July 11, 2013

No country for Old Men

(Author’s note for landlubbers- A ship’s Captain is often referred to as the ‘Old Man’- perhaps a throwback from the times when the Old Man stayed long enough at sea- after getting Command- to be called so)

After twenty years of living in one place, I moved house a few months ago, and was shocked at the cost of things today. I am not talking about the cost of the dwelling itself, which we all know is absurdly high in big city India. But costs of labour and material both have gone through the roof as well; buying and installing a middling-quality granite kitchen counter, for example, costs, per square foot, more than half of what I paid per square foot for my last entire apartment, kitchen granite included. Curtains, woodwork, electricals et al seem to cost six to ten times more than the early nineties. And so does everything else.

In the seventies, the generation of senior officers before me included many who sailed till near retirement age, managing to buy homes in swishy areas of big cities where they spent their twilight years in genteel upper middle class comfort. Although inflation was often even higher than it is today, good salaries ashore could not normally compete with a Master’s seagoing wages, and, consequently, demand- particularly speculative demand- for apartments was muted. In contrast today, even a sailor such as I, who has sailed only on foreign ships as an officer- and therefore on much higher wages than if  I had worked for a domestic company- cannot really afford to buy or live in those same swishy areas today that my seniors then could. The cumulative effect of inflation, exploding shore salaries and stagnant wages at sea has taken its toll. 

I wrote about the myth of seagoing wages in Marex in November 2010, (in Calculated mistake )so I won’t repeat myself, except to restate that Indian seamen working for foreign companies have managed to do okay only because the rupee has depreciated by seven or eight times since the late seventies, and not because seagoing wages have even remotely kept pace with inflation. In dollar terms, a Master’s salary has gone up just about four or five times since the early eighties; in the same period, housing in urban India has sometimes gone up a hundredfold, and the cost of living has gone up many tenfold. On land, executive salaries and fees for services have kept up much, much better with the exploding cost of living. Not seagoing wages, though. So, as has happened in other parts of the world, the socio-economic status of the sailor is dropping with each passing generation.

This is no country for Old Men. Or, for that matter for anybody who wants to sail for most or all of his working life. The situation is getting worse for the new generation of seafarers. 

It is critical for the industry to realise this as a big reason it cannot attract better talent. For many, sailing today is akin to taking a high interest loan to buy a depreciating asset. This also explains almost completely why any officer who has the calibre to move out of sailing does so within a decade or so of first going out of sea, to a career ashore with better long term financial prospects. Usually as soon as the officer gets to be called Captain, or Chief Engineer.

The problem arises only for sailors like me, who love the sea but not the way most of its shoreside industry functions. Additionally, we are incapable- not because of calibre, but because of our mental makeup- of “going along.” We will forever be misfits in what we see as the decaying air of shoreside shipping. Although we have a strong (and, dare I say it, proven at sea over the long term) faith in our capabilities, we can’t change ourselves. And we can’t (or won’t, because we don’t care enough) change the system. Although some of us will qualify themselves in affiliated disciplines, as I did in chartering twenty five years ago, we will not seriously seek positions ashore. Although we could make more money doing so, we are simply not willing to pay the price. Instead we will happily spend, as I did, a decade and a half in command, moving ashore much later in life, happy to have little to do with that part of mainstream shoreside shipping we were always disdainful about.

We are part of what I call, with apologies to Tull, the ‘too old to rock and roll and too young to die’ brigade. I like to think we are the true sailors. I like to think, also, that the industry has lost something valuable because of its inability to persuade us to contribute, or to tap into our vast collective knowledge and experience.

As things stand today, though, the generations of the ‘brigade’ after me will find it near impossible to resist moving ashore. We are being strangled at sea anyway, thanks to the degradation of a sailor’s working environment, so it will make even greater sense for sailors to move ashore in future. 

So this will probably happen, but it will be a tragedy when it does.



Anonymous said...

I have just decided to swallow the hook and settle ashore, the idea being to have absolutely nothing with the sea, which I must add has given me so much (everything I have is credited to my 40 years at sea).
The closest I will come to the sea is the salt in my cooking.
The main reason is the bullshit which has been thrust on us to create wealth ashore at the expense of the salts.

Take care

manu said...


Perhaps the closest you will come to the sea is the salt which I suspect is in your veins by now.

Good luck.