The Ugly Side of Life on Ship – True Story

Let’s face it! Working on ship is not only tough physically but mentally as well. Dealing continuously with conflicting opinions, racing nerves, and altering egos, a mariner fortunately or unfortunately falls prey to a system, wherein molding according to a situation becomes imperative. Unlike in other fields, professional politics on ship can sometimes take a form too ugly to fathom.

Vikram Dileepan, a 4th engineer working with a reputed shipping company, narrates an incident which changed his point of view not only on certain aspects of the shipping world but also on the complexity of life we live.

Representation Image – Photograph by Delimajunel

Note: Any reference or description relating to anyone living or dead is a coincidence only. The names of those involved have been changed to protect their actual identity.

For a Few Kind Words…

He seemed a good kid when I recruited him. He was sharp, young and oblivious to the way in which life is beheld in the merchant navy. He wanted to be a deck cadet. Let me call him Raj, for the sake of our convenience.

Raj was an ambitious kid from my point of view. “I want to be a Captain, sir”, he told me the moment he entered the interview hall. He was wearing a black tie with a blue shirt which seemed to complement his deep set green eyes and tall lanky frame.  For a kid whose mother had passed away at 10 and had to help raise two little sisters all on his own, he had done a pretty good job. He wanted to head to sea to educate his sisters and help his father out. I vividly remember his presence which seemed far beyond his years and an intelligence coupled with maturity that could have been easily mistaken for overconfidence.

Two years later, on a cold winter morning, my Blackberry buzzed to life at 3 A.M.

“Sir, I am sending back the cadet. He has had some…..problems onboard and we cannot afford to have him here, lest risk commercial pressures of getting the ship arrested”, my captain called me from the vessel. As I proceeded deeper into an annoying conversation, I shook off my disbelief when I heard the words, “Sir, the kid tried to kill himself …….in US waters. We had to inform the port, his parents and you. The Chief Officer has reported his mental instability. He is being accompanied by a US Marine till he is in safe hands.”

I dazed off just a moment to remember Raj and wondered myself if the sea could really change a person to that extent. Wearily, I breathed soft reassurances to Raj’s troubled father over the phone and headed off to the airport to receive the kid.

Three hours later, I saw a glimpse of the sad green eyes that were once jubilant with enthusiasm. Accompanying him was a seven foot tall US Marine who sat as grim as he appeared when he had arrived. When I went on to thank him for his service. He greeted me with a surprisingly pleasant smile and assured me that he was just doing his duty and there was no need to go about thanking him. Just when I was about to leave, he wanted to have a word with me, “ Sir, I have escorted madmen ranging from psychosis patients to schizophrenics in my career and I guarantee you that the kid is mentally very stable but if you insist he is not, then he must be the most pleasant madman I have ever come across.”

As I handed over Raj to his father and headed home, I could not shake off the Marine’s words and how it coincided with so much of my own opinion about Raj’s mental condition. I had left him bundled in his father’s arms, tinged with a feeling of guilt. On the drive back home, I gazed out on to the dew covered prairies and tried to let go of the missing pieces in the story that my mind was battling with.” What happens on the ship stays on the ship”, I told myself.

Today, I am older by a year, not any wiser. A year since I forgot all about the day when I last saw Raj sobbing away only to drench his father’s shirt at the airport. I ran across him at the same airport at the same terminal. Fate or Irony! I’d dare not guess.

He fell to my toes asking for my blessings the moment he saw me. Embarrassed and pinched by a sharp sense of guilt, I went on to ask him how he was doing and how his father was. He tried unsuccessfully to withhold a sad smile and told me, “Sir, he died six hours after you left me at the airport a year ago. He could not take the shock that I was mentally unstable, especially when I was not. Sir, I was framed by the Chief Officer who had certain concerns about me. He ran after me onto the deck to hit me and trying to evade him, I fell overboard into the water. Saving himself, he reported a suicide attempt. That is all there is to it. ”

When I tried to process those words, I could not. I was too dazed to react to him. I bid him goodbye as he boarded his flight. I sat there for another hour at an isolated area of the terminal, long after collecting my bags, trying to absolve my self-doubt. But no matter how many times I told myself, “There was nothing you could have done”, my thoughts travelled to the orphaned sisters who were still in school and the green eyed brother who went out to sea to educate them.

