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Published on 11/10/2017

Drug & Alcohol Screening: Isn’t it time that the ‘Drunken Sailor’ was confined to the past?

The concept of the ‘drunken sailor’ has been around almost as long as shipping itself. Long periods spent at sea can take their toll on seafarers and alcohol has long been a way to relieve the stresses and anxiety felt when separated from the outside world for weeks at a time. Folk songs and sea shanties aside, alcohol or drugs have been a contributing factor in some of the worst shipping catastrophes of the last 50 years, so much so that all vessels must now have a Drug and Alcohol policy onboard which sets out controlled and banned substances, as well as times and limitations for the consumption of alcohol. Drug and Alcohol screening play a large part in many shipping operator’s policies, yet the process isn’t set in stone for all vessels.

Drugs or alcohol were found to play a part in the cases of the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989, the fatal Staten Island Ferry crash in 2003 and the grounding of Lysblink Seaways cargo vessel as recently as 2015 and with the latter costing DFDS Seaways millions, and the chief officer his job, it’s clear to see that the enforcement of drug and alcohol testing lies with both the operator and the ship’s management team.


Drug and alcohol screening has come a long way in the last ten years. Many operators have previously carried out random testing as part of annual medical checks, where results were only made available after a ship had left shore. Another option has been to introduce a third-party contractor to carry out random tests when a ship docks, meaning that crew members can predict when a test is due and take measures to avoid detection. Drug and alcohol screening kits are now available which provide results in an instant, using saliva-based testing and portable breathalysers to carry out on-the-spot tests at any time. The process is also non-invasive meaning that testing is easy for the person administering the test, as well as the crew member.

Often, the idea of being caught doing something we shouldn’t is enough to prevent us from doing it. Portable drug and alcohol screening can act as a deterrent to crew members when they become aware that a test can be carried at out any time, whether in port, or out at sea.


Although it may not feel like it at the time of consumption, alcohol is actually a depressant and with suicide among seafarers being an all too common occurrence, it’s imperative that operators protect the health and mental wellbeing of their crew.

Crew members also work and live in close proximity to one another so often, if someone is suffering from alcohol related depression, someone else will know. Reporting incidences of alcohol abuse should be encouraged as a way of improving crew welfare and the safety of all onboard. The Alco-XS breathalyser is a market leading system which has been designed specifically to meet the new ‘Manila Amendments’ to the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW), which set out new guidelines for hours of work and alcohol limits for certain vessels. Using the Alco-XS, testing is fast and easy to carry out and because the system doesn’t require re-calibrating, it’s always available for use. The system also allows for self-diagnosis in the event that someone returns from leave, or a rest day, and have concerns that alcohol may still be in their bloodstream.

The ‘Drunken Sailor’ image needs to be cast away for more than just the safety of our ships. Drug and alcohol dependence are serious illnesses which, if left unchecked, can lead to serious incidences, injury and even death onboard a ship. Monitoring crew members behaviour is not the only way to protect the safety and welfare of seafarers. Counselling needs to be made readily available and accessible, without fear of repercussions. The Mission to Seafarers mental health campaign seeks to help those who are suffering from the isolated and loneliness that can plague the profession, which can often lead to substance and alcohol abuse, even in the form of prescription drugs. Help and support is also available through Seafarers UK who offer seafarers and their families the ability to access counselling and other services to help combat the stresses of life at sea.