May 10, 2008

Chinese Water Torture

(in which water is slowly dripped onto a person's forehead, driving the victim insane)

Okay, this one is personal.

After a few decades at sea, there is a serious debate going on in my tortured head about whether I need to hang up my boots and quit. So far the nail in the wall is winning.

It would have been very nice if I had debated this in my dotage, or even at some unknown and mysterious superannuatory stage, but I am (as I like to think) in my middle age now. I am sure I have a few years at sea left in me, health issues notwithstanding.
It would have been equally nice if I had debated this in an overall aura of satisfaction and pride in the industry I have worked in for so many years. (And still might do so, because the debate is not over yet, and because man does not live by bread alone- he needs a new cell phone every two months).

But it is not so nice. Because, you see, the overwhelming sentiment I have when I think about quitting sailing is one of relief, and of “good riddance”.

That says a lot about to me about my profession – a profession I joined a few decades ago in great excitement, a little awe and a dash of fear. However, I had no doubt in my mind then that this was going to be a career; unlike the youngsters of today, I had no plans of an MBA, or a few years at sea leading to some business. I was a sailor, and so I remained, through the marriage and children, through the 80’s recession and out of it, through family emergencies and celebrations, and through thick and thin.

So what happened? At what stage did a die hard sailor get disillusioned, jaded and, yes, disgusted at the state of affairs at sea?

I doubt it happened suddenly, and I know it has not happened to me alone; like Chinese water torture, it happens drip-by-drip, drop by insane drop- till, finally, the sailor cries- enough! - and, being an all or nothing person, chooses nothing.

One drop was probably the eighties recession, when I saw, for the first time, how petty, small and mean my seniors ashore could be, and how blinkered and clueless many were.

Another drop was undoubtedly the incremental short manning as time went on, and the increased workload and paperwork, paper straw by paper straw until the last straw was loaded on this camel’s back.

A few drops were added by the arrival of the children, and the realisation that the price I was paying was getting too high.

A big drop was the criminalisation of sailors and the impotence of the industry- or was it negligent callousness? - to address the issue.

A small drop was the alcohol policy: not because I could not have a drink, but because Shipmasters were being treated like children by minor bureaucrats, bean counters and blinkered colleagues.
A moment of clarity was when I realised I did not want to recommend the profession to any youngster at all, except those who, through circumstance, had limited choice.

Another drop was when I realised that the seafarer had really no say in much, and that though on every ship there was probably more than a hundred years of collective seagoing experience, an accountant with a calculator and not much else had sometimes more say than the Master.

A drop was at the disgust felt in attending substandard training and Company Seminars- and being asked to pay for both.

A drop or two because of the authorities who issued and revalidated certificates, CDC’s et al -and who then treated seafarers like taxi drivers at the local RTO.

A smattering of drops when shore leave became a luxury because of short manned ships and hectic turnaround times. Another dribble at the restrictions placed after terrorism became a US problem. More disgust at the impotence and spinelessness of people who should have known better, or who didn’t care because it did not concern them directly.

A drop because of stories of a few casualties at sea - and the appalling behaviour of a few countries against all norms of acceptable behaviour and tradition, not to speak of common and international law.

A small drop for sheer boredom.

The realisation that a seafarer was being increasingly discriminated against, was powerless to do anything about it- and that platitudes were of no use to him in prison or in the grave- and that was all the Industry really offered him, a wage and platitudes.

Disgust at the way a few manning agencies in India behaved- and continued to behave, when the entire marketplace and other industries transformed around them.
Ridicule at their surprise at the downgrading of shipping as a profession. They didn’t see the train coming till it hit them?

A drop at the double standards of the industry with respect to safety at sea- and indeed with most regulatory matters. Minimum compliance, maximum certification. Way to go.

A drop at the “Cover your backside” philosophy of many at sea and ashore. Sure, that is a prudent thought. However, when it is the overwhelming philosophy, we have a problem. It leads too often to inefficiency, inertia and even paralysis in maritime operations. Usually it is paralysis by discussion or by information.

The blazing realisation, a year or two ago, that nothing was going to change in my professional lifetime.
The penultimate drop, when I understood that since I was not part of the solution, I was part of the problem.

One Master Mariner quitting is a statistic. But if a hundred are quitting for similar reasons, it may become a little more noteworthy. Add Chief Engineers to this. Add other officers who are dreaming of this and who never looked at sailing as a career anyway, and you are reaching alarming statistics already. You can choose to live with it, but being surprised at it is naiveté’.

From the little I know, it seems quite a few seafarers are quitting and thinking about it; and while our myopic industry is concentrating on advertising and hiring, perhaps it should spare a thought or two on retention as well.

And the final drop, the acidic one that made me pause. Can I, in all good faith, look for a job ashore, feeling the way I do? Will I make a difference, or join the multitudes of colleagues who crossed the Styx and made no difference? Can I digest being another brick in the wall?

The jury is still out on this one; so far, the defendant has not much hope.

Because it does not take much for the last drop to become the final straw, or the final nail.

(first published in

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