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Tides and Tidings: A Retired Sea Captain’s Account

For almost half a century, Captain S K Menon has traversed the world’s oceans, delivering the goods that resource-scarce Singapore relies so heavily on. His career began even before the Republic gained independence; he earned his first stripes on the Training Ship Dufferin in India in 1964. Until his swan song voyage in 2009, the grizzled and yet always optimistic journeyman steadily climbed the ranks earnestly, attaining Captaincy in 1973. While he now spends his time training new cadets for their own career on the high seas, Captain Menon fondly recalls his seafaring days – some pleasant, some less so, but never boring.

“None whatsoever”, was his beaming reply when asked if there was anything he regretted about his time at sea.

Forty-five years on the job has left the good Captain with a number of unexpected, sometimes startling anecdotes and insights. For example, seeing as how there aren’t doctors on board and a ship can’t exactly make an instant detour to port, many senior officers have some medical training and radio access to professional medical advice i.e. a hospital doctor verbally talks you through the steps if there is a medical emergency. Captain Menon even had to deliver a baby on board once! As he puts it, they are carpenters, engineers, navigators, paramedics, and more, all rolled into one.

One of the most commonly mentioned aspects of seafaring is the time spent away from home and family. Captain Menon quickly points out that this isn’t much reason to be apprehensive as people might imagine. You’d likely be expected to sail only for about 10 or so years, with a position awaiting you once you return ashore, seeing as how there are so many non-sailing positions, from superintendents to ship owners to any number of shipyard jobs. And to make the deal even sweeter, senior officers do get to take their immediate family members with them to sea.

The government’s heavy investment into training and upgrading courses also provides plenty of avenues for those who have stopped seafaring to pursue careers in maritime law, surveying, or even lecturing and training would-be maritime officers, as Captain Menon himself does. Not to mention, aside from the competitive remuneration and progression, seafarers generally enjoy about 4 months of leave a year, which dwarfs the average salaryman’s 14-18 days of annual leave.

But with automation and mechanisation rendering several positions on a vessel obsolete – a dedicated radio officer is not necessary as deck officers can have communications fed to them directly, for example – this means that each crew member is expected to step up and multi-task. Captain Menon says this without a hint of disappointment though, citing the exciting and dynamic nature of working on a vessel. Every day is different, every voyage has its own challenges, and as his example shows, it makes for fantastic storytelling. Let’s be honest, who really prefers to hear about office politics instead of North Korean missile tests being visible from the deck (true story)?

Captain Menon recalls that he ended his final day at sea with some heavy-heartedness, being part of a selected group of Singaporeans at sea. He also admits having some slight difficulty adjusting back to the landlubber’s life, having to work in an office, not being your own boss the way it used to be when he was sailing, and the overall less dynamic and more regimented working life once back ashore. When he says the seafaring life is a challenging one, there isn’t a hint of fatigue in his recollection, only a fierce pride tinged with nostalgia for his more adventurous days.

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