Master Mariner, 1987-2013

Shipbuilding Supervisor, 2005-2012

Ship Repair Supervisor, 2012

President and Director, GMM Global Maritime Manila Inc.

Know Your Radar

By J. Dela Torre

relly jose picCaptain Jose, or Jun, is married to my first cousin, Bamba, and therefore we always bump into each other at family parties and events. I knew he was a seaman, but Jun was one bloke I said I should get to know better. When I heard he was hanging up his gloves as Captain, my reaction was the same as everybody else’s: why, when he was already at the top of his career and receiving quite a tidy sum as Master Mariner? He still had a few good years left in him as a Captain, and there was no urgency to retire prematurely. But Jun, I found out later, has never been predictable. He was a student leader from the time he entered college until he graduated as valedictorian. He was a consistent scholar and he was never afraid to face challenges because he considered them opportunities to learn something new. He scaled one hurdle after another in his maritime career like Usain Bolt—with large flying leaps and with absolute concentration on the tape at the end of the track.

A stranger meeting Jun for the first time would probably have a double take, unbelieving he really is a former Ship Captain. He doesn’t have the build or the height of a ship captain, nor the gruff exterior and dark complexion of one who has been exposed to the sun and wind for extended periods. I’ve probably seen too many movies of heroic and villainous sea captains, but I’ve always had the impression ship captains had the physical features of a demigod and the mean countenance of a towering Viking warrior. I suppose in the old days, you had to be tough, or at least look tough, to keep an unruly crew on course and their shoulders on the wheel, and to forestall mutinous intentions.

Jun on the other hand has a jovial disposition, a white complexion and rather of average height. One could easily mistake him for, well, a ballroom dance instructor, which he could well be, considering his dancing skills and good looks. However, reading his resumé and hearing about his experience as a seaman, I was stunned by the sheer scope of his accomplishments not only as a seaman, but as a student leader, cadet, shipbuilder and finally manning agency owner. In a few months, he will have set up a ship management company, too, which I understand is ten times more complicated than being a crewing agent. This will be a fitting cap on his impressive career which began a little over forty years ago in General Santos City, that booming city in the south with its to-die-for panga and its delectable fruits.

Born to a Bulaqueño father, Relly, Sr., and an Ilongga mother, Mary Luz Nufable, Jun has 2 brothers and a sister. The two brothers are both seamen, while the sister is a businesswoman in Japan. One would think, seafaring must run in the blood, but Jun’s father was an insurance agent. None of his uncles or cousins was a seaman. So, who was bitten by the seafaring virus for the first time and infected the others?

Beginning in the 1970s, seafaring was becoming the profession of choice for young boys with great ambitions and itchy feet from the Visayas and Mindanao. In Iloilo, the Iloilo Maritime Academy or IMA (now the John B. Lacson Foundation Maritime University) has been a maritime institution since the 1930s. It had cachet as a rich and reliable source of talented boys who wanted a career at sea. Many of my own cousins and nephews were either seamen or married to one. When I was growing up, we spent our summer vacations in my father’s hometown, Arevalo, Iloilo City, where the IMA’s sprawling main campus is. Walking in the streets of Arevalo, we’d see clumps of white-clad young men with white sidewall haircuts, trying hard to stand erect and to look like proper cadets. It must be fascinating to live the life of a seaman, I thought. All those sunny skies and cold lonely nights at sea, braving the tempestuous waves, and seeing those exotic places around the world—plus the promise of good money and a “girl in every port”—must’ve motivated the hundreds of thousands of young men to take up the maritime profession. For in what other profession could you earn a lot of money and get to see the world too? An airline pilot probably, but in no other. And in any case, an airline pilot is much too dangerous a job, and the cost of becoming a pilot was simply unaffordable to the average family.

Jun too was no exception. He too wanted to see those exciting places and meet interesting people, and earn big bucks to boot. All the seamen he’d known seemed to have had a good life—big houses, exclusive schools for their kids and fancy new cars—and he’d always wanted to put a seaman’s logo on his gate someday, a ship’s wheel. There was something romantic about being a seaman, and the promise of adventure was irresistible.

In 1984, he enrolled at the John B. Lacson Colleges Foundation in Iloilo, now a Maritime University. From that moment, his life would change forever.

A leader by nature, he edited the school’s organ, a replay of his role during his high school days. He was a scholar and kept his high grades until he graduated in 1987 at the top of his class. He was also president of the student council in his senior years in the school.

