Free Article - On the outside looking in
A Maritime English lecturer goes to sea- As a lecturer in Maritime English, I had the extraordinary opportunity to sail for nearly two weeks on board the product tanker M/T Thun London in August 2023.
I learnt a great deal, and not only deepened my understanding of the field but also dispelled some of my misconceived notions about life at sea and aligned my perceptions with reality. For the last 15 years, I have been a teacher of Maritime English at Gdynia Maritime School and Gdynia Maritime University. Over this time, I have taught students of marine engineering and navigation as well as seafarers attending competency courses. However, despite my many years of teaching experience in the maritime sector, the recent two weeks have been an eye-opening lesson. It is not common for Maritime English lecturers to be given a chance to join a crew on a real merchant vessel. In fact, I have never heard of such an opportunity being available to my fellow teachers from Poland or abroad. We hear about former navigators or engineers teaching at maritime schools, but not teachers of English going to sea. This experience has allowed me to bridge the gap between my theoretical knowledge and the reality of seafaring in a number of aspects.
Onboard activities – deck
As I am expected to be able to discuss maritime issues with my students, I immersed myself into life at sea, carefully watching and gathering information about the operations of the deck and engine departments. When the crewmembers were on-duty I tried to be like a fly on the wall, staying out of the way and quietly observing – always with their permission. When they were off-duty or when the vessel was at anchor, like it or not, happy or not – they were under fire from my questions. To my delight, all the crewmembers were very kind and patient and their answers and explanations were extremely informative. As a landlubber, I found every aspect of the organisation of the ship very interesting, starting from the ship’s conning, manoeuvring, berthing, anchoring, execution of helm orders, reporting to the VTS Station, witnessing the pilot embarkation and disembarkation.
The entire experience including the opportunity to get hands-on with selected shipboard equipment, and permission to join watchkeeping or safety rounds would not have been possible without the kindness of Captain Stroynowski, for which I am truly grateful. For the first time in my life, I had the chance to witness and admire the Captain’s exceptional professionalism and precision. One remarkable example was when he smoothly manoeuvred the 150-metre-long tanker alongside the jetty with astonishing accuracy. What also impressed me was his remarkable ability to divide his attention during monitoring the situation on the bridge and outside the vessel and giving loud and clear orders simultaneously. Despite the potentially awkward nature of the situation for him and for the whole crew, he never made me feel like an intruder, obstacle, or distraction. He made me feel like a guest crewmember instead. I genuinely valued his attitude to the situation and the way he generously shared his extensive knowledge in a friendly and welcoming manner.
Over the course of the voyage, I acquired a comprehensive understanding of the responsibilities associated with watchkeeping duties, both for officers and ratings. I gained greater knowledge of on-board procedures, shipboard safety and the operation of various shipboard equipment, including:
- Personal life jacket and personal protective equipment;
- Fire fighting equipment and life saving equipment;
- Personal muster points, muster list and roll call, fire alarm, abandon ship alarm;
- Code of Safe Working Practice;
- Deck machinery: mooring winch, windlass, crane, provision crane;
- Deck maintenance work;
- Navigational equipment: (ECDIS), Automatic Identification system (AIS), radar, Gyro Compass;
- Tanks, manholes, pipelines, manifolds and valves;
- Loading and discharging the cargo;
- Berthing and unberthing;
- Ship manoeuvring in the port, helm orders;
- Watchkeeping duties;
- Communication with VTS station;
Onboard activities – engine
The Chief Engineer was my top-of-the-line marine engineering educator. He explained to me what the daily operation of the engine room looks like in a very detailed way. He shared with me his expertise on every indispensable piece of machinery in the engine room. All this was very exciting for me as a person who talks about marine engines, yet had never before seen them with the naked eye, let alone up so close. I was able to attend the morning rounds and observe the routine maintenance jobs done by the other engineers.
As a teacher of Maritime English, my role is not to deliver technical lectures or explain how to repair the machinery but to introduce the terminology and phrases indispensable for the job using authentic documents, reports, descriptions of selected pieces of shipboard machinery etc. However, students often encounter new terminlogy or engine room activities they are not yet familiar with, and might ask questions about sounding the tanks or the difference between a purifier and clarifier, for instance. Thanks to my time spent in the engine room, I feel more confident and believe I will be able to paint a vivid and more realistic picture of the actions and items, and will be more creative during discussions about the topics we cover in the classroom and while preparing my own teaching materials.
