Helping seafarers and their families since 1917

Seafarers UK has supported the maritime community for over 100 years. The past 17 of those have been overseen by Chief Executive Commodore Barry Bryant CVO RN, who following a distinguished career in the Royal Navy before moving into the charity sector is retiring in July. Commodore Bryant spoke to Daniel Barnes about the charity’s ongoing commitment to all seafarers in the UK, lifting the lid on ‘sea blindness’ across the island nation, and why he believes the charity couldn’t have opted for a better successor than Catherine Spencer.

Established in 1917 to support the maritime community following the deaths, injuries and bereavements so many suffered during World War I, Seafarers UK has since helped thousands of seafarers in desperate need, and their families, across the Royal Navy, Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets.

The charity’s Royal Charter, first issued in 1920 and last amended in 2010, highlights four key charitable objects: the relief of seafarers, their families or dependants, who are in need; the education and training of people of any age to prepare for work or service at sea; the promotion of the efficiency and effectiveness of the maritime charitable sector; and the promotion of safety at sea.

On 26th July, Catherine Spencer will become the new Chief Executive for maritime welfare charity, Seafarers UK. She takes the helm from Commodore Barry Bryant CVO RN who, after admirably dedicating the past 17 years to the charity, is retiring.

“I think we have evolved quite a lot during my time here,” he modestly reflected. “We used to be seen as a fairly traditional Victorian charity that concentrated entirely on the welfare side of life. But that perception has since changed.”

Seafarers UK works with numerous partner organisations across all its campaigning, fundraising and grant-giving work. Strategic partners in recent years include Forces in Mind Trust, Trinity House, The Merchant Navy Welfare Board, the Maritime Charities Group, and the Confederation of British Service and ex-Service Organisations (Cobseo).

It works with companies across the shipping industry, maritime services sector and food and beverage retail sector in order to provide them with opportunities to engage with the maritime charity sector and its supporters through their CSR programmes, staff involvement in fundraising and team challenges and via raising their profile through sponsorship.

“We work with and fund many service-delivery charities who actually do the work with individuals on the frontline, so while our work may not be as well-known, it is vital and means we sit in a unique position,” explained Commodore Bryant. “We don’t know of any other charity that reaches from the bridge of the aircraft carrier to the fishing beaches of Hastings, from Penzance to Peterhead and from the cradle to the grave.

“We can range across the industry and identify the areas of greatest need and react to them. If we have two watchwords here, they are facilitation and co-operation; our aim is to make things happen using the least amount of money possible.”

Grants and case studies

In 2018 Seafarers UK delivered £2.46m in total funding covering 56 beneficiary organisations via the administration of 76 grants, and they awarded a further £185,237 in specific Merchant Navy Fund grants.

“Any charity will tell you there is never enough money to go round,” he said. “For Seafarers UK, one of the constant challenges is addressing and educating about ‘sea-blindness’ across our island nation. One good thing that has come out of the Brexit furore is that it has raised people’s awareness of the fact that 95% of our trade does come by sea, and we disrupt it at our peril. We are constantly emphasising this point to the public, because if people do not understand seafarers and the problems in their lives, they won’t give us any money to look after them.”

Whilst each grant awarded by Seafarers UK changes lives for the better, Commodore Bryant highlighted a number of case studies to exemplify the breadth of where its funds are spent.

Seafarers UK is funding SeaFit, a joint initiative with the Seafarers Hospital Society and the Fishermen’s Mission, working in partnership to deliver sustainable improvements in the health and wellbeing of fishermen and their families around the UK.

The two-year programme covers numerous aspects of mental and physical health and wellbeing and provides a range of services direct to communities completely free of charge. These include health checks at the harbour side, health trainers in the community, dental checks with some initial treatment, access to mental health and wellbeing support and the development of a network of physiotherapists trained to meet the specific needs of fishermen.

