January 28, 2008

The Unidimensional Sailor

Usual conversation between two Indian sailors at sea seems to cover, besides work, such usual subjects as foreign exchange and bank rates, cost of property, investments, comparison of salaries in different companies, ships and sometimes family troubles, and not much else. At or around a port , these conversations may extend to the cost of phone cards or shopping or entertainment. And of course, regularly criticising present employers and Superintendents seems universal and perennial.

Usual conversation between the same gentlemen when they are between ships and ashore covers more of the same. At a revalidation course, for example, the only time I sensed animation in the classroom or during breaks was when mutual funds, property and stocks were brought up, sometimes with the trainers equally involved. Or when people were berating shipping companies in general and their own companies in particular.
The acme of this conversation was one guy asking another.. “how many crores? (have you made)”, and giving him his own investment figures asap thereafter.

These are the usual time-fillers, of who bought what for how much and how much it has ‘become’, and the usual questions- what is a good ‘business’ to be getting into, how much are you earning, which year scales, how are the ships, superintendents and food in your company- the usual shippy talk.

Rarely do I hear a conversation at professional gatherings which promotes, for example, best practices at work or which discusses, maturely, solutions to common work related problems or proposes any alternatives. Rarely do I hear current affairs being discussed, besides politics. Rarely do I hear a nuance of pride in the profession; it seems like sailing is something to be undergone, and, of course, the measure of success is how much money you make or the rank you hold, not how you do your job, or even how happy you are doing it.

It is taken for granted that job satisfaction is divorced from a sailor’s life, once you take the rank and the money away. It is taken for granted that what you earn and the rank you hold is the only measure of you as a person. It is assumed that a group of sailors can have no mature conversation on other subjects; or if they can, it is assumed that they have no other common interests.

By the way, all of this is self imposed. The dumbing down of the sailor is largely no one’s fault but his own. And the fact that the topics of conversation have not really changed in decades speaks volumes for itself.

One would think that travel would broaden a seafarers mind. Sadly, I see little evidence of it. Though it may be true that the pressures of sailing today do not always provide as many opportunities of experiencing different cultures and countries, I do believe that there is more to this than just that.
I believe that a sailor today subconsciously looks at his tenure on board as a jail term- a paid jail term, perhaps but a jail term nonetheless - and jail terms do not promote personal growth or mature exchanges between adults. The older and senior guys are planning to ‘do their time and retire’, the younger guys are planning to ‘do their time and switch to something else’. .. meanwhile, we are in jail, we do not pass Go, we do not collect 200, and we put our brains in limbo. We are just waiting for the ‘Get out of Jail Free’ card. We are living in the future; the present has to be undergone, not made interesting. We exist, we don’t live.

It is, also and very probably, the nature of the beast which tends to make seafarers insular. Out of touch with family, friends, current affairs and normalcy, there are always excuses for being poorly informed. However, there is a limit to these excuses, and we serve ourselves ill by continuing down this road.

We also serve our profession poorly. Many of us work lethargically and automatically, with our eye on the end of contract dates. We do not give our best, or not for long enough. And in this lethargy, in this acceptance of mediocrity, we are more likely to make mistakes. Frankly, if I was a ship-owner, I would be a little worried about a bunch of people operating my ship who were not in a frame of mind to give me their best.

Additional issues... on board entertainment and get togethers are much fewer and far between, multicultural and multilingual crews, books and magazines sporadic, time limited, all can be overcome to whatever extent possible. The habit has to be broken first. This is a long standing habit, many of us have started working at a very young age and had no time for serious outside interests.

To assist this, we at sea need to graduate to some of the following:

Seafarers need to stop cribbing. Whether it is the Company, the Superintendents or the ship, they need to realise that they chose to be there. In so choosing, they implied that they would perform their duties with decent effort. So do what you agreed to and are being paid to do.
Realise that like with Masters, Officers and crew, all of us have dealt with excellent Superintendents and also poor ones. I know I have. Do not make an antagonistic relationship with the office ashore a self fulfilling prophecy. Those are for lemmings.

An unrestricted email policy. It is odd that even in companies which promote this, Master’s sometimes try to restrict actual access. This is absurd, a happy crewmember works better. Companies and Master’s both need to realise this.
And on one ship, even after talking to the crew and putting up fliers detailing how to send email, I found few seafarers interested, barring a few senior officers. Odd.

Companies should consider expanding the news services (by email that they often subscribe to) to include a wider range of subjects and entertainment.

The old practice of meeting in the smoke room in the evening is dying out. Alcohol policy notwithstanding, officers should try, wherever possible, to resurrect this.

While on alcohol policies, the industry needs to decide how long it is going to continue to treat its Officers and crew like adolescents. Almost all these policies are ill thought, and are a knee jerk reaction to fear of penalties in countries like the US. Do airlines have similar rules? No, and they are a far more regulated industry in many ways. They just treat their employees like adults.

Senior officers should promote get togethers, even in small groups, where there will be no mention of work.

Individuals need to join ships prepared. I carry a good short wave radio. Another may carry a pile of books, or material for a hobby, or learning material to start something, learn a language, play a musical instrument, study. One can ask family, periodically, to send additional material. Plan a bit, it is possible.

Individuals also need to reexamine their off periods. Are they happy doing what they are doing there? Is the off period long enough? Financial pressures or not, in today’s shipping they need to take whatever time they require, or they will burn out that much faster.

Give paperwork lower priority. It is not unusual to see Officers and Petty Officers immersed in paper in their ‘free’ time. Some paper cannot wait, port papers and such have strict deadlines. Others, including inventories, reports, MIS sheets, can. Much of this is not read in Offices anyway, and you should not be judged by how quickly you generate paper. (Aside, when I referred to one report in one Company, I was told, ‘Cap, we never read those reports’- which was an eye opener). Take it easy. Paper can often wait.

Stop measuring everything in terms of money, including your own worth. Realise, as many have done before you, that you may be rich but unhappy or dissatisfied. Basking in bank balances whose sole purpose seems to be old age security, or in well appointed homes which you rarely enjoy seems a little strange to me.

Not possible in port but at sea, designate time to yourself, or to group activity. On one ship almost a third of the crew played table tennis regularly. People used to love to get groups together, different nationalities and cultures notwithstanding. It was a great stress buster for all of us.

Prioritise. Your teenager at home in a critical educational period or your sick parent has a greater priority than another couple of months wages this year. Your own needs too, on leave, should not be ignored. Realise that your profession gives you some flexibility, which you choose to throw away by extending or working almost back to back contracts. In doing so, realise that cumulative stress can kill you. Realise that you are choosing the rat race, and it will have a price. And that an emotional price is usually much higher than a financial one.

And, finally, realise that, on his deathbed, nobody says “I wish I had spent more time in the office.”

Or to quote Thoreau, ‘The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it”.


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