The Merchant Navy and the Internet

by : Ieuan Dolby

A web site dedicated to the writings of the sea, ships and all those that sail on them? It sounds strange as who knows what the Merchant Navy is or what those at sea actually do all day, those who work in the Industry that is. Isn’t the Merchant Navy something to do with fishing or fighting? What is interesting about that? “Get a real job", some would say and others would ask “and so why haven’t you got a sun tan". So why would anybody be interested in a web site filled with things that nobody is interested in – beats me.

If one would look through the endless Marine and Nautical webs sites available or if one was to go to a bookshop and look at the available literature on the subject this is what you might find. Ten books on the “Titanic", dozens of “how to sail around the world in a plastic boat with a sail" DIY books and a couple on “when I was shipwrecked or and attacked by pirates" biographies. This is all good stuff and I must admit to do with the sea and ships, but oh so very long ago! The Merchant Navy of today is not about sails and pirates, it is not about sinking ships and unqualified people sailing the world for adventure, it is not about scurvy and cannibals in foreign lands and it is definitely not about fishing and catching the nearest ferry to France!

Merchant Navy really started to be recognized as early as the Fifteenth Century. This was when hard men in little boats, battled the oceans in the name of exploration. "Yes, dear, I will be back in ten years or so, be good", would be heard throughout the land. From these times the Merchant Fleet grew into the heart of the British Empire, bringing back all that Tea from China, the spices from the Orient, the fruits from Morocco and the gold from everywhere. Sailing ships became the heart of the spider web that connected Britain to its colonies and outlying Islands. Heroic men set forth to bring back to the British people news and exotic goods that had become so much in demand.

Last Century sailing ships became steam ships and steam ships became fuel oil burning ships. Britain became in the middle of the last century the largest shipbuilder in the world with well over 70% of the ships being built in places like Newcastle, on the Clyde, in London and other famous Maritime Ports and Harbors of the UK. Britain also had the largest Maritime Fleet in the world and dominated Trade everywhere with its powerful supply of home built ships and rufty tufty seafarers. Yes, not long ago Britain was dependent on a massive fleet of ships importing and exporting goods and keeping the Empire together. During these times families all knew what the Merchant Navy was either through having family members at sea or through working in the support Industries of Shipbuilding, Insurance, Imports/Exports, Dockyards, Stevedores amongst many other occupations in the Maritime World!

Times change though! Thirty or so years ago the British Merchant Fleet size started to drop and the shipbuilding Industry started to wither away. Countries like Japan and Korea started building ships using cheaper labor and the cost of building a ship in the UK became prohibitive. Shipyards closed and workers were laid off in their thousands and these workers drifted into other occupations if they could or joined the long queues at the unemployment center. The fleet size reduced in their hundreds as companies either moved their ships to other flags (different countries for cheaper tax incentives) or sold off their fleets to foreign companies. The remaining British ships and the foreign ships sold laid off seafarers by the thousands and employed in their place cheaper crews from such places as India and China.

The British Merchant Navy dropped in size at such a rapid pace that it went from world dominance to nothing in a matter of a couple of years. The significance of the Merchant Fleet in the eyes of the public disappeared overnight and became an unknown quantity to the outside world.

Today things are improving. Recent Tax incentives by the British Government have caused a turn around and certain shipping companies have started to increase their fleet size under the British Flag and other companies have switched their ships operate in the UK. London as the center of Maritime Affairs managed to retain the title of “Marine Capital of the World" throughout the troubled times and still to this day stands proud above all that represents the Marine Industry.

London with its hundreds of Marine Insurance Firms, Brokerage Companies, Lawyers, Import/Export Houses and Ship Business and Consultants (amongst many other support arenas) brings in over one billion pounds per annum to the UK economy? That is London alone and does not include all the other companies and offices situated around the Islands. Furthermore, it also makes no recognition for the 60,000 British seafarers that are still out there plying there trade across the many oceans, nor for the Nautical Schools that still operate in Glasgow, Southampton and Newcastle to name only the major ones. It also does not include those fleets that are registered and operated out of British territories, like Gibraltar and it certainly does not take into account those seafarers that work in the Merchant Navy but don’t subscribe to a Union.

