How are things with you? I have just been poking my nose on the B&C website and have enjoyed a wee while reading people's reminisces.
It got me thinking that perhaps I should add one – it's a speech I gave to the Company of Master Mariners here in Melbourne a few years ago that has a direct reference to Clan Line.
I don't know if you will find this of interest for the site, but please feel free to use it if you wish. I served with B&C from 1971 to 1976.
First ship Clan Malcolm, last one Clan McLeod. In between a few others like the Elbe Ore, Argyllshire, Windsor Castle… to name but a few. Anyway, here's the text…
All the best,
Partner & General Manager
Ocean Freight Management Pty Ltd
“That was then; this is now”
Good evening ladies & gentlemen. Thank you so much for inviting me here to this, the 500th meeting of the Melbourne Branch of the Company of Master Mariners.
I always feel that I'm in the company of friends when I come to these meetings, for we all share a common bond – a love and a care for the sea and those who work on it.
The title of my talk tonight is “That was then; this is now” and I plan to spend a wee while taking a look back at our industry when I entered it 35 years ago, in order to compare and contrast with some of the things that we see occurring today.
I hope that some of what I say will resonate with you and that it may prompt your own reflections, which you could perhaps share with us at the end of the talk.
So let's get started...
Do you remember the reason why you got into the shipping industry?
For me, it was a case of following a family tradition on my father's side that went back at least three generations. My father was born on the Island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides – a remote spot that offered little employment beyond farming small rocky postage stamp farms or going to sea.
I remember a sepia photograph on a wall in my grandparents house of a group of craggy bearded young men in ruffled jumpers looking bitterly cold standing on the deck of a sailing ship. The background looked like a Norwegian fjord. One of the group, was my grandfather.
Do you remember what attracted you to the industry?
For me, it was the letters and postcards from my father from exotic far off lands. Everywhere looked and sounded so different and exciting. It held such intoxicating promise to a young kid growing up in Scotland in the sixties.
Also, it was visits to ships when Dad berthed in Glasgow or Leith or Dundee. It was that buzz of activity in the docks that sent a thrill up my spine.
Do you remember the joy of being accepted as a cadet?
Do you remember the excitement of measuring up your first reefer uniform... putting on the tropical whites in the tailors shop ... wearing your No.10s... slipping that cap on to your head for the very first time???
I'll bet that nothing you have since worn will ever come close to matching that feeling, eh?
Do you remember your early days of training as a cadet?
For me, it was the School of Navigation at Warsash. It was a great college and we all thought we were the bees knees. After all those of us there were, in the main, working for the great historic shipping lines – like Cunard, P&O, British & Commonwealth, Blue Star, Ellermans, British India, Port Line, there were even a few ANL and NZS boys too. Of course, we weren't the bees knees were we?
That honour went to those cadets who had first attended Pangbourne or Worcester or Conway. They reckoned they were the crème-de-la-creme – and goodness, how they liked to remind us!
Do you remember your first ship?
Of course you do. None of us can ever forget it. For me, it was the Clan Malcolm – a bonnie vessel – about 10,000 tons – general cargo – five holds – upper and lower tween decks – derricks everywhere – holy stoned wooden boat decks and a Red Ensign on the stern.
In general construction and style, she looked much like every other cargo vessel in the port back then. But like every other vessel, she had her own little idiosyncrasies, those elegant little touches like the wooden beading along the fore end of the monkey island that made her stand out from the crowd.
Of course, she had the odd quirk too, like the tendency to vibrate horribly when the engines were on slow ahead and she could roll like a pig in a millpond, which didn't help stop the never to be found metal screw in the deckhead above my bunk that rolled back and forward much to my annoyance for several months of my life.
But for me, her most redeeming feature was her beautiful backside – she had the most perfect cruiser stern that was ever created in a shipyard - and I just loved to catch an eye of it as I ambled down the docks from a trip ashore.
And do you remember those trips ashore?
Heavens above. When you were a teenager and you stepped down the gangway and headed for the dock gates of some place you had never dreamed you would visit, it was the biggest thrill.
