November 01, 2013

Pride and prejudice

I often hear prominent shipping personalities exhorting youngsters graduating from maritime colleges to cultivate ‘pride in the profession.’  This trite and much overused phrase ignores the primary fact that pride comes from within and is not something that can be slapped or urged onto the psyche of an individual. For a seafarer, pride in the profession is also something that is reinforced- or killed- by the respect and dignity society and the industry afford him. 

It is unsurprising that pride in seafaring has dropped incrementally with each passing year since the time I went out to sea. The downward spiral has been compounded- or instigated- by several other factors. 

Leave aside the lack of respect that broader society allocates to a seaman. The fact is that when I went out to sea more than thirty five years ago, broader society did not understand the criticality of shipping or knew what a seaman was all about. It does not understand those even today. The fault lies at shipping’s door; it has always failed in the public perception and public relations space. But this is a smaller fault; the bigger one is the cavalier way in which the industry treats its own seamen. If shipping treats them with prejudice, then it is farcical to expect broader society to show seamen much respect anyway. 

I will never forget the expression on a friend’s face as he told me the story of the time he- a senior general insurance executive completely unconnected with shipping – was sitting in a shipmanagement honcho’s office in India when a call came from a Master at sea. My friend was struck- almost awestruck- at the lack of respect shown to the Master on the phone. “I thought that Captains were respected,” he told me. (I did explain to him that there were Masters and then there were Masters, that many I knew would not have been spoken to that way- or that there would have been hell to pay if they were- but the damage had been done already.)

I do believe that even shoreside treatment of seamen is a smaller issue, because much of the fault for dropping professional pride lies with seamen themselves, and starts when they go out to sea for the wrong reasons. Because they didn’t get into courses they preferred. Because sailing seems like easy money (Ha!). Few go out because they love the sea or a sailor’s life; even fewer want to do a good job once they are there. Lack of commitment towards a profession does not do anything towards cultivating pride in it. This state of affairs is hardly a recipe for competence, pride or success.

Not just financial success; professional pride often comes independently of that. Usually, it comes at sea when you least expect it. It comes when you do a good job working long hours against all odds and under high pressure. It comes when two old and wizened Japanese pilots pat you on the shoulder for bringing the ship alongside in pre-typhoon weather, with no tugs available and with sleet cutting your face in bitter cold- after the two had given up. Pride glows in a deckhand’s eyes when he is chosen to throw the heaving line ashore because he can throw it the furthest. It comes to the tired engineer unannounced when he tells you that he has solved the lubricating oil problem that the ship has lived with for five years. 

It seems a travesty that many of the youngsters going out to sea today do not particularly want to experience that simple feeling of a seaman’s job done well. It is a tragedy that most will never really push themselves to see what they can accomplish against the odds and against the elements, and that they will rarely experience the feeling of pure exhilaration when they struggle and win. 

Or, come to think of it, even when they lose. Sometimes, just the fact that one tries one’s damnedest in a demanding job is enough. Sometimes there is no shame in losing, and great pride lies in the simple fact that you almost died trying.


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