Advice for Future Seafarers to Navigate Their Maritime Careers

Seafaring can be an exciting career choice for students, but it can also be a daunting prospect. Maritime Fairtrade and four seafarers from Akademi Pelita, the first private maritime academy in Malaysia, came together to pen a letter of advice for those thinking about a potential seafaring career. 

Zulfadhli bin Noor Rashidi, Ashraf bin Adnan, Wan Daniel, and Rugnes Kumar a/l Rajanderan, are currently completing the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW). Rugnes, Ashraf and Daniel are studying to obtain the combined Master and Chief Mate qualification for vessels larger than 3,000 GT on near-coastal trade voyages. Zulfadhli, on the other hand, is studying to become the officer in charge of navigational watch on ships of 500 GT or more on near-coastal trade voyages.

Pelita Akademi’s outdoor pool is set in an idyllic natural environment and is used for maritime students’ training purposes.

Dear potential and future seafarer,

With hindsight, we can see how our outlook has changed since we embarked on our seafaring journey as Malaysian representatives. Every twist and turn we encountered, from transitioning from an ordinary seafarer to chief officer to dealing with the difficult challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, we wish we had a handbook to guide us through these hardships. 

We are immensely appreciative of those who struggled and learned alongside us. We have achieved our goals of connecting with people, exploring destinations we have always wanted to see, getting the opportunities we have dreamed about for so long, finding ourselves in the eye of storms, and most rewardingly, acquiring knowledge through all these voyages. 

Although we have yet to experience the full range of seafaring, we do know our purpose is to continuously evolve and contribute in some way to the process of evolution. This is our attempt to help you thrive by sharing our knowledge on how to overcome challenges in seafaring and make the most of every effort that you put in.

Find your anchor 

We are united by our shared love for the ocean. Each of us has our own unique dreams and goals that are connected to seafaring. We hope that someday you will find your anchor, just like we have.

Ashraf has a passion for travelling and exploring the world. He finds working with teams from diverse backgrounds very enriching as it gives him insights into various cultures and identities. Seafaring enables him to see the world in a whole new light, giving him an appreciation of how varied and beautiful our planet is.

Daniel’s family has a nautical background. His brother is a shining example of success, having achieved the rank of captain before turning 30, which has motivated Daniel to pursue the same path and strive for excellence in both study and practice.

Rugnes believes that success should not be measured solely by academic achievements; instead, he focuses on sharpening his competencies and abilities. Working at sea allows him to utilize his skills and knowledge to the fullest.

Zulfadhli finds solace in the ocean and seeks its advice. He believes that it holds a wide range of knowledge and experience which can be accessed through its immensity and vastness. Each wave and ripple, according to him, has something wise to teach us.

Designed by Pelita Akademi, this “mock smoke room” replicates the environment seafarers might encounter in a real-life emergency situation, allowing maritime students to practice their skills for fire safety operations.

Plan ahead of time

Seaborne voyages have always been unpredictable, with storms and other unexpected events. In Malaysia, for instance, many companies rely heavily on prior work experience when recruiting new staff. Moreover, it is often a requirement to have industry certifications in order to receive full job benefits and perks. 

We urge you to be mindful that the job hunt could be costly in terms of time, money and energy. However, taking proper precautions and investing time in advance planning can significantly increase your chances of achieving success on any voyage, whether it be financial or related to career advancement.

Rugnes: “After having my applications rejected by all Malaysian companies I had applied to, I felt disheartened and anxious. Although it was a tough situation, I never stopped striving towards my goals. For instance, to enhance my job search, I broadened my scope and sent applications to any organization with the word “maritime” in its name; I looked up government departments in search of job opportunities. 

“At last, I visited a maritime agency. After a long period of searching for work, I was ecstatic when the representative told me that there was an open opportunity on a cargo ship. Without hesitating, I agreed as long as it was indeed a vessel.” 

Daniel and Ashraf: “Imagine a seafarer was offered a job but required a dynamic positioning operator (DPO) certification to prove his eligibility for it. Certification fees of US$1,500 is applicable with a validity period of five years. His organization provided him with a scholarship to cover the tuition fee, but it was at the cost of half of his salary, as they deducted that much each month. 

This meant he had to bear all expenses himself. The worst-case scenario would be a seafarer signing off a contract with no other job lined up, facing expensive monthly living expenses, and an expired medical coverage and certificate. This would leave him in a difficult financial situation with no alternative income as seafarer contracts are on a case-by-case basis. 

Zulfadhli: “Building on Daniel and Ashrafs’ scenarios, I submitted an application for a scholarship provided by the Malaysian government for individuals who wishes to obtain the DPO certification. Competition for this scholarship is intense and the spots are limited, making it difficult to acquire. 

“However, the problem is that the application timeline usually starts late, in January. Taking exams is an essential part of the course and requires payment of exam fees, which can be financially daunting for hopeful contenders who must cover their own costs. Additionally, not having updates on scholarship results can add to the confusion.”

