With the explosion of developments in technology, social media as well as urbanisation, strange jobs are being created and at an absurd rate. I don’t think anyone grew up hoping to be an app developer or a digital data analyst. In the meantime, traditional jobs which flourished in, say, the 19th century have become increasingly unheard of, including joining the merchant navy. Reuben Porter tells us about how he ended up in one of the more obscure jobs of the 21st century, the integral racial inequality and why it’s worth the struggle.
Why did you want to join the merchant navy?
I first decided I wanted to be in the Navy when I was four or five. My grandad did it so I was always interested in working at sea.
I was never that interested in university, by the end of school I’d had enough of just academia. I wanted to do something different. After sixth form I’d had enough of classrooms.
I realised once I got there I hadn’t put much thought into it. I applied, got the job, went to college for 5 months and that was all fine. I passed all my exams. Then I got to sea and the first month was total shite. It was horrible. You want to quit, it’s miserable and you miss home. But you get through that and you get hooked on it.
You go places. Where else would you get paid to fly to Singapore and then sail around the ocean? It’s not easy. It’s hard work. I do deck which involves things like cargo and navigation. The work is split between being on the bridge – charts and radar, etc – you do 8 hours a day there with 2 four-hour watches, starting at 4 in the morning for me. I’d also do 3 or 4 hours on the actual deck, which needed a lot of maintenance… painting, chipping of paint, angle-grinding, sweeping, greasing. It’s got to be done.
Some of my friends work on cruise ships, and they have a more glamorous time. They get to go to restaurants, not so many menial jobs. I did a lot of cleaning. It’s not really what I’m supposed to be doing, but you can’t say ‘no’ because you’re stuck on a ship. I enjoy most of the work.
What’s the workload like?
I was supposed to be doing 10 hours of work a day, 8 hours of actual work and 2 hours of study. But I ended up normally doing more. The 1st ship was 10 or 11 hours, but the second ship was more like 12 or 13. When you’re in port you can be doing a lot more, the most I did was a 17 hour day. Which is pretty shit. But it’s just how it goes, you’d be working the same hours as everyone else. Everyone has to do their bit.
How do you feel when you compare this to the ease of many students and young people’s lives?
I feel like I’ve aged a lot, but I don’t feel sorry for myself because I chose to do it. I always liked hard work. It’s not so much the long hours but the lack of sleep. The shipping industry is the only industry governed by the hours of rest you get rather than the amount of hours you work. You’re supposed to get 10 hours of rest a day, with at least 6 hours of that uninterrupted. You can get pretty short-changed, spend a couple of months looking rough as fuck.
How risky is it working at sea?
It’s not so bad, more dangerous than working in an office I suppose. Quite a few people die. There was a ship a couple of weeks ago which sank. I think around 30 people died. But it’s something I try not to think about. It concerns me to a degree – you follow the safety procedures, but things like the weather you can’t control. Anyway, it makes it a bit exciting!
Focusing on the more positive side of things, where do you get to travel?
For my first voyage I went for 4 and a half months, the second voyage for 6 weeks. First of all we went to Mauritius, Madagascar, 2 ports in Mozambique, back up to Malaysia, Singapore, I did that 3 times on the first ship and once on the second ship. We don’t get much time ashore. The most was 5 hours in Singapore. I think you need a lot of money to have a good time in Singapore. Mauritius was good, we went to the main city rather than the beaches, wandering around a market. They’re not so much nice places, but interesting. Eye-opener’s to poverty. As you come into Beira in Mozambique there’s this big slum and all the fishermen come in out tiny boats with bed sheets for sails.
The stevedores come on the ship to load and unload the shipping containers. They earn $2 for a 12 hour shift. They go through the bins at the back of the ship to try and find stuff. We had to get razor wire to put around the bins, from a safety point of view.
Supposedly we got chased by pirates when we came out of the Malacca Straights (the busy waterway between Malaysia and Indonesia). I was asleep at the time. I didn’t know about it, we just sped up to our maximum speed. The next day that made me think why am I doing this for £550 a month? If I do ten hours a day, it works out at like 53p an hour. But I get free food, free flights, college is paid for…it’s a fair deal. And I’m only in training at the moment, so once I qualify it will be much more worth it!
