A new generation of Shetland seafarers

by Mark Burgess -

The geographic location of Shetland – a group of islands straddling the North Atlantic and the North Sea – means that it’s little wonder that its people have for centuries made their livelihoods from the sea. So many Shetland-based families can speak of relatives who served in the Merchant Navy, in times of peace and war. The range and influence of the seafaring Shetlander abroad has been one of career excellence and limitless ability through the ages and the NAFC Marine Centre sea cadet programme continues that tradition.

The NAFC Marine Centre, in Scalloway, offers a sea cadet programme that can serve as the start of a highly advantageous career path at sea, with a huge diversity of potential working roles. Last month brought the latest “open evening” event for prospective cadets to find out more about the programme and coursework from those who deliver it. Open events such as this bring together the staff and prospective employers, or sponsors, with those who seek to become sea cadets.

There are two cadetship paths available: Deck Officer Cadet training and Engineer Officer Cadet training. Both involve classroom work and sea time. A key aspect of this training is that each cadet is employed by a shipping company that will pay all expenses and a training allowance.

So, what would a cadet expect, once enrolled in their training, or thereafter? For some, it is a lifelong dream come true, travelling the globe, visiting foreign lands and choices between freight transport, cruise liners or even exclusive luxury yachts (upon which there are currently several former Scalloway-trained cadets serving). For others, it can be a solid career closer to home, on inter-island ferries, port control or oil support vessels that are often operating around Shetland’s coast.

Though a career at sea may be stereotyped as a male domain, there is a strong female representation in current and past cadet programmes. Female Deck Officer Cadet Lynsey says she wasn’t put-off by the perception of a male-dominated role. She said: "I was surprised at how many women there are working at sea”.

Lynsey works on emergency rescue and response vessels in the North Sea, which serve a vital role in supporting the offshore oil industry. Lynsey describes her career choice as “by far the best decision that I have made in my life and I have no regrets.” She also offers this advice to aspiring seafarers: “Being away from home for long periods can be difficult, so I think you need to be sure it is what you want to do.”

Engineer Officer Cadet, Bryden, decided aged 13 that he wanted to pursue a career at sea. He heard of the cadet programme from a friend and was immediately sold on the idea. He joined his first ship aged 17, in Galveston, Texas. By the time he was 19 he had been around the world and ashore in five countries.

Another proud student story comes from James Black, who recalls writing a school report aged 12 about the Panama Canal, and then as an Engineer Officer Cadet finding himself sailing through it on his vessel Global Prime –seeing and experiencing a world only imagined in earlier years. James made a time-lapse videoof this passage, a fascinating insight to share.

You can find out more about the individual experiences of cadets by visiting the NAFC Marine Centre’s dedicated web page

"I was surprised at how many women there are working at sea”

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the opening of the NAFC Marine Centre. The sleek lines and modern feel of the purpose-built building would suggest it was far from that age. The facilities the centre can offer cadets are state-of-the-art, including a vessel bridge simulator that can represent the controls of any size of ocean-going vessel at any location and in any weather conditions. There’s also an engineering department with all relevant bench equipment and tools.

In this quarter-century of operation, along with the droves of cadets that have achieved their qualifications and moved on to working life, the centre has delivered a range of other services and research to industry and the community. The aquaculture and fisheries sectors, mainstays of the Shetland economy, are similarly based on a foundation of generations of seagoing work, trade and experience. The cadet programme is one side of a broad range of service provision, industry support and research that the NAFC Marine Centre provides. You can find out more from another of our articles on remote learning.

There are lots of examples, globally, of the scope and range of the seagoing Shetlander. The founder of the shipping line P&O Ferries was born in Shetland and spent his young life drying fish on a local beach before going on to create one of the world’s most prominent shipping lines. On the west side of Shetland, local folk history relates the heritage of a now-derelict, small traditional croft house on the southern headland of the Burra Isles, from where three sons of a single local family went on to become ship’s masters of tea clippers running to the far east. World-renowned Artic explorer Ernest Shackleton sought Shetlanders to be pallbearers at his funeral, having known of them at sea in merchant navy roles and seeking them to assist in his final passage.

These three snippets serve as a mere glimpse of the maritime tradition upon which modern maritime training in Shetland is based, and foretells of the potential, and greatness, of those who go to sea in modern times and the legacy that they themselves are now creating for the future. While some may speak of standing on the shoulders of giants, for others it serves well to sail in their wake. The cadet programme based from Scalloway provides an ideal way to start on this journey.

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