A Life Tramping No3


‘God made Deck Officers. It took an Act of Parliament to create Engineering Officers’ was, and is probably still, an oft-quoted phrase used by Merchant Marine Deck Officers worldwide.
My riposte to this perception, as an Engineering Officer was ‘It’s us that drive the ship chum, you just point it!’
The wise Captain always goes out of his way not to alienate the Chief Engineer, and it’s the wise Engineer that ensures that the Captain’s shower water is at least warm.
If they leave the sea before the liver rots, and the years allow a change of job, wise Captains become pilots or insurance salesmen and wise Chief Engineers become Marine Surveyors or plumbers. However, most Captains and Chief Engineers stay at sea until they retire and foster the ‘Oil and Water’ syndrome.
When a ship’s company are locked up in a steel box for months on end, personalities clash, it’s inevitable. And you would think the older, and more experienced the seafarer becomes, the more the understanding of human passions and their intrinsic bellicose qualities would grow. That time would mellow the older sea dog; he would grow older and wiser.
Not so! The longer the voyages and the older you get, the wider the gap between Deck and Engine room personnel. And it all starts from the top.
In twenty-five years of roving the seven seas, on anything from brand new eighty-five thousand tonne bulk carriers to six hundred tonne rust buckets, with the most wonderful characters of every nationality going, I know why. It’s Empire building. Let me explain. The older you get, the higher up the ladder you climb. Eventually, you end up as the Captain of your own vessel or conversely Chief Engineer and as time marches on you tend to stand still. You’ve reached your peak; there is no other summit to surmount.
After a couple of years at the top, the novelty starts to wear off and the rot sets in. And so does cirrhoses of the liver in many cases. Of course, you go through the motions. After all, you’re in charge, but the motions have had a long time to stereotype. You know it all, that’s why you’ve been given the job, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. Time doesn’t stand still. In a fast changing world, new innovations in all aspects of shipboard life from navigation aids, to cargo handling; from computer designated maintenance scheduling to intricate engine management systems come thick and fast.
And always more blasted paperwork, more ISO rules, more Health and Safety regulations and new human resource procedures …the list is endless. Gradually your ways become obsolete, your junior officers know more than you do. The worm has turned; you become the person you swore you wouldn’t when you were climbing the ranks.
Now the defence mechanism kicks in. Blame the other bloke; it’s never your fault. After all, you’ve seen it all, done it all, your faculties have never been sharper…have they? It works both ways. The Captain blames the Chief Engineer and vice versa. And the sooner the respective departments know where the blame for the latest cock up lies the better. That is when you start Empire building.
This passing of the buck worms its way throughout the respective departments, it’s like a slow acting virus. The junior officers of both departments know their respective heads have lost the plot, but loyalty comes into play. That’s the Empire. This aspect then filters through both the Deck and Engineering branches until, in extreme cases, open hostility exists.
This hostility manifests itself in various forms. I have, as a Junior Engineer actually spent a whole night chaperoning a Chief Engineer around a port’s red light district while the Captain roamed the same port’s streets with a loaded revolver, looking for him. The cause of the argument is lost in the mists of time but had something to do with a bet involving a girl and a case of beer when they were both cadets together and always surfaced when a minor disagreement on board the ship blossomed into a manhunt. The next day they shrugged their differences off and carried on working together as they had for years. It was the most natural thing in the world.
While at sea the Officers saloon is a veritable hotbed of hostility if the two four ringers are at loggerheads. I watched with fascination one lunch time when in the middle of a verbal diatribe between the Captain and Chief Engineer, the latter rose to his feet to emphasise a point and shot his full set of dentures into the Captains soup. Without a pause, the Chief leant over and picked them out of the purple-faced Captain’s bowl with his fingers, plonked them back into his mouth and continued his tirade.
Another manifestation of hostilities between the two parties is silence. Nobody speaks. Notes are rather passed for the salt or pepper rather than actually have to converse with the ‘other side’. It’s the same with orders from or to the bridge; all done through third parties because the respective heads were not on speaking terms.
Then there are the petty retribution aspects. The Engineers have a powerful arsenal at their disposal. Turning off air conditioning, turning off heating, turning off sanitary water pumps or in extreme cases poisoning the drinking water: as it is well known that Engineers only drink beer and never wash.
The Deck department’s favourite method of being bloody minded is to bugger the Engineers about with ballast pumping. Especially pumping out tanks that are already as dry as a bone, but because they can’t be bothered to actually sound the tanks they leave the onus on the Engineer to squeeze the last drop of rusty water out and then get the poor bloody Engineer to sound the tanks for them. Another trick is to not signal ‘Finished with Engines’ when the vessel berths. The Engineers hang around the telegraph, cursing, but can’t move, and all the time the Deck Departments getting fixed up with taxis to go ashore. By the time the Engineers emerge they find an empty ship and no bloody taxis.
A very notable facet of this enmity between warring Captains and Chief Engineers is a very strong love/hate relationship. The two antagonists have usually sailed with each other for years and years. Neither of them would sail with anyone else. Very often they are respective Godfathers to each other’s children. Sometimes they are related through marriage. They go on leave together, they join the ship together and they grow old together. And they know each other better than their wives could possibly do. After all when you reckon it up they’ve spent most of their lives together.

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