Bolton School Senior Boys

A Life at Sea

  • Merchant Navy Old Boy talk
  • Merchant Navy cruise ship

Recent leaver Chris Rowles, still in his twenties, enthralled Year 7 boys at Bolton School with his tales about life at sea in the Merchant Navy. 

Explaining that the Merchant Navy is “totally different” to the Royal Navy, he told the attentive class that Merchant Navy officers are employed by commercial shipping companies to work on all kinds of seagoing vessels, such as ferries and cruise liners, cargo ships, tankers and hovercrafts. However, the Royal Navy is part of the country’s armed forces and can be involved in conflicts around the world. As an extreme example, he said he had just come back from a 7 week spell in the Caribbean, whereas if you were in the Royal Navy you might be policing South East Asian seas, keeping a look out for pirate vessels! 

Chris told how 95% of everything we use is transported by sea as it is so efficient and cheap and surprised the boys by explaining how a £700 television shipped from Japan costs just £10 to ship to the UK, a £3 tin of shortbread costs 1/2p to transport to Australia and a £90 Dyson vacuum costs 50p to ship to New York. One of the main reasons for these cheap costs is the sheer scale of ocean going traffic – he said that many ships that he works on are longer than the Eiffel Tower laid on its side! 

Chris, who is currently working as a Second Officer on P&O Cruises and the Cunard Line, explained how his work pattern is a recurring four hour shift followed by 8 hours off. Primarily a Navigator, his life is varied as he also has a range of other roles including fast rescue boat driver, working with the on-board fire and rescue team and hosting passenger tables. The main areas of work for sea-faring Merchant Navy Officers are in either engineering or navigation. 

To access a career in the Merchant Navy, the Y7 boys were told they would need 5 GCSEs (A*-C) and this will suffice if you wish to join via the HNC/HND route. Applicants can study for a Foundation Degree, for which you need a minimum of 120 UCAS points; this degree can be topped up to a BSc Honours degree in Nautical Science. These qualifications can be studied in conjunction with working towards your Seafarers' ticket issued by the Maritime and Costguard Agency (MCA). After leaving Bolton School, Chris studied at South Tyneside College and Blackpool and the Fylde College and has a Chief Mates Unlimited certificate, which was issued by the MCA and allows him to serve as a Chief Officer on any Merchant ship in the World. He also hopes to have his Masters licence before he reaches the age of 30.

The major benefits of working in the Merchant Navy were explained by Chris, including getting paid while you learn, a minimum starting salary of £25,000 (often tax free as you are out of the country for more than 6 months each year), worldwide travel, excellent holiday leave, the opportunity to quickly gain responsibility and improve your salary and a truly rewarding and challenging career. He did say it is not a life for everyone and that you need to be strong-willed with a capacity for hard work and you can be away from your family and friends for long stretches of time. He personally was now off for Christmas and expected back at sea in February. 

Chris also talked about land-based careers in the Merchant Navy, including surveying ships, managing ports and harbours, working in maritime law or marine insurance, working for maritime regulatory authorities and lecturing or research in HE institutions.

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