October 21, 2009


The perception that modern ships are crewed by a bunch of hard headed, hard bodied and hard drinking womanising sailors who are more than a little thick in the head needs to be thrown in the garbage; that is where most stereotypes belong anyway. With its alcohol policies, overworked short manned crews, short port stays, increasing operational requirements and throttled shore leaves, modern shipping has no room for such a sailor.

All the same, I am not sure that all of the relatively recent change is progress. For one, part of the now evaporating charm of sailing for me had always been, before the accountants and the clerks took over my life, the sheer physicality of a sailor's existence. As a cadet, the memories of the breeze in my face (and the sting of freshly chipped metal hitting my neck) are still vivid. Even years later, as a Mate, much of my day involved 'being on deck': a term which could mean anything from cleaning the holds to maintaining deck machinery, or sometimes just taking a round at the end of the working day. As a Master, too, few things are more invigorating in the open sea than a round on deck with the salt whipping one's hair.

Unfortunately, at sea today, a Cadet is more likely to be handed over a clipboard and a checklist in the morning rather than a chipping hammer. A Chief Officer is more likely to be bringing the paperwork up to date in his office instead of taking a round on deck. The fewer crew that are free in the evening are more likely to be watching a movie in the smoke room rather than having a beer. The Master is more likely to be sitting at a computer than roaming around on deck. Such changes have increasingly made Jack the sailor a dull boy: all work and no play, or play that deadens the senses (a movie) instead of bringing them alive.

It is not surprising, therefore, that most of the memorable characters I sailed with seem to be on ships at least ten years ago, that most of the remembered good times are sometimes a decade or two old, that fewer people are attracted to sea today because it has no huge alternate lifestyle to offer, a clerk at sea being not greatly different from a clerk ashore.

It is also one of the reasons why many senior officers hesitate to sail again. 'Management level' certification may seem exciting to some, like visiting cards with high sounding positions printed on them do to the uninformed; but to many it just means more paperwork and less real life. A real life that should have a senior officer concentrating on safety, operational and maintenance issues, by the way, not roaming around like Bob Slocum (the hero of Joseph Heller's 'Something Happened', who went around the workplace with a clipboard and a piece of paper for years before anybody realised he wasn't doing anything at all!).

Anybody who has sailed will tell you that it is very cathartic for seamen to let their hair down occasionally. Release of tension purges the system and refreshes the psyche. Long ago, stuck on a ship in Liverpool for three weeks, a bunch of us were taken to the British countryside by the Flying Angels club on a couple of day trips; drinks in the evening at the club optional but welcomed. Thirty years later, I still remember how refreshed I felt at the time. Change does that to you.

Sailing with one's spouse is another experience that is largely denied (or curtailed drastically) to many mariners today. However, it remains a part of my career that I enjoyed the most: almost a paid holiday, actually. Whatever the reasons that make this unattractive today (visas, cost, short port stays, piracy et al), the end result is that sailing with one's family is an additional source of tension nowadays rather than a source of enjoyment. I actually feel sorry for officers that do so; there is little opportunity or time to even step ashore even with all the requisite visas in place. The best one can expect is a run that allows the family to go ashore alone, and safely. Sad.

If I were more maudlin I would say that the seafaring career is destined to be taken up by people, in India at least, who have no expectations other than those of a labourer migrating to a construction site in Saudi Arabia. He will have no family life. He will have little social life. His movements will be restricted or severely curtailed. He will have no social status. He will not be able to listen to music at a club, or have a drink or two once a week, or do a zillion things normal human beings take for granted, and which were possible, albeit sporadically, a generation ago at sea.

This state of affairs would be fine if the industry could manage ships with a crew that had a labourer's knowledge or initiative, but it cannot. Unfortunately, we require officers to manage increasingly complex procedures, equipment and legalities at sea today. We expect them to perform understaffed and under pressure. We expect them to be responsible for millions of dollars of ship and cargo and the lives of their colleagues. For all this, we offer them not much more than an expat construction labourer's lifestyle, albeit with much better wages, and we think that will do the trick. Sorry folks, it won't. The fact that people are quitting sailing at almost the first opportunity, not to speak of the fact that people are joining the industry planning to quit asap, should tell us that it isn't working already. The spark has gone out of the marriage; a new diamond ring does not work anymore.

Everybody knows the issues; everybody knows what can fix them. It should not be so difficult to reduce ridiculously senseless paperwork or guarantee shore leave: why aren't airline crews similarly restricted? Short port calls are here to stay; crews need to go ashore anyway. The solutions are obvious. What? They cost money? So spend it. Alternatively, get those research teams cracking on crewless vessels, or don't crib that you are not getting the right people at sea today.

That would be another form of catharsis, wouldn't it? An acceptance that the present state of affairs is the best we can do, or want to. I strongly recommend that course of action, or, actually, inaction. We should do this and, while we are at it, shut down our nonexistent HRD departments. Save a lot of money, too.

And let the ships fall where they may.