From Lloyds List    Friday 10 January 2014    by Michael Grey


“The Board was also at pains to ensure that a constant supply of good officers would be available to sail the new ships.”

The object, said the chairman in his report, “was to get good steady lads, who will work their way up in our service and become in time efficient officers and commanders of our ships”.

Each ship would carry between three and five apprentices under indenture to the company and just four years after the company had commissioned its first vessel, 45 apprentices had been appointed, while “there were many applications on our books”.

THIS was in the annual report of the New Zealand Shipping Company in 1878, details of which are to be found in Alan Bott’s fine book about the sailing fleet of NZS, which served on the world’s longest trade route between 1873 and 1900, when the company went over to steam.

I had been thinking about the industry’s attitude to its trainees when doing some research for Lloyd’s List’s digital commemoration, and it is clear that this company had some really quite advanced ideas about its responsibility for growing its own talent.

There was no whingeing to the government for grants to train, and indeed the NZS even commissioned its own hostel for apprentices in the East India Dock Road, with its matron and housekeeper to keep the lads standing by ships in line. The company, without doubt, knew where its responsibilities lay.

But for hundreds of years before this, virtually every merchant ship would routinely carry apprentices, learning their trade “on the job”, often for as long as seven hard years.

They would often be indentured to the master of the ship, sometimes to the owner. It would be no exaggeration to suggest that they were cheap labour, with their lodgings and victuals their only recompense.

Their welfare was very much at the mercy of the master, who if he was far sighted and decent, would ensure they were properly taught and learned the principles of navigation alongside the seamanship they practised daily.

As I write this I have my own indentures, dated 1956, on my desk, its archaic language barely altered from that of those signed a century or more earlier.

The only concession to modernity was that “the master hereby covenants with the said apprentice that during the said term he will and shall use all proper means to teach the said apprentice or cause him to be taught the business of a seaman and of a ship’s officer as practised in vessels other than sailing ships”.

I did get paid a small amount every month, although my father had to pay a £35 ($57) “surety” to ensure I didn’t jump ship, on which case it would be forfeit.

We were cheap labour, too, although it was a very notable fact that the Port Line rarely seemed to “import” officers, with almost all having started in the same fashion.

One generation trained the next, in a continuum that had worked further back than anyone could remember.

Twenty years on and the industry carried on training in this way.

A couple of months ago, I read Under a Yellow Sky* by Simon Hall, now chief executive of a financial group but who has just written an account of his cadetship in Shell Tankers, although he diplomatically abstains from mentioning its name in this entertaining book.

He went away in the early 1970s, although by then, sea time was interspersed with periods of shore-side study.

It is clear that he and his fellow cadets worked like slaves on board these ships, the junior cadets at the bottom of the food chain and mightily oppressed by their seniors.

Nevertheless, there seems to have been time to go ashore occasionally and desperate quantities of drink taken, which seems to have dulled the pain.

The point I am painfully making towards is the fact that down through the ages, shipping companies have regarded it as important to train their own officers, like the Creator himself producing man “in his own image”.

These were people who would be brought up in the company way of doing things, sometimes badly taught by officers who did not care or were too busy, but more often in the hands of officers who undertook these responsibilities seriously.

“You’ll make a good third mate: I’ll be happy to sail with you any time,” said Simon Hall’s final chief officer, as he completed his cadetship.

It was clearly an important and worthwhile accolade.

But somewhere between then and now, training has been moved decisively from the category of “investment” to that of “costs” in the minds of the bean counters.

The responsibility for training the next generation has been largely sloughed off to colleges, to governments or to anyone who might pick up some of the bill.

Now we have cadets tolerated as a sort of codicil to the tonnage tax regime, treated all too often as passengers, on board ships where not a soul speaks their language, in a company where they have no prospect of future employment as an officer.

Does anyone in the industry regard this as progress?

There are a few companies that take their training responsibilities seriously, but they will tend to be the major shipmanagers, whose personnel folk tear their hair out looking for berths on board their clients’ ships, where sea time can be earned.

It’s a very long way from the positive action reported to the board of NZS, with their enthusiastic endorsement of their scheme for apprentice training, nearly 140 years ago.

*Under a Yellow Sky, by Simon Hall, is published by Whittles, available from at £16.99.

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