Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Ship Life

Friends often ask me what life aboard ship was like. Since I left the profession to work ashore in Port Klang many years ago, there have been many changes. I append below an excerpt from a very interesting email about life at sea for a sea captain these days. It was sent to my old training ship alumni website some time ago by my old buddy Capt. Jimmy Shroff (photo), who is still at sea and a master of a third generation container ship:

My morning on board generally starts in the afternoon with the awesome decisions facing a ship-master... to get up from bed or not, to shave today or postpone it for another week..... When (if) I do get up in time for breakfast, the issues get more weighty: should I skip the fried eggs and settle for half-boiled...

'Eggs to order' is not a small matter as Oscar Patrao would vouch for. When we were cadets on Scindia ships, discharging Calcutta coal at Tuticorin anchorage, Oscar once ordered a Spanish Omelet.. when the Chief Steward was summoned by the mess-boy, Oscar explained it was a five egg omelet stuffed with ham and cheese and topped with mushroom rings. “Mushroom rings?” spluttered the Chief Steward. Oscar got the normal 2 egg masala omelet, burnt more than usual and a reprimand from the Chief Officer.

Yusof, you may recall the wondrous feat of the 12 year old chintu kids on the lighters at Tuticorin anchorage, who would dive into the clear waters and bring up the odd piece of coal fallen over side while discharging. Well, the next day after the omelet incident, these young boys were having a gala time fishing out dozens of Jaffa oranges bobbing in the water. Simultaneously the Chief Steward was heard screaming: an entire case of oranges just removed from the fridge room had dizzappeared! Of course Oscar was like the cat that swallowed the canary... deny, deny till the end. Next morning, he got a five egg omelet at breakfast stuffed with ham and cheese... no mushroom rings tho'.

The above story is a small reminder that things have not changed much regarding the basic aspect of life at sea on merchant ships. We still do not have police or courts or doctors, things taken for granted ashore. It is still very easy for anyone to commit sabotage and get away with it. We still maintain discipline by the time honoured bluff and tradition and make a tolerable job with these two dubious tools.

The present day temper of the various authorities connected with shipping is also stretched to breaking point. But on the plus side, on safety of navigation, the Geographical Position-finding System, owned by the U.S. Navy but used by everybody, ships, planes, cars, service-men, trekkers, hand-phones, they have made a mariner's dream come true: The ship's position is known to a high degree of accuracy at any and all the time, anywhere in 3-dimensional space. The sextant has become an heirloom. Star recognition means Shah Rukh Khan, Mars is just another candy bar. I will not talk about safety anymore as a superstitious master who is still sailing... why tempt the devil.

I will end this on some brief observations on management in general, ship-master in particular. An effective manager finally has to manage through his own inner resources... the hollowness of bluff and tradition will eventually disclose itself. So if you are the authoritative, quick tempered master, do not try a facade of coolness, it’s not necessary. If you are the kindly, father-figure type, you may long to pose as a powerful disciplinarian.. again no need, the persons around you will forgive all short comings except posturing. Between these two extremes there are of course hundreds of shades of personality ...let the genuineness show forth, warts and all. Of course that doesnt mean you should be indiscrete. Just trust yourself, know you have the same potential as anyone else.

As regards electronics and automation, I never forget to use the most user-friendly remote controls supplied on the navigating bridge of a ship: they are called 'second mate' and 'third mate'. They know the location and use of more buttons than you know exist, and they love to be used. So give them a break and use them. Don't just use them to do all your distasteful work like filling up forms and check-lists. Let them con the ship through the Singapore Straits under your watchful eye.

Aha, Check-lists! When Percy Master emeritus first suggested using check-lists on board ships, an idea borrowed belatedly from the aircraft industry (as most of our ideas is... the dual wrap-around cockpit cluster on a bridge is just too good to be true. Had it on one new German built container ship), little did he know his article in the Oceanite magazine will be picked up and made the focal point of ISM and safety committees around the world. Alas we have overdone it: if I need to visit the rest-room I will have to complete a questionnaire containing such questions as:

Is the vessel safely aground
are all four anchors in use
is IMO informed
has the coast-guard been alerted
and, for good measure,
Has President Reagan (Who?) approved of the trip to the loo.

That reminds me, as the famous Balu Rao once said: I gotta go now... (you
know where...) I have not filled up the check-list.... but poor Reagan doesn't remember much these days.

Come to think of it, neither do I.

Best regards,


  1. Damn, this Jimmy fella can really write Cap'n!

    "... The sextant has become an heirloom. Star recognition means Shah Rukh Khan, Mars is just another candy bar..."

    Just loved that line !

    Perhaps technology would replace us one day, but in the meantime, there's "Ports To Visit" . . .

  2. hi Mat,

    Yep, Jimmy is quite a prolific writer, actually. He is a Parsi, and I believe he has written a book on Zoroastrian philosophy.

  3. I'm not worthy...
    Reading your post just gets me looking for more....
    and I don't mean Mars bars!

  4. Hi Tony,

    Like me old grandpa used to say, you shouldnt have too much of a good thing, be it Mars bars or whatever. Kencing manis, meh ... haha


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