For almost 40 years now, the Union’s JW Slater Fund has been providing support to help British seafarers to rise up the ranks. With applications for the 2016 awards being invited soon, ANDREW LININGTON meets a member whose success story shows the value of the scheme…
‘I wanted to prove to myself and to other people that I can really apply myself and get my ticket instead of being jack-the-lad — and there’s no way I could have done it without the Slater Fund’.
Colin Leggett is one of more than 1,500 seafarers whose careers have changed course thanks to the JW Slater Fund — a Nautilus International scheme that provides substantial financial support to those seeking to gain their first certificate of competency.
Launched in 1977 in tribute to former general secretary John William Slater, the fund was originally created to help British ratings with the costs of studying to become officers. In recent years, the scope of the scheme has been widened to enable electrotechnical officers and yacht crews to benefit.
The awards — which are worth up to £17,500 — can be used towards the costs of any necessary full-time or part-time education, and to provide some financial support for those who have to go off-pay during college phases. Administered for Nautilus by the Marine Society, the scheme also offers assistance with the costs of up-skilling in functional skills, such as maths.
For Colin, the Slater Fund provided a second chance — which he was delighted to take advantage of. Born and brought up in a village called Northam, near Bideford in North Devon, he had been interested in going to sea from an early age.
‘Dad was a carpenter for P&O back in the 60s, so he’s always had a love of the sea and tells many good stories about it,’ he says. ‘So that kind of played a part in my choice — although the travel was a big draw as well. Unfortunately, you don’t get the time in port that they used to back then, but I always wanted to see the world.’
Colin began a cadetship at Warsash in September 1994 and flew out to Indonesia to join his first ship on his 18th birthday. ‘I got deported for having the wrong visa and was sent to Bangkok to wait for the ship to arrive three days later!’ he recalls.
‘Cadetship-wise everything was hard,’ he admits. ‘I’m not hugely academic, but I enjoyed most of the subjects. I tended to spend too long not paying attention when they explained the basics and by the time I was interested and woke up it was too late. I also had a fairly large interest in student life, which didn’t help.’
Colin failed in his final year at college, but still keen to work as a seafarer, he became an AB — serving on P&O ferries in the Irish Sea and on the Tilbury-Zeebrugge service.
After several years at sea, Colin moved ashore in 2002 and worked as a chef at a local pub, training on the job. ‘I moved to Bath, where I worked for a chef called Stephen Terry who sent me out to work experience in different kitchens in London. I spent time in the Wolseley, Le Caprice, the River Cafe, Smiths of Smithfields and also in the Maze.’
After working in such top restaurants, Colin decided he wanted to return to Devon. ‘I moved to Dartmouth and it was here that I really missed being at sea,’ he says. ‘We worked in an open-plan kitchen and could see the river, and I always looked out to sea on my breaks. So I began to think if I was having no time off and working big hours ashore then I might as well do it at sea where I enjoyed being more.’
He started job hunting and returned to work on ferries, but the call of the deepsea was strong and he applied for a job with the British Antarctic Survey. ‘I knew some people working there and decided to go for it,’ he recalls. ‘It used to be a case of dead men’s shoes, but I got lucky in February 2008 and was shortlisted for an interview when I was doing some general work on a ferry, and then they phoned me to say I had got the job and to report to the ship on the 18th. I had assumed it was the 18th of March, but it was February!’
Following his first four-month trip with BAS, he has spent seven and a half years working in what he describes as ‘some of the most beautiful yet brutal places in the world’ — as well as working in every ocean in the world, standing on every continent and coming within 1,000 miles of both poles.
‘The Antarctic is incredible — a desolate place yet full of amazing wildlife,’ he says. ‘It’s certainly not a place to sit bottom end on for weeks and weeks and it can make the North Sea look like a weekend at Butlins.’
Colin says he decided to apply for the Slater Fund after hearing from an officer onboard a ferry about the support it provides. ‘I had seen it in the Telegraph, but had never really considered it,’ he admits. ‘But one of the officers had just completed his ticket and he encouraged me to give it a bash.’
Thanks to good references from his captains and advice from Nautilus senior national secretary Allan Graveson — who had been a lecturer at Warsash when Colin first began his cadet studies — he secured a Slater Fund scholarship and went back to the classroom.
‘I decided to train at Fleetwood and they were fantastic,’ Colin says. ‘The lecturers were so helpful and provided me with several kicks up the backside when it was required. Studying was sometimes hard and sometimes it would be easy, but shutting yourself away in your cabin whilst everyone else relaxed was difficult at times.’
The Slater Fund is managed for Nautilus by the Marine Society, and Colin also praises its staff for the support they gave throughout his OOW studies. ‘I would never have been able to do it without them,’ he reflects. ‘When I was struggling, they told me that they would never have sponsored me if they thought that I wouldn’t finish.’
Colin passed his orals in April last year. ‘I took the exam in Liverpool and it was the most confident I have ever been in such a situation,’ he says. ‘I remember so well answering the last question, which was on restricted visibility, and the examiner looking at me and saying congratulations, you have passed. I was so happy, but like everyone else I had to go back and hunt for a job.’
Through a crewing agency, he returned to BAS as an AB and then spent time working on the UK-registered tug MTS Valiant. ‘I had a great time there and couldn’t have wished for a nicer skipper to work with, but when I got off, my bosun at BAS told me about a job and I studied like a demon before going for an interview for a second mate’s post and then getting a third mate’s job.’
Presently third mate on the Natural Environment Research Council vessel Discovery, Colin says he’s delighted to be working as an officer. ‘You get to go to some really cool places and things you get to see and do in the job are amazing.’
He says he would like to continue rising up the ranks. ‘NOCS has got a great programme for study leave, and I’m definitely planning on going onward and upwards, and am currently trying to plan out doing my mate’s at Fleetwood.
‘I feel very fortunate to have had this opportunity and to have been supported by the Slater Fund was a massive thing,’ Colin reflects. ‘There are not many people who can afford to take a full academic year out of work, but if you have got the time to invest in it, I would say you should do it.
‘You have got to put the time and effort in, because it won’t just happen like I thought it would as a young and impressionable 18-year-old,’ he points out. ‘If you can commit to it and fancy an office job instead of an outside job, then do it.
It’s hard work but worth the effort eventually.’