On his first year, he had a chance encounter with the owner of the school, Capt. John B. Lacson, which would affect him in a very meaningful way. The captain asked him what year he was in. He told him, and the old man nodded his head, and sagely intoned: “You have to master your radar.”  Although Jun didn’t know yet what a radar looked like, he took it literally, just the actual navigational equipment, but later in his career, he realized the captain meant it figuratively, too. Captain Lacson was telling him to master all that he needed to learn in his career so that his way to success will be assured.

“He wanted me to set a goal for my career and to proceed with all speed ahead towards that goal,” Jun reflected.

Because of his academic record, and having passed the competitive exam, he was one of only two from his school and 25 from the whole country to train under scholarship at the Hanseatic Maritime Training School in Limassol, Cyprus. Again, he was elected Batch Leader.

“Our training in Limassol was like a military boot camp. We learned how to do our own laundry, make our own beds, wake up early, how to paint, weld, etc. From time to time, we boarded ships in anchorage at the port of Limassol, and we would do maintenance work for the ship—cleaning, painting, greasing—and observing the activities on the bridge.”

 He trained for 2 years in Cyprus and in 1990, he completed his cadetship. He then joined his third assigned vessel in his first fully-paid job as a seaman in an AB position. The training in Cyprus was, in Jun’s own words, a “breakthrough” because it ensured his pathway to officership, at minimal cost to himself and conducted by a training outfit with international prestige.

“Training cadets to become officers is critical to our competitiveness as a seafaring country,” Jun interrupted his narration with a discussion of the state of our overseas maritime crewing industry. “Many of our BSMT graduates grab offers to be OS or AB because there’s more money in it, rather than accept a cadetship on board and be paid a niggardly sum,” he began. “However, being a cadet brings the seaman a step closer to Third Mate, while an OS or AB can only look forward at most to being Bo‘s’un. In addition, while they are such, they’re not allowed under present rules to sit for the licensure exam for Third Mate. A BSMT graduate therefore who is conscious of his career advancement should take advantage of every opportunity for a cadetship, particularly where it is granted under a scholarship program, rather than languish as a rating. This is the principal reason why we have a shortage of deck and engine officers. BSMT graduates are tempted by the money associated with an OS or AB position, or are eager to jumpstart their maritime careers, rather than wait for a cadetship opportunity. Scholarships are therefore essential to maintain our edge as the leading supplier of competent and professional ship officers to the world’s maritime industry.”

 “However,” Jun continued, “the decision to take in a cadet or an OS or AB is a business decision of a shipowner, in consultation with the captain. It’s not always a matter of saving money by hiring a cadet, but the operational requirements of a ship may sometimes decide the issue, as there are Masters who would rather go for the experienced ratings than an untrained cadet. Having said that, it is ultimately in the graduate’s hands. Shall he pass an opportunity to go on board as a rating, or sacrifice a little bit for a cadetship in the near future?”

“From the point of view of a manning agency,” Jun shifted his focus, “it must also set its sights into the future by working for and promoting a pool of cadets, because then you would have a ready pool in your employ, whose loyalty to the company is assured, rather than hire off the street some officer, whose record may not be in top shape, or at best is an unknown quantity. The reason they’re coming off street is that they may be dissatisfied with their manning agency or perhaps by the way they were treated in their previous contracts, but many of them are just looking for highest bidders.”

After one contract as an AB, Jun was ready to practice as Third Mate after passing the licensure exam. Hardly able to contain his excitement, he flew to the US where his first ship was winding through the Mississippi River and headed for the port of Tampico in Mexico, with stops in New Orleans and Houston. As Third Officer, he handled the safety and firefighting capability of the ship. He couldn’t believe his eyes that he was finally beginning his maritime career.

In 1999, he received his Master Mariner license, and in 2001, just 14 years after graduating from the IMA, he took command of his own ship, the M/V Aurora, which traded between the US and the Caribbean. What went through his mind when steering his first ship as a Captain?

“I felt blessed and lucky. And grateful that at every step along my climb to the Captaincy, I never stopped learning. My whole journey from Cadet to Captain was one whole process of learning. Learning is a new beginning.”

