Sea-going careers for those with oomph

The bridge team aboard the gas carrier Al Marrouna as the vessel prepares to leave port. Picture: Teekay

The bridge team aboard the gas carrier Al Marrouna as the vessel prepares to leave port. Picture: Teekay

Published Jun 14, 2023


Cape Town - The shocking Russian invasion that has bombed, shelled, rocketed and flooded Ukrainians from their homes has affected shipping, dislocating grain shipments to Third World countries, dependent on Russian and Ukrainian grain for animal and human consumption.

Although Russia relented on its earlier refusal to allow grain-laden bulkers through the Black Sea, what will the invaders do next to stymie Ukrainian exports?

As some merchant ships have been damaged in the Black Sea during the conflict, war-risk insurance cover for vessels in the area will affect shipping costs.

When unknown hands sabotaged the Nordstream Pipeline through the Baltic Sea to Germany, interrupting Russian gas supplies to western Europe that also had been affected by embargoes, demand for gas imports from elsewhere increased, commensurately increasing the demand for large gas carriers to move gas to western European ports.

The foredeck of the large gas carrier Torben Spirit in Korea. Picture: Brian Ingpen

Relatively few seafarers have the mandatory special qualifications for serving aboard gas carriers. The shortage of properly qualified gas tanker crewmembers was raised by leaders in the gas sector long before the Russians invaded Ukraine.

“Shipowners,” declared one about eight years ago, highlighting the levels of sophisticated equipment and machinery aboard the specialised ships, “will be hard pressed to find the right crews for these vessels, with complex electronic systems, and some propelled by steam turbines driven by steam from boilers fed by boil-off gas, technology with which few are conversant”.

It follows that the demand for gas-tanker-qualified seafarers would have increased significantly in recent months.

Besides shortages in the specialised fleets, seafarers are in demand across the board, a situation that in part is prompted by the Russian devastation of Ukraine. Both countries were suppliers of seafarers to the international fleet but as thousands of people were being recruited into the armed forces of the belligerent countries, seafarers returned home to take up arms. Thousands of gaps opened for others on ships usually crewed by Russians or Ukrainians.

Drewry, the independent maritime research consultancy, published figures that present a daunting picture for shipping companies trying to recruit ships’ officers, predicting a 9% shortage, up from 5% percent last year. As a result – and to the advantage of South African seafarers, including cadets – recruiting agencies are casting a wider net for crews. Shunned for several years by Maersk, South African officers and cadets are being lined up to serve in the blue-hulled ships. Other companies are following suit.

A growing number of South Africans are finding careers – or even gap-year employment – in the superyacht sector that presents an attractive, glitzy lifestyle. Some don’t last long as the pressure of long hours, hard work that is often demeaning, and, on some yachts, demanding passengers take their toll and the once-eager youngsters turn to other pursuits. Others find the sector to their liking, beginning an interesting career that entails mandatory seatime and studying for navigational or engineering qualifications.

The 295m Torben Spirit in Korea in 2017. Her carrying capacity is 173 400 cubic metres of liquid gas, She has since been renamed Seapeak Vancouver. Picture: Brian Ingpen Collection

The quest to keep vessels fully manned costs owners in several ways. As the demand for seafarers increases, salaries rise accordingly, and a further factor attracting young South Africans to a seafaring career is the favourable exchange rate. “I am getting a daily increase!” a local ship’s officer joked as the rand plummeted in value against the dollar.

Had vessels like Thesen’s 30m coaster Swazi Coast been around, her single toilet would have attracted the rage of trade unionists and the health and safety brigade. Responding to nature’s call, a crew member would stride the length of the foredeck to the toilet in the fo’c’sle. On the return passage to Cape Town from Port Nolloth, the coaster often steamed into a head sea generated by the south-easter, and few strode purposefully to the fo’c’sle, preferring to seek relief over the ship’s stern! Officers’ cabins aboard the coaster were tiny with a bunk atop drawers.

For seafaring to be attractive, facilities for crews have been expanded and vastly improved. Most crewmembers have their own en suite cabins. While all communication used to be directed through the master of the ship, change has swept through marine personnel practices. Most ships provide direct internet accessibility for all crewmembers, and, on some ships, every cabin has a satellite phone to enable crewmembers to contact their families directly.

Space in the shiprepair sector awaits trained and qualified artisans, and a glance over the harbour in the past few days confirms opportunities in the field. At L Berth, the 63 616-deadweight bulker Arabella is undergoing repairs; at Repair Quay is another bulker, the 18-year-old Fratzis Star (53 533 dwt) inward from West Africa, is also refitting. Undergoing repairs at G-H Berths is the 7 747-teu containership MSC Rachele that arrived from Pointe Noire ten days ago.

In addition, smaller vessels at the Repair Quay provide constant work for local engineering companies, sometimes stretched to find skilled and experienced artisans for repair projects.

Hard-working, enthusiastic folks with oomph can always find employment in the maritime industry.

Ingpen is a freelance journalist and author of 10 maritime books.

Cape Times