Every trip was an adventure for schedules then were infinitely flexible and we could be in port for weeks. The opportunities to relax and take time away from the ship were plenty and most of us did so every chance we got.
Do you remember those days and nights on watch on the bridge?
I guess they can be summed up as long periods of tranquil inactivity coupled with short but highly intense periods of activity as you got closer to shore and met other shipping traffic.
And talking of traffic. How many of you, I wonder, when caught in road traffic today let your mind drift off to those glorious evenings spent sipping cocoa on the bridge wing nestled comfortably under stars coruscating in a jet black sky as the ship silently sliced her way through a silky ocean?
Do you remember some of your captains?
What a mixed bunch they could be! My very favourite captain was a gentleman who best remain anonymous; let’s call him Fred – he was an absolutely superb man-manager, a great wit, a pretty good singer too and ... a hopeless womaniser.
I will never forget a call into an African port where Fred invited the French pilot, his pretty wife and their two boys on board for Sunday lunch. As luck would have it, I was doing cargo watch that afternoon and I recognised the sparkle in Basil's eyes as he sauntered down the deck with the two boys.
“Sandy,” he said. “The pilot's having a bit of a snooze and I thought you might like to show these lads around the ship, while I entertain their mum. Take your time... show them the foc'sle head, the bridge, the monkey island... oh and don't forget the tunnel well...”
I got the message and did my duty.
Later that afternoon, Fred was seen gingerly guiding the tired and emotional pilot, his smiling wife and two very bored looking kids down the gangway to a waiting taxi. When I came off cargo watch, he greeted me with a broad smile and a very large gin and tonic.
Basil taught me a tremendous amount about management and leadership, about team building and problem solving that have stayed with me for 30 years.
But when I said goodbye to him, he imparted three of the most useful pieces of advice that I have ever been given.
“There are three things in life you should always remember...” he said.
1. No problem is insurmountable.
2. It doesn't matter how many gold stripes you have on your arm, you must earn the respect of the crew.
3. Sow your wild oats while your young, but when it comes to settling down and getting married... make sure you find an intelligent partner... for eventually the bedroom olympics come to an end... and that's when the talking begins.”
Ahhhhh, Fred... what a great man... what a great captain. Very much of a certain era, I suspect.
Are there captains today like him, I wonder? Perhaps some of you out there can answer that.
Thirty years is a long time and so much has changed in the industry.
Back then, we had a good deal to be proud of working for the established shipping companies. Our companies seemed to value what we did, provide us with an agreeable lifestyle and “company standards” that we believed were high.
And so they were, although not all our ships were the beautiful streamlined liners that were objects of admiration. In the 1970s, we were still operating 30-year-old vessels with, to put it kindly, rudimentary facilities.
Life wasn't all beer and skittles, but grudges can't be sustained forever.
On the plus side, our ships were kept like yachts, with prodigious energies expended on painting, chipping, brass and brightwork, holy-stoning our pitchpine decks until they gleamed. It never occurred to us that there were other ways of running ships, or that our world was changing as shipowners counted the costs of our normal operations and pronounced them unsustainable.
We could see, but not recognise, the signs of our downfall as we slowly and laboriously loaded general cargo in Rotterdam – wires, ropes, wharfies and derricks as far as the eye could see. We lay opposite a berth with a couple of the ugliest ships we had ever seen, loading great steel boxes with huge ship-. mounted gantries. Not one of us recognised the technology that would spell the end of our lovely liners and our leisurely lifestyle.
These black-painted ships heralded the end for those old ships and ushered in an unrecognisable world of modern ship operation. As the ships were sold on or scrapped, the company did its best for its servants, but redundancies became commonplace.
Looking back on this era, I often think, that in the rush towards modernity, so much that was good about these fine companies was thrown out with the bath water. The loyalty went with the brown envelopes, and while the professionalism that the old companies inculcated lived on in the individual, it was no longer institutionalised, in the world of casual, globalised, maritime labour.
