Lloyds List – Monday 11 August 2008.

I HAD lunch with Jim Davis the other day. A week before, the Chairman of the International Maritime Industries Forum had celebrated his 80th birthday, and one doesn’t pass up an invitation to spend a couple of cheery hours with somebody whose experience crosses several generations.

I mean, just how many 80 year olds do you know who are still active full-time in the shipping industry. He’s there each day in the IMIF office in the Baltic Exchange, surrounded by young folk burbling on about FFA’s and other curious financial devices, which would have seemed like something dreamed up by necromancers and astrologers when Jim arrived in P&O as a management trainee all those years ago. Then that great company had some 400 ships scattered across what was still confidently referred to the ‘Empire’.

The huge value of Jim Davis, although there will be no more nice lunches and he will not thank me for saying so, is his sheer longevity, in a cyclical industry where the same things tend to come around every generation or so.

When some youngish Baltic broker is waxing lyrical about the stratospheric level of rates, in the same tone of voice that Gordon Brown used to use when he suggested that “boom and bust” could be designated redundant terms, I just hope that he might exchange a word or two with the IMIF chairman in the lift, or the Baltic coffee room.

He might learn a thing or two. Jim actually remembers life in the 50s, and 60s, and 70s, on until today, and the sort of climate there was to be found in the shipping industry of that era. He can recall the post-war rebuilding boom, for goodness sake, when P&O directors were dispatched to the North to buy ships which really were technically redundant, from shipyards which were terminally inefficient.

Every blooming ship different, because the extraordinary lessons of series built ships like the Liberty, or Victory had just failed to register with either the buyer or the seller of new tonnage.

Jim was part of a P&O which was still running cargo-passenger ships to the Dominions, socking great liners with enormous holds, which would spend weeks, if not months, on the New Zealand, or Australian coasts, waiting for the wool sales, or for the freezing works to have accumulated sufficient butter for their lower holds.

The New Zealand Shipping Co ‘Rangi’ boats were magnificent, and I always envied them the excitement of boatloads of nubile Kiwi women passengers, but they lost money hand over fist, with their chief stewards owning large businesses in New Zealand, which they would assiduously work at while the ships were lying alongside, passengerless and costing NZS a bomb.

Jim would probably point out that the absolute justification for containerisation came from the length of voyage and sheer unproductivity of these beautiful ships. And we all know now that this is a completely accurate analysis.

But you need some sort of bridge between the generations, if any of the wisdom of the past is ever to be transmitted for the benefit of the future. What on earth did we learn from the 1970s, which began with such high hopes, with governments helping to finance vast fleets of huge ships, and shipyards being constructed out of green fields to extrude VLCCs on three shifts of fit, young Japanese workers?

Jim will tell you that in such an era, you learned something about the influence of events (the quadrupling of oil prices and the opening and shutting of the odd canal) and the immutability and unpredictability of the freight cycles. I wonder if this sort of appreciation is registering with the present generation, as it lives for the day with extraordinary relish?

Perhaps because this unpredictability of the markets has been his predominant message for so long, the IMIF chairman has acquired a reputation as a sort of modern day Cassandra.

It is not entirely justified as he, has always, as long as I have known him, preached caution and care, rather than doom. He cannot, for instance, understand containership owners intent on buying still more huge ships at pretty hefty prices. Why on earth not sit on our hands, keep the money in the bank and anticipate some distress sales of some very choice morsels once rates have plummeted? It’s what clever Greeks did once, with aplomb.

I thought of the industry Jim joined, compared to what it has become today. It’s when you really appreciate what is understood by “generational change”.

I had an uncle who was a master in British India Steam Navigation Co, about the time Jim was sent out to the East as a ‘student prince’, which is what they used to call these clever young chaps who had P&O directors’ batons in their haversacks.

I have all his photo albums, stretching back to when my uncle had sailed off in 1915 into the first world war, with dazzle painted troopships and a torpedo in the side on his very first trip.

This was an even earlier generation, and my uncle had sailed with people with square rig tickets, and looked upon a four year tour of duty in the eastern BI fleet as perfectly routine, indeed as did he.

I particularly treasure pictures taken on the long years when he was a chief officer on the pre-war ‘slow gulf mail’, where the decks of the ship are shown awash with camels, loaded out of dhows off Dubai Creek, seen as a collection of low buildings on the horizon, rather than the extraordinary city on the sea which it has become.

I often think of the generation gaps, as illustrated by long serving people like Jim, in technical terms. People my uncle sailed with were the bridge between several thousand years of commercial sail, and mechanically propelled ships.

I suppose that my own generation was the last to have this link with at least the materials with which our sailing ship predecessors operated. We were trained to sew canvas, to splice and do interesting things with rope and line and cordage. “Worm and parcel with the lay — turn and serve the other way,” was some almost meaningless key to successful ropework that has stayed in the memory.

We did things with wire and wood, building great structures of 3”x 3” and 6” x 1” dunnage. We were in and out of boats, and in theory, even if we never had to do it in anger, could react to all sorts of emergencies with ‘three stout spars’ or send up a telescopic topmast or rig a jury rudder. We navigated by dead reckoning, and sounding, radio direction finding and the craft of the celestial navigator.

Does the modern mariner get the same thrill out of seeing Pitcairn rising out of the Pacific, one point on the port bow, ten days after Cape Palliser in the Cook Strait dipped below the horizon? I’d like to think he does, but satellites do seem so quick and easy, compared to a sextant and those whole bookfulls of sight reductions, which, for some ridiculous reason, I still retain in a box in my attic.

But our shipping was of a human scale and I have the utmost admiration for those people of my generation who have stayed with it, and adapted to the extraordinary technical changes that have taken place in the past fifty years.

As somebody who is constantly being shamed by small grandchildren, I just marvel at friends who have competently managed to constantly update themselves to cope with modern technology. They are the real bridgers of the generations, in an industry which has seen such a multiplication of technical innovation, which has seen ships develop in their working lives from small tweendeckers to 12,000teu containerships.

From channel packets to 150,000 cu m LNG carriers, from the Slow Gulf Mail to cruiseships with 6000 souls aboard. From the general cargoships to vessels offering extraordinary specialisation. From a Baltic timecharter to a complex deal of industrial shipping, which will see a volume the size of the Isle of Wight hauled from Brazil to Rotterdam.

People who bridge generations, like Jim, are living history, although he would be even more angry to hear himself so described. We need to listen to them more.

Ships can also transcend generations, and I was delighted to learn about the successful withdrawal from the US Reserve Fleet of “positively the last available Liberty ship” which has been gifted to Greece and is now being prepared for her trans-Atlantic journey home.

It has taken a bit of time, but because they will have one of their own, the huge importance of this standard, war-built ship will be handed down to a new generation of Greeks.

They will be able to walk her decks and marvel at the simplicity of effective design, and the contribution of that ship to freedom. Rather sadly, our lot, who really ought to appreciate the same historical truths, will be restricted to looking at models and reading books. It is a pity, this great generational gap which has been left. It is up to people like Jim to fill it. He left me with one of his own little drawings of the veteran cruiseship Ocean Monarch, which he sketched on his recent Greek Holiday. I sailed in her when I was an apprentice, and years later, a second mate when she was one of Port Line’s mighty meat boats. There is a generational gap leaped, in steel, for our pleasure, on paper.
 
 

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