The JW Slater Fund was launched by the Union in 1977 in honour of a former general secretary, and has gone on to become the biggest single supporter of rating-to officer training in the UK.
John Slater’s son, David Slater, paid tribute to the success of the scheme last month at a seminar to mark its 40th anniversary. He said that his father would have been very proud to see the contribution the fund has made to ‘the much needed and sought-after supply of British officers’ — pointing out that the charity has donated some £5.5m to help ratings and other seafarers to gain officer certification and ‘life-changing’ opportunities for career progression.
Mr Slater explained that his father cared about this issue because he himself had started out as a rating, and had worked and studied to further his career, eventually gaining his master’s certificate before coming ashore.
He then spent 16 years with the Merchant Navy & Airline Officers’ Association (a predecessor union of Nautilus International) before his death in 1974. The JW Slater Fund charity was established in the late general secretary’s memory with donations totalling just over £8,000, and in its first year it gave awards of up to £750 for eight ratings to study for OOW certificates. Forty years later, the fund offers awards of up to £18,500 and a completion bonus of £1,500, and has been extended to provide assistance to seafarers from the superyacht, workboat and fishing industries, as well as electrotechnical officers. The numbers being supported have more than doubled over the past four years.
‘The success of this charity is not simply the £8,000 invested in 1977 and the grants we are now able to award, but because of the dedication, hard work, sacrifice and sometimes struggles of the people my father wanted to help — those who may not enter the industry as officers, but who have the potential to become officers,’ Mr Slater pointed out.
Carla Rockson, head of seafarer education at the Marine Society — which manages the day-to-day running of the fund for Nautilus — said the number of awards made by the charity has increased from 47 in 2013 to 105 last year.
Of these, 36 were made to superyacht crew, 25 to deck ratings, 19 to ETOs, 11 to workboat seafarers, 10 to fishers and four to engine ratings, with a total of 250 seafarers currently being assisted by the scheme.
The meeting also heard from two seafarers who have benefited from Slater Fund support.
Mersey pilot Captain Kevin Walsh said the charity had given him a vital financial ‘bridge’ as he struggled with the demands of providing for his family while studying to become an officer 23 years ago. Capt Walsh said he had worked for 14 years as an AB — having left school with no qualifications — and had decided to train as an officer because of the scale of redundancies for British ratings in the 1990s. Four months into his studies at Fleetwood Nautical Campus, he became increasingly worried about his finances.
However, after a call to the Slater Fund, he was reassured that £2,000 was on its way. ‘That was my little bridge to get me through the next two months of the course and through to my qualifications. You can’t imagine how much of a relief that funding was to me,’ he explained. ‘It doesn’t seem a lot of money today, but it changed my life and gave me the opportunity to carry on studying.
‘I’ve never been out of work since — quite the opposite,’ Capt Walsh added. ‘When I got my ticket I went from no work or practically begging for work to people offering work left, right and centre,’ he said.
Within the space of just seven and-a-half years, he went from being an AB to a ship master, and he is now serving as a first class Liverpool pilot. ‘My message to anybody is grab this by both hands — it is not just the money, it is the opportunity,’ he added.
Kevin Lennon is a current Slater scholar — just a fortnight away from his orals when he spoke to the meeting last month. He had been serving as an AB in the North Sea, but lost his job as a result of the cutbacks in the offshore sector — being made redundant at the same time as his application to the fund was approved.
Kevin — whose grandfather was a captain and whose father is a chief officer — admitted that it had not been easy to return to education at the age of 30. ‘You have to make a lot of sacrifices, but don’t be put off — it can be done,’ was his message to others.
He paid tribute to the help he has been given from City of Glasgow college and from staff at the Marine Society, as well as the support he has received from his current company — British Antarctic Survey.
‘In the first two weeks, I questioned if I was doing the right thing — it was so hard,’ he added. ‘But I am glad I stuck it out — it has changed my life, that’s for sure.’