A week or two ago, I happened to run into a cadet while on a holiday up north; he had recently returned after his first nine month stint as a trainee at sea. This youngster sought my advice after telling me a nightmare of a story. And, although I have no means of verifying what he said, the way he said it left me in no doubt that his tale was essentially true. Grant me this much, that after spending more than half my life at sea, I should have developed a decent bullshit detector by now.
This is what he told me:
After paying many hundreds of thousands of rupees for his pre-sea training, this cadet, like many others, said he bribed somebody in an approved manning agency with another two hundred thousand rupees for a training berth at sea. Call it bribery or call it extortion; semantics is overrated.
Along with three other brand new trainees, the cadet was then sent to join a vessel in the Middle East. They had all been given- individually- cash filled envelopes that had to be handed over to somebody in the local agent's office there. The cut of the 'placement fee', obviously.
Par for the course, so far, right? But then it got worse.
The small ship (around 700 GRT) they then 'joined'- actually, were dumped on- was at anchorage and more than thirty years old. Registered with a little known FOC, she was under arrest with just a local 'officer' and another crewmember aboard. There was sparse food, little water, no fuel and no medical supplies-not even a band aid- aboard.
The local agents took the money envelopes, retained the joiner's passports and did little else for the nine months these apprentices spent there. These first time apprentices soon discovered that there were many such 'ships' in the port with quite a few fresh apprentices or first timers aboard- some sent by the same manning agency in Mumbai. Some of the old rust buckets were tied to the breakwater or anchored, as theirs was. One was, he said, listing heavily. None seemed to be ready to sail anywhere again.
It appeared that the agency in Mumbai was conspiring with local agents and owners and running an apprenticeship scam- place fresh trainees aboard at 200,000 a pop and leave them to rot on near derelicts or arrested vessels. Those floating coffins were probably never going to make any more money for the owners anyway, and extortion from trainees was excellent alternative use.
For the first few weeks after joining the ship, the trainees had some hope that things would improve, because somebody or the other came and told them that repairs would start soon and she would sail for Dubai. Slowly, though, the reality became apparent even to these novices. The ship was not going anywhere.
Food was still being supplied in fits and starts from God knows where, and the crew, such as they were, survived on meals of potatoes or tomatoes or just plain rice. They slept in the open because there was no power, though this was the least of the crew's worries. Fortunately for them, there was still thirty or forty tonnes of freshwater aboard.
Then food ran out, and one of them fell sick, He received no medical treatment or even a painkiller; fortunately, he recovered after a week or two.
Incidentally, nobody saw 'even a dollar' of their wages in the entire nine-month period they spent aboard the tub. None of them told their families the truth, even though they were speaking to them periodically- they got friends in India to top up talk time on Indian cell phones one or two had carried with them.
After about two months or so of increasing desperation and hunger, living in these appalling conditions, eating next to nothing, dirty - with nothing to clean either the ship or their clothes except rationed water- even the pretence of the ship being repaired was abandoned. The harbourmaster informed them, at this stage, that the ship had been arrested for non-payment of some dues.
Thus continued another seven months of 'apprenticeship'. 'Not even 0.1 percent of the facilities we had been told about during pre-sea training were available on board," the boy told me. Constant hunger pangs everyday were alleviated once in a while if another ship double banked and food could be begged. If not, this sorcerer's apprentice would swim to nearby anchored vessels, point to himself and shout from the water- "Indian, Indian!", hoping that ship's crew would give him some food for himself and the others.
This cadet- the ambassador of our nation, a Master in the making and the future pride of the profession, we love to say- swam for food and swam to the harbourmaster's office for information. The harbourmaster was a nice guy, he said, who gave him food, and once, money to buy some. No real information, though.
Did the harbourmaster give him money out of his pocket, I asked the boy. He did not know; I would not have known or cared either. Why didn't he quit and go home, I asked him stupidly. No passport, no experience and no money, obviously.
Sometime during all this, the ship's local 'officer' and crew ran away. Sometime during all this, the harbourmaster changed. The new person was not so nice; he sent a few armed guards aboard and barred the cadet from swimming ashore and bothering him. The cadet told the guy to shoot him dead instead. More macabre circumstances: after the harbourmaster sent armed guards aboard his ship, the cadet now had to beg for food for the armed guards too!
Sometime later, the apprentice swam ashore and contacted the Indian embassy in the country. Arrangements to fly him and his other shipmates- plus one or two from other ships, one of whom was sick in hospital- were made eventually. Passports materialised. They were all taken to the airport.
The sorcerer's apprentice came home but he did not go home. He stayed in Mumbai for months, chasing the touts who had provided him 'placement' services' after taking his cash, he told me.
"How could I go home? What face could I show my family who had spent so much money on me?" he asked me.
Now, after almost a year's worth of hell ashore and afloat, he just wanted his money back and a training berth again. Only after he accomplished the latter, he vowed to me, would he go home to see his family.
The cadet asked me for advice at the end of his story. He wanted to know what he should do and where he should go from here; he wanted to know if anybody in the Directorate General of Shipping's office would do anything to help if he went to them. Remarkably, he was not even hugely angry at what had been done to him; the industry had succeeded, in a short time, of stripping him of too many illusions for that.
So what did I advise him in the end?
Tell him, check up on the ship and owners before you join? He had tried that, he said, but the touts in Mumbai told him the name of the ship, its run and condition last minute, as is usual. They lied about everything, as is not unusual. He was inexperienced and believed them, as they expect freshers to do.
Tell him, find good manning agents? Even the bad ones are taking two lakhs under the table, he told me. Many good companies aren't taking any trainees at all.
Tell him, most of shipping is not so bad? Poor consolation for somebody who is an inexperienced first timer and is forced to inhabit the end that is the pits- and this end is a sizeable piece, by the way, and growing every day.
However, I did give him what I thought was a little bit of useful advice. I told him that he should try to get seatime for this ship straightened out before he got into any kind of scrap with the manning agency or others. I gave him the name of a website or two for checking up on ships and owners in future. I told him that I had sailed for three decades without having to beg for food, and I did not see why he should have to, ever again.
I told him that, in all probability, going to the DGS would not solve his problems, Although choosing to fight is a personal decision, I told him, a sailor finds it difficult to spend months on land, especially a sailor at the beginning of his career who has spent a small fortune on training and touts and then spent nine months on a ship without seeing a dime of income.
And, finally, I told him this: in future, check up everything beforehand. Next time, rely only on yourself right from the beginning and do not join unless you are satisfied that you know what you are letting yourself in for. Next time, do not believe what shipping companies or agents or managers or assorted touts tell you, because the first rule is this: A sailor has no real friends.