In the haze of the English Channel one night, a young officer named Huibert Jansen was standing his watch on a Dutch merchant vessel when he noted a huge liner bearing down on him. He flashed a warning, added a request for identification and received, from the bridge of England's biggest ship, the haughty reply, "The Queen Elizabeth." Unabashed, young Mr. Jansen flashed back: "What nationality?"
That story, told with a shout of delight on the bridge of the Den Haag one evening last fall, typifies not only the man who told it—Captain Huibert Jansen, master of Holland's biggest ship—but also the officers and men who serve on the Den Haag and ships like her.
It is an odd paradox of industrial growth that although mechanization and automation do reduce the numbers of men essential to an operation, those who survive are more essential than ever. On the Den Haag, for example, just 32 officers and men load and unload her, operate the boilers and turbines and all the interlocking and intricate system of machinery, navigate her around the world and see to all the traditional tasks of provisioning, cooking, washing, cleaning. Quite clearly they could not accomplish it all efficiently without a high degree of mechanization. But neither could they accomplish it if they themselves were not experienced experts—men like Captain Jansen and his First Officer, Gerard Alkema.
Captain Jansen is a big man with broad shoulders, hair the color of brass, a lopsided grin, a lively wit, a taste for strong tobacco and Dutch gin and a gift for running a taut ship with a minimum of effort. As one officer put it, "There's a line between informality and carelessness and he marks it plainly." Still in his forties, Captain Jansen won his master's ticket at the age of 29 and has been handling tankers for most of his career since, a fact that was doubtedlessly considered when he was chosen last year to help design the new Esso 150,000 and 170,000 deadweight ton-class vessels now under construction in Germany and France; he will eventually command one of these two ships.
Equally typical of the breed is the First Officer, a youngish Dutchman who already holds his master's ticket—the chief officer's and the master's tickets are the same in the Netherlands—and will soon, no doubt, have his own command. A serious, dedicated professional, the First Officer is proud not only of his ability to carry out his main job—handling the cargo—but also of his acquired skills in filling other roles aboard, being the ship's doctor, for instance, a duty which traditionally goes to the second in command. This assignment can be a grave responsibility at sea, and the First Officer accepts it in just that spirit. Instead of taking only the basic medical courses required of all Dutch deck officers, he went on to read and study on his own. He plans to go for a brief internship in the accident room of a hospital ashore. Several Dutch merchant officers do this to get more practice. It is encouraged by nautical colleges and the shipowners.
Not all men aboard the Den Haag, certainly, are as dedicated. One member of the ship's company, son of a merchant seaman, remembers his loneliness as a child when his father was away for months on end and wonders whether he ought to subject his own son to the same thing. Another related ruefully that the day after his wedding he was summoned to his ship, which was going around Africa. He was permitted to stay ashore "a bit longer" after he explained the circumstances, but not all ship's masters would be so considerate. And, as the Chief Steward pointed out with dry understatement, life at sea has its uncertainties. One night, he said, he was hard at work in the galley baking a very special cake for a festive occasion aboard a passenger liner when, without warning, there was a collision. A serious collision? Well, rather. The liner was the Andrea Doria.
It is not often, of course, that discomfort at sea has such dramatic intensity. Most complaints are far more routine. Loneliness is unavoidable. Even the Captain, who may bring his wife on two cruises a year, and the First Officer, who can have his wife aboard for one cruise, admit that for the younger men with families the constant separation can cause hardships. But they also point out that a sailor's life has plus factors which should be weighed, too. Wages are an example. For young men of comparable educational background and experience the pay for shore jobs is often considerably lower than that for a ship's officer. Also, the steady comfortable routine of work ashore might seem attractive to a man standing a lonely watch at midnight in the Arabian Gulf, but seem hopelessly dull while actually engaged in it in an office on a Thursday afternoon in Amsterdam.
Those who follow the sea as a profession often share a dilemma experienced by wage earners who never leave the shore. Even if they wanted to they cannot switch careers because all the time and study expended to qualify for their present one would make it impractical to start all over again. And the training of a deck officer in the Dutch merchant service does indeed take time and study.
Under the Dutch law on nautical certification, all deck officers must be graduates of one of the Netherlands' eight nautical colleges, where they spend up to two years studying navigation, seamanship, geometry, trigonometry, stereometry, physics and communications. After they have received a certificate from a school they must spend a year at sea as an apprentice, return to nautical school for three to six months and then take the examination for Third Officer. If successful they have to go back to sea for two more years before trying for the Second Officer's ticket (license), and two more years at sea after that they go for their First Officer's ticket—the final step, since in the Netherlands a First Officer is qualified to command any ship; no separate Master's ticket is issued.
It is a long, hard and expensive apprenticeship, but out of it come sailors of the caliber that has always written proud records in Dutch maritime history—the kind of officers who may never throw down the gauntlet to the Queen Elizabeth but who one day will most likely salute her from the bridge of their own ships.