Three Caymanians are currently active seafarers working internationally
Seafaring was once a way of life for the men of the Cayman Islands, but few now choose that profession and former seafarers say they may be the last generation to take to the seas.
To mark the International Day of the Seafarer last week, the National Trust held a panel discussion on topics relevant to Cayman’s seafaring heritage at the Seafarers Hall in Prospect. The topic focused on “the future of seafaring in the Cayman Islands.” Around 35 people attended the meeting.
Panelists Roy Bodden, Adrien Briggs, Captain Paul Hurlston and Owen Foster examined whether seafaring is still a relevant industry in the Cayman Islands.
They heard only three Caymanians are currently active seafarers working internationally, which is a considerable drop from the numbers of yesteryear. At one time, the Cayman Islands reportedly had more sea captains per capita than any other country.
“We did not give the younger generation a chance to learn the trade,” said Ivan Farrington, president of the Cayman Islands Seafarers Association. “We started a marine training school in 1977 but it was scrapped by government. We had seasoned seafarers like Leroy Frederick, Colby Jackson, Ned Solomon and Joe Wood teaching engineering.”
In those days, Cayman seafarers engaged in commercial fishing and turtling around the Caribbean and later on went to sea as officers and crew on commercial boats or with the U.S. Navy Merchant Marine ships, but that’s not happening anymore, they say.
Roy Bodden, president of the University College of the Cayman Islands, highlighted several reasons for the decline. He explained that as the systems on ships began to change from analog to digital, Caymanians did not upgrade their skills to keep up with the modern equipment.
Also, as seafarers sent money home, the need for formalized banking in the Cayman Islands rose, he said. This led to the establishment of the Government Savings Bank and eventually Barclays Bank. As a result, people were being pulled toward jobs closer to home.
Similarly, he said, as the number of tourists visiting Cayman increased, the need for more hotels and condos grew, thus more men chose to remain on island to work in a lucrative construction industry while others found employment in the dive industry or as tour operators.
As Caymanian men started choosing to remain at home in the more recent decades, seafaring skills were not being passed on to the next generation, Mr. Bodden said.
He went on to share that the late James “Jim” Bodden was very adamant that these skills and jobs should not be allow to dwindle. In keeping with this, in the 90’s Jim Bodden announced that he had initiated a seafaring skills course in order to train younger Caymanians. However, due to the political winds of change, this course eventually fell by the wayside, UCCI’s Mr. Bodden said.
He said the university had been exploring the possibility of expanding its syllabus to include courses in seafaring as a career option, as many seafarers are paid well and the travel affords them the opportunity to experience the world.
Captain Paul Hurlston, a seasoned Caymanian seafarer, said he learned and benefited greatly by going to sea. “There is plenty jobs out there and good jobs and good money too, not like when I was there.”
He advises younger people seeking a career at sea to work hard, take a responsible approach to their work, and to make use of educational opportunities being offered. He also encouraged them to be honest and to quickly admit errors in order to remedy a situation immediately.
“While it was one of few options available to men of my generation, I would not trade my experience for the world,” said Captain Hurlston.
He said Caymanians were well respected and renowned for being the best seamen in the world. “I would say we were the best disciplined, and [shipping company] National Bulk Carriers were happy to have us as crew.”
Mr. Hurlston feels there is a loss of respect for seafaring in Cayman, and somehow a stigma has been put on seafarers. “If you say you are a seaman it would seem like you spent time in Northward than helping build the country. I talk to all of my colleges and they feel the same way,” he said.
“Caymanians went to sea because there was nothing here to do. We went and sent all the money back home and built up the country but the young people today have not been educated about going to sea,” said Captain Hurlston.
Gary Owen Foster, a management associate at the Maritime Authority of the Cayman Islands, spoke of the various options available to students interested in exploring a career in the maritime arena.
He said the Maritime Authority currently visits middle schools, has an internship program with the Cayman Islands Further Education Centre and offers one scholarship annually through the Ministry of Education. Mr. Foster said that three scholarship students have gone on to become employees in areas such as surveying and business administration within MACI. At the time of the lecture, there was one student studying for a degree in Maritime Administration.
He thinks seafaring is moving towards the services part of the industry. “You look at [the] progression within the Cayman Islands ship registry and the potential for our maritime industry with more shipping companies considering Cayman and opening up these opportunities. It’s more of the corporate services side or the services that administer these vessels, those are the sorts of things that are really moving forward here.
“Everyone is pursuing degrees now, you have students who are completely sold on the corporate lifestyle – which is not bad thing because it’s definitely more conducive to family life as opposed to being away for a long time when out at sea, this is why I personally think that the corporate aspects of seafaring [are] where we are headed.”
“On island, we don’t provide a certification that seafarers can get elsewhere. This is definitely a factor as to why we don’t have as many Caymanians out on the vessels,” he added.
David Carmichael, general manager of Caribbean Marine Services, pointed out that the company was initially established to take on retired seafarers and utilize their skills locally in the tendering for cruise ships. He said that in his work he has encountered people with formal qualifications but little practical experience and also with those with no formal qualifications but with considerable practical experience. He has also come across literacy or disciplinary issues and the retirement of some men due to international insurance guidelines, as well as health concerns.
While it can be a delicate balance, Mr. Carmichael said he prefers to hire locally. He explained that none of the issues he has seen in Cayman are any different from what he has seen in his native Scotland. He went on to state that small, seafaring communities with an aging population face similar challenges, but they can be overcome with training and a willingness to change and modernize.