Companies these days are bought and sold like so many pounds of cheese, with the “human resources” in them just assets to be downsized, outplaced and rationalised by the smooth suits who are the management consultants and the princes of the new dispensation. Some people would argue that what the seafarer has to put up with is no more than the way of the world today, ashore or afloat. I don't agree. I think we have moved into a dangerous phase in the shipping industry.
We live in a world today where captains and crews are criminalised while the real criminals hide behind an impenetrable phalanx of front companies that protect them from prosecution.
We live in a world today where governments – our government for heaven's sake – for some ephemeral electoral kudos disregards centuries of maritime tradition that demands that mariners always go to the rescue of other in distress at sea. The Tampa affair will live on in infamy in the maritime industry, long after John Howard is consigned to history.
We live in a world today where manning agents scour the world seeking out remote hill tribes to man the ships with sailors cheaper than the crews they already have. And then they employ double bookkeeping methods to ensure that while everything appears above board, those crews only receive a proportion of the standard ITF-agreed pay scale so they can pocket the balance.
We live in a world where sailors can be ejected from a ship simply because their name appears remotely Muslim.
We live in a world where seafarers cannot go ashore in American ports, for fear they be terrorists. No mention of these sailors' human rights. They might as well be in Guantanamo.
More worrying still is the apparent increase in mental illness among seafarers. This issue of the solitary seafaring life and its connection with mental illness has been rumbling along for some years despite attention being drawn to the problem from time to time. People on intensively run, lean-manned ships are “having to be reintroduced into society” at the end of their tours of duty when, suffering from sleep deprivation and stress, they would go ashore and attempt to take up a “normal” lifestyle.
A tanker master writing in the latest issue of the Nautical Institute magazine Seaways noted the way in which the “no alcohol” policies of owners and charterers have reduced social contact in the bar and encouraged people to seek solace in their own company behind the closed door of a cabin. If a watchkeeper, for instance, keeps a solitary watch, eats alone in the mess room after he has been relieved and spends any free time he might have when not asleep watching videos in his cabin, is this a lifestyle we should encourage or deplore?
If he is going over the edge, will anyone notice? Of course, none of this is helped by the sheer relentlessness of ship operation, with clever people straining every fibre to make turnrounds shorter and shorter so that there is never any break from the grinding routine.
It is made infinitely worse by the security situation, with doubled up gangway watches and the lack of any shore leave opportunities, crews even having to pay someone to take them from the ship to the dock gate lest they destroy the terminal with weapons of mass destruction.
And let's not forget the stresses brought on by the increasing tendency to criminalise seafarers as a factor that is not exactly promoting their mental well-being.
The Cunards, the P&Os, British & Commonwealth, Blue Star, Ellermans, British India, Port Line have all gone now, swallowed up by a globalising industry set on creating the shipping industry's power in fewer hands.
Of course shipping, by its very nature, is a global industry. Perhaps it is the progenitor of the term "globalisation".
For, since those merchants got together to form the East India Company in 1600, shipping has been spreading its tentacles around the world through increasingly complex networks of ownership and agency interests.
Today, the principles of ship owning and operations are much the same as 400 years ago, it is just that the execution of those principles is a tad more elaborate in this world of internet communications and instant money transfers.
Today, a shipowner might be a dentist in Belgium. His financier might be in New York. His operating company might be in Monaco, but through a heavily disguised network of subsidiaries; his company nameplate may be found on an office wall in the Cayman Islands.
His ship might be registered in Liberia. His ship management company in Cyprus. His crew management company in the Philippines. Moreover, his charterer might just be based here in Australia.
The owner of a fixed asset onshore, such as a factory, is obliged to abide by the laws of the country in which he operates. In contrast, offshore havens offer the unscrupulous shipowner the opportunity to exploit his highly mobile asset in a virtually lawless zone - protected by a very tangled web indeed.
Let's rent a jurisdiction… let's rent a flag… and let's make money – might be the guiding philosophy of these faceless modern day buccaneers.
Pity the poor investigator setting out to unravel all this when things go awry.
