January 15, 2008

The Sins of the Fathers

About three years ago, my son decided on a choice for a career, and, sadly and thankfully, sailing was not an option he considered at all.
Maybe he saw, since he had sailed enough with me, that the price that had to be paid for making a living that way was too high. Maybe he saw too much.

So, that same evening, I sat myself down with a drink and thought about what I would have said if he had wanted to go out to sea, and if he had asked my opinion. The answers to his unasked questions gave me an insight which was invaluable. Invaluable to me, that is, not to him.
Because my gut reaction was, no.

Honestly, what would I have told him?

Son, you will, after your pre-sea training, be (at least substantially) a glorified clerk at sea, filling forms and pushing paper which everybody else on board is too busy, or too fed up to do. If you are on a hectic run, that may even be largely what you will be doing at sea, filling or collecting papers for the next port, filling checklists for the Chief Officer and the Company, with duplicates for the little boy down the lane.
You will have, probably, a Company controlled training plan, with too much stress on academics and too little on practicality. You will be expected to become a seaman without decent seamanship training. You will be doing, effectively, a correspondence course at sea where the biggest teacher- the ship and the sea itself- will be increasingly seen from within the accommodation.
Other work will involve professional knowledge and training, sure, but getting a senior officer who is willing to teach or even pass on his experience to you will be a rarity. Again they may be too busy, or may just not care.
What you learn may be in spite of these guys, not because of them. And then they will insinuate that the caliber of guys coming out to sea is substandard. After they make a water clerk out of you, they will scoff at what you are becoming.

As a junior officer, (yes, you will get a ticket, almost everybody gets one) your salary may be a balm for awhile. Forget about seeing much of the world, though. In port, you will be rushed, sleepy, tired.. and the ship will be sailing next morning. You will also be doing part of the work a purser and a Chief Steward used to do when I was your age, and, to add insult to injury, will be probably busy falsifying your rest-period figures. Your ship will be short manned for sure- if you are unlucky with Owners or the run, to almost slavery levels- and if you do manage to get ashore, a couple of drinks may cause you to lose your job, or worse. That is, if you still have the energy left to have a drink.

Remember when our family sailed together? When we got the time, once in a while, to go ashore together? Well, if some unfortunate girl does agree to marry you, you will have to effectively forget that now. Even if you want to take the trouble to be armed with close to a half dozen visas and pay heavy airfares and insurance for a few weeks of travel, even if you are willing to tolerate the comment which you will hear from somebody real soon—“Family carriage (and email) is a privilege, not a right”- even if you want to subject your family to relative discomfort, poorer food and boredom and a few short opportunities to go ashore, even if you find the time to step ashore more than a couple of times in your entire contract… you will find that both you and your wife feel it is not really worth the headache and the cost, and call off these plans with relief.
If your wife is working or gets badly seasick, it is a plus, because that will solve this problem.

The money you make will be good, maybe even better than what you would make on land. But if you were any good to begin with, and if you were qualified and working ashore, this difference would not last long. Your friends ashore could be making more than you by the time you are 30 or even earlier. With pensions and benefits maybe, with a better standard of living surely, with fewer pressures certainly, with more fun absolutely. And they will have a career which will go ten years longer. You will be daily hired help, subject to the vagaries of supply and demand. The industry will display manic behaviour- courting you when the demand is high and treating you like something the cat brought in when it is not.

And, if you end up in a foreign owned company, do remember that the dollar ain’t what it used to be, and is dropping. In an Indian Company, look up the tax rates; as a sailor you have little leeway there for deductibles.
And do remember that in many cases when you don’t work at sea, you don’t really get paid, creative practices and rejoining bonuses notwithstanding.
And do remember that in many cases you have no insurance ashore of any kind, and, in the event of a mishap on ‘leave’, will be written off by most employers as a contractual employee they have no liability for- even after a decade or more-and they will be legally, if not morally, right.

If you survive to a Senior Officer’s level at sea, you will probably be already disillusioned, or on the verge of it, but may bask in the rank for awhile.
Things will change, though. You will find that the industry and it’s regulators slowly and invidiously continuing to reduce your authority without correspondingly decreasing your responsibility- and in some cases even increasing it. Bad enough in an office, but can be interesting at sea. You may find you are a criminal in a foreign country- without any illegal intent or even fault of your own. And alone; your own organisation may effectively disown you, or stop at lip service. And you will not have the emotional or physical resources to fight a loaded battle.

Some countries will trust you to bring huge ships into their ports, and then treat you with suspicion when you want to go ashore. You will be presumed guilty in many other ways.

Your biggest trials will be with your peers , not the elements. You will see, at every stage, people from within the industry and without trying to pressurise you and override you- all the while reminding you all the time of your overriding authority … and that the buck stops with you. Or, more appropriately- it’s your neck.

You will have to get used to people with a quarter of your experience and qualifications and a tenth of your responsibility trying to tell you what to do. Your seniority will not really matter, your Certificate of Competency is what has really been employed- you just happen to be attached to it.

You will have to get used to living life in fits and starts; maintaining friendships and relationships with friends will get difficult. You will be a nomad; nomads have oases instead of friends.

Son, my generation went out to sea because of a combination of factors; there were not enough suitable opportunities on land, or there was more money than we could legally earn ashore, or we wanted to see the world or seek adventure- or a combination of all these.

Today the experience of adventure is much diminished. Not destroyed, though, maybe that will happen in the next few years.
Today opportunities and money are greater ashore. Moreover, Shipping is one industry which not really progressed in the last few decades; in fact, for the sailor, it has become considerably more oppressive. Hushed offices and clicking computers can’t hide that fact, or pretend otherwise.

The only real hope you would have if you signed up was to leave sailing after a few years, get another qualification or an MBA (much as I poke fun at that career path), move ashore – and be the hunter, not the prey.

Maybe things will change in the next twenty years. Maybe regulation, procedures and the management of shipping will become more streamlined and sane, less pointless or duplicitous, less short sighted, less oppressive. Maybe we will feel like professionals and respect for the industry will then grow from within. Maybe we will stop fighting each other.

Maybe we will even take off our blinkers and see the light.

If things do change, you can then have a different conversation with your son than I am having with mine. Don’t hold your breath, though.

But for now and in a sentence, son, don’t go out to sea because the earlier advantages don’t exist anymore and the newer disadvantages are close to overwhelming.

First published in http://www.marexbulletin.com/

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