We always here the senior officers tell the junior officers, our times were different and we had a much better experience of the Merchant Navy the present generation. This tradition has been coming down from generations.
Life on ship has gradually but steadily changing throughout the history of merchant navy. We have all heard stories of how Columbus had prisoners as his crew!
Did you know when we started having Maritime colleges? It was around Mid-17th century i.e. from 1650 to 1670.Where they actually started teaching navigation. And by end of the 18th century (After 1775) only the exams for mates and Masters became Mandatory till then the vessels were are on sails. Turn of the 20th century brought steam vessels, so most of the Captains were actually Engineers.Also there we no schemes to join as cadets, it was mainly from the ratings that the seafarers became Captains.
There are studies made on the seafarer’s careers where it has mostly been treated as stop gap career view unavailability of other options. However, there were also a huge number of seafarers who took up merchant navy as a life’s career and with few who have sailed up to 79 years old.
Merchant navy has always been a high paying job compared to the opportunities available ashore for a similar education level candidate, which also improved the social status of the seafarers in their communities.
Late 19th century even before steam ships came into existence, saw lot of reforms in the way how seafarers were treated in Europe, something we can call a fore runner to the modern day MLC.
All these reforms changed the image of Merchant Navy in very great way and combined with Lucrative salary packages we had more seafarers joining Merchant navy.
Continuing on the above, self-have tried to list points which have stark difference between the Ships /seafarers of yester years and today.
1) Navigation: This change is mostly due to the advancement in the technology and along with that came push for better passage planning, Better ETA Prediction. availability of Radar/ARPA greatly changed the way the watch keeping was done, cannot however tell if it improved or deteriorated-you as seafarers know this better. Use of instruments like sextant (Invented in 1731), chronometer, parallel rulers etc. have actually vanished which were mainstay of navigation until few decades ago.
2) Seamanship: The change here can be blamed on the time available, which has considerably reduced as port rotations have become quicker, ships have become faster. Crew onboard do not make pilot ladders anymore, its ordered from shore. Crew do not splice the wires on board anymore (quality of the splice is a concern) which was again a very common practice couple of decades ago
3) Communication: Communication has improved Leaps and bounds in the last 15 to 20 years, The Morse code for regular communication has been long obsolete now. The speed of communication has improved drastically and is all automatic. Thanks to technology again. The Ship shore exchange of information to an extent that the shore office can actually monitor the vessel operation continually apart from tracking the vessel route. The major technological advancement is the invention of satellites and perfecting the placing of satellites around the earth which has changed the way we communicate.
4) Life style: Earlier the difference between the salaries ashore and on ships were huge along with lack of opportunities ashore, hence seafarers generally were spending more and saving less, and life was good onboard(seafarers always are drunk, new port new wife were few statements made for earlier time seafarers).Port stays were longer and cargo operations slower, and so seafarers had more time to go ashore .Present day scenario onboard is hectic and stressful, Captain earlier had more control of the ship and had to take decision. Now all the decisions are taken by the office and transmitted to the ship. Thanks to great communication.
5) Educational qualification and certification: As we saw earlier there were no formal education required to join a vessel or for that matter become a Captain of ship, until recently a few centuries ago that seafarers followed a career path and were certified accordingly. The amount of courses and licenses have slowly added as the ships become more sophisticated with more operational requirements. Training provided to seafarers on various aspect has seen a sea change. The certification and training show the stark difference between the seafarers of say few decades back and of today. This shows how the seafarers have actually gone through a metamorphosis and are a new breed completely.
6) No of crew: Again technology has been playing a major role in this area as well, slowly but steadily, machines have been replacing humans onboard for the past few decades, where the technology advancements have actually speeded up. The whole shipping industry per say has undergone a revolution in technological advancements taking the jobs away from seafarers. Many categories of staff like Purser, catering officer, Radio officer, Deck Tendel, Carpenter were very common designations onboard Merchant vessels only a couple of decades ago. The average number of crew have almost Halved in comparison to the crew only few decades before. The reduction of crew from the vessels is done with yet and hence talks are on how to remove seafarers completely out of the ship and let machines run the ship.
7) Socializing: I feel the whole outlook of seafarers onboard the ship has changed. There are very few seafarers who actually look at seafaring and sailing till retirement. Seafarers nowadays onboard are in continuous touch with their families and friends who are ashore and hence they don’t feel the need to connect to fellow seafarers onboard. Earlier the atmosphere onboard was one of group who are always together and exchanging ideas and solution to challenges onboard. Now there is no interaction required onboard as all the solutions come from office. The present ships are like compartmentalized people who interact with others to the bare minimum possible and can’t wait to go back their shore connections even when onboard. The Lounge where seafarers used to meet and socialise has been converted to the smoke room, or the Designated Smoking Area removing any chance of socialising as non-smokers have literally stopped going to that room.
8) Policies and procedures: Those were the days!!! No ISM, No ISPS, No vetting, No terminal inspection, No Company Audits, Minimal paperwork. Presently onboard seafarers are mostly preparing for some kind of an inspection or an audit almost in all ports the vessel calls. The Checklist and forms system brought in by the ISM system has even though increased the safety levels of the ships to a certain extent, it does take time and effort to prepare, execute, organise and store these documents onboard.
9) Opportunities ashore: The seafaring profession as I mentioned earlier also was mostly thought as stop gap arrangement till some better comes up. There have been new areas opening and there are numerous opportunities ashore even in the maritime industry itself. In past, mostly the seafarers who quit sea started something not related to sea, however with such diversification of the maritime industry and technological development, there is an opportunity galore for someone who is ready to look.
In summarising, the seafarer’s life has undergone a drastic and radical change through the times and will continue in the future as well. Seafarers have adapted to the changes thrown at them at regular intervals with ease as seafarers are the resilient ones always boldly moving in the face of adversities and involved in the biggest transaction of human life in transporting goods and passengers around the world!
A big Salute to the seafarers who have again proved their mettle in the face of one of the biggest calamities in recent past!
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