I was born and bred in Bootle in the 50s less than half a mile from Hugh Baird College. Having attended school here I left realising all I ever wanted to do was follow the family tradition of joining the Merchant Navy and heading off to sea – and you didn’t need a host of qualifications to be a deck rating in bygone days!
Before I was 16, and the day after my last school exam finished, I was headed for Liverpool Pier Head to secure a berth aboard the Monas Queen; the latest acquisition of the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company. I spent the summer season sailing between the Isle of Man and Liverpool on the Monas Queen and the Lady of Man, and what was then, the oldest of the IOMSP Co fleet, the Ben-My-Chree. Not to be confused with the current Ben-My-Chree which sails between the IOM and Heysham.
In 1974 having ‘parted company’ with the IOMSP Co’ I applied and was accepted at the National Sea Training School in Gravesend Kent. Here, I was put through my pre-sea training before commencing on a proper seagoing career as a Deck Boy, the ships cat in real terms.
I was fortunate enough to gain employment with the Blue Funnel and Elder Dempster Line. These two companies eventually merged, with others, to become Ocean Fleets. The Blue Funnel Line and the Elder Dempster vessels where real ships. No automation here, very labour intensive, carrying crews of 50+ whose work was hard and 24/7. Being the labour intensive vessels they were, they spent longer in ports than today’s modern ships, which lent its time for the chance to spend time ashore in some quite exotic locations.
Sailing from the UK and Europe to the far-east visiting Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Honk Kong, Korea and Japan, fulfilled all my boyhood dreams.
At the age of 20 I was in a relationship, which was suggesting an increased responsibility, and if I was going to take on that responsibility I needed to enhance my career prospects. I took up a course of study with the Seafarers Education Service (latterly known as the Marine Society) in mathematics thinking I was not really as dumb as I first thought. More orientated as a hobby than with a real aim; I actually enjoyed the challenge. My course tutor must have seen some potential in me as he highlighted I had completed most of the syllabus leading to GCSE and he thought I should give it a shot. That didn’t actually happen, as the Marine Society offered me a bursary to return to college (Riversdale College which was a nautical college situated in Aigburth at the time) and I embarked on a nine-month course of study to do five O’levels (English, Mathematics, Physics, Seamanship and Navigation).
This course of study was to provide the foundation education that I had lacked and enable me to embark on a career as a Navigation Officer in the Merchant Navy. It would also provide the financial security I was seeking.
In total I spent 22 years at sea progressing through the ranks to become a Master Mariner and attain command of my own ships. I moved ashore to take up the role as Marine Superintendent for the company I was sailing for, mainly responsible for the implementation of the company safety management systems.
The then Mersey Docks and Harbour Company (pre Peel Ports) were looking to recruit Marine Pilots for the Port of Liverpool. A Marine Pilot was a job I had often considered as being the natural progression from Ship Captain to life ashore, which would maintain the skills I had built and provide further career enhancement within a very challenging environment, as well as an increased level of responsibility.
Training was demanding, there are no short cuts; you cannot take any chances when responsible for some of the biggest ships in the world. Safety for the environment, the vessel and the lives of those aboard are squarely in your hands.
Navigating the world’s biggest passenger vessels, with thousands of passengers aboard and oil tankers carrying hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil, through the buoyed channels, between the sand banks that guard the approaches to the River Mersey and the Port of Liverpool, is not for the faint-hearted.
In Liverpool, the pilotage company contracted to the Competent Harbour Authority, Liverpool Pilotage Services Limited, engages 55 Pilots to keep the vessels, their cargoes and the port operation, moving 24hrs a day. Each of the Pilots engaged are either qualified Master Mariners or have attained a senior pilot position at another major port. Such is the importance placed on the role; only the most experienced, qualified or time-served men are accepted for training.
Training from entry to a senior class 1 appropriated pilot takes 7.5 years. There is an initial training of 6 months after which qualification to Class 4 allows piloting on vessels of up to 95 meters in length. Subsequent training and qualification leads to Class 3, Class 2 and Class 1 licenses. Irrespective of the candidates’ past, every Pilot undergoes the same training and career progression.
There are many jobs within the port industry but none, in my humble opinion, match that of Piloting ships in and out of the port. You are tasked with a new challenge on a daily basis. The wind is stronger / lighter, the vessel is deeper draft; the tide is running stronger, is it flood tide or ebb? One tug, two, or three in attendance, or maybe none at all? Is it the Queen Mary 2 at 345 meters for the Liverpool Cruise Terminal or is it the ‘bread and butter’ 80m coaster for the river berth at Bromborough Wall? Whichever, both Masters expect the highest possible standards of the Pilot that is assigned to the vessel. They expect the port visit to be smooth, safe and problem free. It is therefore incumbent on all sectors to fulfil their role. To ensure the vessels voyage plan is expedited, to ensure passenger movements on off the ship move swiftly as turn around expectations are demanding.
Your attainment within the port industry, of which Pilotage is an integral and vital part, is limited only by your own aspirations and determination to succeed. Whether you choose a route via an initial seagoing career or enter the ports industry direct there is a growing wealth of opportunity for those with determination and an eagerness to learn.
Personally I don’t see the earlier part of my own career as being wasted, it did in fact provide me with experience and maturity in the industry, prior to embarking on what was the best career move of my life. The opportunities developing locally in the Port of Liverpool will provide for increased development in other support services and industry stakeholders. This is important to the local Sefton economy as well as the wider Liverpool connections. There are prospects for the local work force and more importantly the local youth to engage with the job prospects and growth of the Port of Liverpool and allied industry.
Whether you are considering an associated apprenticeship scheme or envisage a wider maritime career with future intent to move into a port services sector, such as Pilotage, have aspiration, set your sights to achieve those aspirations and aim high.