COLUMN | The generation game [Grey Power]

Early in my journalistic career, I became the maritime editor for a new weekly magazine, which was called Speed & Power, designed for ten- to 14-year-olds, with some brilliant writers.

The aviation editor was, in real life, a famous aviator who popped up on the TV in the aftermath of every air crash, while the chap who wrote about road transport was normally test-driving supercars for the most prestigious motoring magazines. The greatest living expert on trains contributed columns on railways, although they were a bit stumped when it came to ships. I was technical editor of their little shipbuilding weekly and the nearest person to hand, so I got the job.

It was the most demanding readership I have ever met. They demanded facts, asked endless questions, with long letters and were prone to argue until the cows came home if they felt they knew better than us “experts”. The magazine lasted about four years and every number is still gathering dust in my attic, occasionally pored over with disbelief by grandchildren.

What was absolutely brilliant about the readers of Speed & Power was their colossal enthusiasm, something that so badly needs harnessing by the marine industry today.

I don’t know how you promote enthusiasm in something that is largely invisible, noticed only after a disaster and which tries so hard to keep the lowest possible profile. But when you think about it, there can be no possible negatives in encouraging enthusiasts to learn more about marine technology and the younger the better.

Spreading the word

Just occasionally you hear of some great initiatives to promote maritime enthusiasm. At this year’s Singapore Shipping Week, instead of just listening to worthy people giving worthy messages and having industry folk talking to each other, they persuaded a couple of supply boat owners to park two of their newest craft alongside and opened them to the public.

Thousands turned up to walk around these exciting and sophisticated vessels and question their delighted crews about their job. I suppose it was fortuitous that the market was in such doldrums that the pair could easily be spared for this non-revenue earning role, but as an investment in the future you just cannot beat such an event. Goodness, how many people will have seen what these offshore folk do and said to themselves – “this beats sitting at an office desk every day!”

Just seeing modern technology up close promotes both interest and enthusiasm in the most effective way.

The Norwegian offshore industry, which like any other has been suffering from the oil price downturn, is worried that the current market difficulties will put off the next generation from offshore opportunities and all the bright engineers will go off to get jobs in financial services. They will doubtless be delighted at the ingenuity of the owners of the offshore accommodation ship Edda Fides, which, rather than being idle at a layup berth, is taking 120 “rig tourists” at a time around the offshore structures in the Norwegian sector of the North Sea.

A luxury cruise ship she is not, but these days Norwegian offshore workers expect better than basic accommodation and the better cabins fetch up to US$3,500 for the five day “cruise”.

You might say “who on earth would want to pay money for such an excursion?” But they are queuing up to buy their tickets.

Why not? There are some extraordinary examples of extreme engineering to be seen and to learn about them from real experts would be a privilege that would, I submit, promote real enthusiasm. I don’t suppose that the owners of Edda Fides are paying off a great slab of her capital cost as a result of their summer cruising, but it is better than a slap in the face with a Spitzbergen cod, as they might say in that part of the world.

Think of the children!

Getting people interested in an essential industry is really important, if we are to keep its intellectual capital growing. It was good to see the International Maritime Organisation opening its doors to young people at the recent “Day of the Seafarer” celebrations in London, although a trip on a ship would have been the icing on the cake.

The Port of Rotterdam is a pretty utilitarian sort of place, but the Spido excursion boats in that harbour do great year-round business taking tourists around the docks and telling people about the ships and the port. I suspect that the port regards the Spido fleet as a sort of secondary PR operation. A couple of years ago I went on a two-hour cruise to kill a little time and it was full of school children getting first hand exposure to the maritime world. Sadly, the lecture that day was all in Dutch, but a polite 13-year-old gave me a simultaneous translation of the important facts.

You can learn all sorts of things from screens and even books (although publishers seem to have given up) but to actually see oil rigs or ocean-going ships up close and personal is the ultimate method of promoting enthusiasm; cadets or other young industry people being the very best ambassadors. It is very easy to slump into despondency and do nothing about the future of the industry, particularly at a time when the market is bumping around the bottom, but there is a new generation to attract, and a job to be done.

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.