I am an Officer in the Merchant Navy…. to be more precise…I am a Chief Engineer on board of modern cruise ships.
My story starts when I was first sent to sea in 1974, when I was 15 years old. It was meant as a punishment by my parents for my misbehaviour at school and a lack of respect for people and my surroundings, typically a problem youngsters have to deal with in their puberty. I mustered on board of a general cargo ship for 6 weeks as youngest deck hand. This is when I first learned about discipline, correctness and working hard for one’s earnings. The crew really sorted me out during these 6 weeks and I returned home with a mission. I clearly wanted to finish grammar school as soon as possible and enrol in Nautical University in the Netherlands. I am a Dutchman you see.
After finishing Nautical University I sailed on general cargo ships as engineering officer and after some years I was hired by a company, which operated, cruise ships. This was all in the early 1980’s when “cruising” was in its infant development years and the concept of spending holidays on a ship at sea was quite new. It was a logical development after non-stop flying across the Atlantic Ocean had become the new standard. “Cruising” was the hip thing to do and it gave the old Ocean Liners a new lease of life. I met my wife on board of the ship I then sailed on in 1984. She was Casino Manager. Unfortunately, in those days employers believed that having a serious relationship on board of a ship would seriously disrupt one’s devotion to the job and subsequently my then fiancé and myself were scheduled on different ships. This happened a few times and it was therefore with great reluctance that I handed in my resignation in 1986. So did my fiancé and we agreed to try and find a land-based job.
We set up home and I was fortunate to find a good job with a semi-Governmental Office where my Marine Technical Experience was really welcome. It didn’t take very long for me to realize that I was much more entrepreneurial than I had previously assumed. To cut a long story short….I founded my own business soon after I concluded my career at sea. It was an Engineering Company and I was fortunate to purchase a fairly out dated product from a company in Amsterdam which went into liquidation. The product was actually a testing machine for the assessment of the quality of ink that’s being used in printing bank notes. With this product we would typically be serving interest in a “niche market” but with the potential of worldwide sales. We totally modernized the machine and made it computer controlled which dealt with the influence of human error in analysing data and off I went with “an open ticket” around the World, visiting many (potential) clients. The results of this endeavour was in one word…fantastic. I had really found a true “Blue Ocean Market” with little competition and with a unique product that would save our clients a lot of money.
My company grew within 10 years time, from a “one man band” into an enterprise which exported 98% of our annual turnover, serving 1.300 clients worldwide and offering employment to 15 people…. and that’s exactly where it went all wrong… I had to transform from being an entrepreneur into a manager with the daunting task of keeping this money making machine; ….my company… going at all times. I employed a General Manager to assist me with this task and although he did a great job, I found myself spending lots and lots of energy in keeping all the saucers up in the air…. I had created a machine which was dependent on……me! My original objective had been, to make sure that I would be dispensable. The company should not have to rely on me. I spent a lot of time training people and sending them to courses, just to make sure that managing the business would eventually not all rest on my shoulders. But it did…. despite all my good efforts. As everyone would just go home after their 9-5 job, I found myself working all sorts of hours in order to make sure that we would have enough orders coming in…..because so much money went out as well. I felt trapped and the responsibility of all these families in need of a fixed monthly income rested heavily on my shoulders. I started my own business with the aim to walk away from it with a bag of money, which would have enabled me to do other things from the relative comfort of financial independence. I lost sight of my original objectives and ideas, the main drivers behind my decisions to go into business for myself. I was clearly in business for everyone else apart from me. The result…..stress. You are probably wondering where this is all leading to…? Hang on, I will get to it in a moment.
It was in 2003 that I received a joint letter from the Pension Fund for Seafarers and the Dutch Society of Ship Owners. With this letter one approached former seafarers with an open invitation to return to their former profession. There was a huge shortage of seafarers at that time. One offered the possibility to obtain a new license as Marine Engineering Officer or Navigation Officer with just 4 weeks of refresher training at Nautical University. This letter was my escape route…. the escape from the madness I had created myself! This letter appeared at the top of my “inbox” about every month. I would read it and put it at the bottom of the pile, time and time again. It kept re-appearing for about three years until one day I decided to go ahead with it. I still remember when this was. It was on a flight with a changeover at Heathrow that I bought a book written by Sir Richard Branson with the title: “Screw it…..let’s do it”. (I strongly recommend reading this book). After reading this book, I cut the knot and decided that I would pick up my Nautical career from where I left it 20 years previous.
Obviously, that wasn’t so easy because I still had many responsibilities that I simply could not abandon so easily. One day a very good friend came by for a chat. He was on the way home and just dropped in for a cuppa. We’ve known each other for over 50 years and after secondary school we both chose the same career in the Merchant Navy. He studied to become a Navigation Officer and I became an Engineering Officer. He’s been very successful in business, managing large corporations in the Port of Rotterdam. He advised me two important things:
- To polish up my business and sell it while we were still doing well
- To attend a training course with the title: “Coaching Leadership over Oneself”.
During the latter I was first introduced to the effects of YOGA. During this 5 day intensive training course we started the day with some yoga exercises. Until then I had not realized the power of this phenomenum and I was surprised to observe and feel that my mind and body really entered a completely relaxed state. This was something that I probably hadn’t experienced since my childhood. Once we are pulled into our career life…. that’s when trouble starts. Everybody around us is busy with acting their forces upon us and there’s often very little time left to consider and safeguard what’s good for us as individual.
Anyway, in this training class we performed many different exercises in a quest of obtaining inside knowledge about one self but it was the yoga that made the greatest impression on me. This was simply because I discovered its healing power and my own ability to control my state of mind. It was wonderful. I was able to think straight and my mind was cleared of all the crap that had held me prisoner in the situation that I had created. It is a miracle that I did not drive through all the red traffic lights on my way home; such was the relaxed sensation that I experienced. When I returned home I told my wife about my definite decision to return to sea…. and she was delighted.
A few months later, in preparation of obtaining my license as Marine Engineer again, I was attending a Ship’s Management Training at Nautical University. One of the topics addressed by the lecturer was “stress”. Is stress something that the tough men (and nowadays also a substantial number of women…!) at sea have to deal with? Isn’t stress typically something that was “invented” in the commercial business world “shore side”? Well, I can tell you that stress and fatigue on board of ships is something many agencies are now closely monitoring and investigating on a worldwide basis. It’s one of the most important subjects that have been a taboo for many years in the Merchant Navy. But it is also the most likely root cause for accidents as a result of poor decisionmaking. Not because of lack of experience….but because of lack of sleep and stress. Anyway…. back to the classroom. So, here I am with 10 fellow students, most of them seasoned mariners with many years of experience in sailing ships.
When we were asked what we could do to deal with stress, there wasn’t much response really. When the lecturer asked if anyone had ever tried yoga as a means to deal with stress…. the whole classroom started to scream with laughter….. Everyone else but me. “Yoga is for sissies” was one comment made by one of these Maritime Veterans. I kept quiet with a bit of a sheepish look on my face, which was clearly picked up on by the lecturer. “Would you like to add anything to the conversation Peter?”…. he asked. I did…. and I made the point from personal experience that yoga and meditation are truly powerful tools that can assist in dealing with stress. Although having said that…. it’s probably going to be a challenge to exercise yoga on a rolling and pitching ship at sea. But it won’t stop you trying it yourself in the comfort of your home!
Take some lessons and judge for yourself.