Little wonder then that the shipping industry is so often referred to in pejorative terms in so many circles of influence.
John Bowering of ASP made an astute observation not so long ago that has stuck in my mind. And that is that in any other industry, a manager responsible for perhaps a hundred million dollars worth of capital equipment and perhaps that value again in cargo and operating in a remote environment, would be highly paid, highly trained.
He or she would have an excellent career path and a detailed training programme to ensure continuous improvement both in his own performance and his ability to better manage the asset – all of which would be happily paid for by the company. He or she would have direct input into management policy and be strongly represented on industry regulating bodies.
None of this is true of the shipping industry! Most ship owners effectively recruit this most important management team off the streets in remote parts of the world, through agents they have never met. Rarely do they meet the team or its leaders and equally rarely are the team leaders involved in policy making.
There has been a notable socioeconomic decline in the profession – 30 or 40 years ago, the outsider saw the profession of master or chief engineer of a ship as being a highly respected and well-paid occupation. In the 1970s, French Shell made moves to upscale the profession by encouraging Masters to get Chief's tickets and vice versa. It was a bold and interesting experiment that sank from sight.
Major incidents such as the grounding of the Exxon Valdez, the massive loss of life in the sinking of the ferries Herald of Free Enterprise and Estonia and more recently the Egyptian ferry Al Salam in the Red Sea, all contribute to a negative perception of our industry.
This negativity towards shipping can be seen locally in the move by the NSW Government to shift commercial trade out of Sydney Harbour to Botany Bay, Newcastle and Port Kembla. Once busy and productive wharves are being cappuccinoised and replaced with trendy cafes, bars and apartments, while shipping – once the mainstay of that great harbour city – becomes marginalised, effectively invisible.
The same applies in Melbourne, where the port corporation is having a devil of a job convincing the environmentalists that the largest container port in Australia needs a deeper shipping channel in order to accommodate the larger vessels that are filtering into our trade. Even the most optimistic projections suggest that it could be near the end of the decade before the Melbourne project could be completed.
Meanwhile of course, the shipping industry itself grinds interminably on and while bigger and bigger ships filter into our trade the pressure grows.
History illustrates that many once fine large ports today lie empty and idle because people did not recognise that shipping is a global industry that does not patiently sit back and wait for local authorities to take a decision.
The general media is of little assistance. For shipping - unless it involves sheep, refugees or pollution - has long been well off the radar of newsroom chiefs of staff. The environmentalists have their undivided attention, are skilled with handling the media, which in turn seems willing not to question their arguments, instead promoting them to the high moral ground.
I firmly believe that overcoming negative perceptions is the number one challenge facing the maritime industry today – the importance of the industry to this island nation is paramount.
But, unless we get our message across, real progress cannot occur.
Anyway, let's end this talk on a brighter note...On the 18th December last year, my 51st birthday, my wife and I took a drive to Healesville in the Yarra Valley for a celebratory lunch. After a tasty lunch of fresh trout at the Grand Hotel we sauntered down Healesville’s wee main street to browse its quaint little shops.
My heart missed a beat when I spotted it. There, hanging on a wall in a busy little second-hand shop was a framed picture of a ship that I hadn’t set eyes on for 33 years… my very first ship, the Clan Malcolm.
I gazed in astonishment at the colourful print of her steaming elegantly into port, the backdrop the barren rocks of Aden. How could a picture of a ship — Built on Clydeside half a century ago, scrapped many years past, that spent most of her trading life in Africa and India, rarely calling into Australia — be sitting in a shop so far away?
I would love to know the answer but in many respects the mystery just enhances the picture’s value to me and adds to the conviction that we were destined to meet.
As a birthday gift, my wife paid A$45 for the picture, which is by the famous marine artist John Stobart. In truth I would probably have not complained about paying much more.
Through the wonders of the internet, I contacted the artist, who is now 76 and is working on a large project in his studio in Beverly, Massachusetts. He confirmed that the painting of the Clan Malcolm had been commissioned by British & Commonwealth around 1962-1963.
