February 27, 2010

Al Qaeda urges Somali groups to choke Red Sea entrance

Earlier this month, the Yemeni branch of the Al Qaeda has called on the Somali group Al Shabaab and others to wage a jihad and choke off the Red Sea to commercial shipping. Although the group wants to do this to cut off U.S. shipments to Israel, the commercial impact of the possibility of a disturbance, to put it mildly, in the narrow strip of water that feeds the Suez Canal s bound to be huge.

Al Qaeda’s second in command in Yemen, Saeed Al Shehri, has released an audio recording in which he exhorts Al Shabaab’s Islamist insurgents to return the Bab Al Mandab strait, the narrow entrance to the Red Sea, 'to the lands of Islam'. 'At such a time the Bab Al Mandab will be closed and that will tighten the noose on the Jews, because through it America supports them by the Red Sea,' Shehri says, going on to underline the importance of the straits, saying such a chokehold would be a ‘great victory.' Shehri is, incidentally, part of the group that claimed responsibility for the Dec 25 attempting bombing of a US commercial aircraft off Detroit. A former Guantanamo Bay inmate, he says in the audio recording that there is no option except Jihad, since "The Christians, the Jews and the treacherous apostate rulers have pounced on you.”

The recording, released on a website, comes as Yemen threatens to descend into further chaos; a major military offensive against militants in the North and South of the country is now underway as the world watches with grave concern. The possibility of growing instability in Yemen is seen as an ideal situation for Al Qaeda to boost its operations in the region. Shehri’s recording has prompted an immediate security meeting in Sana’a, with President Saleh saying, "All necessary measures will be taken to maintain security and public order and control outlaw elements."

Meanwhile, rebels say that they have repulsed Yemeni forces near the northern city of Sadaa, claiming that Saudi rockets had killed two children and injured others. Saudi Arabia has been involved in a three month long conflict with the Yemeni rebels after it claimed the rebels invaded its territory; the Yemeni government rejected a rebel truce offer recently because it did not include an offer to end attacks on Saudi Arabia. Rebels claim that they raided Saudi Arabia because the country was allowing Yemeni troops to attack them from its soil.

An unstable Yemen is bad enough, but add the failed State of Somalia across the narrow Gulf of Aden to the picture and the scenario becomes even more alarming. Many believe that Al Shabaab is not yet in a position to directly threaten the Bab El Mandab straits, because the area is far from their strongholds that are more to the south of Somalia, between the capital Mogadishu and the port of Kismayu to the south. However, given the nexus between some Al Shabaab elements and pirate gangs that have been targeting merchant ships for years, this latest Al Qaeda threat cannot be written off so easily. The international community has ignored the terrorist-pirate nexus long enough.


February 25, 2010

Perils of the mist of calibre.

Masters and Chief Engineers have long lamented the falling calibre of junior officers at sea. Companies, too, bemoan the fact that suitably qualified and experienced officers are difficult to get and hold on to. I can say from experience that the impact of lower standards is felt the most on the bridge during both normal watchkeeping and maneuvering, and felt most in the engine room during watchkeeping and the troubleshooting of machinery problems.

Gone are the days when junior officers had the competence and initiative to exceed the demands of their rank and therefore contribute to increased efficiency and safety; the problem is so widespread that an above average officer is often considered a bonus by many senior officers on ships today.

At sea, this problem of falling standards stresses out the few competent officers that may be available and results in, overall, a poor depth of knowledge on board. Given lower levels of competence, it is not uncommon to find ships where senior officers routinely perform tasks that should lie in their juniors’ domains; the inevitable and detrimental impact on safety is a natural consequence when officers up the ranks are thus overworked. Then, shipowners have exacerbated the problem by promoting policies that result in firms employing competent ‘top four’ officers and not caring all that much about the standards of other officers on ships. I have heard owners and manning departments say that the senior officers on board will ‘manage’ in this scenario. However, I submit that this attitude leaves many ships in a dangerous state; straining to ‘manage’ during normal operations, shipboard staff can be quickly overwhelmed by events in emergencies, even relatively simple ones.

