SAMSA CEO Commander Tsietsi Mokhele says the intention is to increase this number tenfold in years to come. In response to this drive by SAMSA, the tertiary institutions offering maritime studies are doubling their intake to start combating the dwindling numbers of qualified South African mariners, who make a significant contribution to our country’s economy. “Skills shortages are a major challenge for the country, particularly in the maritime sector. This has contributed to a drop in active shipping companies in South Africa, but we believe that with the acquisition, we have the potential to double or even triple the size of the industry and contribute to job creation in years to come,” said the executive head of the Centre for Excellence at SAMSA, Sindiswa Nhlumayo. In the pages that follow we meet some of the high-flying mariners of the future and get their perspectives on what the experience on the training vessel has meant to them.
Isaac, like his Newton namesake, is a deep thinker, with an eye for technical detail. His vision for his life at sea started as a young child, it was without any shadow of a doubt influenced by his childhood love for fishing and the many commercial fishing boats he observed going about their business as he was growing up. “I was one of ten people selected for the SAMSA Cadet Programme from the Regional Maritime University of Accra, Ghana. I’ve never looked back since.” Spending time with Isaac revealed that not only does he have a passion for engineering but also for the equipment that he helps to nurture on a daily basis. He speaks of the SA Aghulas like an indulgent father. “She is powered by Blackstone turbo-charged 6-cylinder engines, good for a total of 4,413 kW. I spend quite a bit of time in the engine room, so my dream has already come true.”
He has a high appreciation of J. Louw, who has inspired him on board the SA Aghulas over the months at sea. “He explains everything and has taught me how to use my own initiative.” And what of the skills he’s learned? “I’ll take my skills all around the world”, he smiles, emphasising that knowledge is the key. Asked what the ripple effect on him and others will be, he unhesitatingly says, “It’s changed my life. The way I walk, the way I think.” It’s all about his new found confidence and how he is now willing to pass these skills on to others. But as much as he values this new confidence, he makes sure to thank the Lord for his good fortune.
Modou, which means Mohammed in his native Gambia, studied Marine Engineering, but had given up hope to ever find a full time position in the marine industry. SAMSA gave him that all-important break. The interview that changed his life forever came through on an ordinary Wednesday. “Are you interested in joining a vessel in South Africa,” asked his Director at the Regional Maritime University of Accra. Candidates are chosen based upon their results, experience and personality. He met the crew of the SA Aghulas just two days later. “As an engine cadet, I am taught responsibilities for all of the machinery on board, including maintenance. We work four hours on and four hours off, divided into four sessions. I spend a lot of time in the engine room,” he says proudly. Has there been much in the way of mechanical trouble, I ask? His alert eyes widen as he recalls the most recent event. “We had a few issues with the clutch system, but we fixed it swiftly. It was very enlightening.”
To Modu, the person that has most influenced him is the Chief Engineer. “He’s responsible for all operations and maintenance on all the engineering equipment throughout the entire ship.” With a keen sense of heritage, he speaks eloquently of the vessel that he now calls home for long stretches of time. “The steel keel was laid in 1977, nine years before I was born.” But it is the exposure to the life on board, not just machinery, which makes a lasting impression on the cadets. “Life on board and life at home is so very different. Here it’s all about time-keeping, living a healthy life and getting to bed early.” He was keen to acknowledge the South African government as a whole for the oppotunity. “It’s been a life-changing,” he acknowledges.
It all started for the soft-spoken Raymond when a friend from Durban urged him to apply to Safmarine. “I was accepted, but my examination results at Vaal University didn’t go well.” He kept his cool and applied to Sasol to work at a large plant, which he loved, but then an opportunity for an interview with SAMTRA saw the start of his change of fortune. “The SA Aghulas is similar to the Sasol plant in some ways”. He waves his hands expansively as he explains, “a ship is like a big city. We do things ourselves here”. The engine room is hot and a hive of activity - the heart of any ship. “I am learning about running and maintaining all mechanical equipment, like the operation and maintenance of pumps and fuel systems, generators, refrigeration, air conditioning cranes- you name it.”
