Joining the Merchant Navy as an officer cadet sounds glamourous don’t you think? Smart uniforms, sailing to distant places, shore leave, lying on tropical beaches. If only it had turned out like that! I did have uniforms for cold and warm weather. I did travel to faraway places, and I did get to go ashore. On rare occasions I did get to lie on the hot sand of tropical beaches and swim in crystal clear warm seas, but being on ship was predominantly about work. Seven days a week!

Me in boilersuit painting on the Sheaf Royal. Note the spare propeller on the left of the photograph!

What did work involve for cadets? Although cadets lived in the officers’ accommodation, ate in the officers’ saloon, and drank in the officers’ bar, much of what they did was physical in nature, working alongside the deck ratings. The aim of this training was to ensure that when they finally qualified as officers there wouldn’t be a job on a ship (deck department) that deck cadets hadn’t completed themselves to a reasonable level of competency. This understanding of what needed to be done made life easier when cadets reached the dizzy heights and had to assign work to ratings. It helps when the officer knows what he is talking about!

Loading grain in Destrehan, Louisiana – November 1973. Note the dust.

Fellow first trip cadet George and I spent most of our working hours on the Sheaf Royal in boilersuits. In addition to working on deck we spent time in dusty, dark, dirty, smelly environments such as ballast tanks, holds and hold bilges. Cargo watch when loading grain left our hair thick with grain dust. We chipped rust and old paint, applied new paint, cleaned anything that needed to be cleaned, and greased anything that needed to be greased. We learned how to tie knots and how to splice rope and wire. We let off fire extinguishers during fire drills and refilled them afterwards. We carried out maintenance on the lifeboats and gained an understanding of how to react in an emergency (and where we should be). We became fully involved in the day-to-day working life of the ship. All this made us feel trusted and part of the team.

I still have my record book with details of my training at sea

I wonder if the Merchant Navy Training Board examined Biblical methods of training when putting together the training regime for deck cadets? Jesus took on twelve cadets. Their cadetship lasted three years. He walked alongside them and taught by example. Dirt and dust and smells were certainly involved. I’m not sure about grease and paint. The one thing that Jesus did that was different to a chief officer was that he didn’t delegate training to the bosun. He was there in the dirt and the dust. He even washed the cadets’ feet. That didn’t happen at sea! Fast forward 2,000 years and it seems as if many who want to be cadets/disciples of Jesus are only interested if joining up means no dirt or dust or smells. If they were on a ship then they would be passengers, not crew. But Jesus didn’t expect His followers to be passengers. Nor did he expect them to exist as first trip cadets on a ship that never leaves port. The apostle Paul put it like this:

Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ.

Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. (Ephesians 4: 11-15 NLT)