I can see a time, not too distant in the future, when this lack of depth in competence will become an equally serious issue ashore in India. Where, for example, are we going to find the Technical Superintendents of the future from, if not from this same questionable pool of junior officers? It is common today to find a Superintendent who has the idiosyncrasies of the machinery of half a dozen ships in his head. More importantly, he is likely to have sound engineering education, excellent knowledge and decent seagoing experience under his belt. This has happened because he had the calibre at the outset and got pretty good training along the way, both ashore and afloat. The same situation cannot be forecast into much of the future when the basic academic and operational competence of many sailing junior officers (both engineers and navigators) is in doubt, as is the training.

Many will say I am overreacting or overstating the position; after all, the numbers of competent personnel required ashore are much lower than those required on ships. Perhaps it is just that most of the officers and engineers on board have reached their level of incompetence; the few that are better will come ashore, so where is the big problem on land?

I must disagree with this view again. For one, it presumes that lower standards at sea are acceptable, when I have just argued that they are not. For another, I do not buy the argument that a general lowering of competence at sea will not percolate to establishments ashore; it will. In the kingdom of the blind, we will be making one eyed men kings.

Behind any substandard product there are tens of reasons why, and so it is in this case too. For one, the industry now attracts people who have poorer academic backgrounds. Students weak in basic mathematics and sciences (particularly Physics) are ill equipped to understand the intricacies of either navigation or the main engine. Some foreign maritime educational establishments are even taking in Indian navigating cadets from the commerce stream! Granted that this does not automatically mean that their math and science is lousy, but the reality is that the vast majority of students studying commerce in Indian schools today do so because their mathematics is abnormally weak. They study commerce out of compulsion, not choice.

One can well take the stand, as many do, that rocket scientists are not required on ships these days, but this oversimplification is made at one’s own peril: do we really want Second Mates that struggle to do basic radar plotting without ARPA (or indeed, interpret ARPA output properly) or Chief Officers that struggle to do basic stability or ballast calculations without a computer? What impact does a terrible understanding of subjects like triangles of forces, trignometrical functions and even basic arithmetic finally have on the efficiency and safety on board is a question that is often ignored or downplayed. Again, to our own peril, for what we are then saying is that an intelligent or educated officer is not really required at sea today, for we have calculators, computer stability and navigational programmes and other gizmos on tap. We assume interpretation of complex equipment generated navigational data to be easy. In any case, we are then saying that we want, merely, equipment operators and not thinking navigators (or engineers, for that matter) who can function effectively when equipment fails or can interpret data correctly even when they struggle to multiply 26 by 8 in their heads. We are saying that thinking (and calculating) on your feet is not a requirement at sea, and so we are lying.

Then, to amplify the mess, we train badly at sea today, and often with disinterest. Senior Masters and Chief Engineers are most to blame here: we do not seem to feel a strong impulse to pass on to the next generation what the last one passed on to us. In an era of shortened sea time requirements and Distance Learning Programmes whose practical value is close to zilch, it is all the more important that trainees learn the ropes, and learn them well. Alas, we seem happier using cadets as clerks filling up checklists that we hate to fill up ourselves or assign them to other paperwork. How is a navigating cadet to learn navigation, I ask you, when most of his time on the bridge is spent not helping in navigating? Or learn about proper deck watchkeeping and cargo operations when he is assigned to administrative jobs in port?

There are other reasons too, we all know. Poorly motivated trainers and trainees (both at sea and on land), a lack of a feeling of belonging to a company resulting in a lowering of the bar (I remember when the term ‘a Scindias Cadet’ was used with some pride), shortmanning and shortsightedness (from the trainees, too, who want to quit tomorrow to do an MBA and exchange the boiler suit for just a suit) are just some of the biggies. We know all this; I enumerate these only to remind ourselves what we must fight against, for fight this descent into substandard competence we must.

Again, we all know what needs to be done during onboard training, so I won’t insult anybody’s intelligence by stating the obvious. I will, instead, make just one point, and that is this: given that we are not going to attract the best and the brightest into the profession by next Monday, the first battle in this war should be fought at the Pre Sea training institutes. Relevant Mathematics and Physics need to be a part of our admittedly tight syllabus; in fact, these should be taught the beginning of the course. Whereas one might find these subjects in some curricula, one struggles to find these taught effectively, and with an eye towards a trainee who may be inherently weak in the sciences. I fear that, without these basics in place, teaching navigation or engineering to many is akin to teaching a man without a foot ballroom dancing. He needs the Jaipur foot first.