Examples of knots and splicing techniques are being displayed on the board.

Make your mental health a priority

Working on the high seas can be an incredibly taxing experience for seafarers. Long hours away from family and friends, unpredictable weather conditions, and limited social interaction can all take a toll on mental health. 

We assure you that it is perfectly acceptable to have moments when you don’t feel your best. Acknowledging the potential mental health issues related to working in a seafaring environment is critical for providing the right support and resources to yourself as well as other personnel who may be facing difficulties.

Zulfadhli: “Mental health was a topic that wasn’t openly discussed in the past by seafarers who are of the older generation. Now, it’s becoming more acceptable to talk about it and bring attention to this important issue. Thus, most of my older co-workers are not as receptive to the importance of mental health as I am. I prioritize physical and mental health by getting eight hours of sleep every day. My faith is a central part of my life and influences my daily activities. 

Rugnes: “Having a healthy work-life balance can have a positive impact on my emotional wellbeing. For instance, at my job, I’m limited to a certain amount of Wi-Fi access daily. To better manage it and achieve a good work-life balance, I ensure that I equally divide it between work, communication with my family, and leisure activities such as playing games. 

“In difficult times such as family problems, it is important to remain emotionally strong and not let negative emotions overwhelm you. Overthinking can reduce your focus and hamper productivity, so it is best to take a step back and handle the situation in a composed manner.”

Ashraf: “Many of us turn to our closest teammates for support when feeling down. Gathering together in circles and having an open discussion has often proven to be helpful in these situations. Sometimes, when I spot a seafarer feeling down or anxious, I make it a priority to offer them any sort of support that I can.” 

Daniel: “The COVID-19 pandemic had hit seafarers particularly hard, with many of them suffering either from depression or anxiety. It is my wish that in the future, maritime professionals receive mental health training as a part of their coursework. This way, they can gain knowledge about mental health disorders and learn techniques to cope with depression and anxiety before embarking on their journey.”

Maritime students have access to a variety of tools and ropes to assist them in their studies, allowing them to gain a better understanding of maritime operations.

Break the old “equality” paradigm 

Currently, there are more than 1.6 million people employed in the maritime industry, however only a small fraction (less than two percent) of them is female. Research indicates that female seafarers often face gender-based obstacles in landing a job or progressing in their careers, and can even face with harassment or unfair pay. 

We view gender equality as a state of equal rights, opportunities, and respect which enables seafarers to thrive without any form of prejudice or bias. But it’s not just gender that matters. We should strive for equality in all aspects of seafaring life. When achieved, it creates an equitable onboarding community filled with trust and safety, allowing seafarers to reach their full potential.

Rugnes and Zulfadhli: “I argue that male seafarers are often overlooked. Typically, we have to take on more physically demanding roles, making us more likely to suffer from fatigue. Despite it being normalized in our society, we should not take this issue lightly as it can have a real and negative impact on our wellbeing. 

“For instance, when it comes to carrying up to 600,000 boxes of mineral bottles from the deck, female seafarers have the privilege to choose whether or not they want to accept the task, whereas male seafarers are required to complete it. This is a great example of gender bias existing in seafaring, this time affecting males. 

Zulfadhli, Daniel and Ashraf: “As seafarers, we encounter many issues in regards to welfare and retirement. It can be difficult for seafarers with only short-term contracts to make ends meet due to the lack of long-term job security. This leads to difficulties in areas like medical care, education, taxes, car loan, and many more.  

“For example, getting a house loan can be difficult for us who earn our salary on a daily basis. Moreover, if we started our job in the middle of the month, then it is not possible to get a pay slip that meets the criteria required by banks (typically three months’ worth). Companies often pay us our basic salary, as well as additional allowances which may not be identifiable to the bank. This is where financial institutions are blind to the situation.”

Rugnes: “Our profession has a lot of risks associated with it, making having an insurance plan both necessary and potentially expensive. Every month, it can cost a significant amount in premiums to maintain a suitable policy. A subsidy on this would be greatly welcomed by us.

“Another issue is that the Malaysian companies provide EPF (employee provident fund) for their seafarers, however, overseas companies don’t. It is suggested that the Malaysian government adopts the policy of the Philippines, which requires a certain percentage of wages to be contributed into the EPF each month.

“Also, I hope that the Malaysian government will consider seafarers unique situation with regards to income tax and reduce the percentage we are required to pay. Specifically, we don’t work a conventional 12 months, yet we still have to pay taxes like everybody else.”

It has been our privilege to share this advice with you and we feel great relief at the conclusion of this letter. May our wisdom bring you success and prosperity on your path. Wishing you a safe journey ahead!

Thank you.

Yours sincerely,

Zulfadhli, Ashraf, Daniel, and Rugnes

Top photo: From left to right, students from Pelita Akademi: Zulfadhli bin Noor Rashidi, Ashraf bin Adnan, Wan Daniel, and Rugnes Kumar a/l Rajanderan. 

All photos credit: AnnJil Chong

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