During the last two years, the Philippine maritime industry has been on tenterhooks as threats of blacklisting loomed over the heads of the country’s 50,000 seafarers working on European Union-flagged ships. For the last 16 years, the Philippines has failed to pass the review of the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA).
In 2021, the EMSA stated that the substandard quality of Philippine maritime school education can lead to serious consequences for students training to become seafarers, which sent the industry into a tailspin.
Agencies both in the government and the private sector scrambled to implement remedies ranging from evaluating maritime schools, conducting industry-wide consultations, and forming an inter-agency body to come up with policy recommendations.
In late March 2023, the EU said the Philippines improved in monitoring, supervision and evaluation for the training and assessment of seafarers, but continued to fail in other areas: lack of inclusion of simulators in maritime schools, lack of onboard trainings and lack of improvement of issuance and revalidation of certificates and endorsements for seafarers.
Specifically, the issue of the quality of maritime education remained an urgent concern. Seafarers need to have a high level of knowledge and training to operate ships and equipment safely and efficiently. Students from poor quality maritime education institutions can be ill-prepared for the demands of the job, such as dealing with emergencies, navigating challenging waters, and working in a multicultural environment.
Establishing a quality maritime school requires a significant investment of time, resources, and expertise. With this is mind, a school in Antique in the Visayas region is determined to ensure its maritime education department can produce not only seafarers but seafarers who can become ship captains.
A seafaring history
As a seafaring region, Antique has a long and rich history of maritime trade, fishing, and boat-building. It is a significant hub of trade and commerce in the Western Visayas region because of its coastal location.
Fishing is a significant industry and the province’s coastal waters are home to a wide variety of fish and seafood. The traditional methods of fishing, such as hand-line and trap fishing, are still widely practiced today, alongside modern techniques such as trawling.
Antique’s rich seafaring history and culture are still very much alive today, with the province’s coastal communities continuing to rely on the sea for their livelihoods and cultural identity. Given this, it is also to be expected that many in the province want to become seafarers and that maritime education is very popular among students.
A new maritime school for changing times
“We have many seafarers here, they work on the local ships that ply the provincial route. Unfortunately, most of them are not formally educated or did not finish their schooling. They are essentially just bosuns, and do not have the skills or training to become officers,” explained Fr. Edione Febrero, the president of St. Anthony’s College in San Jose, Antique.
Four years ago, the St. Anthony’s College opened its maritime education department and it has clear-cut goals.
“We’ve seen in the last decade that not many of our maritime schools directly aim to produce officers. Schools produce many seafarers, but because of insufficient training, they do not have what it takes to qualify as officers. For instance, many cadets do not receive training aboard ships. For every 10,000 graduates, only a small percentage trained aboard ships,” Febrero said.
As the school’s maritime program is new, it offers only two main courses: the associate program on marine engineering (which teaches students how to operate and maintain the different machinery installed in marine vessels, including the propulsion plant, adjunct and auxiliary machinery, electrical and refrigeration systems) and the associate program in marine transportation (a series of courses that teaches cadets their future duties and responsibilities as marine officers; the program focuses on theories and practices in seamanship, navigation, ship business, meteorology, and marine laws).
“We’re very new, but our goals are very defined. We want to produce graduates who will pass their exams with flying colors and immediately qualify for second or third mates, then become promoted to chief mate, and eventually become captains,” said Febrero.
“We want to produce the next generation of skilled and knowledgeable seafarers. If a student receives poor quality education at a maritime school, they won’t have the skills and knowledge necessary to operate a ship safely. They can put themselves and others in danger. They might also have difficulty passing licensing exams, and this will hinder them from obtaining the necessary credentials to work in the industry.”
Maritime school bought a training ship
Febrero’s own father was a seafarer, and one of his brothers is also one. He shared that this personal history was a motivation for him to want to produce quality graduates and why the college brought its own ship for students taking maritime education courses. The M/V Maria Estrella del Mar was launched at the San Jose, Antique Port in November 2022. It is a three-decker passenger-cargo vessel of 969.84 gross tonnage.
“We bought the ship used, but we have already overhauled and refurbished it inside and out. It has all new navigational equipment like radars and gyro compasses. It has a new kitchen, galley, sleeping quarters, comfort rooms.
“We’re doing everything to ensure that the ship is very fit for sea service.
“We’re happy that our own students will be able to use the ship to practice navigation and seamanship skills, or to conduct research on marine environments and ecosystems. The ship will also be used to provide students with hands-on experience in ship maintenance and repair.”
He added that overhauling a ship is an ambitious project, “but we are determined to do it. We know the importance of helping students to get hands-on experience about shipbuilding, design, and maintenance.”
Most maritime schools in the Philippines do not have their own training ship and do not have the resources to buy or build a ship.
“Ideally, a school should have access to a shipyard, as well as skilled shipbuilders and engineers who can guide students through the design and construction process. It would also have to source the necessary materials, equipment, and funding to build the ship.
“Building a ship can provide students who are interested in pursuing careers in the maritime industry with valuable experience. They can learn the different aspects of shipbuilding, from the initial design and engineering to the final finishing touches. They could also gain an understanding of the challenges and complexities involved in building and operating a vessel.”