February 19, 2010

Chinese checkers

It is seductive, the notion that while China may be a tiger that started roaring long ago and is well ahead of India in the global economic and superpower stakes, India is the lumbering elephant that is equally unstoppable and will emerge as a worthy challenger to Chinese economic, military and political supremacy sooner rather than later. We in shipping are prone to think that we can extend this wishful thinking into our industry almost as a corollary. In my opinion, these delusions of grandeur are rosy spectacles that blind the Indian maritime industries to the fact that the Chinese are light years ahead of us in every arena- and are drawing further ahead rapidly. The centre of the maritime universe may be shifting east from the west, sure, but the east here is China, not India.

Take shipbuilding. China has a declared and clear vision: to dominate global shipbuilding by 2015. That, folks, is just five years away. The Chinese government has said recently that it will support the shipbuilding industry in reaching this objective, but it actually started doing so quietly and systematically a while ago. While Western banks were hamstrung by the fallout of their recent sins and scared witless about lending to an industry they perceived as high risk, the cash rich Chinese government was encouraging its banks to lend to Chinese shipyards. Not just that, these banks have lent billions of dollars to struggling Western shipping companies in the last couple of years and are still doing so. In effect, this uniquely well planned ‘end to end solution’ leapfrogs China into a very influential position in the big league: Chinese supported shipyards building ships for Chinese supported ship owners mean that Chinese humungous cash reserves are used productively for the country’s direct benefit and create jobs and business opportunities to boot. And, incidentally, is just what they need to be the dominant player in shipbuilding in double quick time. Forget India, I do not see Western countries being able to compete with China here; for one, they don’t have the money.

The Chinese plan is coldly logical. Support shipbuilding when the industry is down in the dumps; pump in money in a domestic capital intensive industry when nobody in the world wants to support their own. Support customers: fund them, even. When the trend reverses, you have a robust industry that will be well positioned to prosper on the back of increased order books. Do this on a large scale and you have a huge entry barrier in place to deter any competition.

Of course, the Indian government professes support for its own shipbuilding industry, but this support, as is usual in anything to do with shipping, is thin on the ground. Private shipyards may be doing reasonably well, but they are doing so by Indian standards, not Chinese ones. Public sector enterprise Hindustan Shipyard was taken over by the Defence Ministry recently; the Government is planning to dilute its stake in the Cochin shipyard (besides SCI and DCI, the Dredging Corporation of India) ‘next fiscal’ (it is always jam tomorrow in India, never jam today) ; plans have been mooted to build one shipyard each on both the East and West coasts, and the Indian Cabinet gave an ‘in principle approval for the setting up of a new shipyard of international standards’ more than a month ago.

Unfortunately, shipyards cannot be built on principle approvals alone or we would have had a lot of them by now. They require political and economic support. India, let’s face it, does not have the will, money and foresight to do this. We make grandiose plans that are too far into the future. We execute badly. We talk of being a global presence in shipbuilding in ten or fifteen years: the Chinese plan to dominate the world in five.

Another elephant in the bedroom that nobody wants to see is that China’s dominance in shipbuilding will not be a one off thing: China plans to control other elements of maritime trade and shipping as well. Remember how the impact on commodity prices in general and freight rates in particular was felt a few months ago when demand for raw material temporarily spiked in that country? In a remarkably similar ‘end to end plan’ in line with the shipbuilding one, China is buying or developing natural resources across the world, including in Africa, Papua New Guinea, Australia and Indonesia. Coupled with an increasing domestic tonnage, the day is not too far off when Chinese raw material will be carried from Chinese companies located around the world on Chinese ships to China for domestic consumption and industry. (In addition, for my sanguine friends in shipmanning, these Chinese ships will have Chinese crews on board, not Indian.) Call it hegemony or monopoly, but it sure heralds domination.

Some people will say, quite logically, that there are other factors at play here that nobody completely understands, and some of these may well queer the pitch. Primary amongst these are the huge Chinese dollar reserves. Many see these as either unproductive money or a huge bubble waiting to burst. My sense is that China is using this money, or part of it, to quietly extend its dominance across the world and in the region. As for its reserves, one consequence of this is that it controls the value of the US dollar today. I do not see the currency bubble, even if it exists, making a substantial difference to the Chinese planned domination of shipping, and I sure don’t see India positioned to take advantage of any upheaval in the global maritime industry on account of any Chinese bubble bursting. In any case, China would be stronger even with a dollar collapse and resultant chaos: its reserves may lose substantial value, but again, I don’t see any other country waiting in the sidelines to take China’s place, and the upheaval may well herald the final nail in US superpower status when the US sees the dollar going down the drain.