Throughout the time spent in the engine room I watched, learnt about and got hands-on with:
- Engine room equipment: main engine, steering gear, generators, boilers, purifiers, pumps, fresh water generator;
- Machinery maintenance;
- Workshop activities, tools and equipment;
- Electronic Engine Log Book;
- Safety in the engine room.
Insights and impressions
So, did anything surprise me? The vessel itself truly impressed me. I do not have the experience to compare Thun London to any other vessel, but I must admit the tanker surpassed my expectations in various aspects – the modern design, spacious bridge, comfortable cabins, vast engine room with modern machinery and compact, powerful main engine, and a table tennis table in the store room.
Comfort on the water was great indeed. The ship was very stable, and I had no chance to experience rolling or pitching. I did not suffer from seasickness at all. The only negative sensation was drowsiness and slight dizziness when the sea swell and current overlapped one evening. I was worried the sensation might be my company throughout the whole voyage as I kept yawning a lot – but fortunately not.
Cleanliness and tidiness were present everywhere. There was not a trace of grease, leakage, waste or dirt. A few washing machines and kilograms of washing powder supplied the needs of good housekeeping. The rules for waste segregation were diligently followed.
The rules for waste segregation were diligently followed. There was no rush observed. Working under pressure of time is a concern raised as a major problem by many employees today. In my humble opinion, the work on this vessel was very well organised: no chaos at all. The seafarers’ teamwork and clear understanding of duties were truly excellent and on top there was always time allowed for a coffee break.
Traditional paper log books and various other paper-based aids to navigation are becoming a thing of the past. Unfortunately, the scale of the transition has not become apparent to all lecturers, including me. After two days of looking around for the deck log book I thought it must be kept somewhere safe. I could not wait any longer and asked. I found that these days paper-based items such as log books, charts, or reports have become outdated and are gradually replaced with digitised versions, and the records are to a large extent computer based. The shift requires ship’s officers to be computer literate, and lecturers need needed in an increasingly digitised world. ‘Safety’ was indeed given top priority and emphasised regularly. Moreover, the crew is encouraged to self-study, watch the dedicated training films and reading the accident or incident reports published in the MF Shipping Group newsletters. Sharing the vetting observations, provoking the crew to discuss and analyse cases and highlighting the value of safety constantly contributes to make the crew be aware of dangers, stay alert and vigilant. The kind and respectful atmosphere among the crewmembers was apparent at all times. I noticed it in the very first conversation I heard on the bridge, when the 2nd mate asked over VHF: ‘Could you please open valve number 2? Thank you’. Politeness was a standard among the crewmembers and reflected the high standards and levels of respect within their work environment, both on board the ship and in ship-to-ship/shore communications. Undoubtedly, cultural awareness and sensitivity were top priorities.
Briefly speaking, the regular model of language teaching and learning is all about finding a happy balance between reading, writing, listening, speaking skills and grammar. Here on board, where crewmembers are multinational and their vocabulary bank and accents differ, the art of communication and cultural awareness go beyond all the above- mentioned skills. Cooperation between crewmembers, comprehension, giving and understanding orders, giving feedback, engaging in chit-chats, small talks, telling jokes and stories is so natural and shows that language is a tool we use to pass on a message.
Standard Marine Communication Phrases are an obligatory component of curriculum at maritime schools. This standardised and universally understood set of communication phrases and expressions is the foundation for proper communication, limiting the dangers to the vessel, people on board and the environment. Although occasionally students complain about learning the phrases by heart, I still believe this is indispensable, especially for those with poor command of English. Language on board the vessel does not have to be sophisticated with complex grammar structures. It does have to be clear and communicative, covering the wide range of terminology needed for the specific purposes such as navigation or engineering.
A unique experience
This unique experience of immersing myself in the practical aspects of seafaring and focusing on the use of Maritime English onboard proved to be invaluable. Having experienced this firsthand, I now feel much more confident and connected to the field and my students. I wish I had been given the opportunity at the start of my career. I strongly believe that such training should be available or even obligatory for all teachers of Maritime English.
I would like to thank Captain Alfred Naskret, the head of Gdynia Maritime School, Captain Kuba Syzman´ ski, Secretary General of InterManager and Karin Orsel, the CEO of MF Shipping Group, who supported me, provided with much valuable advice and enabled the fortnight on board.