January 13, 2011

With respect

We within the industry should learn to respect the sailor first before we demand that the world outside give him his due.

Frankly, the repeated derogatory comparisons the fuddy-duddies within shipping make against mariners in comparison to the workforce in other industries- and, indeed, with other disciplines of study- have become unamusing, even tiresome. I have been privileged, in the last few weeks, in having to listen to quite a few of the same old litanies, usually expressed in sonorous – almost sepulchral- voices that sound like Moses heralding the Ten Commandments. The premise seems to be that a) seamen should not, given their academic credentials, expect too much in life; b) that they should disregard how other industries treat their workforces and more or less put up with the archaic conditions in this industry; c) that gentlemen ashore, many of them former sailors, know best, and d) that the academic and arcane views of these geriatric gentlemen- many of whom have not seen the business end of a ship from a position of responsibility for a decade or more- should nonetheless be given inappropriate weightage and special sanction. No contrary debate, however well-reasoned, is entertained by them. Mommy knows best- even an out of date mommy.

This attitude is bad enough. But there seems to be a tendency- perhaps borne out of a feeling of inadequacy, because the geriatrics know quite well that they would be incapable of handling a Chief Engineer’s or Master’s job at sea today- these gentlemen persist, nonetheless, in taking an unholy delight in generally denigrating all those still working at sea. Surely, some of this reaction is due to insecurity. Many senior officers at sea today are very capable of shifting to jobs ashore; many ashore are, by and large, incapable of sailing again. Maybe that is why the geriatrics exhibit a syndrome usually associated with insecure crabs in a bucket- pull down whoever else you can. Thankfully, quite a few Technical Superintendents, in my experience, are more appreciative of conditions on the ground, and more respectful of those who sail. As for the rest, the disconnect –even divide- between shore and sea workers is to their advantage; so they will not change easily. They will remain disconnected from reality. Ignorance, even if feigned, is bliss.

For these folk, the IMO is hallowed ground- without question and regardless of the history or effectiveness of that organisation, especially with regard to major mariner issues. These folk throw questionable statistics out at the slightest provocation to buttress their shaky theories. They refuse to even consider that corruption in national maritime administrations and in shipmanning could be a major cause of the continued rot in shipping today. They have one-dimensional and generalised views: Cadets today have no initiative. Training is terrible. The young have an abysmal attitude at sea. It is all their own entire fault. Seafarers should do this or that, or they will suffer. Battling piracy is just a matter of following ‘best management practices’- this last, from a group of people who have probably been chased by a couple of skirts- never a couple of skiffs firing RPGs - in their entire seafaring lives, is a hilarious argument.

I agree that attitudes, commitment and everything else amongst the younger generation needs much improvement. I agree that training needs to transform and become much cleaner than it is today: I have said so often enough. But my views are not one-dimensional, and my suggestions include other reasons that I consider important. My argument is also this: those seniors in the industry who continue to besmirch seafarers to the point of slander make poor managers, because anybody with a generalised, preconceived and disrespectful set of notions cannot but make a poor manager. Anybody who refuses to even consider that young sailors on the threshold of their careers need support from the industry in line with what their contemporaries are given, everywhere else in the commercial world today, is on the verge of extinction. Anybody who says that improvement in quality of officers will come only from changed seafarer attitudes or improved training or whatever- and that the rest of the industry need not really do anything to set its rotting house in order- is talking through his hat.

For the record, to those who have scoffed whenever I bring up premier engineering, management or other educational institutes of excellence as something worthy of emulation- and, indeed, comparison- let me say this once and for all. I believe that many a Master or Chief Engineer displays a higher level of responsibility, commercial savvy, operational knowledge and attitude today than many of the graduates of those institutions do in their chosen fields. It is because I believe that a senior ship-officer needs to do this in order to survive- not thrive- is why I hold the man at sea in high respect. My respect has nothing to do with the money he makes, or his educational background. My respect has nothing to do with my own insecurities clouding my judgement; my opinion has not changed whenever I have worked ashore. My respect has nothing to do, even, with the kind of work a seafarer does, though his is a tough job. Certainly tougher than what the geriatrics had to deal with long ago, whenever they last sailed.

Of course, people- geriatrics included- are free to hold whatever views they like, and for whatever reasons. Obviously, nobody can- or should- force anybody to respect those at sea. Nonetheless, I find it sad that that these folk look down on today’s sailor, not least because they, with their experience, have much to offer him. I find it doubly sad that they cannot respect fellow professionals, and I wonder how they do this, because they obliquely downgrade themselves.

I find all this sad, but I can’t do anything about it. Because respect- like abdominal gas, great music and empathy- must always come from within.


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