Financial aid and direct support to individual seafarers is the core activity of the Swedish Mercantile Marine Foundation

Almost 50 years ago, Karl Karell enlisted on his first ship as a deck hand for Johnson Line. He is now at the helm of the Swedish Mercantile Marine Foundation, whose mission is to support seafarers and promote better health and safety on board.

When Karl Karell took over as administrative director at the Swedish Mercantile Marine Foundation in the autumn of 2019, his plan was to continue activities for a year or so before making decisions regarding any changes. However, the pandemic broke out within a few months and the administration was forced to implement new, digital solutions for activities that were previously done physically. 

“Things were not quite as I had imagined, but it has worked out quite well anyway,” says Karl Karell. “In May, we had a digital award day that was broadcast from a studio in Jordbro. It felt a little strange to be talking to studio personnel instead of a live audience, of course, but at the same time it was possible for those at sea to be involved too. Crews gathered in a common room on the icebreakers, where they cheered and applauded when one of their employees was given an award.” 

The award days are the Foundation’s most public event and perhaps what it is best known for in the shipping industry. In reality, however, the awards are only a small part of what the Foundation does, at least from an economic perspective. Its core activities are the annual distribution of financial aid and direct support to individual seafarers. 

“Every week, the Foundation takes emergency measures for seafarers who ask for help, such as compensation for urgent dental care or other health problems. Many seafarers have spent all or some of their working lives on foreign ships, which means that they end up in a grey zone without the same access to social welfare as those who have worked ashore. I would say that it is through our direct support that we do the most good,” says Karl Karell. 

He also has a lengthy career at sea behind him. At home as a boy in Nyköping, he was fascinated by books about old sailing ships and all rigours of sailors in storms, climbing up the creaking rigging with their lives at stake. He enlisted on his first ship in 1973, which happened to be the same year that the Swedish Mercantile Marine Foundation was founded. The ship was a brand-new container ship, Axel Johnson, sailing for Johnson Line. The last ship he worked on before retiring three years ago was Finn Clipper at Finnlines, where he served as master. It is easy to get the impression that Karl Karell was always destined to be a sailor, but he could have had a completely different career.

“I was very interested in theatre and when I was in sixth grade, I applied for the main part in the TV series, Bombi Bitt and me. Unfortunately, it went to another actor by the name of Stellan Skarsgård. The casters said they thought I was a little too young, so I usually blame it on that.” 

“There are no more major changes to the Foundation’s activities in the pipeline,” he says. “As a Foundation, there are strict rules that must be followed and all decisions must be based on them.” 

However, he has introduced some innovative measures within the framework of the rules, such as trying to get more women to submit proposals for the prizes. Another is to encourage the implementation of proposals in the award winners own shipping company as well as others, and to redesign the Foundation’s website. 

Karl Karell on the Foundation’s contribution to health and safety on board

“In addition to rewards and financial support to individual seafarers and their survivors, we support academies for seafarers and nautical officers with equipment and scholarships. The Foundation also provides grants for research projects linked to the work environment and safety on board ships. Among the projects currently supported by the Foundation is one studying mental illness among seafarers and one national research project on improving fire safety on ro-ro ships.” 

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