generalising, the knowledge of some truths that almost certainly influence the traces of the synapses of seafarers:

the consideration of “hierarchy” on board a ship is not perceived in the same way in a terrestrial structure. To take it to extremes, the concept “after God there is me”, referring to the Captain of a ship, sees its justification precisely in the need to guarantee a particular “order,” which, in the middle of the sea, is equivalent to “safety”. The adaptability of man is undeniable and is demonstrated once more in this context: months and months away from habits, from one’s interests, from friends, from loved ones, forced to share a small space and the company of people who do not know each other, gathered absolutely at random and, often, of entirely different nationalities – religions – ages – cultures. No women. No social life. No cinema. No beer with friends. No, “now I take off for two days and relax”. Could such an extreme situation ever be managed without a clear hierarchy? I am convinced not. But to understand it and, above all, to accept it, one must enter that world on tiptoe; as the last wheel of the cart, one must slowly build solid and deep synapses. One must understand and accept. The alternative is to jump off the carousel at the first port, which happens to many people on the first boarding.

The relationship between those who live in a few square meters 24 hours a day cannot be the same as between people who hang out for only 8 hours a day. The important concept: “choose wisely the individuals with whom to enrich your life” has no possibility of application, leading to “splits of existence”. I’ll explain. Life runs at a more or less constant pace on land, marked by work and family commitments. The people who enrich it (or impoverish it) are always the same or change slowly. It makes me think that life on land flows underpinned by balances that we can identify in constants and certainties. That of the seafarer develops, at least, in two dimensions: one in the family context, where he often struggles to re-enter at the end of boarding and from which he then struggles to break away when the time comes to leave; the other finds her onboard (for about eight months a year) where the environment changes every time and the constant anchors her to the passion for work, loneliness, melancholy and selfishness in which she takes refuge to give a sense to a routine that is humanly difficult to accept. The words “splits of existence”, therefore, intend to highlight how each boarding period, characterised by always new ingredients in an always the same context, becomes a piece of life in its own right, intensely shared with people who perhaps will never see each other again: each I embark on a circumscribed memory, a piece of life that has a life of its own, almost disconnected from the one bound between birth and death.

Maritime, as for many other professions, can only be done up to a certain age. Age in which the synapses have not yet imposed their limits.

If you have already tried to work on the ground, if you have already known the possibility of a cerebral refuge from everyday problems offered by parallel lives (family, friends, hobbies, work, etc.), if you have already appreciated the rights and advantages of a “controlled hierarchy”, if jealousy, nostalgia, and a thousand other valid reasons have already consolidated deep synapses in the brain, it will be difficult to decide to accept a life in the middle of the sea, little known, even less considered and, often, forgotten (see political elections, social rights and protection, dedicated ministries, job guarantee, unrecognized qualifications, etc.).

When thoughts tend to take this direction, the title of a book comes to mind: “The Living, the Dead and the Sailors”. Words that convey the idea of ​​something floating in the fog.

We live in a boot-like country in contact with the sea for 8000 kilometres, yet there is still a clear social separation between those who work in one element and those in the other.

The Italian state still has a long way to go to balance seafarers’ lives, perhaps looking at how those who sail under other flags are treated.

But despite everything, the ship is also a refuge.

I said that the hierarchy is deeply felt. I add that the roles, duties, and rights are well defined. The problems are almost daily, often independent of someone’s will and most of the time linked to atmospheric elements, breakdowns, and program changes. In short, these are often practical problems, which we can solve with preparation, goodwill and respect for skills.

The seafarer who becomes terrestrial plunges into a deeper personal bureaucracy: he discovers deadlines, bills, fines, and realises the psychological difference that passes between the management of “work waste” – where there is a dedicated and foreseen time to which you get used to – and the one in which, having no more consecutive free months available, a good organisation of time is necessary. He realises that there is no longer a second dimension, that the possibility of moving at sea or on the land according to convenience has vanished.

The game becomes more subtle, especially if, before leaving the sea, he has been sailing for several years.

Terrestrials are not practical and simple like seafarers. For them, problems have many faces and any question, depending on how it is viewed, has more colours than the rainbow. The black and white have changed in meaning to which sailors were accustomed, infinitely expanding the shades.

Everything gets complicated. Relationships with people, for example, become a mystery. Onboard, without changing the environment and the context, in a short time, the characters come out for what they are – you cannot pretend – and usually, a balance is reached in a relatively short time.

On land, the mood and personality change several times a day, depending on whether you are in the family, at work, or among friends: the environment, the context, the role and the way of acting sometimes change, and you need to put on or take off your tie.

But disrupting habits is often a good thing. We must leave the “comfort” zone, where everything is familiar, question the automatisms created in the brain up to that moment, build new synapses and adapt to change.

Can anyone do it?

I do not believe it. It takes a certain predisposition, the luck of ending up in the right environment, strong motivation and the flexibility needed to question the certainties created up to that moment.

The seafarer who becomes terrestrial is the classic ‘fish out of the water’. The speed/possibility of adaptation will depend mainly on his character and the familiarity that he will be able to preserve with the stable environment.

However, he will have a different way of seeing things, which at times will be an advantage and at others a limit, but which will undoubtedly help to reflect.

When you are on a ship between sky and sea, you know what you have to be careful of: the sea is no one’s friend; on the ground, this too is never so clear.