Amid all the talk of High Throughput Satellites and next-generation bandwidth availability for ship-shore communications it’s very easy to forget that for seafarers, access to email, SMS and the internet can still be a luxury.

It was a point driven home earlier this year by Mark Woodhead of Headland Media who pointed out at an industry communications conference that if the average business person only turned on their phone or logged into email twice a day, their experience would already be better than that of the average crewman.

Woodhead’s own research suggests that between 10 and 50% of seafarers have access to email onboard ship. Hardly any have private email accounts as they are usually fixed to the ship and accessed by the Master, who has the ability to read every word.

Messages are often restricted to 3,000 characters and few are allowed attachments. Some crew are charged for sending and receiving emails and these are almost always batched, meaning they go off the ship in a pre-determined time window.

Internet access was even rarer, he said. ITF research concludes that perhaps 20% had the ability to surf the web but Woodhead’s research puts the figure at less than 10%. For those 10% the ability to enjoy digital communications on board was a must-have for signing on, but many cannot be so choosy.

And this lack of access to day-to-day technology is not confined to the ranks – Woodhead says his findings were from “a cross section of crew, from masters through to ratings”.

Being the entrepreneurial type Woodhead decided he would do something about it. Headland makes its money providing content to ships – including film & TV, training and multi-language news – but there was a gaping need for a service that connected directly with the crew as well. And so Crewtoo was born.

As Woodhead saw it, his company had delivered services to crew for years but its customers were the shipping companies and managers rather than the end user.

“We wanted to create a relationship with seafarers so we could understand their situation first hand and ultimately provide services that are better designed to suit their needs,” he says. “We have often been struck by comments that have come through from crew on how isolated they are. Crew welfare has been a focus of all our services and we felt we were in an ideal position to provide a platform that would really connect with seafarers.”

There’s something of a moral edge to this too. Woodhead reckons seafarers lead a pretty humble existence for people who play such an important role in world trade “and, quite simply, we feel that they deserve better services than they have”.

“In our land-based lives, amazing technology and services are everywhere. Yet seafarers still, by and large are left to be on their own, lonely, for months on end with no internet connection. They deserve something better, and we hope Crewtoo can help to kick-start this,” he says.

Rather than merely provide content, Crewtoo is designed to be a social network, enabling sharing of messages and attempting to stimulate comment and discussion by posing weekly key questions. Woodhead says Crewtoo doesn’t dictate topics and more than anything prides itself on listening to what the seafarers are saying.

“We let them have their say, no matter what, and the results have been surprising,” he says. “Who else would post a blog that shares videos of crews lip-syncing to Lady Gaga?” Who indeed?

The results so far have been encouraging, with a number of seafarers contacting Woodhead and his team to report that they have re-connected with old friends after seeing each other’s messages in the Crewtoo newspaper.

Woodhead realised that to be a success, Crewtoo would have to get around the problem of poor internet and email access noted above. Crewtoo has a social network website but it also offers what it calls a ‘primitive social network’ for the majority without full internet access.

This takes the form of a plain text e-mail and Your Crewtoo PDF newspapers optimised for reading onboard.  Members receive a question and joke each week, and reply if possible with their messages, answers and ‘shout outs’ to other seafarers that are then printed in the newspaper which is delivered to 9,000 vessels. This largesse doesn’t come for nothing, though for ships subscribing to the NewsLink daily service, the Crewtoo newspaper is bundled free of charge.

Woodhead shies away from a comparison to Facebook. “If pushed I would say it is a mix between Friends Reunited, Facebook and Twitter,” he says. But it shares many of the features common to the social media website – status updates, following friends and commenting together on news and events.

Ultimately, what he thinks Crewtoo provides is evidence to seafarers that they are far from alone, even when they are far from home. A recent trip to Singapore, where he met a cross-section of owners and managers, merely reinforced his belief that the need was greater than ever.

“Seafarers are happy that someone out there is thinking about them, listening to their concerns, and trying to improve their lot,” he says. “When you are virtually alone, in the middle of the ocean for three months at a time, with no internet or TV, the effect of just reading jokes, stories, and messages from others in the same situation each week is dramatic.”

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