Unlike my other Radio Officer (R/O) tales this story is not just about my experiences after I left the sea, but relates in part to the issues that would have such devastating consequences for so many in the British Merchant Service. For the R/O’s at sea in the 1970s, there were other winds of change blowing that would lead to the complete demise of the role within less than 30 years.
I have not studied the demise of the British Merchant Navy in any depth. What little I know about the topic is what I have gleaned through reading comments on Internet shipping forums and from articles written in shipping magazines. There will be people with a greater knowledge or firsthand experience of the events as they unfurled. If I have misrepresented the issues in any way then I apologise in advance. I suspect that the topic about the reasons for the decline of the British Merchant Navy would make an ideal subject for a Masters degree in Business Administration if it has not already been given that treatment.
I left the sea before the storm hit. It was certainly more luck than judgement on my part because I never saw it coming.
The Storm Clouds Gather.
If there was a single factor to blame for the demise of the British Merchant Navy then I believe that it was the invention of the shipping container. There is a large amount of fascinating information on the Internet about the growth of the container industry from its origins in the USA in 1955 and its exponential growth over the next 30 years or so as a highly efficient means of transporting goods by sea. The container revolution, for that is what it was, had a devastating impact on traditional shipping companies Worldwide because with its adoption and growing use, freight rates fell to a fraction of what they had been previously for each Ton of cargo carried.
This photograph shows just a few tiers of containers at the stern of the St Louis Express, an American Flagged container ship that in its day was one of the largest of its type to visit the Port of Southampton.
However I think that to blame the container alone would be too simplistic because as with the demise of so many other British Industries there were other factors at play. These include economics, Political will and the skill set and knowledge of people appointed to shipping company executive boards. As with today, a further issue was the unwillingness of companies to invest for the long term rather than to concentrate on short term gains.
Whilst many countries, particularly those in Scandinavia retained and even expanded their merchant fleets, that was not the case in the UK. For whatever reason, British shipping companies failed to recognise the threat to their businesses from this container revolution and if they did see the writing on the wall, then they ignored the message as they failed in the main to invest in ships capable of exploiting the new opportunities.
I believe that another factor that influenced British shipping company investment thinking was their wish to continue to use the ports they had traditionally used to load and unload their cargos. Regrettably the majority of these ports failed to adapt to more efficient methods of cargo handling or were located where larger, deeper ships could not gain access. It is also probably true that in this time of uncertainty and with the mounting pressure to reduce operating costs, that the higher wages and manning levels on British ships also played their part in the demise of the British shipping industry.
Looming up in the very near future (at that time) were the British seaman’s strike of 1966 (over a claim for reduced working hours at sea) and the closure of the Suez Canal in 1967. Each of these in their different ways hammered further nails into the coffin of the British Merchant Navy.
What I believe also impacted on the commercial viability of Thos and Jno Brocklebank Ltd (the shipping company that I worked for), was that India and Pakistan as newly independent Commonwealth countries were actively developing their own Merchant Fleets to carry increasing amounts of their own cargos, factors that reduced the demand for Brocklebank cargo space. Both countries were hubs for Brocklebank trade.
Shipping companies like Brocklebank were part of a ship owners Conference to India and Pakistan. Conference Association agreements restricted the number of competing ships for that trade by other members of the same Conference. This ensured that cargo shipping rates were maintained at acceptable levels. As members of a Conference, Brocklebank were not free to seek other cargos from ports in different parts of the World unless they were chartered by companies who could trade with those ports. Although its revenues were falling Brocklebank did not have complete freedom to seek other business.
These then were some of the factors that individually and in combination led to the decline of the British Merchant Navy and led to the steep fall in the number of ships registered in the UK that were manned by British crews.
Many seafarers who were made redundant by the contraction of the British Merchant Navy in the 1970s and 1980s experienced severe financial hardship as there were few opportunities to find comparably paid work at sea or ashore. Radio Officers were not immune to the downsizing in British ship number but in some respects were better placed than their navigating or marine engineering shipmates, because their skills in radio and electronic engineering were more readily transferrable shore side particularly into the growing computer industry.
The Double Whammy.
From the beginning of the 1970’s, R/O’s regrettably faced a double whammy because in parallel with the revolution in cargo transportation methods were the significant developments then taking place in the application of computing and digital signalling to maritime communications. Sending messages to and from the ship via Telex and weather forecasts by facsimile machines was becoming common as would the use of satellites for the provision of data and voice messaging a few years on.
Additionally there was a drive at an International level through the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Conferences to automate (and hence de-skill) distress and emergency message handling. These discussions culminated in the adoption by ship owners and National Administrations of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) that came into service in the 1990’s. These International regulatory issues were driven to some extent by ship owners and National Administrations who wanted to reduce the costs of ship borne and coast station radio services. Watch keeping on the International distress frequency of 500 kHz which was the prime role of the R/O, declined in importance until it became unnecessary. Some R/O’s found employment on board ship as Electro Technical Officers (ETO’s) but I do not know how many followed that route. The responsibility for operating the on board radio communications equipment fell to the ship’s navigation department when the GMDSS system came into service.
