Education and training

From deckhand to chief mate

28 September 2018

The Nautilus Slater Fund has given hundreds of ratings the chance to study for the Officer of the Watch qualification – and as one former recipient demonstrates, you don’t need a great academic record to win this scholarship, just some seafaring experience and the determination to rise through the ranks…

Martin Buchan, aged 29, is from the Scottish coastal town of Fraserburgh, and his seafaring career began in 2007 when he attended the 12-week Trainee Deckhand course at the Scottish Maritime Academy in Peterhead. After an interview organised by the college, he was recruited as a trainee by Ocean Mainport (now Atlantic Offshore).

He gained promotion to deckhand (ordinary seaman), followed by efficient deckhand, and undertook the bridge watchkeeping and steering certificates.

‘I remember clearly around this time a conversation I had with the master,’ he says. ‘He asked me where I saw myself going in the future and I told him that I wanted to be on the bridge. I had little knowledge of what that position entailed and only knew what I had seen from lookout duties and no more.’

In 2010 Martin moved to Boston Putford Offshore Safety. He was keen to move forward in his career, but progressing to officer of the watch wasn’t on his radar. In under a year he was daughter craft coxswain, advanced medical aider and then bosun.

‘I then found myself once again sailing with the same master who had asked me about where I could see myself going in the near future,’ he recalls. ‘As bosun, the only way I could progress was on to the bridge and officer of the watch. He must have seen potential and put a recommendation to the company for me. I received funding through the Slater Fund, and that’s when the real work started.’

The HNC Nautical Studies component of the OOW certificate is delivered by the Peterhead academy through a combination of self-study and college attendance – commonly referred to as blended learning.

‘I was studying hard at sea, completing the modules in college when I was at home,’ says Martin. ‘Each time I passed one, I was one step closer, and each time was a sense of achievement. The short courses for the OOW were also completed during my leave, and when I couldn’t find one that suited my rota pattern, I would take some time off and at a later date make up these days to my employer.

‘I passed everything for OOW in February 2014 and instead of stopping there and losing the hardearned knowledge, I continued the Chief Mate/ Master 3000 studies,’ he adds. ‘I completed the HND Nautical Studies component in the same way as OOW – but funded this one myself, paying each module and each new short course one by one – and I passed all my exams for Chief Mate Unlimited in June 2018.’

Martin says manual ship handling is the best part of his job. ‘It keeps the brain active, and constant thought is required to handle the ship safely, not only during operations but in contingency plans,’ he explains. ‘I also like the dynamic culture of the industry, and even though I have a lot of passion for traditional seafaring and navigation practices, I also like the concept of where the maritime industry in general is going with regards to technology.

‘The route I have followed is not just for young new entrants; I have met many other older seafarers undertaking the same route,’ he notes. ‘The blended learning route is challenging and it takes a lot of motivation and self-discipline to complete, but if you want to progress and climb the ladder then you must be aware that it’s not going to be handed to you and sometimes you have to take risks and be willing to do what it takes.

‘Before doing any studying, my academic background was extremely poor and a lot I had to learn over again – particularly mathematics – but I always went with the attitude that I never had to be the smartest in the room, only the hardest working,’ Martin reflects.

‘Hard work has always paid off for me and I know that it always will. I was very lucky to have the support of my wife, who has given me lots of encouragement throughout this journey.’

Martin praises the ‘exceptional’ support he gained at the Scottish Maritime Academy while undertaking the HNC and HND Nautical Studies and many of the required short courses. ‘A lot of the time when studying there I could meet other people doing the same modules and it was encouraging to have someone to study with,’ he adds. ‘The important thing about studying with other people is the different backgrounds and understanding how things work on various vessels.

‘I also found it important, due to the nature of blended learning, to not just rely on the Academy but also take an independent approach and use external resources, such as publications on the vessel, YouTube videos, maritime sites that update their content regularly, and support from fellow crew members.’

My attitude was that I never had to be the smartest in the room, only the hardest working.

How the union helps

Nautilus International’s JW Slater Scholarship, managed by the Marine Society, offers financial assistance of up to £18,500 – as well as an additional discretionary £1,500 for completing the programme – to help UK ratings study for a first certificate of competency.

Funds are also available for UK electrotechnical officers and yacht crew seeking STCW certification.

The scheme was established in 1977 in memory of former MNAOA general secretary John William Slater, and in the past decade alone almost 1,000 seafarers have benefited from its support, and a total of 104 scholarships were awarded last year.

To find out more, go to the Marine Society website  or email

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