Damian Crowley’s motto is never to do anything he doesn’t enjoy. So it’s lucky the shipping industry has provided him with so many enjoyable career options, he tells SARAH ROBINSON...
It was all his dad’s idea. Damian Crowley wasn’t sure what to do with himself when he left school, but his father had an unfulfilled ambition that he passed on to his 16-year-old son. ‘It turned out that Dad had wanted to go to sea himself,’ explains Damian, ‘but in his day there was an indenture fee for your apprenticeship, as well as paying for your own uniform, and his family couldn’t afford it.’
By the mid-70s, things had become easier for aspiring officer trainees, and the teenager was happy to give his dad’s dream career a try. Crowley Sr helped him with the applications, resulting in the offer of a sponsored cadetship with P&O. ‘I wanted to join them because theirs was the nicest brochure,’ smiles Damian.
‘And luckily it turned out that they offered a fantastically varied and interesting cadetship.’
He sailed as a deck cadet on general cargoships, OBOs, LPGs, containerships and even the famous liners Oriana and Uganda. ‘The travel was a great attraction,’ he recalls. ‘It sounds a bit daft nowadays, but I’d never been outside the UK before.
For my very first trip I was put on a plane to Bahrain to join my ship, and then we sailed to ports all round Asia and on to Australia and New Zealand.’
At that time, even con-tainership crews were able to spend a few days in each port they visited, he points out. ‘If you worked the same routes a few times, you could start to make friends in the ports and meet up with them when you came back.’
The job itself was enjoyable too: ‘I found navigation satisfying — in those days you’d still get the sextant out. And you can’t beat a nice afternoon steaming through the Mediterranean.’
So far, so lovely. But the old days weren’t all exotic des-tinations and cocktails at sun-down. ‘By the time I had finished my cadetship, the industry had experienced a major downturn, and I was lucky to get a job as a junior officer,’ admits Damian. ‘I had to retake my orals, and when I finally qualified, I dropped into a place with OCL, which would later become P&O Containers.’
In the years to come, officer positions remained in short supply; and as senior colleagues hung on tightly to their jobs, Damian struggled to gain promotions that reflected his qualifications and experience. ‘I studied at Cardiff [South Gla-morgan Institute of Higher Education] for my Officer of the Watch and Master’s, with Fleetwood in between for my Chief Mate’s. So I had all my certificates, but after 13 years at sea, the best rank I had managed at P&O was senior second officer.’
It was time for a change, and he started to look at jobs ashore — also prompted by the need to be at home more for his young family. ‘I looked in the Telegraph and other industry publications, thinking I’d like a job as a marine pilot, but in the end an in-house training event pointed the way. P&O Containers ran a sea staff seminar to teach employees more about the company and the industry, and I got talking to a guy there about jobs ashore.’
Thanks to this networking opportunity, Damian went to London to become a stowage coordinator for P&O vessels visiting the port. The job served him well as he adjusted to life ashore, but two years in a small office-based team was sufficient. ‘I’ve never done anything I don’t enjoy; when I’ve had enough I move on,’ he says. ‘So I looked around and noticed that there were some opportunities at Fleet-wood. To my surprise, I succeeded in getting a job lecturing in offshore survival — surprising because I’d always been shy about getting up in front of people. But the survival skills were something I knew well, being essentially the same as in the Merchant Navy.’
It was quite a risk, because the move involved a substantial salary cut. But it felt right, and there was teacher-training on offer to use as the basis of a new career in maritime education. After just six months, Damian moved over to the maritime department and started to teach trainees studying for their OOW.
He had found a new vocation. ‘I stayed 11 years at Fleetwood, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I loved teaching and picked up further qualifications myself on the education side.’
And indeed it must have gone well, because by 2003 Damian had risen to become head of school. All sorted until retirement, right? Wrong!
‘I suddenly realised I wanted to move on,’ he explains. ‘People thought I was nuts to leave, but my wife Suzanna was supportive. We initially thought we might run a B&B, but then this fantastic opportunity came up — almost by accident, as with most things in my career. A training company called Maritas approached me to join them, and not long afterwards the owners, Phil Smith and Jack Jamieson, decided to retire and I took over.’
Maritas describes itself as a flexible, peripatetic training provider which aims to provide courses where and when cus-tomers want them. It offers STCW training approved by UK awarding bodies such as the SQA and MCA — and as well as providing short courses, it can see students through to their OOW qualification and beyond.
‘We do some in-house training booked by employers, but many of our students come to us as individuals, and we put together a package for them based on what they need,’ says Damian. ‘For example, we might be approached by someone looking to get their OOW through one of the “alternative” routes. If they already have some qualifications in a related sector like fishing or workboats, we’ll help them fill in the gaps and take their studies to a higher level.’
Maritas training can take place through distance learning — sending study materials in the post and using online communication tools for teaching sessions.
But Damian and his team also book venues such as seafarers’ centres to offer face-to-face training to groups and individuals, engaging experienced freelance trainers to travel to wherever they are needed in the UK. ‘We have run courses from Orkney to Jersey,’ says Damian proudly.
‘You might think that putting together individual packages for our students and giving so much one-to-one support would make us more expensive than other training providers,’ he adds, ‘but the fact that we don’t have to maintain our own college building means that our fees are comparable to the traditional nautical colleges.’
Some students are sponsored by their employers, but many are self-funded, and the Maritas team can help them to find and apply for bursaries — often pointing eligible candidates towards the Nautilus Slater Fund.
This year, like many other training providers, Maritas is expecting an influx of officers needing to take courses specified by the STCW 2010 Manila Amendments, which introduced new requirements for officers seeking to revalidate their certification, and will come into force in 2017 (see page 43 for more information).
‘As usual, we can run these courses in various ways,’ says Damian. ‘For example, we’ve had groups attending our HELM O training at the premises of Viking Recruitment in Dover, and we’re taking our mobile simulator around the country to get students up to speed with the ECDIS requirements.’
He talks about the STCW 2010 courses with enthusiasm, clearly relishing every new challenge he encounters as he marks 40 years in the shipping industry. ‘I would recommend sea training to anybody,’ he concludes. ‘It’s been the foundation of such an interesting career for me, both at sea and ashore, and I know that employers value your maritime qualifications and experience even if you change to another industry: my brother Paul followed me to sea and later became a senior police officer.
‘Whatever you are in your career, I’d say to see what catches your eye for your next move and just give it a go. Your knowledge, confidence and resilience from working at sea will be an asset to any employer.’