May 12, 2011

Singed Phoenix

Phoenix, Jeannette Vogel

The tale of the Phoenix- the sacred firebird- is near universal. Although the Greek version is the most well known, Chinese, Roman, Japanese, Russian, Turkish, Persian and Indonesian mythology has similar stories to tell. And, according to some, so do Indian sacred writings with their references to Garuda, the vehicle of Shiva.

The Greeks say that the Phoenix lives for a thousand years, at the end of which it builds a nest and then sets itself ablaze, burning ferociously while crying and singing a beautifully haunting song. A new Phoenix emerges from the inferno, reborn and rejuvenated, to live for another thousand years- when it will burn and rise from the ashes again.

The Phoenix has long been a symbol of rebirth and renewal- even of immortality. Today, as sailors are taken by fate to what appears to be the edge of the abyss and when the very career of sailing is besieged, I think I sometimes hear a beautifully haunting song that sounds like that of the Phoenix. I then wonder which mariner is burning. I wonder if he will be allowed to rise again. His is an international tale, too; I wish it were just a myth. I wish I could lie and say that he was burning all on his own instead of being killed.

I do not despair about the circumstances of a modern sailors life or his ability to overcome adversity, Sailors have always been both tough and stoic; even today, the loudest noises about piracy, criminalisation or the generally degraded mariner life do not come from seamen but from others in the industry who will never face these perils.

I do not doubt that a solution to piracy will be found later rather than sooner. It will be found for the wrong reasons- probably when the economic cost becomes unbearable to accountants- but it will be nonetheless found. It may not even matter, at that stage, how many sailors blood has been spilled in the meantime or how many careers have been destroyed by the experience.

I do not doubt that, later rather than sooner, the industry will gravitate to cynically acceptable levels of seafarer criminalisation. The world needs scapegoats and sailors are soft targets, so criminalisation will not go away. A fine balance might be struck, though: Enough criminalisation to appease the vultures but not enough to kill the prey or even scare it away from the profession. I am willing to bet that that is the way this game will go, MLC and fair treatment guidelines notwithstanding.

I do not doubt that there are solutions- and not very difficult ones- to the sailor’s degraded lifestyle. A little of the problem here is that we have conspired to take all the fun out of the profession, but most of the problem is money or allocation of other resources. The latter issue is relatively easily solved if one has the ability to build and manage an appropriate business plan. (This is not a simple question of getting the biggest bang for the buck, though, although this may soon become a case of a skinflint industry not getting any kind of worthwhile seafarer bang at all.)

Actually, this- the broad niggardly attitude of shipping towards the profession of seafaring- is the main reason I do despair. In a world that treats us sailors little better than the scum of the earth- it always has- the industry, lip service aside, doesn’t do anything to make things better. Its mentality directly results in second rate, inappropriate and unwilling youngsters joining shipping after they have nowhere else to go, because it does little to make the profession worthwhile. Most of the industry then, after these kids have entered the charnel house, picks on them relentlessly until their bones litter the floor. It eventually- as a direct result of its actions- drives away the survivors. A few gravitate to administering the abattoir if they have the inclination to do unto others what has been done to them. The rest- singed but not yet burnt- leave and are lost to the industry. It is their beautifully haunting song that I hear.

This, at a time when we need smarter people at sea than ever before, shows me that we are going downhill, and fast. It tells me that the Phoenix has built its nest. It tells me that the firebird is already singed; it seems inevitable that it will burn sooner rather than later.

This Phoenix too may eventually rise again, perhaps, but I wonder: when the Phoenix is reborn, does it retain the thousands of years of knowledge and experience of its ancestors, or does it have to reinvent the wheel again?

I do not doubt shipping’s ability to step back from the abyss; it has, within it, some very smart people both ashore and afloat. Seafaring is a profession where fortitude, strength of mind, bold decisions, decisive actions and lateral thinking is a way of life. Yes, they can. Yes, we can.

The zillion dollar question is, do we want to? For if we don’t want change badly, our abilities will be sacrificed at the altar of expedience and petty commercial opportunism. The cry of the Phoenix will then have the lyrics of Tull’s ‘Locomotive Breath’ within it, because this train will not stop moving either. It won’t slow down.

We don’t need to self-destruct, you know. The songs that our sailors sing do not have to come from the bowels of hell.



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