Former radio officer and electrical technical officer Rose King discusses how resourceful she had to be in her varied Merchant Navy career. She has some fascinating sea shanty-worthy insights into a now 'extinct' job
What is a typical day in your job?
I am now retired, but I have worked as a radio officer and later as an electrical technical officer (ETO) on container vessels, survey, offshore, general cargo, tankers of one kind and another, and even military corvettes [warship class vessel used for maritime patrols and fast attack purposes].
The radio officer job involved all the communications – first using Morse and radio telegraphy, all maintenance of the radio equipment and bridge electronic equipment including radar, direction finder, log and gyro. Then the job expanded to engine room electronics (which included lifts and things which were electronic but found outside the engine room).
Finally, communications were farmed out to the deck department (even though they didn't want them), but maintenance remained.
My last job was the maintenance of three corvettes which belonged to the Royal Brunei Navy, which was trying to sell them. Nothing exotic – they were largely in Barrow-in-Furness. Here I was looking after the integrated platform management system (IPMS) – which is a fancy way of saying all the operations and alarms systems could be remotely controlled from the machinery control room. Well, in theory. I spent most of my time fossicking around in rather aged industrial computers, keeping the whole thing going.
Why did you choose a career at sea?
My family were almost all 'railway servants', mainly in signalling. The only one who went to sea was a great-uncle, who was a fireman on the London and Southwestern Railway (LSWR). He went to sea as a stoker in the Royal Navy (RN) during World War One, and was undoubtedly very glad to return to the LSWR after the war.
My second job after school was in the office with Union-Castle in Cape Town, working on passenger berthing. I transferred to their London office in accounts. This was not very interesting, though I am the only person ever to have balanced the passenger accounts of the Reina del Mar first time.
I was most struck on a career at sea after reading a book written by the master of a Shell tanker. On checking my options, I found the only career I could go into at my age (I was over 20 by then) was as a Radio Officer. So I did.
Radio Officers were usually on their own as far as training was concerned. You applied to a college – there were 21 then (1972) – and got a grant from the local authority. Once you had your Marine Radio General Certificate (MRGC), plus the Department of Transport (DOT) radar certificate if possible, you applied for a job ¬ either directly employed or with a radio company such as Redifon or Marconi. During college holidays, you worked at whatever would help with the grant. Since I was used to accounts, I usually had a temp job in an accounts department of any kind of company.
Tell us some of your career highlights so far – and challenges
Possibly the worst aspect was a former Canada Pacific Line ship, which had such a dirty engine room that there was no indication of what the bulkhead colour was supposed to be. There was an oil mist detector which appeared to be functioning, but was not, because it had been stuffed full of toilet paper to keep it working. There were no spares for it. I got the blame for it not working – whereas in fact it hadn't for a long time and was giving false reassurance. You would think they'd be grateful.
Once an unspecified disease landed me in hospital in Maracaibo I put it down to eating suspect octopus on one of my few trips ashore
On the Isocardia (Shell) I spent some time tracing a fault on the blackout start system. Beginning to despair, I wondered if there were two faults. I ran a cable right round the whole wiring (it was an old ship and many of the cable trays were inaccessible). Bingo! It worked. We had to use the diversion cable as a repair, because there was no way to get at the original. On the sister ship, the Isomeria, I was very glad I had listened to the lift expert on the Isocardia, because without that information, I wouldn't have been able to solve the lift problems. I spent some days sitting on top of the lift (a bit creepy, even though I knew I had immobilised it), but it came right and didn't go wrong again – not while I was there.
The Brunei corvettes were another matter. It was an enjoyable job for those who like detective work. I did delightful jobs. These were top secret but I can reveal that they were made up from proprietary power supply and PC motherboards. Survey ships were also fun. I did a relief trip where the scientists were tracing the mid-Atlantic Ridge. They found that Europe and America were being forced apart by the volcanic nature of the Ridge at a rate of half an inch a year.
[Faced with a Master's sexist comments]: 'I'm as randy as a badger,' my reply was 'Sorry, Captain. I have no idea as to the sexual habits of badgers,' and then I scarpered. He gave me no more trouble after that.
The usual 'what-do-you-do-about-sanitary-pads' was another challenge. You had to take everything you needed with you and wrap them up to dispose of them in the waste bins.
Seafaring gives you a 'world view' not just a view of the world Rose King,former radio officer/ ETO
How can women be made to feel welcome and retained in a career at sea?
It does depend on the attitude of the crew, but I have had few problems with my fellow workers. The attitude of the shipping companies to seafarers [in general] leaves much to be desired. Generally, they appear to find the ships and crew a nuisance and a diversion from empire-building in the office.
It would be nice to get spares when you ask for them, nice to be treated as a human being, and nice to get leave on time.
What are the best things about your job?
Being a radio officer, I worked on my own, which I prefer. As an ETO, I was part of the engine room team, which was small, and enjoyable. Radio officers were not allowed to transmit in port, which meant, maintenance aside, I could go ashore a lot.
Engine room maintenance tends to take up port time off. I was, however, paid the going rate for the job, the same as my male peers.
Seafaring gives you a 'world view' not just a view of the world.
It makes you realise how blinkered most people's outlook is.
Would you recommend seafaring as a career?
Seafaring is constantly changing, so yes, if you take it as it is now.
Tell us one thing that people may not know about your job
Radio officers are extinct. I take heart from the quagga – a zebra which hasn't put its pyjama trousers on. Quaggas were thought to be extinct in 1883 but have the same DNA as plains zebras and have been rebred. Radio officers will be back!