Health and safety

Finding the silver lining for seafarer health

1 July 2017

How do you rebuild your life after being declared unfit to work at sea? STEVEN KENNEDY meets a former cadet who is turning some tough experiences into a business opportunity…

You’ve failed your medical and you can no longer go to sea. They’re the words no mariner wants to hear — and for aspiring seafarer Andrew Cowderoy, they cut his career cut short before it had even really begun.

But despite this bitter blow, Andrew is dedicating his post-seafaring career to educating the industry about the importance of mental and physical wellbeing — and he is using his own experiences to warn others about the dangers of poor health.

‘I come from three to four generations of shipping,’ explains 29-year-old Andrew. ‘Shipping is in my blood. I started training with Bibby Ship Management to become a deck cadet in January 2012, but prior to that I was probably having a bit too much fun teaching sailing, kayaking and skiing.’

The cause of his career-loss would be a devastating one.

Having tried to ‘man his way’ through an illness which had symptoms including chronic diarrhoea, Andrew finally bit the bullet and checked himself into hospital after his second trip to sea. There, he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis — a long-term condition that results in inflammation and ulcers of the colon and rectum.

The news hit him for six.

Within sight of realising his career aspirations, he was now left with an uncertain future. It was a case of making the transition from ship to shore far earlier than he’d ever have expected — and, perhaps, having to turn his back on the sea altogether. However, speaking to friends and colleagues gave him an initial path forwards in an uncertain new world.

‘My main concern when I was lying in the hospital bed was “will I be able to get that medical?”’ he recalls. ‘Two months after that, I was told that I was deemed temporarily unfit and was told that they would never recommend that I go back to sea again.

‘I was around three and a half years into the process and my initial reaction was that I’d stop the cadetship and must start working in the city,’ he adds.

‘After a few conversations with friends on my course and my employers Bibby — who were excellent with me — they said to come back and complete the foundation degree even though I couldn’t go back to sea.’

Having completed his course, it was a case of what now?

I thought I was fit and healthy, but looking back I was nowhere close to it Andrew Cowderoy , CEO ZS Wellness

Despite having his newly-earned qualification in his back pocket, Andrew no longer had the ability to put the skills he’d learnt into practice. He was going to have to keep his options open.

Fortunately, he’d made a contact and such an option presented itself to him. ‘I’d joined the Honourable Company of Master Mariners and met a chap there,’ Andrew explains. ‘He said if you’re ever planning to leave the sea and come ashore, then let me know and we can have a chat. He was a head-hunter working for RTI Forensics and I called him back and said this is my position, let’s have that chat.’

As a result, Andrew spent a year auditing maritime security companies before going back to the jobs market. ‘It was more after I left RTI that the realisation hit me that, yes I had a degree and I had all this experience — but unless you have an OOW CoC, it is extremely hard to get any work once you leave the sea — and even if you do have the certificate, the market in London is extremely limited.’

Whilst job hunting, Andrew was using his spare time to train as a personal trainer, and with his mind now firmly set on a maintaining a healthy lifestyle, he started to see an opportunity to pull his two major passions — fitness and shipping — together.

In doing so, he created ZS Wellness. ‘While I had a conception of what it is to be fit and healthy — and I thought I was — when I look back I was nowhere close to it,’ he says. ‘I then fell ill and lost my career at sea.

‘Throughout the years you learn about your body,’ he continues. ‘Last year I was doing my personal training and thinking about shipping and fitness. I thought it’s an industry that needs it. I made some calls and I’ve now set up ZS Wellness. I’ve been speaking to the CEO of the Chamber of Shipping on a regular basis, and Garmin and Oracle — all the big names are there and supporting it.’

Far from being a personal training programme, ZS Wellness is about changing minds and educating the industry on how to improve the health and wellbeing of seafarers in all sectors.

In a challenging and contained environment, and with seafarers facing the prospect of long shifts and little downtime, ZS Wellness aims to provide the industry with methods and ideas on ways in which crews can improve their mental and physical health.

And it’s not about having to spend hours in a gym, Andrew stresses. ‘It’s about educating the industry and seafarers to recognise where they are,’ he explains. ‘We use modern, wearable technology, and from that we can say this is the risk you are putting your life at and this is the risk you’re putting your career at. Then, for the shipping industry, this is the risk you’re at financially and the risk you’re putting your seafarers at.

‘The team are personal trainers and we understand how you have to speak to people,’ Andrew adds. ‘Seafarers are seafarers — I was one — and if somebody came onboard and just said you’ve got to do all this extra fitness work I’d have been, “eff off, I’m not doing that”. It’s about educating and slowly changing the ethos. 

‘A lot of the stuff we’ll be doing in the programmes will be body weight exercises,’ he says. ‘Get moving, let’s stretch. Even if you’re on a big box-boat, then just go out and have a walk around the ship, get some fresh air.'

Despite the company being in its early stages, Andrew has big plans and is also targeting onboard diets as an area that needs to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.

‘Diet is an important issue,’ he points out. ‘You can’t out-train a bad diet. I was physically active before, but my diet was all wrong. It’s very hard onboard a ship to have a healthy diet. You may only have one option, so what we want to do — further down the line — is to get companies thinking about what they are giving their crews to eat and drink.

Let’s see if we can tweak the ingredients or the menus that are being made to a healthy nutritional standard.

‘If you make small tweaks along the way it’s much more sustainable to keep the changes long-term, Andrew concludes.

‘It is a long process, but I’d rather do that longer process and hopefully when seafarers come ashore they can continue with their new healthy practices.’

Top image: Andrew Cowderoy during his cadetship onboard ANL Wangaratta


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