Thursday, February 11, 2016

In my father’s shoes

by Capt. Cecilio E. Rahon Jr.

I remember having a fatherless childhood because my father was a seaman.  He was always absent and out of the picture most of the time.  I then resolved never to be a seaman. 

One time, my father’s ship came to the Philippines with foreign officers and a Filipino crew on board. My mother and I traveled all the way from Ilocos Norte just to visit him in Manila Bay where the vessel was anchored. I was in my elementary days then and I can still recall the experience. I got sick when I had a tour of the engine room where my father worked. That incident was strike two for me to never venture into seafaring as a future career.

Fast forward to 2015, I am now a father of two children and a seaman myself. What changed my perspective for this profession?

My parents have always believed in a good education. I studied in a provincial science high school in Laoag City.  I stayed in a boarding house since our hometown was at least an hour’s drive away from where I studied. I had planned to take up veterinary medicine at the University of the Philippines, Los Baños campus, (UPLB). Unfortunately, I was not able to take the UPCAT (University of the Philippines College Admission Test) or entrance exam since I had already spent my allowance for that week.

Instead, I enrolled in Bachelor of Science Major in Maritime Studies in one of the private schools in Manila. The school’s slogan that I read in the newspaper advertisement was, “See the World Free”. That was very tempting for a young adventurous person who dreamt of stepping on foreign shores and meeting diverse groups of people.

My father did not encourage me to take up this course. It was my mother who broached the idea. One summer, before the opening of the first semester, my mother told me that I still have other siblings that will need my help in sending them to school. (In our culture, it is the responsibility of the older siblings to help the younger ones to finish their education, especially when parents could not fulfill such responsibilities anymore.)

I finished my three-year academic schooling without much trouble. Unfortunately, however, the school’s building was razed by fire including the registrar’s records. It was quite a predicament constructing our grades and looking for our previous instructors. Due to the lack of necessary papers, the college dean turned down my request for a guarantee letter so that I can take a scholarship to a maritime cadetship to Japan that year.  Hence, it took a longer time for me to process my documents.

After arduous months of waiting and completing all the requirements, I was able to take and pass the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) cadetship program. I belonged to the third batch. The cadets came from different maritime schools in the Philippines. We stayed at the Philippine Merchant Marine Academy (PMMA) for two weeks prior to our departure for Japan. We were treated like regular PMMA cadets. We did the exercises and other activities of a regimented life inside a military academy. My body ached from the exercises but later adapted to it. Discipline and orderliness were emphasized.

When we arrived in Japan, we still had the mentality of a military cadet.  We stood still and sat up straight and were very quiet in the classroom. The Japanese instructors in the school told us to ease up because they felt intimidated. We stayed for about two months in the Marine Technical College (Kaigi Daigakko) in Ashiya, Hyogo Ken. While waiting for our respective ships to arrive in Japan, we studied college core subjects as refresher courses, including the Japanese language and culture 

The school’s dormitory was located near a housing complex.  I observed that the streets were always deserted.  Even the homes always seemed empty and quiet though the lights inside the houses were turned on. The municipal library’s books, audio and video collections were impressive. I always went there to watch classical movies like “War and Peace” and “Gone with the Wind.”  I would stay there for hours when I did not have my regular classes. The dormitory was just walking distance to a mall, secondary school, tennis courts, Junichiro Tanizaki’s Memorial Museum and other museums. The school also conducted a tour, and together with the other cadets, we visited Kyoto, the old capital city of Japan, and the port of Kobe. In Kyoto we went to see the Kinkakuji Temple, while we took a boat and toured the working port of Kobe.

I was twenty years old when I first went onboard. It was a Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC) vessel plying Japan- Middle East Asia carrying crude oil. (The ship was just one year younger than me then.) The higher ranking officers were Japanese while the junior officers and ratings were Filipinos. In the 1990’s, the vessel had a radio officer, chief cook, second cook, messman for officers and one messman for ratings.