“Part of the research we conducted into the fishing industry showed the very poor state of health in some of the more isolated fishing communities, because if the choice is between going to the doctor or going to sea and earning money, they have to choose the latter,” said Commodore Bryant.  

“Often national health facilities and certainly dental facilities are not available close by in the fishing ports. The National Health Service and local commissioning groups need to wake up and understand that. On the SeaFit project, the Fishermen’s Mission provides access to the fishermen themselves who they know well, the Seafarers Hospital Society provides the medical expertise, and we provide most of the money.” 

Also in support of fishermen, Seafarers UK, in partnership with Trinity House and The Fishmongers’ Company, has funded a team to support UK fishermen with access funding and business support. This initiative has seen Seafarers UK award a grant of £20,000 to provide a Fisheries Loan Fund from Kernow Credit Union. Fishermen who are in receipt of a grant offer letter from the European Maritime Fisheries Fund (EMFF) are able to access a loan from the credit union to cover the upfront cost of expenditure.

The EMFF is a significant source of funding for fishermen, as it can provide up to 80% of the cost of modernising fishing vessels and purchasing safety equipment. So once the EMFF has reimbursed the fisherman, the credit union loan is repaid, and the money is then returned to the Loan Fund and is available to help another fisherman access similar funding.

Although rarely, the charity also deals with individual cases, as Commodore Bryant revealed: “We were very happy to provide a little bit of money to let the daughter of an engineer who was killed aboard the Atlantic Conveyor during the Falklands conflict to go down and visit the Falklands,” he said. “She was desperate to go there and see where and how it happened. We were able to finance that via the Falklands Veterans Foundation.”

He added: “At the other end of the scale, Seafarers UK received the best part of £1 million, separately from our normal funding, from the Aged Veterans Fund, which comes out of the Armed Forces Covenant Trust, specifically for research work on Merchant Navy veterans from World War II onwards. This addresses special needs these veterans may have, with some of that money also being spent towards bespoke accommodation at the Mariners’ Park village on the waterfront in the Wirral.”

Promoting careers in the maritime industry

In February 2018, the UK government launched Maritime 2050, detailing the country’s strategy for the future of the British maritime sector. Covering a raft of areas from technology, environment and trade to infrastructure and security, the report also puts forward recommendations regarding the ongoing development of the UK’s maritime workforce.   

“The UK’s vision for 2050 is a diverse and rewarded workforce with a focus on good maritime welfare that will set a global benchmark for the sector,” the report states. “Inspiring young people to pursue maritime careers and maintaining our world leading training offer in maritime colleges and universities will allow the UK to deliver high quality skills.”

For someone who has spent much of his life dedicated to being at sea or serving those whose livelihoods are maritime, Commodore Bryant is well positioned to give his two penn’orth on the Maritime 2050 strategy.

“It’s very early days, but we are developing route maps arising out of Maritime 2050,” he said. “We are working on the people aspect of it at the moment, which will answer some questions for us, and hopefully even direct some government funding into things like careers promotion or general awareness. There is a lot going on.” 

Discussing his opinion on how best to promote careers in the maritime industry to prospective workers for the future, he added: “I would address it not only to the younger people going into the industry, but also particularly to their parents and their careers advisers and teachers.

“Going back to the issue of ‘sea-blindness’, I think there is quite a strong feeling that you go away to sea at 15 and come home 50 years later with a parrot on your shoulder and a wooden leg! Of course, it’s not like that, and I think it is really exciting to imagine what the industry will look like in another 20 or 30 years’ time.

“One of my colleagues came up with a great phrase: ‘Once you have a sniff at this industry, there is no wrong door’. You may want to be an admiral; you may want to be a fisherman or a master in due course. There are so many different career routes.

“The rate of change in the industry is also exponential. I heard a futurologist recently say that half of the jobs that will exist in 20 years’ time haven’t even been thought of yet!  As such, we simply need aspirational, confident people with STEM technical skills to look at the opportunities that are in the industry now, and particularly in the future.”

