Seafaring with no fearing

Imran Muhammad
Sunday, May 22, 2022

In June 1997, British flagged oil tanker “Chilham Castle” departed Mina Al Ahmadi port in the Persian Gulf after loading about 26k tons of petroleum products, heading towards Port Louis in Mauritius during the strong southwest monsoon season. Two days into the passage, the vessel entered the Indian Ocean. Around midnight, the ship being exposed to rough weather, started shipping heavy seas on deck; the wind and swell becoming stronger and wilder. It was a sleepless night for all on board but that is the life of a seafarer. The phone rings in the chief officer’s cabin as the day just started to break. The officer of the watch on the other end exclaimed: “Chief, come on the bridge. Captain wants to see you right now!”

Sher Ali jumped out of his bunk at once. He headed straight up onto the bridge towards Captain Bagley, a British seafarer who was holding his special large pair of binoculars and looking straight across the forecastle deck. Sher Ali, slightly puzzled and apprehensive, quickly grabbed another set and it did not take long for him to understand why the ship was unusually trimmed by the head. The strong and cruel sea waves had ripped off the cowl ventilators on forecastle, allowing water to ingress into the Bosun’s store. In the next few minutes, while the captain hove to the vessel to minimise the impact of heavy seas, Sher Ali was leading the emergency team on deck to ascertain the extent of damage. The forecastle store was flooded with 800 tons of seawater. All electrohydraulic machinery essentially used for mooring operation was submerged under seawater. The ship was scheduled to reach Mauritius in the next seven days where the supply of these petroleum products was critically awaited. The challenge was not just to pump this huge amount of water out in this stormy weather and get the mooring system back in operation but to perform this time bound task with limited human resources on board. Next few days were a display of hardship, teamwork, and devotion. For an audience outside, this could be like an action movie but the hero, this time, was not a Hollywood star, but Sher Ali, a Pakistani seafarer.

Seafaring is among the oldest professions. We all are brought up with interesting stories of Sindbad the sailor, Robinson Crusoe’s adventures on a deserted island, Marco Polo travelling to China by sea, Vasco da Gama exploring India, and Christopher Columbus, an Italian explorer discovering America. The reality is that all surviving superpowers of today are in fact maritime nations. The USA, Russia, UK, France, Germany, Norway, Japan and China are good examples. Had the UK not been a maritime nation, the East India Company would never have made it to India. Similarly, French would have never been spoken in Togolese Republic, Ivory coast, and several other parts of the African continent.

With a huge coastline of 500 nautical miles stretching from Keti Bunder [Sindh] in the East to Jiwani [Makran] in the West, do we consider ourselves a maritime nation? Perhaps not, although we do have a minister for shipping with no sizeable shipping in the country. A minister for shipping is unheard of even in other maritime countries but bureaucracy prevails unfortunately! Several other Muslim countries have large oceans touching their shores, but apart from Turkey none of them is a maritime country and unfortunately this has been a great disadvantage to Muslim conquerors, restricting them to just the African coastline. Arabs, at the dawn of Islam, were excellent horse riders and masters in swordsmanship. They conquered the places where their horses could carry them, but they were helpless when reaching the North African shores. They knew there was a world on the other side, but their horses were unable to swim across the Mediterranean and they never bothered to build ships and got into the seafaring. Tariq bin Ziyad is famously remembered for setting the boats ablaze but that was just a short stretch at sea when his army crossed into Gibraltar.

Sher Ali has never been an extraordinary person. Like millions of others in his country, he lived in poverty and suffered from lack of schooling with no career orientation. Although he missed his early education, he managed to graduate high school in the end. Sher Ali continued his studies at college level, but that was a complete waste of time until one day he heard about the Merchant Navy. One of his first cousins living in the port city of Karachi joined a merchant ship. This concept of transporting goods to distant lands sparked a fascination in him and he became aware that it is something that he would also like to do. Sher Ali developed so much passion that he first repeated higher secondary with science subjects and then went through a highly competitive selection procedure to finally qualify to join a batch of cadets at the Pakistan Marine Academy, competing against several thousand candidates from all over the country.

Surprisingly, Pakistan had the basic infrastructure for training seafarers from its early days. The first mercantile marine academy was set up in 1962 at Juldia, a place on the bank of river Karnaphuli near the port city of Chittagong. After the 1971 separation, Juldia academy continued its existence in Bangladesh whereas the Pakistani government set up its temporary campus in Karachi at the old Haji camp, housed in 2 blocks, one for accommodation and other for admin purposes. Across the adjacent service road was the quarter deck where the national flag was hoisted by cadets every morning at 0800 with a full parade session before proceeding to their respective classrooms. The academy has been historically run by the Pakistan Navy’s administration, with officers on deputation from the army and the navy. It’s first commandant, Commodore late SM Anwar, known for his Dwarka expedition, had a vision and he worked hard to acquire 136-acre piece of land to build a purpose-built campus at Maripur near Grax village.

Sher Ali was fortunate to experience both campuses. He joined at the old Haji camp in March 1978 and when the cadets returned from summer vacation, they were relocated to the new campus called Pakistan Maritime Training Complex. What an impressive state of the art campus it was! Such a wonderful setup that it gave rise to gossip that Japan was to make it Asia’s largest seafarer training centre by achieving recognition from the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), a UN specialized agency responsible for the safety and security of international shipping. Commodore S.M. Anwar sadly passed away the same year, putting an end to the expectations.

