What is a genuine seaman (or seafarer)? More than 1.6 million men and women are said to be employed on the world merchant fleet. How many fit the description? The bureaucrats at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the entire shipping industry keep talking about competency. Surely, there is more to being a true seaman than just knowledge and skills.
The years I’ve spent as an international maritime journalist and subsequently as a blogger have taught me many things. The world of shipping is beautiful, and there is no shortage of decent, respectable maritime folks. But this world that we all love has its bad side, which some may not see or try not to see. The truth hurts, as the saying goes.
For centuries cats were crossing the seas until humans terminated their seafaring days.
A large DNA-based study of ancient cats presented at the 2016 International Symposium on Biomolecular Archaeology in Oxford, UK, suggest that Vikings took cats with them on long voyages. Until at least the Second World War, naval sailors continued the tradition of keeping pets on board. British warships even had cats as official mascots.
Harbour pilots play an important role, but ship masters do not always appreciate their services. Some may feel resentful that a local chap is taking over control of their vessel. It’s a blow to their ego.
American merchant mariners played a crucial role during World War II. They manned the ships that carried troops and supplies to the theatres of war. Many died as a result of attacks launched by Hitler’s U-boats against merchant shipping. Amongst the thousands who served in the United States Merchant Mariner during the war were the following individuals. Thankfully, they survived and would become famous writers, singers and actors.
Some ship officers stand out as much for their knowledge and experience as for their distinguishing personal qualities. Seven such traits, in my view, are the most important. They define the quintessential officer: integrity, confidence, humility, self-control, patience, fortitude, and empathy. What school can teach these things? I hope the following quotes will inspire the men and women who now wear the officer’s stripe and insignia and the cadets striving to join their ranks.
SELF-CONFIDENCE. That is something not taught in maritime academies. Nor is there mention of it in the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW). Isn’t this odd? How can there be competency if one does not have faith in oneself and his or her ability to do things well?
The overseas deployment of Filipino seafarers plummeted by 54% from 469,996 in 2019 to 217,223 in 2020, according to official government figures. This is the biggest drop ever for a single year. Hardest hit were hotel personnel for passenger ships (classified as ‘non-maritime’ but officially considered as seafarers). Their numbers declined by 64%. Deployment of ratings was down 44% with officers doing much better (only 0.48% lower). Is the bell tolling for Philippine manning?
Who can truly know what a seafarer’s life is like? Surely, none but a person who has spent some time at sea and worked his ass off on board a ship. But thanks to nautical writers, the curious landlubber can have an insight into that life and perhaps feel a bit of empathy with seafarers.
The following are excerpts from some of these writers. Although they describe conditions faced by sailors in earlier times, the quoted passages should resonate with present-day readers. The truth is that the sea is still a dangerous place, and life is still hard for many mariners — notwithstanding all the noise about their rights as workers and as human beings.
My dream project has always been to write a new code of conduct for seafarers — a credo that would lay down for them a path to self-realisation and a way of life, something similar to the Bushido of the samurai warriors. I am slowly working on it. This undertaking will take some time to finish. Meanwhile, let me share some words of wisdom from Confucius. Although the latter lived more than 2,000 years ago, his teachings should resonate with today’s ship officers and other merchant marine professionals.
Like the coronavirus, language has a way of mutating. New words and phrases emerge over time even as old ones are pushed aside, if not scuttled. A good example of the latter is the term ‘seaman’.
As the end of the old year nears, I thought I would share three songs in remembrance and honour of seafarers. I dedicate these songs to all those who are still working at sea, to those who have grown old and are now retired, and to those who have sadly departed. As the Scottish dramatist and novelist Sir James Matthew Barrie (1860–1937) wrote, “God gave us memories that we might have roses in December.” Smell the roses, dear readers.