December 17, 2009

On not boiling the frog

A stray remark on email by a batchmate a few weeks ago took me back to the time, long ago, when I broke the news to the folks at home that I had been selected for pre sea training and I was ready to roll. "Dufferin? Or Duffer, in?!", my sister asked gleefully, while both my parents were more than a little dismayed that their son who was doing well academically seemed to be throwing it all away.

Today, a few decades later, there does not seem any point in examining if that decision was indeed 'disastrous', as the friend of mine indicated in that troublesome email (anything that makes me think is troublesome).  No point, really, which is precisely why I pondered the question over a shot or two of tequila and a lot of lime.

All those years ago, there was no doubt in my mind that seafaring was the career for me, and a long term one at that. So much so that I chose not to go to the US, where my father was posted for a while, and continued my apprenticeship instead.  Years later, I was chuffed to have done well at the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers exams- that I appeared at before I sat for my Masters. I toyed idly with moving ashore at the time; I even throttled myself in a necktie and went for an interview or two. In the end, I turned down an offer that, in retrospect, would have had me,  twenty years or so later today, probably a mover or shaker (or both) in the industry, had I wanted to embrace the rat race with both sleeves of my navy blue blazer.  (Okay, okay, maybe not a M&S, but a stirrer, at least.)

 Was it a wise decision or a foolish one? Probably both. In my defence, I have to say that what tipped the balance for me then was that the money at sea was good, the life even better and I was not ready for the nine to five managementspeak grind then. Or even now.

Soon thereafter, I decided that I would sail only three months at a time and six months or so a year: just enough for income tax purposes. This was in the late eighties, when three month contracts were impossible to come by, but I got lucky, and remained lucky for the next nine years, segueing briefly to do a Cargo Superintendent's job for the same employers who were in Singapore. Later, just after the luck ran out, and just when I was contemplating the future came an offer from a US software company with no connection to shipping. I stayed there for two years.

Looking back, I can see that my working life has been unplanned and eclectic; I have done more or less what took my fancy at every stage of my life. Would I have made more money sticking to just one thing, a well planned career path? Absolutely. Would I have enjoyed my life more that way? Absolutely not.  Even today, as I do a jumble of things that keep it interesting and put some bread on the table and tequila in the bar, I like to keep things interesting. Boredom, or tedium, is death.

This, concisely, is the wonderful and unobvious advantage of seafaring; it gives an average middle class bloke like me the ability to- more or less- live life on his own terms. One can work when one wants and for how long with no huge future employability handicaps. One can even change careers for a while and return after a year or three without any major eyebrow raising from prospective employers. One can even take a year off to contemplate one's navel. The flexibility a sailor has in his life is unbelievable, really, and one that most other professions would envy, if they only knew about it.  (We should package this advantage and sell it to potential recruits).

Most people do not have this flexibility. They join jobs they don't like and get stuck there, buying into the game that says that one must be King Rat asap; however,  I , for one, never wanted to be any kind of rat at all. Living with ennui, so many- including in shipping, at sea or afloat- reconcile themselves to their circumstances and fate.  Their working life seems to follow the 'Boiling the Frog' premise: the surety that , if a frog is thrown into boiling water it will jump out immediately, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated to be a boil, it will happily agree to be cooked to death.  So, we train ourselves to immerse ourselves in tedium that slowly boils our souls. Many of us are caught in the rut and forget that money is just a means to an end, not the end itself.

I escaped that trap, sort of. And therefore, all said and done, I don't think my decision to go to sea was disastrous; of course, my working life  could, like most decisions,  be tweaked and much bettered by hindsight. And, although it is impossible that my batchmate's circumstances- or dreams- have been identical to mine, I hope he took some advantage, as I did, of the flexibility that was his for the taking.  There is no real need, in most cases, for us sailors to be the frog in the cauldron; our profession gives us the freedom to be neither a boiled frog nor a treadmill rat.