August 14, 2009

Reality check

I am trying my best not to forget that I am a seaman.

It has been a couple of years now since I sailed last. This is not the first time I have taken a break from sailing: this rolling stone spent close to two years with a software company almost a decade ago that had no connection with the sea. (I would have liked to gather Kate Moss, though, but that is another story.) I have, in addition, taken a year off once or twice to stay out of the rut. I don’t know about you, but I find it invigorating to evaluate my life once in a while.

But that isn’t my point here. Thing is, I think I am at a stage ashore when I am likely, unless I am careful, to join the multitude of ex seamen who step into shore occupations and forget where they came from. They become businessmen or yuppies, and deluded ones at that, embellishing and resenting their past in equal measure while living a life that is considerably less real than one that they left behind.

The question as to why mariners move ashore and then enthusiastically contribute to a system that is antagonistic to seamen has been oftentimes asked by better men than I, so I will not even try to answer it. A Master Mariner friend of mine fell into a shore job and told me a few months later that the shipping firm he worked for treated Shipmasters with disdain. Including him, obviously, since he said to me in a contemptuous tone, “We Superintendents go to the quayside and we don’t even bother going up to meet the Captain.” Although I thought at the time that the Captain was better off not having his precious rest disturbed by the likes of my friend, that is quite beside the point, actually. This man (an ex Captain) felt it important to let me (a sailing Captain) know that Master’s were nobodies ashore. His blathering revealed his mindset, and I wondered at the time whether the real reason for his working ashore was that he wanted to be in a position where he could pamper his juvenile ego, or at least pretend to. On the other hand, perhaps the neckties he now wore to work had sufficiently choked the blood supply to his brain.

Not just senior seagoing officers exhibit this pathetic arrogance. I say pathetic because it exposes what a wretched existence they must live, torn between a past they now deride and the absurdity of their present behaviour. My moving into a high sounding function ashore in an earlier avatar has meant nothing to me in the past: I remained proud of having been a seaman and lost no opportunity to advertise how the sea shapes men positively. In any case, I cannot understand where the contempt comes from: most shore functions in shipping are meant to support shipboard operations, not control them, a fact that any twopenny MBA graduate will tell all of us for free. Instead of realising the respect a sailor deserves, however, too many of us slip into something more comfortable: arrogance.

This arrogance (or superiority complex, though Freud tells us that this is actually an inferiority complex manifesting itself which is a theory I can easily believe) is displayed by many including the lowest clerks in many shipping company offices. Depending on supply and demand, I hasten to add. As one clerk told me in Hindi, which I loosely translate tongue in cheek here: when times are bad we have to even make a donkey our father.

Such vagaries (and vulgarities) aside, I for one firmly believe that a sailing Chief Engineer or Master deserves far more dignity than he is bestowed by his colleagues, and certainly deserves more respect than many of the senior honchos in his organisation ashore. Moreover, the lowest ranked crewmember is more critical to the profitability of the organisation than many of the clerks who treat him like dirt, market forces notwithstanding.

I am glad to say that after a couple of years ashore I still feel this way. I remain on my guard, though. I know that the moment I start drifting into the usual flatulent arrogance of the pompous will be the moment I will start to lose whatever little sense I have left. I hope that I have the intelligence to recognise this event if it happens. I hope it never does.

However, if it does happen and I find myself drifting into the meaningless blather of the self important, I hope I have enough sense left to go back to sea to get some salt on my lips once again. I did it once a decade or so ago, leaving a comfortable head honcho’s shore job. People told me I was crazy, even dumb.

Whatever, I still think it is better to be a dumb sailor than a puffed up ass.