On another note, recent announcements by Beijing and the EU’s Naval force off Somalia (EUNAVFOR) are particular interesting, and, to me, are part of the same well thought out and executed plan. China wants to build a permanent naval facility to support ships on antipiracy missions in the Gulf of Aden; it also wants to lead antipiracy missions off Somalia. EUNAVFOR Commander Real Admiral Peter Hudson welcomes this involvement: as if he has a choice. From India’s perspective, however, the encirclement of this country, with existing or planned Chinese facilities in Myanmar, Pakistan and Sri Lanka and pressure on the Indian Himalayan and North Eastern areas, will then be complete. Incidentally, China will also be next door to the oil rich Middle East, not to speak of straddling shipping lanes that carry all of India’s trade and much of the world’s oil.

So what does India do? Well, for one, it holds war games (‘Milan’) in the Bay of Bengal along with a dozen other countries but is quick to pacify prickly China, saying that it does not want to be a regional headmaster or be part of any multinational maritime security axis seeking to contain China. That statement, to me, is just plain stupid: there is no need to declare intent to an adversary, even if one is lying. Either you are not taken seriously or you are taken for a fool.

Even leaving aside the questions on national security and geopolitics, let us look at commercial shipping instead. Can the Indian shipping industry find a way to compete with the relentless march of their Chinese compatriots? Given the cohesion in the Chinese effort, can Indian shipbuilding even hope to come close in the race for domination? Can our mercantile banks fund our (not to speak of foreign) tonnage half as effectively? Will our government extend unstinting and deep pocket support to our industry? Do we have the calibre and depth of entrepreneurial spirit in our maritime industries to force these changes?

I am afraid the short answer to all these questions is no. The best case scenario I see for Indian commercial shipping is a collaboration with the Chinese where we play second fiddle- or very likely even third or fourth.

Of course, the worst case scenario is anybody’s call.


February 10, 2010

Animal Farm

It seems that I missed all the fun again last year. However, I smell a business opportunity for us out there, so don’t go away just yet.

I came to know only a few days ago that 2009 was the unofficial ‘Year of the Cougar; apparently even Newsweek said so. A ‘‘cougar,’’ for the uninformed, is defined by the website urbandictionary as ‘‘a hot looking woman in her late 30’s to mid 40’s who dates younger men because she is still hot enough to get them.’‘ (Also implied, that the lady is wealthy, or at least well off). Those younger men are called cubs, I kid you not.

Here is the thing. It appears that women got fed up of seeing an ageing Sean Connery running around with the delectable Catherine Zeta Jones, not to speak of the horde of older men with fat wallets and ditto paunches with trophy wives and mistresses in tow. (I, on the other hand, am just envious of Connery and not fed up by Ms Jones at all). Anyway, the older ladies decided to give the men a botoxed tit for tat. Along with the Demi Moore types running around with the boyish what’s his name came a gaggle of cougars looking for younger men. The women started getting older, the age differences with cubs wider. Many cougars were wealthy. Amongst other businesses, cruise lines started targeting them, organising ‘Cougar Cruises’ in early 2009; Carnival Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean amongst them. Carnival Cruise lines later dropped out, saying that the media was playing up the cougar cruises as a ‘sex party’ (what did they call them, Carnal Cruises?) and this was tarnishing their presumed pristine image.

Australia recently banned cougar cruises, though that has hardly stopped operators elsewhere. For those interested (or just plain jealous), Norwegian Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean have two cruises lined up later this year: the Cougar Bahamas Cruise (ex Miami) and the Cougar Mexican Riviera Cruise (ex Los Angeles). As a particular attraction, ‘Miss Cougar Las Vegas’ will sail on one of these cruises, as will ‘The cutest cub in America’. (No, he is not from the zoo). Mind boggling, all this is.

As I said, I missed all the fun, though it would have taken more than botox to make a cub out of this ageing lion. Anyhow, since sex seems to be out, let me switch over to the next best thing: money.

This is my plan. Briefly, I propose to approach the Directorate General of Shipping to seek sanction for rolling out a new course in a Maritime Education and Training institute: the Cub Certificate of Competency (CCC). Simultaneously, I will move that the IMO mandate that no cub work on any cruise ship with immediate effect, unless certified under a new convention, to be called the STCW2011. This convention will address the complete training and certification needs for the Cub Certificate of Competency. In one fell swoop (ok, two), I will thus open a new market for Indians and a new revenue stream for shipmanagement and training establishments both.