A few kind words, those were all that he needed, be it sea or be it shore.

A few kind words, those that could have changed his life.

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  1. This article draws attention to the fact there are no outlets of anger/frustrations at sea. This might be a lone incident or may be one of several; in any event it should serve as a wake up call to ship Managers.

  2. Salutations,
    Breaches to conventions, with criminal negligence a serious concern – I would encourage the gentlemen to engage stakeholders, peak industry representatives. Unacceptable conduct is of paramount concern to any organisation.
    Kind regards

  3. “There was nothing you could have done” ! How about investigating? At least you could know what was happened on board from the cadet’s side a year before, either it was true or not.


  4. My friend, Such things happen around the world not only in the ships. One of my ex-colleague gave up his life in front of a train in Italy during a business visit. He was belittled in front of the foriegn client by his own men and he could not tolerate that. But the person who drove him to death is still enjoying a safe , good position. There are ugly sides in all jobs because of some ugly people who sit in authoritative positions.

  5. You could have done many things, after hearing from USCG personal you should have conducted a through enquiry, should have offered medical help to the cadet, should made him go through the tests to find his mental state, should have offered him a job after he came clean.
    In the end you failed the Cadet and his family.

  6. There are too many lazy Capt’s around, and too many crew members which is badly treated !

  7. Who will make a world wide union for sailor ?? Who dare ?
    And how can it be made without any corruption ?

  8. a 17.5 year deck cadet in 1973,then a captain in 27,sailed all types/ports sometimes alone or with my wife & 2 young sons,Ship life has 2 angles the good~money THAT IS ALL, rest is TOUGH physically & mentally & BE also ‘father n mother’ on the various crew !
    I guess eventually the ship-owner just is a win-win situation;
    NOT officer’s deck/engineer or seamem !
    ha ha that is why the shipowner’s wife smash’s a champagne

  9. Unchecked powers of the seniors and captain, which should be hardly and highhandedly being dealt with. Seniors must stay accountable to the well being of the juniors. Otherwise they should meet the same fate as a junior do in similar situation.

  10. Individuals has different judgements, investigation in any report made by any superior should be the first thing but we all have different mind in handling issues that is why the captain fails in his judgement of the so called deck cadet. some cadets are so stubborn claiming to be related to the ship owners even try to over power their officers, I’ve experienced such as a chief officer in 90s, They forgotten that they too may get there later, a lot of lies against me then because of the power of the cadet but today he has no good place to work he is on curse already.

  11. Nice story to share about the other side of life at sea. I am a former seaman for 29 long years, During that years at sea i encountered many wrongdoings or bad experience on board ship. I remember one at my second tanker vessel i experience a Swedish master who was crazy loves to shout his crew with bad words, knocking hardly the elevator door when he wanted to use it, a perfect racist too, We call him Brutus, and the chief engineer was a German who loves to hit hard our chest with his fist when become excited, and he love to sing loud tenor voice song,that story was long ago.and a part of my silly experience…

  12. Hello i have sailed for 6 years and as a junior engineer i have had terrible time. i would not recommend shipping career to any one. I have seen cadets treated worst than slaves.
    Cadets fear for their career and bear all atrocities. Chief officers make their life miserable onboard.
    There are thousands of RAJ going through this hell.
    I wonder when will things improve and when they will have things in place to prevent these barbaric acts of officers.
    And Its pioneered by Indian officers,

  13. I had already inserted few of my awareness notes or articles in marine insight also in my DR chandra shekhar bhatts awareness group .There actually PSSR never happens on board ships in one ship two seamens have died in the same way as explained above they were overused by chief officer and they can fabricate any story, if IMO AND ISM can levy anything even if it doesn’t work why not armed guards and someone like ombudsman who can support such innocent people who become the scapegoat of bureaucrats . So much money all parties earn still they are reducing manpower on board ship why? Dr chandra shekhar bhatt

  14. I was mistreated,verbally abuse and lied at when i was junior engineer in a tanker ship by my senior engineer of my own race.sometimes i wauld think of killing the guy but it didn’t happen.i experienced an intense feeling of fear everyday during those 3 months i saild with him until he was sent home because he had a quarrel with the chief engineer.i fought for my beliefs that i have my own capabilities,my values in life that he will never take away from me.i was able to hang on during those very difficult times in my sea life and it turn out to be fine until now.