Nowadays, ship owners observe the minimum manning requirement per flag state where the vessel is registered. Some of the crew complements were removed to reduce the cost of the ship’s operations. Due to fewer work crew, the workload became heavier. With the advent of more regulations imposed by maritime organizations for safety and security reasons, more paperwork and documentation needed to be accomplished. Technology required job automation which required a steep learning curve for non-techies. It also made the vessel’s turn-around in port faster, giving no respite to seafarers who like to go for a shore leave. 

The policing of the Port State Control became a venue for corruption in some countries. As officer of the vessel, you would never want your ship to have deficiencies, so one can negotiate for a “clean chit”. Sometimes ship management makes a stand against these kinds of practices and the problem is reverted back to the ship captain for him to solve. Port stay for seafarers is becoming more stressful because cargo operations, bunkering, provisioning, inspection and emergency repairs, would happen almost all at the same time.

With regard to my family life, I have two teenage kids. My wife died way back in 2010 but I am very lucky that my sister looks after my children. I missed their growing up years due to my work. Fortunately, online mail is now available onboard so I would send my kids email on a daily basis.  I also call them weekly using the vessel’s satellite phone to keep in touch with them.

Being a guilty absentee parent, I would substitute my presence with presents. I would usually treat my children to out-of-town swimming and overnight stays in resorts, or visit museums and nearby interesting places in the Philippines. I always tell them that it is better to see the beauty of the country first before going abroad for vacations. Recognizing the importance of an extended family, I would always look forward to the usual little get together meal with the rest of my siblings and their children, whenever I arrive from my stint onboard. This is a time to be reunited, bond and talk about life and plans of the rest of the members of the family.

There was no turning back for me after my apprenticeship program in maritime studies. Being now in my father’s shoes, I also long for my family whenever I am on-board or in the middle of tempest at sea, far away from my kids. I missed birthdays, anniversaries, deatsh and burials of close relatives, as well as graduations and school events of my children.

At 43 years old, I am presently taking up Master in Maritime Administration Specializing in Maritime Education, Training and Certification. Once I finish my graduate studies, I will be qualified to become a maritime instructor in case I opt to stay on land for an extended period of time.  It is also a preparation for my retirement. I want to be active in this profession in one way or another, for as long as I can. 

Like my parents I also put a premium on education. I believe that quality maritime education is the key for the country to keep its number one position as the preferred manning capital of the world. I have been asked by parents and relatives of maritime cadets to assist them in getting an on-board experience, although this is supposed to be the duty of the maritime schools. In shipping, there is an issue of the lack of maritime officers and a disproportionately oversupply of graduates of maritime courses. Finding solutions to address this dilemma will help solve the sourcing of capable seafarers by the maritime industry as a whole, as well as the employment problems of young people in the country. This is going to be my advocacy and I do hope to make a difference.

I have experienced fair and bad weather.  I have lived through our ship being swayed by big waves or chased by pirates.  I have worked through extreme heat and cold conditions.  I have faced discrimination but also the kindness of those I have met overseas.

In one way or another, I was able to help my siblings finish their education. Although I was not able to study in UPLB, I managed to send one of them there. I have mentored younger seafarers for them to understand the intricacies of our job and I am happy to see them rise from the ranks as cadets to officers. I traded a lot to be in my present position but I hope that someday, my children will understand the sacrifices that I did. Just like my father did before me.

Cecilio E. Rahon, Jr., seafarer, Captain. Like any parent, raising kids is one of the many big challenges of an OFW parent.  Capt. Rahon would see to it that whenever he is on vacation he balances his attendance to trainings and schooling for his career advancement with spending quality time for his kids.

1 comment:

  1. You really make a "DIFFERENCE" and because you have fulfilled making it, you can become a role model to all especial to the youth of today, yesterday, tomorrow, and in the next generation. Congratulations for being a "HERO".