Big, red, and with the ‘Seeing is Believing’ charity graphic painted along both the port and starboard sides, the SA Agulhas is a hard vessel to miss, especially on the Thames. “We came up the Thames from Canary Wharf, through Tower Bridge and moored alongside HMS Belfast at London Bridge. “Going to London was inspirational, pretty much how I imagine America to be,” he grins. But it’s not all glamour and vibrant cities for the cadets. “It’s a chance to learn about different human characteristics. It’s been a big change, but I am getting used to it,” says Raymond. Sir Ranulph was inspirational. “What he has accomplished, not just in extreme polar environments, I just cannot explain.” Any advice for youngsters contemplating their future? “Keep working hard and just don’t give up. Things will work out if you work hard and stay positive.” Raymond sought change and thanks to his varsity sponsors, SAMTRA and SAMSA and the companies behind the training, he has been empowered to give more of himself. “I try and put more on the table,” he concludes, with a nod of his head.
Priscilla Akua Afful
An inspiration to prospective female mariners, Ghanaian Priscilla is direct and forthcoming with advice to those women that are pondering a career at sea. “As a female, they should not think it’s too stressful. Don’t worry about your ability to cope. If they are worried, they can still achieve it.” Quizzed as to what role women play in the marine industry, Priscilla fires off a multitude of career options without hesitation. “They can work as a harbour master, on ships and supply vessels, as well as a lot of on-shore roles,” she explains. She works on deck, on watch with the officers and spends a lot of time in class too. “We are divided into groups, where our theoretical knowledge flows into a practical application on board. The cadets learn how to use radar and the simulator trains us in procedures and emergencies. That helps us to apply those skills to real life situations,” explains Priscilla.
A graduate of the Regional Maritime University of Accra, Ghana she has always wanted to be a captain. She believes opportunities arise through hard work and not by just dreaming. Back home in Accra, her family is justifiably proud of her, but she reckons her biggest gift as a deck cadet is the knowledge of different cultures. “It’s about tolerance. That and discipline around time keeping, with safety as my first obligation,” she says earnestly. Whilst her sea-legs are getting stronger, she still gets ‘a bit sea sick’, she says, to a chorus of good humoured laughter and mutual finger-pointing from her fellow cadets. ”It’s just you and the ship. I am not used to it yet, but I am adapting and making a good contribution.”
Eshowe, in KZN is said to be inspired by the sound of wind blowing through the indigenous Dhlinza Forest nestling in its midst. Could this wind have blown sage advice to his namesake to seek a fulfilling marine career? “I studied at the Durban University of Technology. That’s where I got the call from SAMSA. I fell in love with the career straight away and I wouldn’t change it for the world.” Advice loves everything about the sea, be it shore based or sea-going. “I feel like a hero to my community back home,” he says with conviction. They look up to him and feel that he’s heading in the right direction. “I need to set an example,” he says firmly, his eyes direct and engaging. “I have a lot of responsibility on my shoulders. I want to make a difference.” His life is full of people that have inspired him, not least of all Chief Officer Philane Mthalane, “he assists the Captain with administrative and safety duties, crew discipline, deck budgets and navigation, amongst many other important responsibilities.”
Second-mate P.T. Loubscher also stands out as a mentor. He took delight in teaching Advice the many marine lights and flags through a system of learning with flash cards. In each case the cadet has to decide the correct course of action to navigate his vessel through the hazard. The reverse of the card gives the proper course and also quotes the relevant collision rule. “At first it was frustrating, but I soon valued learning many maritime systems, codes and rules and how to deal with traffic situations at sea.“ Advice is careful to brush up on his responses before spending time on deck with the second-mate.
Umzinto, KZN born Zanele is acutely aware of the possibilities her training will offer her in the future. She’s positively evangelical about her time on board the SA Aghulas and what she has learned. “The opportunities are limitless. Marine and ship engineers, crew member, deck officer, maritime law, tug masters, maritime environmentalist? The list goes on.” Zanele insists that the future looks bright. This enthusiasm was not immediately universal, however. “My mother kept asking me why I chose this career, taking me away from home, my four brothers and my community.” But the advice of her mother still rings in Zanele’s ears, much to the benefit of all on board SA Aghulas. The best advice she got from her mum? “Respect everyone, especially your superiors. On board, if you are rude in this close environment, it will go wrong very quickly.” There are 51 cadets are on board, all with different personalities. “Some are loud and some are shy. I am more of the shy type,” she says, not all that convincingly.