    It might be that pride and jealousy drive peaple to misbehave and hurt others.they use their authorative positions to impose on others even though its unacceptable and does not conform to standard.-just my opinion…

  15. Fully sympathize with the cadet …. question is how such thing have developed …
    either the ch off is suffering from psychosis or cannot rule out the cadet
    have lead to such situation ….an investigation is need ? to know the facts ?

  16. An incident of such porpotion, as narrated, did not lead to any Investigation!! Seems like just another 3rd grade Management Company. Having said that, any investigation on board would’ve been “covered up” by the Master & C/off and their unchecked authority and influence over any witnesses. I just wish the kid had openned up to the USCG. That would surely have been the end of a few miserable carreers.
    I have personally encountered the most uncouth, uncivil despots during the 10 odd yrs of sailing with a leading Management company. But then I cannot deny having also learnt so much more during these years, both personally and professionally.
    I have spent the next 4 yrs sailing with an Ownership co of repute, and life since has been a bliss. An eyeopener for someone who knew no better for all these yrs.
    So theres a BAD, but much more of lots of GOOD. I wish only the GOOD for all the kids wanting to join us at sea…..Cheers

  17. the title describes the situation simple kind words would have avoid such situation and help us to get where we want to go. But it doesn’t mean seniors should have to avoid such situations.we should have to be polite as well as think ahead.

  18. I Can trust the incident. Happened on my ship also. I was cadet that time and this is about junior engg on fully indian crew ship and and management company which is biggest employer of indian seafarers now u can know which cmpny i am talking.
    The incident is that c/e use to pump out oil by bypassing OWS and when told to do so j/e denied so c/e started treating him like slave so that he take sign off by his own and c/e can get rid of him . so after one month he make him so frustated that he can do some stupid thing.he complaint to 2/e 3/e and may be capt. But after so called ignorance and frustation he jump overboard with life jacket. Finally aftr 7 hours they find him alive .
    Then report was made that j/e was mentally unstable . Nothing happened to c/e .
    But because of the company they take statments of all crew and officers they find out the reality.
    So what i am trying to say is that what if the person had died . and also there are few companies which take these incidents so seriously and do detail investigation.
    My company did so the junior engg got his career. All are not.
    I am an indian officer and i am proud but there are still indian Officers who treat thier juniors like slave mostly j engg and cadet.

  19. The Capt. of the vessel who called you up early morning reporting and describing the unpleasant behaviour of the Cadet, could also be blamed. It was his duty to conduct a detailed and proper fair investigation backed up with concrete evidences and it appears that he himself was also an accomplice to what the Chief Officer ( Framing up- fraudulently prearranged acts) had do in destroying the personality and reputation of this innocent boy.

  20. Seafaring is a lucrative job with a high paying salary allowances. But you must be tough mentally and physically. Life on board had many challenges. Sometimes or most of the time, you are coming from different country and have different cultures. Some are professionals but some are not. Again, I repeat, You must be tough mentally and physically.

  21. Hello sir/maam
    Merry christmas
    Today having a talk with my family i came through a thought which i couldnt find a satisfying answer in the limits of my knowledge. Will be very great if you could help.
    My question is If something happens to cadet/seafarer o/b say he is murdered or thrown ov/b by anybody. What actions can a victims family take and to who will thy report to ?

  22. I come from a family of many merchant navy seamen who served through both wars and have recently been researching, in particular foreign seamen who served and were not commemorated in the city they lived in at the time and who also were often not treated very well on the ship. Anyway, the number of men, mainly Indian and Chinese whose deaths have been recorded as ‘suicide’ is frankly quite frightening. Is it possible that nothing much has changed in 100 years!!

  23. Hello,
    I have a blog post is content information and different style of ships.
    Thank you for share us

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