Lloyds List – 28 October 2013: An industry starved of profit lacks a proper strategy to address future seafaring needs British cadets can find themselves on board ships flying the Red Ensign, but on which they are the only English speakers
IF YOU were studying marine or mechanical engineering and were a native English speaker, would you willingly elect to undertake your studies at the University of Changsi, in central China, or an engineering institute on the outskirts of Kiev, where the courses were delivered, respectively, in Mandarin and Ukrainian — languages of which you spoke not a single word?
Even the most ardent multiculturalist or internationalist would regard such a strategy as one that would lead to either ignorance or insanity.
This is not an altogether a lunatic or hypothetical question.
It is what seems to be on offer for numbers of British cadets, who not infrequently during their periods of sea time find themselves on board ships flying the Red Ensign, but on which they are the only English speakers.
It is a curious product of the tonnage tax system, which, in the UK and a number of European countries, is linked to a requirement to train cadets on board ships entered into this scheme.
The tonnage tax regime is widely praised, by everyone from government ministers down, for raising the UK flag from its previously moribund state to one where growth in the UK fleet has been a regular feature.
No-one will say a word against it, although a few rebellious trade unionists point out there has been — other than berths for cadets — a continued decline in the jobs available for British seafarers.
But back to our Mandarin and Ukrainian students — or rather the difficulties experienced by the English-speaking cadets on board ships where different languages and customs prevail.
These young people are supposed to be receiving a practical education to supplement what they have been learning at college and gaining the hugely important sea time that will underpin their training and prepare them for their careers as ships’ officers.
However, if their so-called mentors are barely able to express themselves in English, how are these young people ever to receive this practical training?
And if you cannot even chat to your shipmates about the football results, or ask them in the messroom to pass the salt please, how are you ever to imbibe the important messages that turn you from a raw student into a seasoned professional on board sophisticated ships? Osmosis, perhaps?
Not only is the life on board this British-registered but alien-owned ship difficult for the “foreigner” to comprehend properly, but also cadets who have been part of this regime have spoken of their loneliness on vessels where the ship’s language is not their own.
Here we come to another aspect of modern sea life, in ships where the crew is so small and stretched that there is no hope of any sensible social interaction between them.
A cadet, writing to his father about this sense of alienation and loneliness, tells of the complete lack of any form of social contact in this ship of human islands, where the accommodation is one of shut cabin doors, with the occupants when not on watch, silently surfing the internet.
This is by no means a unique observation.
Years ago, Dr Martin Dyer-Smith, a distinguished sociologist after his sea career, wrote of officers who were spaced out in a watch-on, watch-off environment of work and too little sleep, having to be “reintroduced to society” at the end of a voyage. Maybe our cadet-training regime is only preparing these young people, if they can only survive the alienation, for this grim and socially impoverished life.
Talk to anyone in the cadet establishment and they will tell you that such training is clearly not ideal, but it is the shortage of training places that is the chief bugbear and it is what is on offer.
They point out, reasonably, that not everyone has bad experiences in these periods at sea.
However, while the tonnage tax regime might bulk up the British flag and swell the hearts of the Maritime UK brigade, it is a sad fact that many of the young people on board these ships know full well there will be no prospect of a junior officer’s post for them when they have qualified, as the operators man their vessels top to bottom with non-western Europeans.
This works, negatively, in two ways: the mentoring officers, struggling with the language, have little incentive to teach the cadets the “company way” of doing things, as they won’t be sailing in that company when qualified; while the cadets similarly struggle with their loneliness and inability to comprehend.
One cadet, asked about his experiences on board such a ship, considered he was being regarded as a “passenger”, rather than as a member of the crew.
All of which underlines the fact that in an industry starved of profit, scouring the world for the cheapest possible manpower solutions, there is a real lack of proper strategy in our consideration of future seafaring needs.
We pay lip service to “wanting the very best” young people and our recruiters are decent and sincere, but sadly our pockets are insufficiently deep to have in place a really good training regime, with structured sea training in the very best circumstances, on board ships of companies that have a vested interest in their cadets’ progress.
A few manage to do it well, but most are struggling, as the accountants purse thin lips over the training department’s costs.
We will suffer for this in the future, without a doubt.