May 31, 2008

Rumour in Uniform.

There is a persistent rumour going around in shipping circles that the only reason officers wear uniforms at sea is because a whiz kid from marketing in the blue building in the Bandra Kurla complex says it is a good idea. He likes the photographs he can arrange in brochures and annual reports.

Industry experts are tightlipped, officers are asking for a full enquiry and the DGS has refused to comment. However, reporters from your favourite magazine mounted a concerted sting operation: though they did get footage of a Shipmaster saying, "A Master, like a tiger, never changes his stripes", this is unconfirmed because the film turned out fuzzy, like his logic.

Okay, that was a bad joke.

Seriously, though, I dislike wearing a uniform. A psychiatrist would probably trace this back to the second ship I sailed on, where I was sent down to the holds (by a Chief Officer with a subtle sense of humour largely unappreciated at the time) in full blues, peak cap included, to remove hatch boards from the 'tween decks. For the youngsters out there, these were thick planks of wood laid between steel 'ribbing' on old tweendeckers. These hatch boards had to be manually removed, one at a time, to get cargo access to the lower holds. There seemed to be hundreds of them, and me all alone in my finery, jacket and tie and cap and all, sweating and cursing alternately.
Later on, on the same ship, the Captain barked at me once, "I want to see you in a peak cap at all times", resulting in my being then spotted by the same Chief Officer heading for the communal shower with just a towel around my waist, soap in my hand and a peak cap on. (My batch mate, a die hard guy from Calcutta, went up to the dark bridge at night in full blues. He went softly near where the Captain was standing, simultaneously saluted, slammed his feet to attention, and shouted 'good evening, SIR!' , all hard, loud and Marine style. I think he scared the bejesus out of the Old Man)

There was no television in those days. One found live entertainment where one could.

Later, as a junior officer, I realised that I found uniforms restrictive. For one, it was mandatory, sailing in foreign companies, to get your hands dirty all the time. Officers were seen as additional hands on deck during port watches, and, to be fair, few non Indian owned or managed companies had any uniform hangups. A British one did, but then we Indians have got many of our useless traditions from them.

I preferred no uniforms. Not all Indian Masters that I sailed with did, though; a couple insisted that Duty Officers in port come for lunch after changing into uniform, resulting in delayed lunches and packed Duty Messes. (One Master even insisted that he be called Sir instead of Captain, leading to a Second Mate asking him, "Why? Have you been knighted?")

I found working out of uniform more relaxing, more efficient and more fun. No white shirt to worry about, or dirty hands, or stockings (Who invented those? And garters too!) to rub against dirty ropes. No uncomfortable shoes to go up and down holds in, trying to squeeze yourself smaller so your white shirt doesn't touch either the booby hatch rim, the ladder rungs or anything at all. No taking ten minutes to dress up, a minute was enough.

My attitude didn't endear me too much with some superintendents and managers, because I seemed to live in boiler suits in setups where uniforms were mandatory. I guess the management types had visions of visitors being impressed breathless by a shipload of officers strutting around in sparkling whites looking importantly at distant horizons, or peering sexily into sextants with four stripes showing on their sleeves. Technical superintendents used to generally be more tolerant, coming from a boiler suited background themselves. Or maybe they appreciated a no nonsense approach to work more.

Years later, as a Master, things reached a head in a company which was changing to Indian management that was bent on making uniforms compulsory. I decided not to return rather than put up with this irritant: an irritant which is often the precursor of broader red tape and other unimportant things. In any event, they didn't want me back either, so I guess it was divorce by mutual consent, no baggage and nobody keeping the children.

Another company had a strict uniform policy. I joined a ship there, sailing regularly to the Persian Gulf in summer, small poky cabins with hardly a porthole, no ventilation. Air conditioning knackered and no fans. The heat used to make your eyes pop.
Wearing underwear there seemed like overdressing, so a uniform was torture. After a voyage under these hellish conditions, we were told that the uniform policy was not negotiable and that spares for the air conditioner were being sourced "under budgetary constraints". At this juncture it was pointed out to the managers that perhaps officers were cheaper to get than air conditioning spares, so maybe they should be looking for those suitable replacements already in uniform.

Why is it that mainly Indians are taken up with uniforms? Colonial legacy? Legacy of sixty man Indian flag ships and chhoti hazri days? An impractical upbringing? I think it is a mix of all these, plus one biggie: Indians are conformists by nature. Wearing a uniform, practical or not, lends itself to this natural bent. So does forcing others into uniform, in case one of them points out that the emperor has no uniform, oops, clothes.

This fixation with uniforms is not limited to managers alone. I know one engineer who carries his thirty five year old DMET id card, complete with uniformed photograph, in his wallet. Another Master got married in full woolen blues in hot and muggy Bombay; it is, more poetically, hot and muggy Mumbai today.

Whatever, I find working with Europeans and some other non-Indian organisations more refreshing. Less horse manure, and more comfortable too, uniform-less. The breeze seems to blow cooler when you are not in uniform at sea.

Finally, let me stop this anecdotal rambling and make my case more succinctly for a 'No Uniform' Policy, and why I think it is beneficial for both mariners and companies alike:

A 'No Uniform' policy is better because it is:
· More efficient. No taking care of uniforms on deck. Take care of the ship and cargo instead.
· More user friendly. Lends to a more relaxed way of working, which is not the same as a lax way of working
· Less time wasted changing in and out of uniform for meals etc. trying to be a marionette instead of an efficient officer. Besides, a boiler suit can be just zipped up. A uniform is best worn aka Jack Nicholson in 'A Few Good Men'. Looks good if you are in a movie.
· Easier to maintain boiler suits and civvies than uniforms.
· Short manned ships are the norm today. On numerous occasions and in many situations you need an extra pair of hands, not a uniform.
· In my experience, most seafarers prefer not to wear uniforms. Try giving them what they want, for a change. Maybe this will be another small reason they might prefer your company.
· The justification often used: that a uniform wearing policy lends itself to 'people from ashore knowing who is who' is as ridiculous as saying people in management ashore should wear uniforms because all outsiders will know who is who. Outsiders can always ask. Besides, as far as I know, it is better to know what is what than who is who anyway.
· An officer working more with his hands and less with his uniform gets more respect from his peers and juniors. Better teamwork results.
· In my view, uniformity is detrimental to initiative. A hands on person responds better and has better solutions to practical problems.

Anybody who insists on compulsory uniforms should be made to do an officer's not atypical routine during a twelve hour port stay: change from uniform on arrival to boiler suit for stations to uniform for lunch to boiler suit for cargo watch to uniform for dinner to boiler suit for departure stations to uniform for sea watch. I guarantee, all the sexy sextants will go sailing out the porthole.

I worked for a German company in the early 80's. They had simple rules regarding what you
should wear when and where:

- At least shorts and safety shoes on deck.
- At least shorts, tshirt and slippers everywhere in the accommodation except no slippers on the bridge. Shoes or sandals allowed there.
- Overalls and safety shoes in the Engine Room.
- Within the accommodation, all clothes and footwear to be clean.

Penalty for breaking these rules: A fine of a case of beer. Beer goes to officer's or crew's mess room, depending on the rank of the offender.

Ah, for that simple and uncomplicated life again.

"Wait a minute!" you say. "To change our present policy, we must first incorporate it in the ISM, get it approved, change manuals A B C X Y and Z in triplicate and produce twelve laminated photocopies to be displayed on each ship. We must also appoint a "Uniform Superintendent" to oversee the implementation of this path breaking new policy. We call this progress."

"This is too much work."

"Let them eat cake. Let them wear uniforms instead."


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