1st Edition

Sea-Time An Ethnographic Adventure

By Helen Sampson Copyright 2024
    296 Pages
    by Routledge

    296 Pages
    by Routledge

    The book is an ethnography that draws upon 25 years of qualitative research and shipboard field work in the merchant cargo shipping sector. It explores the lives and work of seafarers and how these have changed over time. Change over time and the experience of time on board are organising themes throughout the text. They are contextualised with accounts of transformation in the regulation of the shipping industry and technological innovation.

    The book begins with a unique account of a voyage on a container ship. In this, the author details both the research process and the daily activities and shared thoughts of the seafarers who are on board. The narrative is further enhanced with illustrative examples taken from other voyages to illustrate continuities and change over time.

    The book will be of value to individuals, scholars, and researchers interested in ethnography of all kinds. Sociologists, anthropologists, maritime studies students, seafarers, ship operators, and policy makers will find the text engaging and revealing. It provides a vivid account that will appeal to academics interested in the study of work, workplace change and time. It is accessibly written and will be enjoyed by readers interested in the contemporary shipping industry, and the life and work of seafarers.


    1. Joining Beluga

    2. Sea craft

    3. Full steam ahead

    4. Crashing and banging in port

    5. Stopping and starting: from the Bosporus to the Black Sea

    6. Heading for home: shipboard reflections

    7. The ebb and flow of time

    8. Gender matters: the challenges of being female on board

    9. How ships lost their ‘rock and roll’!

    10. Spartan standards and sacrifice: a life on floating steel

    Conclusions, signing off and final thoughts


    Helen Sampson is a Professor in the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University. She has been the Director of the Seafarers International Research Centre for over 20 years. In 2014 she won the BBC/BSA ethnography prize for her book International Seafarers and Transnationalism in the Twenty-First Century.

    "Two mobile occupations cross in this fascinating book: seafarers and researcher. The narrating author Helen Sampson, Professor and Director of the Seafarers International Research Centre (SIRC) based in Cardiff, draws on her interactions and research with seafarers that span over two decades. By taking her readers on a journey from Panama across the Atlantic and the Black Sea up to Russia then back to Turkey, Helen Sampson reveals work-life on merchant ships through the lens of her own experiences. Once readers have adjusted to the confined ship environment, they are encapsulated with circumstances determined by controlling power hierarchies, complex relationships, ‘flogging time’, banging and clashing, oily fumes, discomforting cabin furniture, complex ship-shore interactions, constant reminders of risk to life and the fragility of the ship equipment, jokes and banter, and interesting cultural differences that need negotiating.

    More than the one risk of sharing a dangerous occupational fieldwork is taken in this book. There are the risks of being transparent about her own encounters, showing emotion and discomfort, and speaking from an honest female researcher perspective who spends her ship-time observing activities in an overwhelmingly masculine environment. This book wraps this author’s particular journey as layered in recollections of nine earlier shipboard travels and then unpacks some of the key issues of seafaring: the interactions with time, gender, technology, and a changing and globalised ship culture. This book is not only an ethnographic account of an incredibly diligent researcher, It highlights female perspectives aboard ship both from an auto-ethnographic viewpoint and by observation and analysis of women seafarers. It also speaks plainly without avoiding difficult issues of global restructuring in the shipping industry, some of which are keeping seafarers at discomfort and risk. This book has my applause and respect."

    Dr Maria Borovnik, Senior Lecturer, School of People, Environment and Planning, Massey University, New Zealand

    "Her exhaustively researched account in 103,000 words lifts the lid on the deep psychological impact of life at sea. The core of her book is the ‘ethnography’ of one of the voyages that she undertook, interwoven with her experiences travelling on other ships and her insights from interviews with seafarers. It is enlivened by her personal reactions to sharing sea-time with crew. Saturated with meaning, the reports of her observations are the more powerful because she writes engagingly and empathetically about her subjects.
    Professor Sampson’s vividly written, jargon-free sweep of narrative should be required reading for all in the maritime industry and will be revelatory to outsiders. She communicates her warmth eloquently and displays a keen, untiring eye for detail. She describes her voyages – her ‘sea-time’ – as data-collecting exercises, although they are redolent with social scrutiny. It is seldom that compassion seeps so thoroughly into a researcher’s assessment of their targeted environment."

    Dr Irene Rosberg, Programme Director, Executive MBA in Shipping and Logistics, Copenhagen Business School, Denmark

    "There can be few people who have done more than Professor Helen Sampson in raising awareness and understanding of the lives of the world’s seafarers. In almost one-quarter of a century of work for the Seafarers International Research Centre, she has helped to shine a light on the complex conditions that influence their jobs and the often acute problems and challenges that they face.

    Sampson’s pioneering ethnographic work in extensive (and intensive) observation and analysis of seafarers in their workplaces has not only delivered important research reports but also resulted in a much deeper understanding of the actions, thoughts, emotions and motivations of maritime professionals."

    Andrew Linnington, Former Head of Communications at Nautilus International

    "With Sea-Time Helen Sampson consolidates her place as the leading researcher of seafaring. The culmination of two decades of immersion on the immense cargo boats crossing the world, Sea-Time transports us into the rhythms, the noise, the dangers, the skills, the brittle but also enduring relations of a total institution - and how life on board has been routinized and regulated with the concentration of the shipping industry. Living with seafarers from different lands for months at a time, Sampson is able to dig into their masculine lives with gentle sympathy for their hopes and imaginations as well as the toll of oppressive working conditions. The Moby Dick of contemporary social science."

    Prof Michael Burawoy, University of California, Berkeley, USA

    "Innovative and original, this excellent book deserves to be widely read. Uniquely based on years of primary research at sea, it provides an insightful account of life and work upon merchant cargo vessels, mobile workplaces with typically multi-ethnic, overwhelmingly male workforces, that travel the world with significant effects as a result for those who of necessity both live and work on them. At the same time, it can be read as an exemplary account of the process of sophisticated ethnographic research, of the challenges of both observing and participating in life and work on board ships. As such it will be of interest to a broad spectrum of social scientists as well as all those with an interest in life at sea." 

    Prof Ray Hudson, Emeritus Professor of Geography, Durham University, UK

    "Sampson has written an exemplary account of her ethnographic research on 'sea-time' that is both reflective and engaging. This is complemented by an equally impressive analysis of the working lives of seafarers in an increasingly globalized industry. The scope and depth of the book on contemporary seafaring will be of interest to sociologists of work, shipping companies and maritime policy makers."

    Prof Stephen Edgell, Principal Editor of "The Sage Handbook of the Sociology of Work and Employment"