The Sea is a Magic Carpet was the title of the very first book written by the distinguished marine historian Peter Padfield. He had been a deck officer with P&O, and served, amazingly, on a replica of the Pilgrim Fathers’ Mayflower which crossed the Atlantic in the early 1960s. Then, via a spell being a technical journalist he became a professional historian, and never really looked back.
He was writing in his first book about the opportunities which were available to anyone who wanted to use the sea as a vehicle for career progression. He put it rather more romantically, but it is arguably as true today as it was more than half a century ago.
Most of us at sea subscribed to the notion that the grass was always greener in trades and shipping companies other than those we were actually serving with. People working on ships on long oceanic voyages would think, on those boring watches, of how nice it would be to sail in the short sea trades. Those who were bucketing around in small ships, in those very same coastal and short sea routes, would think about the contrasting delights of blue waters and nights under the stars.
The grass is always greener
When some elegant passenger liner swished past, the strains of dance music just discernible over the rumble of your diesels, you would contrast your bleak, all-male lifestyle with the sort of glamorous careers enjoyed by their officers. You might be astonished then to discover that at least some of those who served aboard such ships hankered for a life free of endless changes of uniforms and the need to smile politely to paying passengers. What joy it would free to carry inanimate cargo, which never complained, and didn’t require you to dress for dinner.
It is much the same today. I have met people in container ships who would move heaven and earth to get into what they see as a more interesting life in offshore services, those who by contrast like the certainty of a box boat, operating to razor-sharp schedules and with a guaranteed length of tour, that would see your relief on the quay when it was completed.
The trouble was that you probably served on one type of ship, or in one company and the greener grass, that was available elsewhere, was almost certainly hearsay. I remember after an engine breakdown on our outbound passage to New Zealand had forced us into Falmouth, we were tied up alongside what was one of the world’s biggest tankers (a minnow today of about 40,000DWT). Our respective chief officers thought it would be good for our education to swap us four apprentices for four tanker cadets for a day, to see how the other half lived.
For our part we were tremendously impressed – by the spacious accommodation, smoke rooms, excellent food and the fact that they seemed to be far better paid than we were. We had a tour of the technology, which was “state of the art” and far more impressive than that aboard our ten-year-old Commonwealth liner.
They even had air conditioning, which seemed amazing. Even the voyages seemed to be shorter and more regular than our sorties to the ends of the earth. But then we discovered that their shore going possibilities, as their ship loaded in some sweaty dust-strewn Gulf oil port were non-existent and these chaps quite literally never got ashore.
We, by contrast, would whinge a bit at the awful jobs the Mate gave us to do, and the boredom of an 18-day haul across the Pacific, but could look forward to a minimum of eight weeks on the Australian or New Zealand coast. I recall just recently talking to an old shipmate at a company reunion, who said of his life half a century earlier – “I know we didn’t get paid a lot, but I would have done it for nothing!”
“The magic carpet seems to have shrunk a bit”
That was perhaps remembering all the rosy bits, but I knew what he meant and I agreed with his sentiments! It was significant, I thought a few years later, that one of those same tanker cadets turned up as our new Fourth Mate. His day aboard convinced him that the charms of tanker trading were limited.
I was a devotee of the books of Conrad and always rather hankered for the waters he sailed in and the sort of lives we imagined expats in those ships enjoyed. I recall meeting an old chum off one of the China ships in an Australian port and going back with him for a drink. He sank into his chair and pressed a bell, and I was very impressed by the speed with which a diligent white coated steward came bustling in with crystal glasses brimming with gin.
Our service was rather more rudimentary and DIY. I might have gone out there after Second Mate’s but only the company I was contracted to would give me an advance, and I needed to redeem my sextant from the pawnshop.
These days, the magic carpet seems to have shrunk a bit, as everyone is looking for “experience” and the opportunities for changing between trades and ship types seem to be fewer, even though the number of different specialities has multiplied.
There are, however the honourable exceptions of Trinity House and Maritime London cadetships, which at least give their cadets the opportunity of sailing on a range of different ships during their sea-time. They, at least will learn something of the green-ness of the grass on the other side of the fence.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.