It's been a fantastic experience for me
We chat with Stuart Weir, Second Engineer Unlimited, about his training and career offshore
Stuart was very candid when we explored what had inspired him to take up engineering as a career and for this to end up being aboard ship at sea – and with an ‘unlimited’ certification he can work on any category of vessel.
“I was interested in working in some sort of engineering job although I wasn’t sure where, until a random conversation in the kitchen with one of the ladies that worked at the hostel I was living in,” Stuart explained. “Her husband had been an AB (able seaman) in the Merchant Navy for most of his life and she suggested: ‘Why don’t you try the Merchant Navy?’. She was a bit surprised when I asked what that was but she spurred me on. So I started looking into it and doing some research and it confirmed for me that this was exactly what I was after. And it was down to this coincidental chat!”
Stuart was introduced by SSTG to North Star Shipping, the largest wholly UK-owned fleet engaged in the UK’s offshore industry in the North Sea, over 10 years ago and has been with them ever since. As sponsor they supported him through his training as a cadet at college and aboard ship.
“College was the best experience.”
“I enjoyed the time at college and I liked staying in the halls which for me was my first independence - coming away and staying in Glasgow for three years. I so enjoyed college that I would love to go back,” Stuart enthused. “It was the best experience. You made good friends and you have no responsibilities apart from learning and needing to pass exams. So you’re actually learning to be responsible!
“I’ve since also worked as a lecturer at the college for three years and although I enjoyed my courses as a cadet what they are running now has changed and is far better. They do this ‘industrial experience program’ now which is exactly what you need. You get to strip down and rebuild pieces of equipment like air compressors, fuel pumps, turbochargers and engines. That’s what you should be learning and that’s what they are doing now. It’s brilliant and again it’s another thing that makes me wish I was back in college as a cadet learning now. Everything has come along a lot since I was studying.”
Stuart’s time as a lecturer has been very fulfilling as in passing on his knowledge it’s helping cadets in their learning experience.
“It’s been a fantastic experience for me,” Stuart enthused. “I’m 29 years-old now so when I started I was relatively young to be in teaching and it was always a surprise when the cadets realised I was the lecturer! And the important thing was that I was active at sea at the time and so was lecturing during my time off – and my knowledge was up-to-date, and of course still is. It’s what we are doing now – it’s not what we used to do or what the books have told us to do. This is what is happening right now, and why it is so beneficial.”
A key part of the learning process for cadets during their training is their time on two training phases at sea which integrates with college study and final exams. Stuart’s first posting offshore was coupled with a mix of emotions.
“They put me at ease especially as it was my first time at sea.”
“I spent three days in Aberdeen waiting on the ship to come-in, which was my first visit to the city. I was feeling apprehensive as you’re going into the unknown - but it was good to have time to explore in my first trip away. And then once onboard I met the Chief Engineer and the Second Engineer. They were brilliant, such nice guys and put me at ease especially as it was my first time at sea.”
“To start with you are shadowing the guys you are working with and you’re not touching anything. So the senior engineer will do some jobs, some of the overhauls and repairs, and you just watch and help out when told to. And as you start to help more they begin to trust that you can start picking up your own duties.”
After the first college and sea phase, when you return to college for the second time a new learning experience starts to evolve which is rolled together with your final sea phase. And you have both a written exam to sit and an oral exam to attend.
“You need to convince him that you are able to work safely.”
“You are feeling so much more confident and really wanting to learn. And as you are coming to the end of the second sea phase when you have been working under supervision and mostly on your own, your confidence has really grown. And then something switches when you realise that the big exam is coming up! I tended to think that the written exam would be the hardest but the separate oral exam is probably the most difficult because you are sitting in front of the examiner who has years of experience on different types of ship – and you need to convince him that you are able to work safely and know enough on which to build further learning. This is really needed as the job you are going to do as an engineer involves working on really expensive machines and the job is potentially dangerous. And your decisions on ship can affect everybody onboard at the end of the day. So you really do need that Certificate of Competence.”
SSTG provides a comprehensive recruitment and training service for their UK shipping company members. This includes securing financial backing through sponsorship during training at college and at sea, career guidance, and providing everyday personal support for cadets through their training officers.
“My Training Officer was very supportive and very professional.”
“My SSTG training Officer Rachel Eberlein was fantastic. I knew that if I ever had a problem she was there to speak to. You can get stressed working and studying when you’re away from home. She would talk through what you needed help with and would guide you, which included help with study books and your paperwork. She was very supportive and very professional,” Stuart explained.
It's understandably very common for people working at sea in the Merchant Navy, and for those thinking about a career, that the opportunity to visit foreign lands across the globe is a real attraction. Stuart has been working in offshore support in the North Sea so his exploring has been closer to home but he’s thoroughly enjoyed his travels.
“I’ve visited three or four different cities in Norway and a couple of ports and cities in Holland, as well as the UK and especially the Scottish Islands. Once you’ve worked your eight-hour shift you are free to go ashore when in-port as long as you are back for your watch. It’s a great opportunity to visit different places – and the feeling of being abroad is great isn’t it. It was absolutely frozen in Norway for my first visit and the buildings with their amazing colours you can see when coming up the fjords. We used to sail for about an hour and a half up the fjords to Bergen and Stavanger which was lovely. And not only are you travelling for free – you actually get paid for it!”