Seafarers UK is currently teaming up with Maritime UK to develop a website that showcases these careers opportunities in more explicit detail.

A ship well sailed

Before his appointment as the Director General of Seafarers UK in May 2002, Commodore Bryant spent nearly 34 years in the Royal Navy, first joining the Fleet Air Arm in 1968. From flying as a Lynx Flight Commander in HMS Brilliant during the Falklands conflict, being in command of HMS Endurance for two seasons in Antarctica, to spending his final four years in the Service as the Director of Naval Service Conditions and of the Naval Personal and Family Service, he enjoyed a hugely varying career.

“I don’t think any of the guys who joined the Navy with me 50 years ago probably ended up doing what they thought they’d be doing, because life changes,” he smiled. “Certainly, the commercial shipping world is the ultimate global industry and you can end up anywhere in the world.” 

When asked about his greatest personal achievements at the wheel of The Great Ship Seafarers UK, Commodore Bryant pointed towards his involvement in the Maritime Charities Group (MCG).  

 “I think one of my greatest achievements is bringing together and leading the now nine members of the MCG which I have been chairing for the last eight years,” he said.  

The MCG fosters collaboration across the maritime charity sector through the sharing of information, commissioning research, supporting the education and welfare of seafarers and their families and by the promotion of best practice within the maritime charity sector.

Along with Seafarers UK, the current members of the MCG are Greenwich Hospital, ITF Seafarers’ Trust, Lloyd’s Register Foundation, Merchant Navy Welfare Board, Nautilus Welfare, Royal Navy & Royal Marines Charity, Seafarers Hospital Society and Trinity House.   

“These are big players, and we meet two or three times a year to look at the strategy for the industry itself, where the greatest areas of need are, how we will work together, and what common standards in factual reporting are needed.”

 Later this year, Trinity House in London will play host to the Maritime Charities Group Conference. The two day event spanning the 28th and 29th October 2019 will present an up to date snapshot of the sector – two years on from the publication of ‘Navigating Change: a review of the UK Maritime Welfare Charity Sector.’

 In addition to expert speakers discussing the challenges for charities in meeting the needs of an ageing population amongst the seafaring community, the conference will also be considering the role of trustees in charities and how to recruit them, take a closer look at the wider maritime environment and consider what can be done to improve the health and wellbeing of the UK’s seafarers.

 The changing of the guard

Now in the twilight of his time at Seafarers UK – and his impressive career in general – Commodore Bryant said the charity will be in safe hands once the baton gets passed to Catherine Spencer at the end of July.

“I am delighted to welcome Catherine as my successor at Seafarers UK,” he announced. “A few years ago I was familiar with her outstanding work with the Army Families Federation and other military charities, and I am convinced that she will lead Seafarers UK to further success both as a welfare charity and in exploiting our other responsibilities with the wider Maritime Charities Group, and working on careers promotion with Maritime UK.”

Catherine Spencer has spent the last three years as Director of Communications and Change Management at icddrb, a complex international health research organisation based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Prior to this, she spent seven years at the Army Families Federation in senior management positions, including three as Chief Executive.

“I am honoured to have been chosen to lead Seafarers UK during an exciting new chapter for the charity, and as so much is changing in maritime welfare and the wider maritime sector as a whole,” Mrs Spencer said.

“I will ensure the efforts of everyone with an interest in the maritime community are harnessed to improve the lives of those who work at sea and their families, and in helping those supporting seafarers. I look forward to learning so much more about the people behind this vital part of the UK and international economy. I would like to thank my predecessor Commodore Barry Bryant for his outstanding achievements over the past 17 years; his dedication to Seafarers UK is unquestionably the reason it is such a success today.”

Commodore Bryant concluded: “Catherine is well-placed to develop our particular abilities for cross-sector cooperation and facilitation, working with colleagues to expand our impressive range of activities, while making the very best of sometimes slender resources. I am confident she will swiftly integrate into the cheerful and willing home team while simultaneously making her mark within the wider maritime community.”