Of course, we can have other CoCs. A combined 2nd Mates and Cub certificate (2MCC), for example. Or even a GP Rating Cub Certificate(GPRCC). The possibilities are endless, though some thought will have to go into course content. Additional training in ballroom dancing (or even Salsa) is envisaged, and so is education in personal grooming and etiquette, suave behaviour, rakish demeanour, lighting a lady’s cigarette while looking like a young Clark Gable and training in safe sex at sea. Perhaps we can rope in one of those Bollywood acting schools to ensure well rounded cubs and all.

Obviously this course will have to be marketed differently, but I do not foresee any problems there; quite the contrary, because the course panders to the basic instincts of today’s generation (is it X or Y? I forget), which revolve around making money quickly and without much effort. Planning to quit in five years? We will show you how with the latest seduction techniques guaranteed to loosen cougar wallets. Want to migrate? Seduce a cougar and get a green card free. Become a cub and see the world. Money for nothing and chicks for free (Ok, hens, then).

Of course, every certified cub will have, additionally, all the statutory protection given to existing seafarers (don’t laugh), including the new MLC and STCW conventions. They will be, regardless of any plans cougars may have, even entitled to rest periods to address fatigue. (For those entrants that know that rest periods are a joke, we will tell them that working will be more fun at least.)

The traditionalists amongst us will be shocked, of course. Is this what shipping is coming to, they will say, the training of gigolos? Shush, gentlemen. You did not protest when one of you publicly equated seafarers with prostitutes some time ago; you can’t object too loudly now to cougars, cubs and other such animals.

To be honest, I am still trying to get my arms around (for want of a better phrase) the interesting problem of how to impart practical training to wannabe cubs without making the training institute look like a house of ill repute. However, look at this way: until I finally crack that problem, I will have faculty lining up at my door, solving yet another problem that the industry faces today: the lack of committed trainers.

Training the next generation is hard work, sometimes, but it has its rewards.


February 04, 2010

Placement debasement

When I joined a foreign ship for the first time fresh after my Second Mates thirty years ago, the first question I was asked by the German Captain was, “Did you pay anybody for this job in your country?” I have no idea whether the firm asked the question of every fresh employee that joined a ship in those days; I do know, however, that the question left with me with a good feeling about their setup. The fact that nobody had, in the four years or so that I had spent ‘at sea’ until then, asked me to pay for either my Cadetship or my first job left me slightly confused as to the validity of the query; but I presumed that the practice of paying for jobs existed in some of the more corrupt countries, and I self righteously knocked off India from that dirty list. We did not take under the table money from Cadets to give them a sea berth, I thought. As bad as the situation was within government departments in the industry (and still is), we did not at least carry forth those corrupt practices into the private sector, I told myself.

Therefore, it is with great disgust that I say today, three decades later, that the now widespread and perverted Indian industry practice of making Cadet trainees cough up cash for on board apprenticeships should be stopped at once.

I use the term ‘widespread’ advisedly; though there are companies that do not follow this reprobate practice, we all know that there are far too many that do. The exercise is widespread enough that a trainee has to budget for this bribe, along with Pre Sea and other costs. For many cadets and ratings trainees, the only options are either to know somebody somewhere or to pay up.

I do not demand a stop to this depravity because it is illegal, although it certainly is, and I would love to see the practitioners of these acts treated like the criminals that they clearly are.

I do not want to waste time justifying the indefensible, and so I do not want to go back in time to determine when this obscenity began, although the eighties recession had surely something to do with it.

I do not want to dwell on the particular nausea I feel when I hear of an ex mariner directly or indirectly involved in this putrefacted degeneration.

I do not want to put the math of the whole transaction down here: corruption is not about numbers. (Reminds me of the joke about the blonde in the train who agreed to sleep with a stranger for a million dollars but screamed when he suggested ten: “What kind of girl do you think I am?!” They had already examined that question and reached a conclusion, the gent informed her. They were now only haggling over the price.)

I will not even bring up, except in passing, that these ‘placement fee’ numbers are high enough to make a significant difference to the costing of ratings and cadet programmes (and therefore their marketability); in quite a few cases, the placement fee is the final straw that breaks a would be trainee’s financial back, or that of his parents, and he doesn’t enroll because he can’t afford to. We lose some good people because we promote- or condone- this system.

