June 30, 2011

No place for gentlemen

One will often hear older officers say that there is no charm left in sailing anymore. This succinct statement says much; the unattractiveness of a career at sea today has as much to do with the death of this charm as it has to do with many other factors that are more readily recognised by us.

In the first half of my career at sea, starting from the late-ish seventies, the romance was very much alive. Captains still had authority proportional to responsibility. They also had mystique; with crews of up to fifty and more on Indian ships, they could afford to; a Captain’s round was a rarity and not to be taken lightly. Other senior officers were almost as unreachable outside work.

Off work as an officer, I have spent considerable time after work playing bridge or over a couple of drinks in the smoke rooms of ships registered around the world. Senior officers usually had their own group that met for a beer before lunch at sea. Many problems were sorted out, and many more averted, over a beer or two out there. Port calls had their own routine- that included daily trips ashore, sometimes for weeks in port.

Yes, the romance was very much alive, and the lifestyle- work hard and play harder- produced many stories that I would love to tell my grandchildren, and some that I would be embarrassed to. The second mate on a cadetship falling drunk splat into his soup in the Soviet Union, and his equally tipsy girlfriend trying to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. A Guyanese AB’s irate wife and kids landing up announced in La Guaira because he had not gone home for two and a half years. A senile Indian Radio Officer who used to forget to wear his pants- or underpants- when going to the common bathroom from his cabin. The 55-year-old Filipino Second Mate who pleaded with the Third Mate-me- to keep all his working cargo watches because he could not run around on deck at his age (I agreed, at considerable non-financial cost to him. I used to go ashore every evening after cargo stopped). The German Captain on another ship who was livid because I did not go ashore after cargo work stopped for the day, despite my reminding him that I was on watch. Me blowing the foghorn in Rio’s sudden rain shower to get the crew to rush back double quick to close the hatches: they had gone, with the Chief Officer’s permission, to the dockside (and appropriately seedy) bar a stone’s throw away during the morning coffee break. The Indian Chief Officer on his honeymoon trip who did everything possible not to go out on deck. The Turkish Radio Officer chasing the German cook around the hot plate with a meat cleaver because he could see blood in his steak (and the cook screaming, 'because it is rare!')

All of us sailed with many characters. Many of us were characters ourselves.

We are told, today, that Masters are managers and CEOs- they even give us management level certificates to try to prove this. I cannot understand why this paper change is necessary. Shipping was always a business; we don’t need a piece of paper to tell us that. Neither do we need the fun taken out of our lives in order to comply with some ISO certification, manuals for which are often just copied and pasted from somewhere else.

Shipping needs some of that fun back if we are to attract youngsters into the profession.

We have- unfortunately- made clerks of our Masters and Chief Engineers and data entry operators of much of the rest of the crew today. Alas, seamanship, navigation or collision avoidance are today made to seem unimportant. The stress is on nicely ticked checklists, neat email replies, nifty non-conformity reports, philosophical root cause analyses, clerical administration and such tosh. (I say tosh in disgust, because these are incidental to the job and not the main dish, but the clerks have taken over the profession and decreed otherwise). We have systematically degraded team spirit on our ships by shortmanning and administrative overload- and by legislating behaviour to a ridiculous degree. Mixed nationalities are not to blame for this- the prison like controlled atmosphere on ships today is.  

We have regulated and over-regulated the seaman’s life to near extinction. Many senior officers have quit sailing citing reasons such as ‘too much paperwork’ or ‘no charm left in sailing.’  I know of many. Of those, one stopped sailing years ago when the Radio Officer was taken off his company’s vessels. Another is sailing on short voyages on coasters because, as he told me on the phone a few weeks ago, ‘at least there is no paperwork’.

Has it occurred to anybody that shipping actually needs its mavericks and its characters? That it is not an office job and never will be one? That the Master is a seaman and not a CEO? That the breed of sailors we require at sea today is not very different from what we needed forty years ago- mentally and physically fit people with the right attitude and commitment? That the breed is almost idiosyncratic by definition, the job being not one that anybody and everybody can perform? That the tradeoff- sometimes irregular or individualistic behaviour- may be worth it? That one reason we are not getting the kind of people we want is that we are looking for the wrong people? That another reason is that we are trying to equate a career at sea with any other job- when it can never be one? That academic gentlemen on their best behaviour all the time may not make the best sailors?

Joseph Conrad, a Master Mariner himself and unsurpassed in his depiction of life at sea, says it best in his ‘Nigger of Narcissus’- a story that should be mandatory reading for anybody going out to sea. As the ship 'Narcissus' leaves Bombay, Conrad writes of a conversation amongst the crew about the character of a typical gentleman. One of the crew noticed that, “It was bloomin’ easy to be a gentleman when you had a clean job for life,” adding that he had discovered that gentlemen’s backsides were ‘thinner than paper from constant sitting down in offices’, yet otherwise “they looked first rate and would last for years”.

Fortunately, my backside- like the rest of my skin- is thick.

(The charm that still remains? A star-studded moonlit night. The bridge wing. A cup of coffee and a smoke. Flat calm a thousand miles from anywhere. The foamy whisper of the ship as it cuts through the water. Salt and breeze in the  face.

You haven’t touched that. Yet.)

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