Life in the Merchant Navy- It’s not all smooth sailing and calm seas
My journey of merchant navy life from a deck cadet to 3rd Officer has been one full of hardships because I had nobody in my immediate family or distant relatives who could guide me down this path. My path was one filled with loneliness, sufferings and pain. I got to know about this profession from one of my friends who sold the story to me saying that you would be on sea for six months at a stretch and you’ll be earning way more than you could possibly earn on land in the ballpark of lakhs.
He put it across to me saying – my brother is in the Merchant Navy and whenever he comes down he gets a new car every time and lives a luxurious life full of indulgence. I got it into my mind that this was the calling that I would pursue – something out of the box and something that would definitely work wonders on my bank balance.
As soon I completed my 12th I began attending coaching classes and had a tight schedule to follow. During that time I got to know that I had a train the immediate next day to Delhi as I had cleared my written exam for the sponsorship for the Merchant Navy. That day I was supposed to complete my classes around 2 and take my bike back home and had to rush to catch my train which was at 5. I left my classes and halfway home the tyre of my vehicle got punctured. And I was in a fix as to what in the world was I supposed to do because I had nobody to help me out.
My dad was posted in Assam during this time and mom was home alone so she really couldn’t help me out. I abandoned my vehicle there on the roadside, hailed an auto and reached home by around 3:30. I called my mom and told her to keep a bag packed with the bare minimum – a formal shirt and pants and toiletries. I got home, picked up the bag and in the very same auto rushed to the station. I managed to catch my train in the nick of time and reached Delhi at 7:30 in the morning for my 9 o’clock interview.
Directly, I went to my relatives’ house, washed up and went for my interview which went as smoothly as possible. I got to know on the spot that I’ve been qualified for the next round and had to go for my medical exam. I called my parents to inform them about the good news and my dad sounded me off saying that I was free to do as I pleased; the decision was mine to make. Happily, I went for my medicals and cleared them too during which my parents also arrived in Delhi.
After all of this I had another exam which is the IMU – CET (Indian Maritime University – Common Entrance Test) which I got a good ranking on and managed to get selected in the 160 candidates for the Merchant Navy. It was smooth sailing so far which was beyond what I had expected and the day finally arrived when I joined the training academy. This was during the time of no smart phones or other means of communication. We were completely isolated for a day and our training was in this quaint little town called Karjat which is a few hours from Mumbai. The place was stunning but I began suffering from FOMO.
I used to see my friends and batch mates from school and college posting things on Facebook and Instagram and I started feeling melancholy. They were joining Engineering colleges and were pursuing B.Sc., B.Com, etc. chilling out with their friends, going out to bars, getting into relationships and just living their lives to the fullest. While me on the other hand used to get up at 4 in the morning for physical exercises and then a parade at 7, then from 7 to 5 in the evening we had to study which was a gruelling schedule to say the least. It was only on Sundays that we used to have a temporary respite where from 6 in the morning to 6 in the evening we were allowed time off from everything. But I had made my path so I had to walk on it no matter what.
Slowly and steadily I got accustomed to the daily routine of merchant navy life, which was waking up at 4 and getting about my day. The most interesting aspect to working was when we used to receive our shore leaves on Sunday’s for an entirety of 12 hours. The only issue was that we had to venture out in full uniform – our cap, our ranks written and our clothes so if we hailed a cab or took an auto to go to the main city which was Mumbai people used to stare and comment as to what kind of a life we were living. They were able to see only what they wanted – the money, the fame, the recognition, but nobody was able to see the lack of social life and the almost isolation from the world.
The training process was then taken forward at the academy where I received my passport, the Indian Government CDC booklet which is required for internationally bound ships and within a year I completed my Pre Sea training and was awarded my diploma. Within the next 15-20 days I got a call from the company saying that I had to leave for Singapore to join our first ship. Then I headed to Mumbai, completed my formalities and some courses and opened an NRE account. I was really excited to start my new life imagining how great it was going to be.
I joined my first ship in 2014 and that was the beginning of my merchant navy life. We didn’t have internet connectivity onboard the ship. The only facility that was provided to us was a mailing system where we could mail our family or friends and they could write back and we could come and check this at any point of time except when we were on duty. It was the first time I was flying for international immigration and let me tell you that it wasn’t easy at all. Now this was during the middle of my contract period at around 3 months when my grandfather passed away in the month of January.
