Problems? You're on your own

Before Mr Thaniarasu Sannasi leaves his room for work every day, he has to ensure that all small items such as toothbrushes and other personal belongings are kept away in drawers or cabinets.

He also has to make sure his chair is tied down to the floor so that it does not move around when he is not around.

No, Mr Sannasi is not a tidiness freak.

It is just that his room happens to be on board a ship that plies the high seas, where giant waves during a storm can tilt the ship 40 degrees to the side, sending belongings and furniture flying if they are not tied down.

Mr Sannasi, 31, is a third officer with Pacific International Lines, a shipping company based in Singapore.

And he is among the dwindling number of young people who are in seafaring as a career. (See report on facing page below).

Mr Sannasi, who holds a diploma in mechanical engineering and who has just come back from a five-month stint at sea, decided to become a sailor in 2010 because he was attracted by the higher pay.

What they earn

Third officers earn about US$2,500 (S$3,100) a month and their salaries can hit US$5,000 when they become chief officers. Ship captains can earn US$7,000 to US$20,000 a month.

Mr Sannasi went through the three-year Tripartite Nautical Training Award programme, a place-and-train course which enables Singaporeans and permanent residents to join the maritime industry as Certificate Of Competency (Class 3) deck officers. (See report above.)

A typical day for him starts at 8am. For four hours, he would be at the ship's bridge for navigational watch duty, where he does such things as looking out for obstacles and ensuring the vessel is sailing on course.

Mr Sannasi then goes for an hour-long lunch before attending to the maintenance of lifeboats and fire-fighting equipment.

He does this from 1pm to 3pm.

After that, he has five hours of personal time before reporting for another round of navigational watch for the last four hours of the day.

"On board a ship, there is no police or SCDF (Singapore Civil Defence Force) personnel to help you maintain order or put out fires - you have to do it yourself," said Mr Sannasi, who most recently served on board Captain Wallace, a 120m-long container vessel that delivers cargo between New Zealand and the Pacific islands of Fiji and New Caledonia.

A typical tour of duty at sea lasts for five to six months and it can be depressing to be away from family and friends for such a long time.

As a result, Mr Sannasi craves food from home such as curry and roti prata.

"There are ups and downs in this line of work and I feel very lonely at times," he said.

But things are not as gloomy as one may think and he had mentally prepared himself for the demands of the job long before he boarded a ship for duty for the first time.

His girlfriend also understands the nature of his job and communicates with him through daily e-mails.

"Being able to communicate with her even when I am so far away really helps me feel less lonely when I am out at sea," Mr Sannasi said.

He is also able to satisfy his cravings for local food by cooking his own curry in the ship kitchen.

And occasionally, a barbecue is organised.

Most importantly, he enjoys his time on the ship.

Mr Sannasi explained: "I have had an interest in sailing since I was young.

"Becoming an officer is therefore a big achievement for me."

Seafaring: A dying trade?

Seafaring has been declining in popularity since the 1980s.

Captain Ken Yeow, the executive director of Wavelink Maritime Institute (WMI), said the average career length of a seafaring officer decreased from 15 years in 1970 to 12 in the 1990s. And today, that figure is a mere eight years.

WMI is the maritime training arm of the Singapore Maritime Officers’ Union.

The 54-year-old seafarer, who has been in the trade since he was 20, said the trend is worrying because the industry contributes about 7 per cent to Singapore’s gross domestic product.

There are a number of factors that have caused the decline, he said.

“Many young people do not want to stay so long out at sea away from family and friends. In addition, they may not be used to the tough living conditions on a ship,” Captain Yeow said.

Another reason is that maritime training institutes are still taking more traditional approaches towards training.

Captain Yeow said: “I have had many cadets tell me that they feel very insecure about what they have learnt in the classroom as they do not have enough practical training.

“Institutes should focus more on applied learning, in line with technological advancement. Bearing this in mind, WMI will continue... to develop the Singapore core and to develop future leaders in the maritime industry.”

Lastly, the response to wage enhancement has been slower compared to other trades. Fortunately, the introduction of the Maritime Labour Convention last August has addressed most of these issues.


With this, changes were made to address issues such as living conditions aboard ships and disparity in wages compared to other trades.

Nowadays, ships serve better food, have recreational facilities and better cabins, Captain Yeow said.

He added that wages for seafaring officers have doubled in the last 10 years, when a typical industry usually sees a maximum of a 50 per cent increase in the same period.

When asked about the effectiveness of the changes so far, Captain Yeow said that the outlook seems more favourable now. “I can only see things improving from here,” he said.

Fancy being a sailor?

The Tripartite Nautical Training Award is a three-year place-and-train programme that enables Singaporeans and permanent residents to join the maritime industry as Certificate of Competency (Class 3) deck officers.

Taking up this course allows younger people, ideally those in the 20s to early 30s age group, to join the seafaring industry.

About 170 cadets have graduated from the programme since it started in 2009. Around 400 applications are received for each batch, but only about 10 per cent of them make it through various tests to be able to take up the course.

Cadets are trained by Wavelink Maritime Institute, the training arm of the Singapore Maritime Officers' Union (SMOU), and are employed by a shipping company before they start the course.

Eighty per cent of the course fees are subsidised by the Workforce Development Authority and 10 per cent by the SMOU.

This article was first published on JULY 7, 2014.
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