Full speed ahead

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 November, 2007, 12:00am

Endless blue skies and good career prospects lured Kenneth Kwok Kar-him, a deck cadet, to a challenging career at sea

I was a social worker for 18 months before I switched careers. Two friends working on ocean-going vessels told me about the bright prospects in choosing a career at sea. I applied for a three-year diploma course in maritime studies with the Maritime Services Training Institute. After I completed my studies, my mentor from the Hong Kong Shipowners Association helped arrange an interview with Orient Overseas Container Line (OOCL), a Hong Kong-based container shipping and logistics service company and got a job as a deck cadet with the company.

To further pursue my career, I need to have two years of sea time and now I have completed 13 months of cadetship. I am excited about joining a big shipping company and meeting new people but, apart from that, it is hard work. I have to know everything about ships. I follow my bosun, who tells me about all the procedures involved in carrying out inspection such as checking the bridge systems and doing regular rounds on the deck. I start my day at around 8am and work through till 5pm. In between, I get short breaks for lunch and tea. There is a tradition that we have to wear a uniform for both lunch and dinner.

I always rush through my meals so that I can get back to work early. From 8pm until midnight, I learn how to operate electronic navigational equipment from the third officer. I work and train for 6 1/2 days a week. On Saturdays we do safety training.

After completing two years as a deck cadet, I will take the class-three certificate course offered by Hong Kong Marine Department. My officer in charge at my company will assess my ability to see if I am capable of taking the course.

Working on board a ship involves a high level of responsibility, and I need to be good at it.

Mariners with the class-three certificate can expect a salary of between US$2,000 and US$4,500 per month. The future is good in this industry. So far I have completed about 12 voyages.

The first four were from Shanghai to Los Angeles and each journey, both ways, took 28 days to complete. The other voyages were from Hong Kong, via Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, to Kaohsiung in Taiwan and back, and a round-trip voyage took about 35 days. There is no time to feel lonely because there is always too much to do on board a vessel. Even when the ship berths, I have to watch over the cargo.

One incident gave me a good learning experience when we were in a typhoon. The ship's master was capable under pressure and manoeuvred to an alternative route. I couldn't sleep the whole night because the ship was rolling 40 to 50 degrees.

The next morning we had to inspect the whole ship and check if anything was damaged. It is a big responsibility to handle and manage huge ships with large amounts of cargo.

There is not much of a choice when it comes to entertainment when I am aboard. I read the newspapers, magazines and sometimes watch some DVDs.

I get an allowance to purchase these items. I don't see my family for months, but I do try and meet them when the ship berths in Hong Kong.