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Captain’s Log: How I Became Master

Sundays usually provide us with time to ‘catch our breath’ after the turnaround day and all that it involves. It’s time to catch up on paperwork and is (almost) meeting-free. I had a 9 o’clock ‘meet the Captain’ in the Crow’s Nest, which is always enjoyable for me.

One question that frequently pops up in my ‘meet the Captain’ sessions is how does one become a captain. It got me thinking that if this question is so frequent, then maybe it ought to be a blog post.

My path to command is not untypical of someone of my generation, however, over the years, the certification process has developed, (or changed). Younger, up-and-coming officers have various paths they can follow to achieve the same result. One thing still common to all of us in my generation is that beautiful piece of leather-bound vellum from the Department of Transport — my Masters Ticket, or licence. Back in 1995, they changed even this, bringing a common format to all licences, or CoC, so I now carry with me my ‘old’ original, my ‘new’ 1995 version and a Dutch licence, which entitles me to command a Dutch-flagged vessel.

My training started with me being indentured to a British shipping company, one with hundreds of years of history, an honourable war record, (if having 60 percent of their vessels sunk and their crews killed by enemy action can be called ‘honourable’), a reputation of being second-to-none and 84 ships under their flag.

I joined as a cadet and in those days, one had to ‘meet the Board’, which entailed a trip to London and the Head Office, looking down an enormously long table surrounded by gentlemen dressed in tailor-made suits, all of which was very imposing to a 19 year-old. Obviously satisfied with me, I then was sent to a sea-school, or in my case, the School of Navigation, Warsash, (which is near Southampton, England). The school was very regimented; we had 6 o’clock morning runs and once a month had to stand guard-duty at the main gates, dressed in full uniform, with gaiters and webbing belts and a Lee-Enfield .303 rifle, (unloaded). Later on in life I recall that it was just as well it had no bullets, heaven knows what we would have got up to had we had a full magazine.

I was at the school for a year, learning everything that one would expect, (except how to stop an infiltrator with an unloaded rifle). Navigation, stability, electronics, seamanship, physics, chemistry — an endless list. I well remember the ‘etiquette’ classes and in particular the ‘dance’ lessons, for this involved young ladies from the local private school attending, (the school at that time was all-male, females just didn’t go to sea in those days). The evening was anticipated with relish for days ahead and was always fun, a formal dinner followed by the lessons themselves, all of us with two left feet, however, the fact that we had ladies, in evening dress and smelling like roses, more than overcame any ‘stumbling’. Chaperones watched us like hawks, ‘corralling’ any wayward ‘strays’ back into the fold. ☺

Clan Sutherland, my first ship.

After a year, I went to sea. The company had several ‘cadet’ ships, 12-passenger cargo ships, converted to take cadets and a Training Officer to sea. Mine was the “Clan Sutherland”, a beautiful steamship, built in 1950, with a specialised heavy-lift ‘Stulken’ derrick, with which we could lift 165-tonne weights, (locomotives and cracking-plants for refineries were our most common cargoes), apart from cargo holds for general cargo. I well remember joining her in King George V dock in London, so busy that ships were double-banked (alongside each other). Now, when you fly in to London City airport, it is a wasteland, the buildings gone, rubble now.

My first ‘voyage’ was to Hull, on the east coast of England, in a storm no less and my first experience of seasickness. We then sailed to South Africa and East Africa, before going to the Mediterranean and then back again, 18 months in total. I and my fellow cadets had the time of our lives while learning everything there was to know about life at sea while continuing our formal training under our Training Officer. I could write a whole book about that one voyage, it’s as clear to me as if it were yesterday and the most wonderful experience.

Constance Bowater

After some leave, I returned to sea, this time on a smaller ship, the “Constance Bowater”. She specialised in carrying paper products, be it newsprint, lumber or anything associated with the paper industry. It was on her that I ran out of Corner Brook, in Newfoundland, to the Great Lakes and, if you read the blog, it was there I returned, on the ‘E’, some 30 years later, little did I know then that I would command such a massive vessel. Had I known, I might have had second thoughts on my chosen career ☺

I returned to Warsash for six months, for my ‘mid-cadet-release’ period, basically brushing-up on what I had already learned and preparing for my first ‘ticket’ (licence) exam. Then back to sea. One had to obtain ‘sea-time’ before one went to college, studied for six months and then took the exam, a weeklong process, overseen by the Department of Transport and rigorous in its method. It also involved an ‘oral’ examination from a DoT examiner, grilling you for what seemed like hours on every aspect required of us. I can still remember the elation of holding that licence in my hand.

My first watch was on the “Clan Grant”, out of London, bound for East Africa and later it transpired, India. I took over the watch near Dover, England, with ships coming at me from every direction, and although we only managed only 14 knots, I wished it were 13 knots less! I left the bridge that night both exhausted and elated.

Good Hope Castle

I had three years of sea-time to log before I could sit for the next exam, the ‘First Mate’ ticket. My travels took me mainly to South Africa, Union Castle line was part of our group and then ran the ‘Mail’ boats, or a scheduled run with several ships, each leaving Southampton, England, on a Friday and returning five weeks and two days later. The majority were passenger ships, on which I spent some time. Two others were smaller, very fast cargo ships and it was on these that I mainly served and incidentally, had the dubious distinction of abandoning into a lifeboat, following a fire, which we fought for 24 hours.

Then, back to college for six months and sitting for my ‘First Mate’s’ licence. More sea-time was required before I could sit for my ‘Masters’ licence; more travelling around the world, this time on container ships and bulk carriers, until in 1979, I sat for the exam. My hands were shaking the day I received the leather-bound document, inscribed with beautiful scrolling, entitling me to command a vessel of any size, anywhere in the world.

Of course, it is unlikely that one would be given command of a huge cruise or passenger vessel at so ‘tender’ an age. By 1979, the 84 ships of the fleet had dwindled to a mere few. Containerisation and the fuel crises, (yes even that long ago), had taken its toll. I reluctantly left and joined a company operating ferries out of Southern England. I had time nearer home and the salary was good. I took a demotion to go there, however, it was such fun.

Very soon after my joining, I had the opportunity of ship-handling, the very thrill of it. This continued throughout my time. It was without doubt the very best training one could receive, in all weathers — rain, fog, gales — the like of which could be so severe that other vessels would not even try to dock.

It all culminated in my being promoted to Master in 1987 and, like that first-ever bridge watch, is as clear as if it were yesterday. The one item I remember above all else was the fact that this time, there wasn’t a man standing beside mw with four stripes, to whom you could devolve responsibility, it was you and you alone who bore that heavy burden.

Photos courtesy of Jonathan Mercer.

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