“Who wants a cynic who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”, I proudly landed Oscar Wilde to my friend’s face. His eyes dilated, seemingly in disbelief that I will frost philosophy over logic. We are childhood chums, did schooling together, graduated together and got employed in shipping sector together and have been living parallel professional lives ever since.
The discussion of the evening by the kebab corner was – “Where is the life of a marine engineer taking us? Are the fat non-taxable pay checks worth our long, arduous personal sacrifices?”
A marine engineer requires a specialized set of skills. We operate, monitor and maintain a 4 storey, 600 tonner engine which produces power almost equivalent to 50 BMWs (III series) combined. There are added auxiliary machineries too that give us clean water, air and fuel onboard ship, the details of which I don’t intend to get into.
So, the conversation goes: This profession is just perfect. You fly in, sail on distant oceans to far off lands, shuffling oil in and out of the ship, working hard for couple of months, free food, free accommodation, get your stash credited in your bank for your time onboard and fly out back home. Simple, he said.
There are no drawbacks like a job ashore, where you have to work late hours, important meetings of Sundays are a normal routine, year round. Moreover, you have to put up with terrible boss/colleagues every day for months or years may be.
My friend had a point. It’s not like that I had not gone over the same thought process before. Moreover, he was happy – he had recently bought a new car, his apartment EMI was running in 2nd year now and he took a foreign trip every vacation. He was, rather is pleased with his job.
I have my qualms about the subject, rather than my profession.
Merchant Navy problems: Life of a Marine Engineer
1. (Im)Balanced life
The most important priority for a content life. A balanced life lets you grow. It lets you set goals, plan tasks, achieve and reflect. This deficiency plagues not just the sea people but people ashore too. The only difference is – they have it a bit easier to turn the tables around for them.
However, for sailors it is an extreme scenario. We toil day or night for months, with ultra-flexible hours of work. It’s like – Work, Eat, Sleep, Repeat. There are days during the span of our contract on board that we make a bit merry, do parties when we get a chance.
But sharing our time with people we are probably never going to see again, is exciting in the beginning but that feeling wears off with time. We want to be surrounded by our loved ones in those joyous moments. Then there are those special occasions- birthdays, anniversaries, Diwali, Holi, Christmas, New Year. We can’t have it all. We have to choose, which ones we want to celebrate back home.
2. No Networking Opportunities
We are born, we connect with people, we die. Networking is the basis of our social existence. For us sailors, it works differently. Each one of us gets to meet roughly 24 different chaps on our every tour of duty on board ship.
However, once we all get off the ship, most of us move on with our lives with memories washed in time and soon enough we are on board again with another combination of 2 dozen folks. This cycle just keeps repeating itself.
Over a period of time, we realize – networking is as good as dead ant to us. The circle of people we surrounded our self during graduation is more or less the last network we are left with.
3. Limited scope for personal / professional growth
The hierarchy starting from deck/engine cadet to Captain/Chief Engineer gives us room to develop and grow in our chosen career. The more we sail and swiftly we clear our competency exams, the easier it becomes to climb up the ladder.
It is a safe to say every deck cadet or engine cadet becomes a Captain or Chief Engineer respectively given he continues his sailing career for an average of 14 years.
How about getting more skilled than merely running a ship? Taking up a short data analyst/foreign language course becomes difficult with all the mandatory government certificate renewals and company sponsored courses that come up during the off time.
All you want to do is a bit of relaxing after coming from a long hefty sail and before you know it, it’s time to fly back again. Even the part time or online programs cannot work for us because that also requires personal attendance at certain intervals or good internet bandwidth for accessing content.
Even if all that is managed somehow, where is the time to apply the acquired knowledge? Thus, diversification in our job profile is difficult.
How the merchant navy industry is trying to tackle the problems
Facilitating Work-life Balance
Shipping companies have recognized and addressed the balanced life issue by letting us decide if we would want to have our family (wife, kids) on board during our tour of duty. Senior and junior officers are being given this opportunity in many good companies.
This is a great step to give us better control of our lives. Another bonus is shorter contracts, though this is available in a few companies for now, it is a welcome move as this lets us plan our on and off time better.
Tackling Information/Growth Barrier
We owe this change to internet and Steve Jobs. In the last 5 years, many shipping companies have been prompt to install decent, limited, satellite run internet on board their ships.
This gives us access to people and information back home. Seafarers’ online community forums on Facebook, Whatsapp, telegram and more have come alive.
From sharing information about competency exams to discussions about ships, shipping companies, new breakthroughs in the shipping world all happen in these group forums. It has become a strong virtual community.
In 2007, Steve jobs announced the arrival of first multi-touch smart phone to the world. By 2011, most of us had one. Smart phones have really worked in favour of merchant shipping community. Now, we can chat, video call, do news, attend online courses, right from the palm of our hands. Because of limited megabytes of data to access on board, smartphones are an economical choice.
These changes are still in their nascent stage and might not be applicable to the whole merchant shipping community. It’s the lucky few, who have these welcomes changes knocking on their doorstep. In coming years, the benefits are expected to spread.
Merchant shipping is the life line of the world economy, carrying 90% of the world’s trade with more than 100,000 commercial ships worldwide. Being an important asset to this trade chain, we do pride ourselves in what we do. It only feels like a generous personal sacrifice on our part for the world trade to prosper.