Mariners needn't be all at sea

22nd February 2008 at 00:00
A nautical college in Fraserburgh has a repertoire of training to put would-be seafarers on the crest of a wave

Ask them if they miss the sea. Of course they do. Surrounded by all the paraphernalia of seamanship at Banff and Buchan College's nautical department on the outskirts of Fraserburgh, these two lecturers still yearn for the real thing.

Alan Maison spent 40 years at sea in the merchant fleet and the fishing industry, and after he takes students for a visit onto a ship in Aberdeen, he comes home unsettled. "I couldn't be away from the sea," he says. "If we go on holidays, the first thing we do is go away and look at the harbour."

His colleague Syed Shah feels the same bond: "The sea is so colourful. It will never let you get bored. There are so many colours, sometimes it's calm like a mill pond and other times it's got a roughness in it," he says, as the students pack up and head for home.

There's a global shortage of trained seafarers and the college is responding to the demands of the local market with a range of courses preparing students for jobs in the energy industry in the North Sea and internationally.

Principal Bob Sinclair is a qualified master mariner and went to sea from Fraserburgh when he was a teenager. In his mid-thirties, after a role as an offshore installation manager, he left the oil industry and came here as a nautical lecturer.

Now he leads the strategy to give opportunities to youngsters in his community, and the college is working in schools throughout the region, alerting pupils to what it can offer when they're still at primary school.

Pupils need four Standard grades, including maths and preferably physics, to train as seafarers. The college wants them to know that the time to make the right subject choices is in S2. Their school qualifications will help when they're studying navigation charts and stability, making sure the ship won't list or capsize when the cargo is loaded.

The college has just had approval to add merchant navy deck cadet training to its nautical courses. School-leavers could be captains by the time they hit their mid-twenties, with salaries of around pound;50,000.

But first they'll attend college and spend time at sea during four years' training to qualify as officer of the watch, with further training and experience at sea before finally gaining master mariner certification. Contracts have recently been signed with local shipping companies to give the college students employment status during training in the offshore maritime sector.

Mr Sinclair says the firms the college is working with are all involved with emergency response vessels. "That is a very deliberate strategy, because we think there's a pool of young people out there who don't want to go to sea as the traditional merchant navy would have done.

Young people now want more family-friendly jobs and the offshore routine has a familiar rhythm for those who've grown up in north-east Scotland. With its ageing workforce and well-documented skills shortage, the North Sea is crying out for younger workers.

But Mr Sinclair admits life at sea is not always plain sailing: "It can be absolute hell," he says. "I remember once, when I was mate on the back end of an anchor-handling tug, in the middle of November and the rig was dragging its anchors. We were out there, trying to snatch this rig's anchor and a lump of water the size of a house hit myself and the bo'sun and washed us the length of the deck."

The two men were mercifully unharmed and were able to pick themselves up and get on with the job. Colleague Alan Maison says: "On a poor day, as long as you're equipped, battened down and you know what you're doing, there's not a problem."

These days, more women are climbing aboard too. "One of the best-known master mariners is from Aberdeen - a lady called Claire Middleton," says Mr Sinclair.

But today in the department it's a Boys' Own adventure, as the students splice wires and scratch their heads over navigation charts in what feels like a testosterone-only zone.

Mark Duthie is studying for his Officer Watch Unlimited qualification, after four years in the merchant navy as a general seaman. "This will help me take charge of a navigational watch," he says.

Seated nearby, a former Arbroath High pupil, Scott Hart, is doing the Officer Watch course as an open-learning student, when he's home from sea. He wants to work his way up to earn more and get in off the deck.

"If you get through this course, you'd be an officer and part of the bridge team," he says. "You'd be up there getting paid more money, not on the deck all the time - you're inside, where it's cosy."

Tutors also teach local secondary pupils nautical studies with basic chart work, seamanship and survival skills included in Intermediate 2, laying the groundwork for further study. The college has partnerships with big players in the energy industry to ensure training and employment opportunities respond to local needs.

The most recent course here for fishing industry trainees was the biggest class in the past five years. Mr Sinclair sees signs of a more profitable fleet, following decommissioning rounds a few years ago.

"The best signal for that is that if you look at the shipyards, the likes of Macduff Shipyards, their order book's full for the next three or four years," he says. "I think they've got at least six vessels on order for fishing families in Fraserburgh. That's as buoyant as it's been for a long time."

Outside, pupils pour out of buses into the college for a careers presentation by oil and gas firms. Tonight, dozens of companies will be showcasing opportunities at an open evening. In the distance, the sea glitters blue, beckoning.

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