In 1972, the then prime minister, ZA Bhutto, imposed Nationalisation and Economics Reforms Order (NERO) which took over all industries overnight, and as a result, all the private ship owners were deprived of huge assets. Pakistan Shipping Corporation (PSC) was formed to take control of all those ships privately owned. That was a big blow for industries and in particular the shipping sector. The impact was so severe that some exception no one ever dared to own a ship privately in the country ever since.

Sher Ali however progressed through the ranks to become a Master, in command of the world's largest oil tanker transporting two million barrels of crude from one place to another. Once during his holiday period in 2004, he decided to visit his old school. In 35 years, nothing had changed. Same old building, same classrooms and even the faces looked similar. He was fortunate to find one of his teachers from the time of his own schooling. Master Hayat immediately invited him to the class to inspire the students. Sher Ali entered the classroom, finding himself sitting in the same classroom, some 35 years ago. Sher Ali reminisced about how Syed Tirmizi, the then headmaster back in 1971, used to motivate young students, by introducing guest speakers. He was now one of the guest speakers.

Interestingly in this modern age with emerging technologies and career paths, Seafaring as a profession, in the developed countries, has been on decline and hence becoming less attractive for the youth, as they have abundance of other opportunities. Statistics show that the United Kingdom alone used to recruit and train for free 400 apprentices joining sea every year. This has reduced to just 40 in recent years. The companies are offering incentives to high school leavers to join sea but struggling to find them. The UK remains a large shipping hub, requiring experienced merchant navy officers from across the globe to run the shipping services in the country.

On the contrary, Pakistan is a country where the youth is even willing to bear the cost of training but have no opportunities. Sher Ali in 2013 when visiting Karachi, was invited by his batch mates, at a forum organised by the Marine Academy Old Boys Association (MACOBA) to share his experience of foreign shipping and the opportunities abroad. The speech attracted the attention of an audience mainly consisting of young cadets passing out from the academy and struggling to find a place on board ships. It was indeed very disappointing that the Marine Academy continues to provide pre-sea training with no job prospects for the cadets. We need to ask ourselves, why is the government spending a fortune on training these large numbers of cadets when the country owns no ships or can offer them no training placements? Before 1980, the Marine Academy was providing enough numbers of deck and engineering cadets to be absorbed by Pakistani merchant vessels owned by the national flag carrier NSC, PSC and some private owners such as Pan Islamic. Later, the NSC and PSC both with 25 ships each were merged in 1980 to become Pakistan National Shipping Corporation [PNSC]. The situation was acceptable as all the cadets passing out from the academy were still getting absorbed by the PNSC to complete the four-year training cycle before appearing for the first professional exam. Once a person is certified by the Marine Mercantile Department [MMD] to be competent as officer of the watch [OOW], then only the entry door to foreign shipping gets opened, where the person can eventually progress through the ranks to become a captain or a chief engineer.

If we continue operating the academy using the same bureaucratic approach, without a shift in direction, the country will need many more ships, which under the present circumstances is unlikely. The only other option is to develop a market for our graduated cadets from the Marine Academy. Perhaps, we don’t need a senior naval officer to be in command. Instead, we need a leader with business development acumen and exposure to the international shipping, to find opportunities abroad for our trainees. As a matter of fact, the minister for shipping also has a serious responsibility to step in and further support the process. Most Arab countries own large shipping companies. They can be approached at government level to provide our apprentices a place on their ships which would be mutually beneficial for both. These shipping companies employ our senior officers anyway, so why not at the grass roots level too?

According to the data maintained by the international chamber of shipping [ICS], the worldwide population of seafarers serving on internationally trading merchant ships is estimated at 1,647,500, of which 774,000 are officers and 873,500 are ratings. China, Philippines, Indonesia, the Russian Federation and Ukraine are estimated to be the five largest supply countries for all seafarers (officers and ratings). The Philippines is the biggest supplier of ratings, followed by China, Indonesia, the Russian Federation and Ukraine. China is the biggest supplier of officers, followed by the Philippines, India, Indonesia, and the Russian Federation. The Philippines covers 30% of the seafarers of the world, generating six billion dollars a year revenue for their country, making the industry prosperous and contributing a huge portion to the country's GDP. Even India now provides 9.35 per cent of the global seafarers and rank third in the supply. Perhaps this is the time to fight for our share in the international market.

Capt. Sher Ali after having had a fulfilling career at sea for several years eventually settled abroad where after many years of hard work. He now heads a team operating a large fleet of oil tankers owned by Norwegian owners. He is one of several Pakistani seafarers serving not only at sea on foreign ships, but are port officials, harbour pilots, port state control inspectors, oil companies inspectors and ship managers operating large international shipping companies worldwide. There was a time when Pakistani seafarers were the pride of UK’s largest ferry operator P&O cruises. We have a huge potential to produce quality seafarers. No doubt, our country is full of talent. Look at the youngsters playing street cricket with tape ball, without any initial coaching, emerge on the world stage as the best professional cricketers. The country produces world class bankers, doctors’ engineers, and IT professionals. With so much potential in our country, why don’t we overhaul our existing merchant marine system to boost the seafaring profession?

The writer is a graduate of Pakistan Marine Academy (16N).