What about the rest of the people who work on the ship?
Meeting all the different people from different cultures is one of the best parts of the job. I was sailing with Indian officers, a couple of Sri Lankan officers and everybody else was Filipino. You see how different cultures work, how they interact.
It got a bit racist and tense at some points, but most of them are good guys. I got along with the Filipino’s because I spent a lot of time with them on deck. They’re not trying to teach you stuff like the officers. They’re more like your mates. They liked to have a good time, drinking beer, singing karaoke. We were all in the same boat (haha!) – everyone misses their families. But they work for a lot longer, 9 months at a time. For not great money. The argument that everyone uses is they make enough money back in the Philippines for a good enough life, so don’t need to be paid as much as, say, a European sailor.
Its private shipping companies rather than the government so I guess it would be difficult to enforce wage equality. There are unions, but I heard some companies don’t like the unions. It’s a bit fucked up. I read Down to the Sea in Ships by Horatio Clare, which made a really good point about how your passport affects your pay. Different countries have different standards of training, so if you do it in Britain then it’s fairly well regarded whereas other countries aren’t so good, maybe that also plays a part.
What do you do in your spare time?
In my spare time I watched films, tried to study more, sleep. Everyone says there’s less of a social life aboard now that everyone has DVD’s and their laptops, everyone goes and hides away. Obviously I don’t know what it was like before but it is fairly isolated. We all have different shifts, there’s people working all hours of the day.
I like books about people going places and doing things. On the Road, they’re always moving. I’m always on the move, but they have a much more fun time of it! The Motorcycle Diaries, same reason. I listen to a lot of The Pixies whilst I’m away. I like their song Hey, one of my favourites. I take a hard drive full of films and music to keep you sane.
How do you see your future in the merchant navy?
I don’t know what the future holds. I have to do 6-8 months more at sea before I qualify and get my ticket, which is kind of like my driving license for ships if you want to put it that way. Once I get that I can work on any type of ship. A lot of British guys work on cruise ships but the money isn’t so good. If you work for an oil company you get more money, more time off, but you don’t go ashore much because nobody wants a big oil tanker in their port. I’d probably stay in cargo because I feel it’s honest work, and I’m already learning the job. I was thinking of working in the North Sea, they supply the oilrigs – the pay is good and the voyages much shorter. But they’ve been laying a lot of people off recently because there’s not much oil left in the North Sea. I don’t see myself doing it my entire life. My grandad started when he was 15 and retired when he was 65, he was at sea his entire life and it’s not healthy for a family. I’d like to be a captain. That’d be the dream. Once you’re there you can do more with your qualifications.
So overall you’re glad you chose this career?
The way I see it is that I get to see more of the world than if I stayed in one place, say, at university. You can see if you’d like to go back to the places that you visit. Saying that, you’re so knackered all of the time you don’t really want to spend more than a few hours ashore. Particularly when you go to places where you’re with a tour guide – aka a child minder. Several of the places I went to weren’t particularly safe either, so going off exploring wouldn’t be a good idea.
The main difficulty is being away from your family. Since I came back to college I realised my company was less up to date with technology compared to others. You have email, but no internet, no phone. Except for a satellite phone, but that costs a fair bit. I called my ex-girlfriend every couple of weeks, but that’s still tough going. It’s hard on relationships back home. I think it’s good to prove to yourself that you can do it. You stick it out and get used to it.
It’s a strange place. It gets bizarre when you’re on a boat with 23 other blokes and you have a party. You have a rationed amount of beer each, someone puts on some Indian bhangra music. I was stood in a circle with 15 blokes who were taking turns at dancing in the middle. It’s unlike anything I’d ever experienced before.
If I had to sum it up though, I’d say it’s my dream job. Once you get through the first month it gets easier and just becomes your way of life really. Even when I was joining, I was told it’s not a career, it’s a lifestyle choice. I think I’d have to agree with that!
Interviewed by Alex Howlett