I will say this much, though: As long as we continue this placement fee circus, we have no business going on ad nauseum about falling standards at sea, the falsely perceived unattractiveness of the profession, officer shortage numbers or even the disinterest shown by most youngsters towards a life at sea. We have lost the moral right to question any of those things. Worse, each time somebody in the industry takes money for ‘placement’, he or she insidiously and invidiously downgrades the entire industry.

For, if the first step towards the recruitment of future officers that will be responsible for tens of millions of dollars worth of ship and cargo is to be identical to that of a construction labourer going to Saudi Arabia on a shady contract after paying touts in India for ‘placement’, then we have no business bemoaning anything except our own turpitude.

Neither do we have any business cribbing about the poor press our industry gets, as we are wont to do, or decry the widespread perception that this is a backward, blinkered and dirty industry.

Seems to me that part of the industry is exactly that. As for the few good men out there, well, evil thrives when good men do nothing.


February 01, 2010

The Differentship Road Show

Regular sufferers of this column will know that Differentship exists only in my mind and is not real. But as Morpheus says in ‘The Matrix: “If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then 'real' is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain”.

We at Differentship Shipmanagement will roll out, starting next week, an ambitious programme that will target the best and brightest in schools and colleges in selected cities across the country; these bright youngsters will be encouraged to join us as deck and engineering cadets. We will start at Class XII level now and later go on to make presentations at the beginning of each academic year to Classes X, XI and XII. The schools or colleges we choose will be amongst the top ten in each major city; we will then move on to smaller cities and towns as our fleet expands.

Some things we are (obtusely, to many in the industry) fixated on:

We will be truthful about the pitfalls and benefits of a merchant naval career at every stage; we do not believe in luring people with falsehoods; in any case, we believe that this career has enough going for it to be a worthwhile choice for many.

We always target excellence and so it will be here too. There is no use in large numbers if individual calibre is poor.

One of our Masters or Chief Engineers who are ashore or afloat will make each presentation at each institution. The only other requirement we have is that they will be excellent speakers and they answer any questions after each presentation truthfully and usefully.

We will leave a phone number and email id at every school in case further information on shipping is sought. Additionally, we will, as far as possible, nominate sailing officers on leave and in rotation to respond locally and revisit schools if necessary.

We are keen to amalgamate best practices from the industry into our programme, and, indeed, to help other shipmanagement companies set up similar programmes if they so desire; we strongly believe that making the industry more attractive to the right people is beneficial to us all, and so all of us will complement each other instead of being uselessly adversarial. (In this connection, we are not interested in seeking best poaching practices from others!)

What follows is a draft, almost completed, of our initial address at each educational institution. We now make it public for two reasons: one, we seek feedback from the industry to improve this. Two, we offer this plan to anybody in the industry who feels it may be useful for them, as we believe it will be for us.

Here is the opening address that will be made at each school. (The anecdotal part of the address will obviously vary, depending on the speaker). Brochures will be distributed beforehand. In the backdrop of the hall will be a photographic or video show running, with different ships, crews performing diverse operations, life at sea, ports, a vessel’s interiors in detail, machinery and deck spaces, navigation and the bridge depicted.... I am sure you get the drift. (We may even have the hackneyed photograph of a four striped, blazered and sextant armed Captain shooting the stars on a bridge wing!)

This is what the opening address will essentially say:

“Hello, and welcome to the Differentship road show. We are here not just to sell our company but also to present a career option to you. At the end of this presentation, we will answer any questions you have: in any case, we have given you some brochures and will be leaving literature with you that will tell you more about the modalities of becoming an officer at sea, besides directing you to some very useful websites and other reading material. We will also leave a phone number and email id where you can contact us to get more information later. Our intention is to leave you in a position where you can make an informed choice of career”.

“Ships carry well over 90 percent of all goods on earth, and so there are many kinds of ships. A merchant naval officer is qualified to sail on any of them, subject to additional qualifications that are not huge. His professional training starts after Class 12: the first two and a half years or so is an apprenticeship period ending in examinations, after which he is a certified officer. We have, in the information on modalities on how to become a marine officer in our brouchers given to you already, numbers on initial stipends and officer salaries. These, as you can see, are excellent and in many cases tax free, which means that you can add at least 25 percent to the figures to compare them with wages ashore in India.”

