REMINISCENCES | Can we still learn from the training methods of the past?


In an interesting article for the Nautical Institute journal, a young captain who had recently completed his training complained about, "how outdated the syllabus is in relation to modern seafaring."

He particularly mentioned such useless things as a knowledge of union purchase derricks, manual radar plotting and communication by Morse code, although he was absolutely convinced that celestial navigation should remain in the syllabus and gave a well-reasoned explanation of why he believes this.

It saddens me that the three things he particularly condemned were among the only things I was any good at when I was a cadet, but there is no doubt he is correct. The bad news is that the syllabus was just as faulty when I started my career in 1969. In those days, we learned how to calculate the half-life of certain radioactive isotopes because there was a grand total of one nuclear-powered merchant ship in the world. I suppose some academic assumed there would be more in the future, but there never were.

There were also yawning gaps in our education. We learned all the individual parts of calculating stability, but were never shown how they fitted together. The first time I ever calculated a full stability solution for a general cargo ship was when I became Mate on one. I finally sorted it out about 24 hours after we sailed and thereafter made a point of completing my calculations before we left the berth, but my lack of preparedness rankles still.

In 1970 most of our training would still have been familiar to people who were apprentices before the Second World War, and we spent a lot of time learning to sail, sending Morse code and rigging union purchase derricks.

There were also two weeks set aside during both Phase 1 and Phase 3 at college for what were known as training modules. These consisted of one-week exercises where we were sent off in teams to do adventurous things.

Hares and hounds

My first training module was a Hare and Hounds exercise on Dartmoor. We were split into two groups and dropped at different points on the edge of the moor.

Both teams were given a list of tors (the rocky outcrops which are a famous feature of Dartmoor), and the hares had to visit them and collect a stamp from each one to prove they had been there.

The hounds merely had to attempt to intercept the hares before they could complete the task. I was a hare, and we realised the odds were stacked heavily against us, but if we pushed on quickly we might just get ahead of the hounds, so off we went.

The hounds knew they had the advantage, so decided to pitch camp and turn in early on the first night. A couple of hours later, one of them woke up and found it was broad daylight – his watch indicated it was already 8 o'clock – so he roused his team, they had breakfast and set off.

Imagine their surprise an hour later when it started to get dark. They had forgotten to consider long British summer evenings when it does not get dark until late, and this was in the days before digital watches which might have offered the time in 24-hour notation. They never recovered from this early setback so we stayed ahead of them all the way and reached the pickup point with two days to spare.

Tired of pitching tents and sleeping rough, we negotiated with a local farmer's wife to sleep in her barn in return for doing odd jobs around the place. She even cooked for us, and our evenings were free to do a thorough survey of the local hostelry.

"More useful than learning to calculate the half-life of radioactive isotopes"

The second module on Phase 1 involved taking a sailing lifeboat up the River Tamar. When we reached the Calstock weir, half of us were to trek onto Dartmoor to an agreed rendezvous whilst the remainder had to attempt to get the lifeboat over the weir.

We set off up the Tamar with a nasty wind against us, so rowed most of the way to Calstock. I was in the party going to the moors, and we completed our task without too much trouble, then headed back to the river.

When we arrived at the agreed meeting point, we found the lifeboat without its mast, and a very crestfallen crew. They explained they had rowed up to the weir, decided it was too high to get a lifeboat over it, so allowed the boat to drift back down to their camp while they enjoyed a brief nap.

Needless to say, they drifted under the low branch of a riverside tree, and were woken up by the sound of the mast snapping. The rest of their time was spent conducting a thorough survey of the local hostelry.

We knew we were in trouble, and decided it would be better if we could make it look as though we had tried to do something about the mast. There was a stand of young fir trees nearby, so we decided to "borrow" one after dark to make a new mast. This we did using the basic tools in the lifeboat, but an unseasoned tree is a good deal heavier than a seasoned mast, so the lifeboat took an alarming trim by the head and we had to redistribute all our equipment to the stern to bring her back to a more acceptable trim.

We perched precariously on top of the gear and set off back to Plymouth. In a final attempt to mitigate the punishment we knew was sure to descend upon us, we actually sailed the lifeboat back into the Seamanship Centre to demonstrate what a good mast we had fashioned. It worked, and we were commended for our seamanship. Nothing was said about the broken mast.

By the time we returned for Phase 3, the syllabus had become much busier and more academic, so training modules had been cancelled. I regret not spending a week at the Outward Bound school on Drake's Island and a week sailing the college's yacht Tectona to France or the Channel Islands – it would have been much more useful than learning to calculate the half-life of radioactive isotopes, and much more enjoyable.

So if anyone ever gets around to revising deck cadet training to make it suitable for the modern era, I hope they will look to the past and include training modules. It will be fun, and it might just encourage more young men and women of the type we need to consider a career at sea.

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