“I never thought I’d do this, believing there are no ships for young people. I assumed it was a male dominated career. “The SAMSA project changed that perception for Zanele. “Anything a male can do, a female can do. I do painting, maintenance, cleaning, making sure everything is just spot on.” A highlight was meeting with Sir Ranulph. “We shared stories. We spoke about the aims of ‘Seeing is Believing’ and about scientific tasks in extreme polar environments.” For Zanele, the benefit of exposure to a wide range of learning and responsibilities has been priceless. “I’ve steered a ship, taking the responsibility on my shoulders for the 175 crew and scientists in my stride.” As for her siblings, they are predictably proud of her. “They will never get to see what my eyes have seen. We’ve been on TV and the media have followed our work.” Many women don’t like being away from home, she believes. “Give it a good go. Focus on schedules and do your best,” she advises. The last words go in praise of those that gave her a break. “I thank all the officers, SAMTRA, Pieter Coetzee, the scientists, Sir Ranulph and God.”
“You should never hesitate to take opportunities when they come up. That’s when your ship comes in,” says Thobile, her eyes bright and smiling. Keenly aware of seizing the moment, Thobile went to high school and studied Maritime Economics (Theory), achieving S1, S2, and S3 Certificates in Maritime Studies. The call to join SA Aghulas interrupted her onward march to achieve her S4 qualification. Thobile is unusually pragmatic for her age. “We are all different, with conflicting opinions, cultures and ideas. It’s a lesson in patience and tolerance. She’s a firm believer in a good theoretical grounding and believes practical on deck experience brings the theory to life. “If you don’t have the training, the theoretical knowledge, the real life experience will mean less.”
“On board we are all equal from a gender perspective. The men just let us women get on with our job and most of the officers have been really helpful-from the Chief to the Captain and I was made to feel very welcome”. Asked if she had any advice for youngsters hoping to embark on a marine career, she was forthright. “My message to youngsters?” she asks, leaning forward. “Don’t lose focus. Focus on what you want. Don’t just sit around. Look outside of yourself. Be driven. No one’s going to knock on your door with a dream job on a plate. Keep trying.” Being on board for Thobile is therauptic, enabling her to focus on the matters at hand. “I don’t have to worry about things elsewhere when I am on board. I prefer to be smiling and I am proud to be a South African.”
Nicholine is a long way from her home in Bmenda, Cameroon, but she doesn’t miss it. In 2010 she was a teaching assistant, longing for the sea, when her hard work and optimism paid off. “In addition to my BSc in Nautical Science, I looked for suitable work all the time, putting in a lot of effort to find the right opportunity.” Nicholine got the best results in her year and combined with a range of other attributes such as her great attitude, she was noticed as a candidate, like the others, as having great potential. The youngest of four sisters and three brothers, she says she belongs to the sea and has in many ways found a second family here. ”That’s where my heart is. From my earliest thoughts, I remember seeing the ships on television. It touched my heart.”
True vision often has to come from the heart, and it’s this subject that Nicholine, the soft-spoken deck cadet warms to. “I am a determined person and my dream has come true. But my big vision is to be the first ever Cameroonian female captain. I want to break down barriers for that.” When she goes back home, she wants to encourage women to go to sea, encouraging talented and committed female cadets who work well as a team to reach for a high standard. “I’d be keen to start an organisation to do just that and I thank SAMSA for the opportunity.”
The vessel formally known as the SA Agulhas has been re-launched as a training vessel to allow Cadets to undergo their practical training at sea. This is an important contribution made by the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) in an effort to address skills shortages within the sector and attract youth to the sector.
On the 4th of July 2012 South Africa’s first dedicated training vessel left Cape Town Harbour on its maiden voyage with 32 Cadets. Considering that South Africa produces only 120 marine candidates a year, this maiden voyage is a critical first step in bolstering the number of maritime candidates.
by Richard Webb
IN CONVERSATION WITH | SAMSA