Commodore Barry Bryant is the Director General of Seafarer’s UK, the charity that helps people in the maritime community by providing vital funding to support seafarers in need and their families. With a notable career at the Royal Navy and recognition by Her Majesty The Queen, Commodore Bryant now works ashore, dedicating his work to fulfill his organisation’s charitable objectives.
HRAS: Commodore Bryant, thank you for speaking to us for the new ‘HRAS Interview’ online publication. As a former seafarer and experienced senior Royal Navy officer, what would you say is the most challenging aspect of a seafarer’s life that the majority of people who have never been to sea and may not necessarily comprehend?
Despite an increasingly crowded and technological world, people who have not been to sea find it hard to appreciate the sheer vastness and power of the ocean, and the occasional inability of even the largest ships and most experienced seafarers to master the most extreme aspects of waves and weather. Those who fail to respect the sea may well not survive it.
HRAS: In your opinion, what kind of perils does the modern seafarer have to deal with while serving at sea? Are they all physical ones?
Clearly seafaring is a much safer occupation in more recent years, but it still remains one of the more dangerous and demanding jobs in the world, with many physical challenges particularly in smaller vessels and fishing boats. But there are other unseen perils, particularly with social isolation caused by long voyages and family separation, smaller and multi-national crews, poor communications, ever-shorter time in port and, regrettably, the tendency of a small number of ship owners and operators to treat seafarers as merely an expendable commodity. All this reinforces the vital contribution of charities, Trade Unions and Human Rights organisations.
HRAS: The ongoing matter of the lack of women working in the maritime sector is an increasing focus of research and drive for rectification by some members of the industry. What is your view of the current gender imbalance in the maritime sector and can there ever be a balance?
With the move towards greater use of technology and less reliance on sheer physical strength, there are few jobs at sea that can’t be tackled by suitably qualified women. I captained HMS ENDURANCE in the Antarctic with a significant minority of female sailors and was always impressed by their ability and dedication, and I have no doubt that there could be a theoretical gender balance. However, as with the Armed Forces, I believe the social factors of separation, isolation and the desire for motherhood will always mean that the majority of seafarers, particularly those in long-term careers, will remain male.
HRAS: Recently Seafarers UK provided Human Rights at Sea with its first ‘kick-start’ funding as a newly established charity for its flagship programme, the ‘Missing Seafarers Reporting Programme’. The aim of the ‘Missing Seafarers Reporting Programme’ is to build an accurate international database of the status of seafarers and fishermen missing at sea on a global basis, of which some cases may be investigated. What made you believe in the Missing Seafarers Reporting Programme and what are your aspirations for the programme as Director General of Seafarers UK?
I think what appealed to us was the innovative nature of the programme, the ambition to make a major difference for a reasonably small amount of money, and the clear passion for the cause shown by David Hammond. Of course there’s some risk involved in a completely new venture, but there was sufficient distinction for Seafarers UK to get the programme off the ground while it establishes foundations and displays enough progress and merit to warrant funding from other sources.
HRAS: What are the greatest fundraising challenges in the charity sector for Seafarers UK and its Trustees?
As far as the general public is concerned, there is an appalling ignorance of the economic importance of the sea and its people, and the challenges that they sometimes face. This led to the creation of our annual ‘Seafarers Awareness Week’ in a bid to raise the profile of the industry and those who work in it – no-one is going to give money for a problem they don’t understand! In corporate terms, there are unfortunately some sections of the marine industries which treat seafarers as expendable commodities – but of course there are other extremely good companies who have forward-looking CSR policies and are prepared to work closely with us. As with so many things, communication is key!
HRAS: Has the modern maritime charity sector become overborne with organisations wishing to make a difference and if so, how should this be coordinated in order to avoid duplication of effort?
‘Overborne’ is a bit subjective; there are certainly many of them, and some have been there for hundreds of years. As one of the few funding organisations reaching right across the UK maritime sector – RN, MN and fishing – Seafarers UK works to minimize duplication, functionally and geographically, by trying to steer the smaller charities into doing what they’re good at and, most importantly, to talk to each other. I chair the Maritime Charities Group, an informal partnership of the major funders: Seafarers UK, Trinity House, Merchant Navy Welfare Board, Greenwich Hospital, Nautilus Welfare, the Royal Navy and Royal Marines Charity, and Seafarers’ Hospital Society, and together we try to influence sector policy and grants distribution as well as funding research to help the future planning and direction of the service-delivery organisations. We can’t tell them what to do, but cheque-book diplomacy sometimes helps the persuasion process!
HRAS: Careers at sea. During this year’s Seafarer’s Awareness Week, the focus was very much given to educating, training and effectively recruiting young people for a career at sea. What does a young man or woman need to have in mind before he/she takes the decision to start a career at sea? What would be your personal advice to young people wishing to become seafarers?
People often think of careers at sea as just that – an endless round of voyages and separation from friends and family. In fact, there’s an infinite variety of jobs within the maritime and marine industries, from company management, port administration, HR, finance, hotel services etc, as well as seagoing itself. Having gained the basic qualifications, future advancement is very much up to your own ambition and desires – but it’s a life that demands hard work, dedication and a degree of self-sacrifice. My advice would be to do lots of research, talk to experienced seafarers and go into it with your eyes open – but you will become part of a rather special breed.
HRAS: If you were not the Director General of Seafarer’s UK, what could you imagine yourself doing instead and would it be in the same field with relation to seafarer’s welfare?
It’s certainly not what I’d planned to do on leaving the Navy; with my last four years as one of the Service’s senior HR Directors, I had imagined doing something similar in the City, but soon realised that uniforms were not that welcome! However, and after over 13 years, I have never regretted the Seafarers UK decision so it probably would be something not far from the maritime world; there’s never a day when you don’t learn something new, and of course you’re working with some great people –whether RN, MN or fishing – with exactly the same ethos. Pity about the commuting, though!
HRAS: Finally, could you share with us the detail of your most challenging day at sea?
I suppose the obvious choice would be a couple of particularly hairy days during the Falklands conflict, but actually I think it was as Captain of HMS ENDURANCE a few years later, surveying just off an ice shelf in Antarctica, when we realised that a very large iceberg – several miles long and about 200ft high – was moving quite quickly and was about to cut off our exit route and possibly crush the ship. I scrambled the helicopter to find an escape route, which eventually we did – or I wouldn’t be writing this!
We provide grants to specialist maritime charities and organisations, often small local ones, that are working to help serving and ex-serving seafarers and their families who are experiencing hardship. Our key aim is to provide sustainable funding and improve the quality of life for those in greatest need.
In 2013, we awarded 98 grants to 84 organisations across the UK and Commonwealth for a total of £2.5 million. The charities we supported provide services that have a direct and positive impact on the lives and well-being of individuals, their families and their local communities.
Notably, we are the only grant-making charity that assesses the welfare need across the whole of the maritime sector. This enables us to target our funding efficiently and effectively to those in greatest need.
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