I had a wrathful email the other day, not because of anything I wrote, but from a maritime college lecturer deploring the treatment of a group of engineer cadets who were just about to qualify.

They had been peremptorily told by the major oil company, which had sponsored them throughout their cadetship, that there would be no jobs available for them as Junior Engineers.

This matters greatly in an industry (and the oil companies are the worst offenders) where experience in rank is vital and that “first job” essential for progression in any job search. It is said that “there is no loyalty around these days” and this is a perfect example of why.

All those years ago, I was fortunate to have served in a shipping company which, from the first days of an apprenticeship, went all out to make us “company men” (there were no women in those days). There was a “company way” of doing virtually every task aboard ship, from the elementary tasks of seamanship to the intricacies of cargo planning or precise navigation.

“What do you think you are doing?” – the Mate would snarl, as he caught us taking a short cut with some task we had been set. “You’re not in b…. Company X!” (he would spit out the name of one of our rival lines, which we were brought up to believe was inferior in every respect).

“Brightwork was varnished to perfection”

Ours was not a huge company, with never more than thirty ships and which ranged from the ultra-modern to the very old. But there was a definite esprit de corps about them all, with enormous efforts made to keep even the oldest maintained like a modern superyacht.

The reputation of the Mate and Boatswain would depend upon the critical gaze of the visiting superintendent, who would board the ship on arrival home, or on the other side of the world, when we arrived on the Coast. In the engine room, the Second Engineer and Storekeeper would await their own critical inspections.

In today’s utilitarian shipping world, with every action overseen by accountants and their spreadsheets, it is difficult to even imagine the prodigious amounts of sweat and money spent on what would be dismissed as “cosmetics”.

Above and below, we had enormous crews by today’s lean standards and nobody wasted their time idling. Anything moveable was oiled, all else was painted. Brass (and there was brass everywhere) shone, teak railings gleamed, brightwork was varnished to perfection and the pitch-pine decks were holystoned white, until they would offer the least resistance to a deck-golf puck.

There were days when we thought our fingers would fall off, after hours soaking in soojee, washing down the paintwork before applying even more coats. There was all the “tiddly” works to do, like painting coloured circles inside winch drums or sanding the brass tags on the sounding pipes and fire lines, so the lettering stood out in red paint. Our awnings were scrubbed white.

These days, with twenty people rattling around in a 20,000TEU containership, it is difficult to comprehend such a life. But it is what we “company men” did and it really did help to instil a real pride in our ship and the standards to which we aspired. In a world where elitism was not the dirty word it is today, we considered ourselves members of an elite.

Membership, however, had its price. For its part, the company expected these standards to be maintained, it was no more generous with its overtime allocation and paid no more than any of its competitors. It also had a nasty habit of suddenly extending a voyage, effectively doubling or even trebling a four month trip with no notice and no choice.

But by contrast, it could be very humane and understanding, helping people to get ashore to take their professional examinations, with coastal voyages for officers who didn’t want to go deep sea at that time. There was no frightful HR department, but a kind and understanding lady, who would look favourably upon an officer’s request not to sail with Captain X (who hated him) or find a berth in an Australian, rather than a New Zealand ship. She found me the latter and the girl I married there is sitting beside me as I write. It was a system that first cultivated and maintained loyalty.

For the company’s part, it gained immeasurably from the efforts it put into training its own officers, who knew the “company way” of doing everything as they progressed through the ranks. We didn’t need a 12-volume Safety Management System – a company “brains book” was our only real written instruction, kept updated, read and signed every deep sea voyage.

There was very little wastage – people stayed with the company, signed the contracts willingly and only a few officers had not been company apprentices.

Pride and loyalty                                                              

We were small enough for reputations to be made both good and bad, for stories (suitably exaggerated) to be nurtured and come down through the years. When we met other company ships on the coast, friendships were renewed and the company scandal passed around.

Our preference pilots on arrival back in London would intersperse their helm orders with several hours of valuable company gossip, that would soon permeate through the ship.

But all our loving maintenance, the careful cosseting of our shippers at parties around the ports, the elegance of our ships and the professional pride we took, didn’t save us from the march of time, containerisation and its inevitable diffusion of pride and loyalty.

The arrival of container consortia, the premature disposal of our pretty commonwealth liners, the brown envelopes signalling redundancies by the dozen, all heralded the end of a way of life.

When the company died, just part of the great dispersion of the British merchant marine, to those who had served, it was like a death in the family. Forty years on, at our reunions, nostalgia rules and we remember something of that pride.

Submissions wanted! Do you have an exciting, amusing or downright dangerous anecdote from your time in the maritime world? Each week, we will feature new personal experiences from across the globe. Submissions to: [email protected].

Michael Grey

Maritime industry legend, and former long-term editor of Lloyds List, Michael Grey kicks off each month with topical issues affecting the maritime world at large.