In basic terms the Merchant Navy could be described as any commercially operated waterborne vessel. So any vessel that makes money is a part of the Merchant Fleet. This would include for example: Research Vessels, Ferries, Fishing Boats, Oil Tankers, Passenger Ships, Chemical Tankers, Training Vessels, Hospital Ships, Diving Support Vessels, Anchor Handlers and Tugs to name but a few! It could though be said that the Merchant Navy is anything on the water that is not used to fight with. Or anything on the water that does not have a gun! But there is a crossover point and it is easier to use the Commercial explanation above and to include any ‘pleasure craft’ into the statement.

Merchant Vessels go with Imports and Exports. Trade being their primary purpose and 95% of cargoes shipped around the world is by Merchant Vessels. Not, may I say by aircraft which is often a preconception that those ashore seem to have. Cargo planes carry either very small items, or very expensive items that are needed in a hurry. A plane could not carry Oil around the world and it certainly could not carry toxic and dangerous Chemicals. Fruit is carried in ships as are vegetables and grain to name but a few! Ships carry cargo; planes carry valuable items and cost too much for general items to become viable economically. If oranges where brought in by plane they would cost well over five pounds each at a minimum, I leave that subject to rest in peace!

At home in the UK have a look around your house and think about where the items you see come from! That television in the corner, does it have Sony written on it? The Persian Carpet that decorates your sitting room I am sure was not made in the UK. The children’s toys with “made in Taiwan", certainly do not come from a UK factory and the tea you are drinking most likely comes from India! What about the Japanese car in the garage and the rice in the bucket in the kitchen? If you were then to go a bit further and look at the wood supporting your roof you may find that it was shipped in from Finland. The gas that heats your water is shipped in from North Sea Oil Wells or from Africa and the fancy gravel that adorns your path came from Spain or France. And by no means, were any of these goods or items shipped in to Britain by an airplane! Ships brought all of these goods to your supermarket shelves, for you to enjoy in your home!

As seafarers are not fighting (which seems a common misconception) and we don’t play cards all day let us clearly state that the average seafarer suffers from overwork and stress. Stress built up over the time he spends on the ship due to the high volume of work and the responsibility that is placed on his shoulders. I will leave it at that. It would take a whole volume to describe the jobs and routines that seafarers in their respective ranks are responsible for and I suggest that you read alternative literature (if you can find any) or join up! Seafarers in short have too much to do at sea and suffer as a result of it!

The Merchant Navy today is improving in stature and in size in the UK. Slowly and with time it may grow once again to be a recognizable force and understood and respected by the general population. Long gone have the times when a Captain was a respected figure in the community but maybe he will one day be able to lift his head high a not hide under the lie of being “a travelling salesman". One day Marine Engineers will be come respected as extremely qualified experts and not classified on the same level as a car mechanic straight out of school. Maybe one day everybody will realize that being at sea does not mean a “wife in every port" and that often nowadays seafarers no longer manage to leave the ship in their time onboard. Maybe one day seafarers will be able to go ashore and tell people what they do without having a blank response or a daft reply like “oh, erm you fish?", or “that’s good, you do a good job protecting out shores".

The reason for setting up a web site for the written word of the sea may now be a bit more logical to the “landlubber". There is in fact a whole world out there that remains unknown to all. An extremely diverse and interesting world filled with cultural shock and intrigue and through the web site it is hoped that all readers will gain massive insight and knowledge into this world. The Merchant Navy and those that sail on the ship deserve far more recognition and respect than they get to date. So maybe through this web site all will change and soon Officers and Crews of the many Vessels that ply their trades will be able to lift their heads high and shout “we are in the Merchant Navy". And all those that hear will understand and respect those persons that are part of what was once the greatest Industry that Britain can lay claim to.