Whenever I tell people that I worked at sea as a Merchant Navy Officer, the first thing I get asked is: “Do you miss that life?” There is of course a short and long answer to this question. In brief I can say yes, of course I do. However, for the sake of this piece, I feel I will probably need to go into slightly more depth than that, so I will furnish you with a long answer.
Even considering the rose-tinted glasses through which one views the past, there are instances I can pick out, memories of perfect moments, which I know will never leave me until the day I die. Singing Hotel California with nearly the entire Filipino crew while eating hog-roast from a horse trough on the aft deck of a reefer-container. Standing out on a bridge wing in the middle of the night, waves pounding against the hull, knowing that right now I am responsible for this nigh-on billion dollar asset. Yes, I know that the Captain is ultimately responsible, but allow me my moment of whimsy. However, it is most important for me to recognise that not only did my career at sea provide me with some of the best moments that I can imagine, but it also provided me as secure a footing for my current path as I could ever hope for.
Whilst I am eminently capable of writing about my current job for a great deal longer than the word limit allowed here, I will attempt to provide you with a succinct snapshot without making you lose the will to live. I promise, it’s not as boring as the acronyms we use may sometimes suggest. My current job is a Marine Planner, working under the auspices of the Marine Management Organisation, a non-departmental public body sitting under DEFRA. Rather than holding watches each day, helping with cargo-ops or lowering an anchor, I spend most of my days talking to people about how they want the seas around England to develop over the next twenty years; more specifically the North West Coast for me. I talk to everyone, be it fishermen, ports, sailing clubs, councils, the RSPB, nuclear power stations, the list just goes on and on. Whereas on board I would look out of the window and see sailing boats, fish farms, wind turbines or even whales as navigational hazards, I now see each of them as an opportunity or challenge waiting to be tapped into. What is the best way of making them all play nice for their own benefit, as well as that of the country as a whole?
I can’t help but feel a tug at the heart
that I should be on that bridge
Now the obvious question is how my previous job possibly relates to my current one. Is it merely that floating around on the sea for a while has given you carte blanche to understanding all of it? Of course not. It would be a foolish person indeed who, in their mid-twenties, claims to know all there is to know about the sea. Indeed, I would like to challenge anyone, no matter how wizened and salty, to swear under oath that they understand everything there is to know about the topic. What I would claim though is that a Merchant Navy career did provide me with a solid base from which to tackle these new and exciting questions.
When I first started as a cadet I was naïve and, frankly, cocky. After all, it couldn’t all be that hard could it? Of course that was just plain wrong. Being at sea is both the most rewarding and challenging thing I have ever experienced. You are not gently stroked into shape, nor are you spoon fed what you need to know. You are beaten (metaphorically of course) into shape. You either sink or you swim. If you hold onto the idea that you know anything about your new life, then you will sink. You have to listen and learn, from both the good practices and the bad. You are, to use a favourite college phrase, a sponge. Without warning, you are thrust into responsibility and have to grow up and work with it or go home and lose the best opportunities that come your way. You will make mistakes. Oh so many. But if you learn from each you will emerge so much stronger on the other side. Of course, you don’t realise it at the time, you are too distracted by the nerves of giving a life raft demonstration to 80 crew members where the canister didn’t open. After that how intimidating can any meeting be? How about holding a solo watch where at 2am you get a mayday from a sinking yacht? How about that first call when a fire has broken out on-board and you have to remember the first six things on the checklist right now?
When I finally stepped ashore for the last time I had not only learnt about the diverse activities that take place in the marine environment (the knowledge of which would of course stand me in good stead for my current role), I had also learnt how to shut up and learn like a sponge (a necessary skill when dealing with the huge number of sectors and legislation currently vying for our attention). I had learned to cope with the stresses and crises which evolve out of any job or life, dealing with each with a calm I certainly never had before setting foot on a ship. I had learned to multitask like a pro; I started studying a law degree at sea and see no reason to stop now so bring it on!
Coming ashore was by far one of the biggest decisions of my life. Every time I tour a port in a shirt and tie, or sit on a beach and see a vessel sailing down an estuary, I can’t help but feel a tug at the heart that I should be on that bridge. But I also know that the time I spent there, even if it has been too brief for my own nostalgia, has given me skills and a frame of mind which will set me up for the rest of my life.