Making the jump from sea to shore

Do your research before choosing a shore-based career

By Captain John Simpson

I had a conventional sea-going career on cargo ships sailing around the world before working on offshore support vessels. My first foray ashore was into pilotage which was not easy at the time as there were a lot of people applying for a limited number of vacancies.

The biggest difficulty was financial. It meant taking a drop in pay. It was sometime before I recouped anything like I was earning at sea and with a young family that was quite a challenge.

Even though it was classed as a job ashore, the hours could be long and unsociable, and one of the great advantages of being at sea is the leave. Being a Pilot, even though you have your days off, you were on call 24 hours a day which meant prior to the advent of mobile phones you couldn’t actually leave the house. So, the grass isn’t always greener, as they say.

After 11 years as a Pilot, I went back to sea as a Master which was a surprisingly easy transition. But after a year, I decided I wanted another challenge, so I joined a marine consultancy in London using my offshore and pilotage experience to work in surveying, offshore oil and gas construction contracts and offshore wind projects, as well as entering the world of the expert witness. This involved investigating marine incidents, causation and working on salvage and wreck removal where my experience with towage was helpful. I was involved in a number of cases which took me away from home for periods which were often longer than those I spent at sea.

Making the transition to shore felt like jumping in at the deep end. There was little guidance unless you already knew someone doing the job. The lack of information was astounding, but the pool of available seafarers was high. A lot of people were looking to do the same thing, so your experience was paramount.

The transition from working at sea to being ashore can be daunting, and if seafarers don’t find the right fit first-time round, they will often either return to sea or move out of maritime altogether which is a tremendous skills loss at a time when we need them the most.

In making the move to shore, my advice is to make sure you know exactly what it is you want to do. For me, becoming a Pilot was an easy choice to make, but consultancy was a different matter. Once you have decided on your chosen career, do your homework. There is a lot of assistance out there now that wasn’t available 20 years ago.

The elephant in the room is the starting salary when considered alongside factors such as the cost of living and the expense of commuting. Having a financial safety net in place can require as much planning as your intended job choice. There is nothing worse than going for a role you really think is going to be long term and then finding out that you can’t afford to do it. But if you can see your way through the early days, things will get easier.

Reaching out

Get connected with professional organisations like Nautilus International which has a ‘Sea to City’ mentoring programme and the Honourable Company of Master Mariners in the UK which also provides mentoring advice to cadets in particular. These programmes are invaluable in getting an insight into working ashore. There is also a lot you can do on your own with a little home research.

If you decide to go into something like surveying, consultancy or maritime law, thoroughly research the sector and if you are looking for a particular firm, make sure you know as much as you can by researching the company online before making contact. If you are interested in salvage, the International Salvage Union has a lot of detail on its website. For marine insurance, look at the various P&I Clubs. If your choice requires a degree, think about the possibility of studying while afloat.

There is definitely greater opportunity for seafarers today. In fact, we currently have a shortage of experienced mariners within the industry ashore, whether that’s working in pilotage or on the legal or marine insurance side. There are many opportunities which require seafaring skills, so this is probably a very good time to start making decisions about making the right move ashore.

Having said all that, there are tremendous opportunities at sea as well. We encourage people to go to sea for a reason. But if it’s not fulfilling your career goals then look at what can be achieved, whether that’s taking on greater responsibility afloat or perhaps within ship management.

If you have a number of years of experience at sea, use that to develop and build on your career. If possible, find yourself a mentor. There are plenty of people, including myself, with advice to dispense over a cup of tea or a beer, so use that to your advantage

Captain John Simpson is a senior partner, London & Hull, at Solis Marine Consultants