After years of shunning a career at sea, youngsters are showing increasing interest in sailing the world's oceans working on board massive cargo ships and tankers.
But organisers of seagoing training courses are finding it a challenge getting enough Hong Kong shipowners willing to employ cadets aboard their vessels.
Gilbert Feng Jiapei, assistant director of the Shipowners Association, said modern cargo ships had limited cabins for crew. Some owners prefer to allocate the cabins to experienced seamen rather than cadets.
But other owners were actively willing to employ and train cadets on board, Feng said. He said: "We still find it a challenge to get Hong Kong owners to take cadets at sea, though some of the local owners are very supportive in this regard."
Association managing director Arthur Bowring said: "It will always be a challenge to find berths for Hong Kong cadets. We are very careful not to encourage more cadets than we can place, because a surplus of cadets only turns them off the career."
Youngsters usually start a seafaring career with a two-year higher diploma in maritime studies. Those who graduate typically go on board a ship to start a deck or engineering cadetship, from which they can progress through the ranks to become a captain or chief engineer.
Tony Yeung Pui-keung, manager of the Maritime Services Training Institute, said that 10 years ago its maritime studies programme enrolled about 20 students, of which only six graduated. "The course was not popular at all," he said.
The current course has about 60 young men and women. "The dropout rate has become less and less," Yeung said, adding that 15 per cent of the students were degree holders.
Graduates who go to sea as cadets can join the Marine Department's seagoing training incentive scheme, which pays HK$5,000 a month to each deck and engineering cadet to offset the cost of books and examinations. Marso Law Kwun-pun, convenor of the Maritime Professional Promotion Federation, said 231 cadets had taken part in the initiative since its launch in 2002.
They were commenting after Carmen Chan Ka-man became the city's first female master mariner after qualifying for her master's ticket. Technically, Chan can now command the world's biggest ships, although the 32-year-old will remain chief officer for about three years to gain further seafaring experience before hopefully being made captain.
Chan has spent her seagoing career with China Navigation, a shipping company privately owned by John Swire & Sons. The firm, together with Wah Kwong Maritime Transport, which operates tankers and massive iron ore and coal carriers, are among owners that have programmes to employ cadets on board.
China Navigation fleet director Martin Cresswell said the firm had hired 34 local cadets since 2003, of which 24, including nine cadets and four women, were still in its employment.
"Our Hong Kong cadets and officers [are] very dedicated, hard-working and ambitious, which is why we continue to recruit them," Cresswell said. "We expect that in the next two to three years, the first of our Hong Kong cadets will be promoted to master and chief engineer."
Wah Kwong had "taken close to 40 Hong Kong cadets" in the past six to seven years, chief executive Tim Huxley said.