Swallowing the Anchor.
Swallowing a 1960’s ship’s anchor was never possible in the literal sense given the size, weight and shape of the object in question. In the context of this tale, “Swallowing the Anchor” is a term used by seafarers to describe the ending of their sea going careers in order to work and live ashore.
To illustrate my point about size, this anchor came from Queen Elizabeth 2 (QE2) and was donated to the City of Southampton by the Cunard Company to commemorate the long association between Southampton and QE2 (1969-2008).
My decision in 1966 to give up my career as an R/O and leave the sea was based on many factors but I have to admit that when I made the decision it was easier than expected which surprised me in many ways particularly as I had dreamt of going to sea for so many years before I realised that ambition.
Up until the time I left, there seemed every possibility (at least to me) that the job of R/O would be there for as long as anyone wanted to do it. I, along with many others at that time were clearly living in a bubble by believing that things would continue unchanged way into the future. I admit that I was blissfully unaware of any of the drivers for change in respect of containerisation or GMDSS but by leaving when I did ahead of when they became key issues, I escaped all of their negative consequences on R/O employment prospects.
What influenced my decision to leave the sea were career factors. These included the realisation on my part that I faced a complete absence of career progression beyond the level that I had already achieved. Leaving Brocklebank employment to work for another shipping company would not have changed that situation in any way. I was ambitious and wished to develop a career in telecommunications and to expand my technical knowledge but I could not see how either of these could happen whilst I remained an R/O.
Many R/O’s who left the sea around the same time as me were able to obtain employment as wireless operators with the UK’s Post Office in its network of Coast Stations or with the UK Government’s Diplomatic Wireless Service in its overseas missions. In both cases they were able to use their R/O qualifications and the experience they had gained at sea. That route did not appeal to me because although I always enjoyed operating a ships radio station, it was the technicalities of radio and wireless communications that fascinated me. Coast Station R/O’ eventually suffered the same fate as their ship going colleagues, namely early retirement or redundancy.
After a lot of soul searching, throughout my last voyage at sea, I concluded that if I was to have sufficient time to develop an alternative shore based career then I had better make a move sooner rather than later in order to give myself sufficient time to climb whatever greasy career pole presented itself. At the time I made the decision to leave, I was still a young man and had enough time to develop a different career. I now realise that I would have found it very difficult to find the type of employment that I was seeking had I stayed at sea until say 1983 when Brocklebank as a company finally ceased trading. My wife fully supported my decision and did not seek to influence it in any way which was admirable given that I took a substantial drop in salary when I first came ashore.
Brocklebank as a Company had always treated me extremely well so I considered it an obligation and a duty to give them the maximum warning of my decision. Therefore immediately at the end of what was to be my last voyage, I contacted the Chief Radio Superintendent at the Liverpool Office and told him that I intended to resign. He tried very hard to get me to change my mind but when it became clear that I was determined to leave the sea, he wished me all the very best in my future career.
I have to record here that when I resigned as an R/O I had no shore job lined up and no idea as to my future direction. I hoped that it would be related to telecommunications but accepted that much would depend on the availability of shore side job opportunities.
I did manage to pursue a rewarding career ashore as I was fortunate to find employment with an organisation that was directly involved in telecommunications. Over the years in its employment, I was able to take advantage of its excellent training programmes and to climb the career greasy pole. However the sting in the tail was that promotion for me was nearly always associated with relocation to a different part of the UK.
My final career move as an employee was to work for a large organisation where I was directly responsible for delivering some diverse but complex telecommunication projects. On retirement I worked for a few years as a self employed Telecommunications Consultant. My clients included organisations in both the public and private sectors.
To this day, I retain my interest in ships and radio communications but as can be seen from the “My Ship Images” web site I also have an interest in photography. I am still striving to achieve the “perfect” ship image!
Although it occupied only a small part of my working life, I remember my time at sea with affection. I met many memorable people and made some good friends. I also developed a taste for Indian food and for travel, the latter becoming an expensive indulgence in later life.
Those who served as R/Os and who are still alive are the last of their kind as there are no new recruits to the profession because the role has passed into history. We are an ageing band of brothers and sisters, whose numbers diminish with every year that passes.
I never once, in the subsequent years, regretted my decision to “Swallow the Anchor”. In hindsight, the timing of the decision to leave the sea and the direction that my career then took me in made it one of my best decisions ever. The very best decision of all was to marry the wonderful woman who is still my wife.
This “Epilogue” brings a natural conclusion to all of my Radio Officer’s Tales. I hope you dear reader have enjoyed reading them. Writing them has given me enormous pleasure as they have acted like a time machine, transporting me back to a very memorable time in my life. VA E E.
(VA is the traditional Morse code signal sent by an R/O to indicate the end of a communication session. In Morse code the characters are transmitted as dit dit dit dah dit dah . VA was usually followed by two dits (the letter E repeated twice) that signified “nice communicating with you” “Ciao” or “farewell”).
copyright © John Leary