“Life at sea is mentally and physically tough; many of you probably have an idea of this already. You work long and hard hours and are away from your family (though when you return you can be with them for a few months on leave) , you often still don’t have easy access to email on board and phone calls are expensive, although this is changing and is enormously better than the time I went out to sea around your age. These are the major negatives; there are others too, as there are in any profession on earth: here, ship’s officers are being blamed by too many countries for too many things and there are pirate attacks off Somalia that you have read about. These are problems, sure, but not insurmountable ones: for example, Somali attacks have been around since the early 90’s, and I have sailed for more than fifteen years after that, often through those waters without being attacked even once. In fact, I spent, a few years ago, four months on one ship mainly in those waters almost everyday!”

“Now for the positives. For a start, it is an excellent career for people who enjoy thrill and have a lust for adventure. Then, salaries are very good and will probably get better as a major officer shortage is predicted. Keep in mind that not very much money has to been spent on the basic training itself, which is the case in most professional and similarly high paying professions ashore these days. Those of you who do not want to burden your parents with tens of lakhs in fees at those institutions will find the merchant navy particularly attractive. And food, lodging and medical treatment is free when you are working!”

“Then, one is ashore for long periods of time. This makes up, to an extent, for the fact that life on board is strenuous for about six months at a time for an officer. Keep in mind, though, that these ‘contract periods’ are generally becoming shorter anyway, and more so for senior officers. Take my example: I have not sailed for more than four months at a time since 1989, taking almost equal time off!”

“’Join the navy and see the world for free!’, is an apt expression, even though going ashore is not as easy and stay in port is not as long as when I was a Cadet. Even so, you will travel to many interesting places across the world and get time off in many of them. The advantage this gives to you in terms of experience, a broadening of your opinions and the ability to manage different kinds of people and situations is enormous, and will help you tremendously whenever you plan to move to a job ashore. Also, when you get married your families can sail with you!”

“Another advantage: you do not have to be a part of the rat race that so many jobs are ashore. You can pace your working life, taking time off as you want. Even on a daily basis, the nine to five (increasingly eight to eight) grind will not be yours. This has other pluses. As my brother in law told me once in Mumbai: ‘When I go to work my young son is sleeping. When I return he is sleeping. At least you are home when on leave.” That I had the time (and money) to make a two month long road holiday across India soon thereafter is another thing that I could have never done if I were working ashore.

“At sea, as you rise up in rank you will manage more and more complicated and computerised machinery and complex operations, and you will manage them with just a handful of people. In not many civilian occupations are the lives of twenty odd people and millions of dollars worth of enterprise in the hands of a twenty one year old officer or even a thirty year old Captain or Chief Engineer. The sense of achievement this will give you will be huge. To me, this has been one of the biggest pluses; this career pushes you to your limits, rewards you handsomely and gives you the confidence to thrive in the face of any challenge that is thrown at you, at sea or ashore. I have also worked successfully in the IT industry for a couple of years. One boss was impressed enough to remark ‘We should employ all merchant navy people!’”

“As I look back at my time at sea, I can tell you that it was tough work, but I revelled in the challenges. I was away from my family a lot, but I provided decently for them- and they sailed for years with me. I missed many birthdays and anniversaries, but so does an army man or even an executive these days. I was cut off from much of civilisation, but I made up for some of it on long breaks. People had misconceptions that sailing was for dumb people, but I knew better: their mistakes at work would cost money; mine could cost lives. My wages were good; I got sea breeze in my face at work and I was doing something more worthwhile than shuffling paper in some office. I had, overall, a good thing going. So can you.”

“Now, an announcement: Differentship will award full scholarships for Cadets to upto six students from this class. Selection criteria will be tough, but at the end of it, the winners will be required to spend absolutely nothing on their pre sea or post sea training on board our ships; in fact, we will give them, instead, a four hundred dollar stipend every month at sea during training. Their only expenses before they become officers will be college and exam fees leading to their Certificates of Competency; some of this money can be saved from their stipends.”

“My colleagues and I will now answer any questions you may have. Once again, I ask you to consider the merchant navy as a career seriously; it is a good career choice. Discard it if you must, but you owe it to yourself to give it a good thought. Thank you for listening.

For regular sufferers of this column who have come this far, an afterthought: If the answers we get when we interrogate the calibre of our officers are substandard, then perhaps we are asking the wrong questions.