Is seafaring really a dying art?

“I think that the best and most perfect arrangement of things that I ever saw was when I went to look at the great Phoenician sailing-vessel; for I saw the largest amount of naval tackling separately disposed in the smallest stowage possible.

“For a ship, as you well know, is brought to anchor, and again got under way, by a vast number of wooden implements and of ropes, and sails the sea by means of a quantity of rigging, and is armed with a number of contrivances against hostile vessels, and carries about with it a large supply of weapons for the crew, and, besides, has all the utensils that a man keeps in his dwelling-house, for each of the messes. In addition, it is laden with a quantity of merchandise, which the owner carries with him for his own profit.

“Now all the things which I have mentioned lay in a space not much bigger than a room which would conveniently hold ten beds. I remarked that they severally lay in a way that they did not obstruct one another, and did not require anyone to search for them; and yet they were neither placed at random, nor entangled one with another, so as to consume time when they were suddenly wanted for use.

“Also, I found the captain’s assistant, who is called ‘the look-out man,’ so well acquainted with the position of all the articles, and with the number of them, that even when at a distance he could tell where everything lay, and how many there were of each sort, just as anyone who has learnt to read can tell the number of letters in the name of Socrates and the proper place for each of them.

“Moreover, I saw this man, in his leisure moments, examining and testing everything that a vessel needs when at sea; so, as I was surprised, I asked him what he was about, whereupon he replied–‘Stranger, I am looking to see, in case anything should happen, how everything is arranged in the ship, and whether anything is wanting, or is inconveniently situated; for when a storm arises at sea, it is not possible either to look for what is wanting, or to put to right what is arranged awkwardly.'”

This excerpt from Xenophon’s Socratic Dialogue known as The Economist, written originally in Greek and dating from around 360 BC, was quoted in older editions of Thomas on Stowage. The speaker is a farmer named Isomachus, and to be honest the rest of the dialogue offends modern ears, because it consists of two older men telling another man how to turn his unfortunate young wife into a Domestic Goddess. The poor girl, married off at 15, never gets to speak for herself, but the interest lies in the description above, which is the oldest detailed account of the organisation of a merchant ship that I know of. The Phoenicians had been the greatest trading nation in the Mediterranean for several hundred years when Xenophon put pen to papyrus. We may note that the ship described is a merchant vessel, not a warship, and she is large. Clearly, the Phoenicians had worked out the essentials of seamanship by 360BC, and we can say that not much has changed in the last 2,300 and odd years.

I mention this because it is horribly easy for anyone to say that “seamanship is dying”, that “today’s seamen are not a patch on those of 40 years ago”, and so on. I suspect that this is not so, but that the ships of today are, mostly, better than those of 40, or 100, or 2,000 years ago, and that our jargon has altered more than the procedures themselves have. We have written down and formalised what used to be called ‘the ordinary good practice of seamen’, and developed a jargon for describing the procedures – ‘toolbox talks’, ‘risk assessments’ and so on.

The procedures themselves take more words, because they are written down. When most mariners were illiterate, like the 19th century collier brig skipper, mentioned by Sir Walter Runciman, himself no mean shipowner, who kept his voyage accounts with a piece of chalk on his cabin door, and, when asked by his owners to present his accounts, took the door into the office, they commonly had much better visual memories, and they used mnemonics – “Worm and parcel with the lay, serve the rope the other way”, “Green to green or red to red, perfect safety – go ahead” and many others. In fact, there was a little ‘how to’ catchphrase for almost everything the sailor had to do. The Phoenicians, unlike the Greeks, were not given to writing things down, so we know more of them from the accounts of others.

Objectively, we can see that ships are safer, and they are certainly a great deal more comfortable for those who make their livings aboard them. Much less cargo gets damaged, and much less filth goes into the sea, per million ton miles, than ever before.

The danger arises when people go through the procedure, but do not think about what they are doing. I recall a scene from my own childhood in which my little brother, about to cross a road, said, out loud, “Look right, look left. Look right again” without doing any such thing, and, still looking straight ahead, stepped into the path of an oncoming truck (I grabbed him in time).

Filling out the Enclosed Space Entry Form on the computer, then not testing the air in the space properly is much the same thing.

Andrew Craig-Bennett

Andrew Craig-Bennett works for a well known Asian shipowner. Previous employers include Wallem, China Navigation, Charles Taylor Consulting and Swire Pacific Offshore. Andrew was also a columnist for Lloyd's List for a decade.


  1. Thanks, Andrew. Your gust of nostalgia has blown my Monday morning a little off track.

    A lecturer who taught us during our Second Mates frequently used to say, “Simple sums for simple sailors.” When faced with the apparent complexity (to us) of Simpson’s Rules or spherical trig, he encouraged us to look at the problem as a series of steps to be solved sequentially. Obvious really, but it worked. While little in life is as “clean” as mathematics, the principle of breaking tasks down into their constituent parts is something I have tried to employ with varying success over the last 40 years. “Simple sums for simple sailors” is to me a distillation of what seamanship means.

    This lecturer also warned us that “BS Baffles Brains” but that there is such a thing as “Good BS”, which there is.

  2. Shiver m’timbers Andrew, that’s a shot across the bows, by and large you certainly know the ropes, you’ve copper-bottomed it.

  3. Nostalgia is great, but perspective is more important. The mariners of today have a much larger canvas to paint on, a much more voluminous set of rules and regulations to follow. It is difficult for a human being to know it all. The first casualty (of this time and work compression) is personal skills.
    Next time you go on a ship, ask the 3/Officer to fix the International Shore Connection ( not explain the physical attributes of the contraption, but fix it ….somewhere!).
    Watch the fun!

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