Training ship put to use during natural disaster
In November 2021, a strong typhoon hit the Visayas Region, causing landslides and bringing local communication and transportation systems to a halt. Antique itself became partially cut off from the rest of the Panay province and relief operations became difficult.
“The main roads that led to Antique were blocked by fallen rocks and mud. The relief agencies could not get through, and the local government’s attempts to transport goods were hampered,” said Febrero.
St. Anthony’s ship was immediately put to service and transported the needed goods by sea when they could not be delivered by land.
The school now has a memorandum of understanding with the humanitarian arm of the Catholic church Caritas Philippines that the ship will be utilized every time there are natural calamities.
Febrero said getting the ship registered was challenging because the MARINA, the government maritime regulator, has many requirements, but they were finally able to process the documents last February.
Lack of onboarding training
Still, schools not having their own training vessels is not the biggest challenge. The issue of onboard training (OBT) is a perennial problem for maritime schools. There are many students but not enough companies taking them on for onboard training. Based on surveys, OBT has always been an issue due to the lack of domestic ships that can be used for training.
EMSA has noted there were often too many cadets on ships. There have been cases of 11, 16, or even 37 cadets on board training ships, but there were only two deck officers and the master.
Allowing more than 10 cadets undergoing OBT (on a ship in the inter-island trade has become a common practice) is the schools’ way to address the problem of lacking berths to accommodate students who have completed their academic requirements and have proceeded to shipboard training.
The EMSA has made the recommendation to limit the number of cadets doing OBT.
Another issue affecting OBT is how the country’s domestic fleet lacks ships that weigh at least 500 tons. From 2011 to 2015, it was found that 40 percent of domestic cargo ships weighed less than 500 tons. The majority of ships are fishing vessels that are not fit for onboard training.
“Most of these fishing vessels are not actually used to catch fish but only to transport them; a possible solution is to reclassify them as cargo vessels,” said Febrero.
There was the allegation that some domestic ship-owners reduced the tonnage of their vessels so they could reduce the fees they paid. This resulted in fewer available vessels that could be utilized for OBT or as seafarer training facilities.
“This is a concern that should really be addressed. The better trained our students are, the bigger the chances of them immediately getting deployed and be qualified for the officer track.”
Improving academic standards
Among the requirements for a seafarer to become an officer is for them to pass stringent exams. While the EMSA did not raise the issue of quality of academic curriculum, maritime schools are still being monitored on this point.
According to St. Anthony’s College’s maritime department school instructor and former ship captain Edson del Rosario, it takes a lot of brain-power to head a ship.
“Take for instance how many of the functions on board a ship requires a lot of mathematics. Seafarers should be able to apply mathematical concepts for navigation purposes like includes calculating distances, angles, and bearings. They should also be sharp at using trigonometry and geometry to determine positions, plot courses, and solve navigation problems.”
When it comes to mechanical and engineering operations, seafarers also have to operate machinery and equipment that requires them to be adept at basic mechanical principles.
“Engineers working on ships should be good at applying mathematical calculations for their tasks like determining forces, torque, pressure, and fuel consumption.”
Capt. del Rosario also said that while practical training and hands-on experience are crucial for seafarers, academic learning is also very important.
“We should ensure that our students have the necessary theoretical foundation and comprehensive knowledge base. They need a sound academic background not only to guarantee that they get good careers, but also to ensure that they manage their ships safely.”
Stronger ties in maritime community
When all the other requirements have been met such as having good facilities, providing complete onboard training, and ensuring that students get sound academic learning, another factor that makes a maritime school effective are strong ties and partnerships.
Febrero, the president of St. Anthony’s College, explained that these partnerships let students to benefit from internship opportunities, industry guest lectures, and networking events. Such connections, he said, provide students with exposure to real-world scenarios, career guidance, and potential job placement prospects upon graduation.
It also helps that Febrero is well known not only in religious circles but in many civic groups as well. Using his connections, the school is already establishing partnerships with shipping companies, maritime organizations, and other industry stakeholders.
“These are also important because the partnerships will provide opportunities for students to gain practical experience and build connections within the industry,” he said.
“We don’t want our students to just pass their exams, we want them to excel and become fully-trained enough to become viable future captains and pillars of the Philippine maritime industry.”
The St. Anthony’s College’s maritime department held commencement exercises for the first batch of its students on June 21.
Fr. Febrero said the new graduates are well-grounded on their duties and responsibilities, and they are looking forward to their onboard training and eventually their Certificate of Competency (CoC) exams and their Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping (STCW) Certification to become professional seafarers.
“We faced many challenges in the last four years including the COVID-19 pandemic. We also worried about the threats that our seafarers would no longer be hired by European flag carriers.
“After all that, we are glad to have overcome and we now have the first graduates of our maritime school. Many families in Antique owe a lot to the maritime industry because they earn a living from it. We are proud that we now have a contribution of new, quality graduates.”
Top photo credit: St. Anthony’s College Maritime Department. Maritime students.