For the next 25 years, every time he signed off on a tour of duty, he remembered the words of John B. Lacson, and between jobs, he would sign up for training and take the licensure exam for the next higher rank, until he became a Master Mariner at the age of 32. Even while firming up his maritime career, he found the time to take up Master of Science in Maritime Education through distance education. For the next 12 years, he would captain a total of 10 container ships, which he has steered throughout the world’s easiest and most complicated waterways. In July 2008, he was coming out of the Gulf of Aden when he heard from the ship’s radio operator that the M/V Stella Maris, which was heading towards the Gulf directly ahead of Jun’s ship,  was being chased by Somali pirates. Instead of continuing with his course, he ordered the ship to change course and head up closer to the coast of Yemen. The Stella Maris, which was a Japanese bulk carrier with Panamanian registry, was captured and its entire crew of 23 held hostage, and eventually released after US$2 million in ransom was paid.  

Piracy in the Gulf of Aden and now even in the Indian Ocean has become a pain in the neck of seafarers and the global maritime industry. Even with a flotilla of military warships patrolling the affected areas, Somali pirates have struck almost with impunity, as their operating area is just too vast. Shipowners have had to hire private guards from Sri Lanka, but the added security costs of paying the guards, renting the firearms and the ammunition are ultimately passed on to the shippers, and from them, to the consumers.

In 2008, his last ship, the Aurora, was sold by its owners. He wondered whether this signaled the end of his maritime career, but Fate still had a few more things up her sleeve.

 In 2008, he entered a new phase of his storied maritime career: he was tapped to join a shipbuilding company in South Korea. How, and why he was the one chosen is a mystery he still has to unravel to this day. To be a shipbuilder, he pointed out, you must be either an engineer or a naval architect. Not one to question the fickle directions of the hands of Fate, he decided to go for it, and for the next 7 years years, he was assigned to various shipbuilding sites in South Korea and northern China, acting as owner’s representative and overseeing teams of Germans, Chinese, Russians and East Europeans constructing container hulls, outfitting and painting them. Although the new job was a daunting challenge for somebody with his qualifications, he accepted it and hit the ground running. As if the transition from Master Mariner to ship builder was not difficult enough, at the end of his 6-year shipbuilding stint, he was assigned as Repair Yard Supervisor, leading a 25- man group of supervisors of different nationalities, like Germans, Russians and Chinese.

He treated his stint in Korea and China as another kind of training, another competency to master:

“I always welcome new opportunities for learning, and all seamen should. If you were a Third Officer, for example, and you were asked to perform the duties of a Second Officer, don’t resent it. Welcome the opportunity to learn the job because someday you will be Second Officer anyway. It’s free training on the job and why be offended? It’s a valuable learning opportunity that not all seamen are given, so when you are given the chance, grab it,” he advised his fellow seamen.

Jun advocates financial literacy training for OFWs in general and seamen in particular.

“The whole family should be financially literate from the very beginning. It’s the only way to secure your future. The need for financial literacy is particularly urgent for seamen who have to undergo four costly licensure examinations to climb up from AB to Third Mate, Third Mate to Second Mate, Second Mate to Chief Mate, Chief Mate to Master Mariner. If the seaman is conscious of his career advancement, he should set aside money for these licensure examinations, and the time to save for them is not at the end of the contract, but at the very start. Once you’ve received your earnings, deduct the savings and set aside a portion for the cost of the next examination, and the rest you can either spend or send to your family, if you need to.”

“Most of us,” he repeats what he has learned from reading Francisco Kolayko’s books, “spend after receiving our earnings, and to save whatever is left. This is the wrong formula.”

How does one attain financial literacy?

“There are now a plethora of opportunities to learn financial literacy. You can read books, you can attend free seminars. You can access the internet and learn from a multitude of website offering financial literacy. But the most important consideration is really that the whole family should be part of the whole learning process. Otherwise, the learning becomes one-sided and worthless.

“Rome was not built in one day. In the same manner, the goals you have set for yourself and your family may not be attainable in one, two, or five years, but if you start saving now, and maintain the discipline of saving, together with your family, I can assure you will achieve your goals.”

Jun has walked the talk. He and Bamba have already accumulated enough liquid and fixed assets to live comfortably, and of their three children, only two are still in school. The eldest has become a seaman, too, and was already a licensed OIC at the age of 21, following his father’s footsteps. Before the couple decided to move to Manila to focus on the manning agency business, Bamba who is a retired high school teacher, was a busybody selling garments and accessories and confectionaries out of their 3-storey home in Arevalo, Iloilo City.  

But Jun is not through yet. At 46, he has been tasked by his principals in Germany to open a ship management company in the Philippines, which will prove to be another uphill climb, but one which I’m sure Jun will scale easily.

After the ship management company has been set up, perhaps a ship repair business in the Philippines? I asked.

Why not, he winked, and smiled meaningfully.