My parents decided not to inform me about the same because I would be upset and actually wouldn’t actually be able to do anything about it and due to no phone connectivity too I was kept in the dark. After 7 months when I returned back home, in the month of July, even then they didn’t tell me the news. For some reason after I was home for a few days I told my parents that I would like to pay a visit to my village where my grandparents lived and my parents agreed and let me go. Upon entering my grandparents’ house the first thing my eyes fell upon was the picture of my grandfather with a garland around it that was hung up on the wall.
I was shell-shocked and couldn’t comprehend what had happened. They informed me that because I was so far away from home and wouldn’t be able to come back they had collectively decided not to tell me about my grandfather’s death. At that point in time I came to the realization that whatever I was being paid for my work was actually worth it because not being in touch with your family and the world outside was essentially a different kind of torture in itself. My grandfather’s death left me reeling for quite some time afterwards and I had trouble coping with his loss. I spent my time crying and also blamed and criticised my family for not letting me know about such a life changing event taking place.
Somehow I managed to mentally prepare myself to get ready for my second shift and it seemed as if fate was laughing at me. It was barely even a month into joining the ship when my grandmother passed away. The same process was adopted by my family members this time around too and they decided not to share this news with me. When I returned back home on the completion of my contract I got to know about my grandmother and I was shaken to the core.
This was the second biggest loss of my life that I was facing within the span of two years; it almost felt as if the struggles would never end. I tried to get out of that zone and mentally braced myself thinking that this was the line I had chosen and I had to move forward despite everything that had happened. Life and death is all a part and parcel of merchant navy life and I had to persist and remain steadfast with my line of work. I had ventured out on my third ship by then and we basically have to complete 18 months of training before appearing for our officers’ exam.
Just before joining my second ship I had gotten into a relationship, but unfortunately even that wasn’t meant to be. When we are on land we have the freedom to text, message and talk freely as opposed to when you’re out at sea and because of this very reason my relationship also deteriorated. I had people play the devil’s advocate which led to the rundown of my already fragile relationship, they made her believe that I was out there living my life and didn’t actually concern myself with her well-being.
On the day that I received network after the period of 3-4 months I got in touch with her, only for her to tell me that it wasn’t working out between us and she couldn’t take it anymore. She broke up with me then and there stating that she had different priorities and wanted someone who would actually be with her and she couldn’t deal with me being away for such long durations. After facing the loss of both my grandparents, this was just too much for me to handle, but I tried not to let it all get me down. I decided that this was life and you had to keep moving forward if you had to get somewhere.
Finally I joined my third ship which was bound for Spain for my finishing stint. After completing it I landed in Gujarat and I wrote a hand-written letter to my girlfriend which I asked my agent to post it. It probably might have taken 3 days to get to her but I received no response from her side. I got to know later on from a friend of hers that she had moved on in her life and that she had gotten into a live-in relationship with someone. The entire training period was sheer torture for me but I still completed the entire time on the 3rd ship and then went down to Delhi for my officer’s exam.
I completed all my courses and exams – which was 6 written and 3 orals and upon completion received my 2nd mate foreign going license and a diamond on my shoulder proudly showing the world that yes I did have that ability and capability to accomplish great things and be a commanding 3rd officer in the Merchant Navy. Overall I’ve generally heard people say that the Merchant Navy guys get paid a lump sum amount, get to roam around the world, they can afford a lavish lifestyle and visit different bars in different ports, but nobody actually realizes the amount of hard work and struggle that goes into reaching that position in life.
People just assume that it is an easygoing white collar job but that is definitely not the case, being isolated from the world and staying away from your loved ones is a task that not many of us can take up. Other than that there are innumerable challenges like a demanding job, rough seas, sometimes a hostile work environment, nobody to share things with, disconnection from the actual world, zero social life, etc. which can cause severe emotional scars. I even lost a lot during this time, but it was not all bad, I even gained a lot during this experience.
When I compare my merchant navy life and the lives of my batch mates we seem to come from worlds apart. I am set in life with a stable bank balance to fall back on while they are even at this stage struggling to make each month’s rent. One thing I would like people to take away from this is to not jump to conclusions and just assume things, because you haven’t truly understood someone’s life until you’ve actually stepped into their shoes.