Making Sense Of The Storm

Glamorised by television soapies, shore-based careers often seem very appealing to school leavers

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Glamorised by television soapies, shore-based careers often seem very appealing to school leavers. This makes the job of those involved in maritime training and recruitment for the shipping industry a difficult assignment.

This is aggravated at present by the maritime world being weakened by the slump in the oil sector, particularly the decline in offshore operations that has left many rig tenders, pipelayers, drillships and even tankers laid up in anchorages all over the world.Adding to the woes of the industry are the low charter and freight rates across most trades, leaving shipping companies with little fat for training, a budget that sadly is slashed first in difficult times. Maritime awareness programmes are often shelved, yet, when when most youngsters have had no contact with ships, this is the first —and imperative—step in attracting the best school leavers to sea-going careers or to the vast array of careers within the shore-based maritime sector.

Such programmes are so important, given that entire harbours and their breakwaters remain inexplicably off limits to the public. Even accredited maritime training institutions face a daunting task with much unreasonable legwork to get young people close to ships, let alone to board them. Yet from groups of young people touched by maritime awareness programmes will come the seagoing officers and other maritime leaders in the years ahead.

Carefully planned maritime education programmes, such as that offered at the Lawhill Maritime Centre at Simon’s Town School, expose young people to the dynamism of shipping and the worthwhile careers it offers. Through the generosity of Bahamas-based TK Foundation, an associate of the Teekay Tanker Corporation of Vancouver, Canada, the Centre has expanded to accommodate an additional 12 boarders. It has installed an electronic navigation systems (ENS) training room and a classroom for the introduction of a new subject Marine Science —a combination of marine biology and oceanography – from 2018. By adding the latter subject to its existing curriculum that includes Maritime Economics and Nautical Science, the Centre will be able to offer a three-pronged maritime education course. Aspirant seafarers or shoreside employees will be equipped with an understanding of environmental issues, while those with a penchant for exploring the oceans will have a good basis for careers as marine biologists or oceanographers.

While several schools in KwaZulu-Natal and East London have also introduced maritime-related subjects, teacher training remains an ongoing priority.The expansion of the two-year S1 to S4 navigation or marine engineering courses at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology to a three-year degree programme will begin at a later date while Durban University of Technology has begun its curriculum changes that have seen the introduction of a three-year diploma course. Some believe that these moves may be counter-productive as many prospective cadets—especially those from financially-challenged household— need to complete their studies as soon as possible so that they can begin their sea-time and earn money to assist those back home.

At its newly established premises in Paarden Eiland, Cape Town, Sea Safety Training offers a SAMSA-accredited conventional course leading to an officer-of-the-watch qualification. This adds to their list of existing shorter courses, mainly for the fishing industry, and offered at their centres at St Helena Bay and Port Elizabeth.

The availability of cadet training berths at sea remains the bottleneck in the maritime training continuum. The conversion of the former polar supply ship S.A. Agulhas to a training ship partially solved the problem. Although she has recently completed a two-month charter for research work in the Indian and Southern Oceans, protracted time alongside for the old ship does not assure cadets (or junior officers) of adequate sea-time for their certificates.

One of the more practical and sensible steps in local maritime training was the conversion of accommodation space aboard the two MACS multi-purpose ships Red Cedar and Bright Horizon, each of which now can carry eight cadets and a training officer. Given that on any voyage, these geared ships will have a cargo manifest that includes break-bulk, bulk, and heavylift cargoes, as well as numerous containers, the cadets will enjoy a steep learning curve in handling and stowing various types of cargo. Long ocean passages, coastal voyages in both Europe and South Africa, passages through congested waters, and calls at several ports with diverse facilities will add to the richness of experience available to the cadets aboard these ships.

Other shipowners who benefit from the South African trade should emulate MACS’s cadet training programme for there is no better experience for cadets than serving in vessels on regular trades.

The lack of a vibrant locally-based fleet with training berths severely restricts a through flow of seafarers from cadet to senior ranks. When Safmarine and Unicorn had about 40 ships on the local register, training and natural progression of officers was at its zenith. Added to those fleets were a number of smaller vessels trading for various owners. Collectively, these ships offered agreeable career paths for officers and ratings, the latter having very few opportunities at present when compared to the heyday of the South African-flagged fleet.

With much ceremony that included a speech by the minister for transport, two Capesize bulkers were transferred to the South African register several months ago. South African cadets were appointed, but contrary to normal practice and industry expectations, the rest of the Filipino crew remained aboard. Although the tanker operating the bunkering service in Algoa Bay spent a few days on the South African registry before being reflagged, she has foreign crewmembers, despite her Greek owners obviously benefiting from her operation in local waters.Yet a number of good local officers are unemployed, a scenario that is hardly conducive to attracting new recruits to seagoing positions.

Despite its much-vaunted Operation Phakisa initiative that was launched in 2015, and despite so many subsequent talkshops in which the same issues are discussed ad nausem without much discernible action, government has done little to promote the shipping industry. To attract ships to local ownership (not necessarily to the local flag) and to promote the offshore oil and gas sector that in turn will bring a significant number of vessels to local prospecting sites, a raft of legislation awaits parliamentary approval. Much of this legislation has been in the pipeline for years.

In addition, the ship repair and bunker industry remains Cinderella-like, cramped by inadequate infrastructure in the ports and a lethargy to take giant leaps forward to put the country on a footing similar to that found in major maritime centres abroad. Indeed, its potential to provide extensive work opportunities and to glean millions of rands in foreign exchange for the country seems to be ignored by those who should be actively promoting its success.

An absolute necessity to the future of the ship repair sector, a large drydock remains a mere point of discussion—as it has been since 1968!The maritime industry can produce so many jobs, and earn so much foreign exchange. Where is the knowledgeable, experienced and apolitical champion to push its attractive agenda.

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