He suggested that the original might have been presented to a ship’s master on his retirement, as was often the custom.
The print is now proudly displayed on a wall in my office, a permanent daily reminder of where my working career started.
The discovery prompted me to search out my old navigating cadet workbooks — journals issued by the Merchant Navy Training Board, which cadets were expected to use as working diaries of their voyages at sea.
My workbooks have sat in a box at home unread for many years, perhaps waiting for a day such as this when I could appreciate that their rediscovery would provide a little window into events long forgotten and a period in shipping long disappeared.
The first entry on Clan Malcolm is on Sunday, March 19, 1972, the last is on Sunday, October 22, 1972, days before I left her in London. During this period I sailed two voyages on her from Britain to East Africa, with a 10-day leave break in between.
Each Sunday the previous week’s events are recorded in surprising detail. Perhaps, unwittingly, I was preparing the groundwork for a journalistic career further down the line.
The first workbook recounts my joining the ship in Hull on a cold and blustery day in late January.
“On joining, I immediately noticed the free and easy atmosphere among the officers of the ship, their helpful and friendly approach,” was my opening entry.
“This was in sharp contrast to the impression I had been given to believe of officers while at Warsash for pre-sea, which was one of ruggedness and strict discipline.
“I knew from that point onwards I was going to enjoy myself.”
And so I did, in the main, sailing from Hull to load in Middlesbrough and London before heading south to Durban, exotic Nacala in Mozambique, then Mombasa, and halting for four interminably hot and sweaty weeks at anchor off Dar es Salaam awaiting a berth.
A further two weeks were spent discharging in the Tanzanian capital before we shifted to the beautiful little port of Tanga and the spicy island of legend, Zanzibar.
But that was just the halfway point. We then had to load for Europe. So it was back to Mombasa and the Dar es Salaam anchorage, and so on and so on...
As I said before... schedules then were infinitely flexible!
Re-reading those journals brought memories flooding back. Of people and places, of incidents and long forgotten shipboard activities, of runs ashore in exciting and interesting spots then untouched by tourism, of entertaining evenings watching films projected on to a canvas sheet strung from the mizzen mast as we sat on the boat deck eating delicious curries under the stars. True, it was not all fun, but my diaries confirm that mostly it was. Could the same be said for those at sea today?
As I sit in my office working away in Melbourne, I cast an eye over to the picture of the Clan Malcolm hanging on the wall and for a fleeting moment I am 17 again... transported to a world that promised boundless opportunities for adventure — and, more often than not, delivered on that promise.
Sandy has 40 years experience in the international maritime and transport industry. He completed his navigating officer cadetship with the British & Commonwealth Shipping Group and between 1972 and 1979, served as a deck officer on bulk carriers, VLCCs, product tankers, general cargo, reefer and passenger ships in trades worldwide. He reached the rank of chief officer.
On coming ashore, Sandy embarked on a career with Fairplay and later Lloyd’s List. Between 1980 and 1982, he wrote and edited the first two print editions of the Fairplay World Ports Directory, a two-volume tome which is now in its 33rd edition and available electronically.
During his career, Sandy has travelled the world analysing and forecasting the key shipping market sectors from bases in London and Melbourne. He edited the Australian edition of the oldest daily newspaper in the world, Lloyd’s List. In 2007, he joined maritime consultants Thompson Clarke Shipping Pty Ltd in Port Melbourne as a senior consultant, becoming a director the following year. During his five years with TCS, Sandy worked on a number of major projects for prominent clients in all Australian states and territories, New Zealand, Hong Kong and islands in the South Pacific.
He joined Ocean Freight Management in November 2012 and created Maritime Trade Intelligence (www.maritimeintel.com) in September 2013.
Sandy has been contracted to work on major projects with a number of international banks and financial institutions as well as some of the world's leading business consultancies, including Aecom, Aurecon, BIS Shrapnel, Deloitte, Fluor, GHD Engineering, Indec, Noetic Group and Parsons Brinckerhoff.