An interview with Mr. Stephen J. Nicholas about his life as man of the sea
Mr. Stephen J. Nicholas represents for me the prototype of the professional that emanates trust through all his pores.
He doesn’t absorb trust; he is not a consumer of trust as many others, but his direct speech and attitude simply emanate trust.
His words are direct, he doesn’t have the luxury of time to talk too much about weather and go behind the trees… does this make him atypical British?
By genuine coincidence (and algorithm analysis of my preferences), I just saw “Fisherman’s friends”.
Strangely, I recognized something from Mr. Nicholas in the characters in this movie… however I’m not aware of Stephen as Cornish and as a singer hence I deduced that this similitude can be based only on the fact that Stephen is also a true seaman, with plenty of sea salt in his blood and bones and on his skin and hair.
I simply ask if this bread is not somehow rare and rarer today, therefore I decided to bring up his story for you and maybe especially for you young maritime professionals.
Thank you very much Mr. Nicholas for accepting with so much enthusiasm this interview with Futureoftheocean.
I am quite happy to go into this with minimal preparation.
I had an interview on BBC Radio Newcastle a few years back (because I published a book) and managed to keep my wits about me for 30 minutes.
Nothing to be concerned also about the synchronising our time; these interviews tend to be more an epistolary process rather than what almost everybody from public imagine.
I think that this is first time when I discuss with someone having previous interview experience and it is great to learn about this but probably we will come to this point of your extraordinary experience later in this interview.
Let’s start with the beginning by telling you that I was definitively captured by your detail black and white picture or better said, blue and white picture of the mast and sails of a tall ship. The picture was amazing but it was only the opening for a fascinating life story – your story.
Thank you, my story begins with my family, most of them had either sailed on ships, built and repaired ships. At the age of 5 I announced that I wanted to join the Royal Navy, and some may say due to my lack of imagination that’s what I did. I joined the Sea Cadets when I was 12 in 1971.
I went to a school with a seamanship section at 14 and joined the Royal Navy at 16.
The picture is of me aged 14 on my way to join TS Royalist 2 masted Brigantine, my first ship.
My hero was Sir Ernest Shackleton, favourite film San Demtrio London, my teacher had been a Merchant Seaman on the Atlantic Convoys in ww2, the Sea Cadet Lt Cdr had been on Motor Gun.
Boats in ww2, great inspiration from people who had done real things. Another had been at DDay June 1944.
I was a 14 year old Sea Cadet and had never been to sea before, it was my first time out of my own country. I had to climb the masts to put the sails down and bring them up, most of the crew were teenagers like myself.
In those days the only safety harness you had was when you were in position on the yardarm, quite a climb with the ship heeling over and moving with the wind and weather, I was quite frightened at the time, but climbed anyway and was soon used to it. Note, in 2010 a young Sea Cadet about the same age fell off and lost his life.
I think that all these sound absolutely amazing today. Who can imagine today starting a seaman life at 12? Or climbing masts just like this?
Young people can still join the Sea Cadets and there is a new Royalist, the safety measures are better, but the experience will be very much the same.
My Grandfather and Father were both at sea, as were 3 of my uncles.
Grandfather was at D Day, my Father later went on to become A Director in the Ministry of Defence, and I served in the Falklands War.
Maybe we should not go so fast over these early years.
From 1971 at the age of 12 until 1975 age 16 I was in the Sea Cadet Corps and spent every summer holiday in naval bases and in Royal Navy Ships learning everything from seamanship, sailing, survival, gunnery and Electronics.
I transferred from my normal school to a seamanship school age 14, a normal school with a seamanship section. The subjects included Navigation and Seamanship along with Maths, Physics, English, etc.
I had my first Electronics course in 1974 at HMS Collingwood where I built my first astable multivibrator, all very modern and absolutely extraordinary for a 15 years old boy looking for a future carreer at sea.
I left this school in 1975, age 16, to join the Royal Navy.
What represents for you the 13 years in Royal Navy?
My Royal Naval Service formed me as a professional.
I started life as a Junior Electrical Mechanic, 6 weeks at HMS Raleigh for basic training where I was selected as class leader. This picture is off my class practising a march past. I am in the front on the left of the picture, with my deputy class leader on the right of the picture.
I then transferred to HMS Collingwood the school of Weapons Engineering categorising as Ordnance Electrical. Training consisted of basic electrical training, explosive safety, firefighting and damage control, mathematics and workshop training. After this I transferred to the Submarine school HMS Dolphin, then the Marine Engineering School HMS Sultan. In October 1976 I joined HMS Bristol a Guided Missile Destroyer. I was onboard Bristol for 2 years and 9 months, and managed to get time off to get married. During this time I was promoted to 1st Class Mechanic and passed for Leading Mechanic. In 1979 I put out my first fire at sea on an auxiliary boiler. I also saw my first Soviet Destroyer on a NATO exercise.
On a personal level I was married in 1978 and our first son David was born in January 1979, he is now a Marine Engineer on Jack Up Rigs. Life was difficult for my wife, we lived a long way from either of our parents, and bought our first house in Cowes Isle of Wight in 1981, I was 22.
I left Bristol in May 1979 and joined the Mobile Fleet Maintenance Group, and was flown to Australia, Gibraltar, Norway and Hong Kong to assist damaged vessels. I also attended my first Leadership course of 2 weeks. In 1980 I returned to HMS Collingwood for further training in Electronics, Electro technology, power and distribution Explosives, weapons training and more mathematics. And passed out as a Leading Mechanic.
I joined HMS Fearless (an Assault ship) in 1981.
We sailed to the Caribbean where I worked ashore in a hospital that required technical support.
The Falklands war took place during my time with Royal Navy, more precisely it was 1982 and I was by now 23 years old, Leading Hand of my messdeck.
In 1982 the Argentines invaded the Falklands and Fearless was sent with a lot of other vessels filled with troops to what became the Falklands War.
During the war I was sent to effect repair on Sir Tristram a landing ship logistic as Fearless had a large Engineering team and a lot of fire fighting equipment. On the way down south I passed my exams to Petty Officer.
On HMS Fearless (picture with the bomb going off the bow), we were airlifted all over the place to put out fires, take out unexploded bombs and effect repair.
We lost 255 people killed in total. Among these causalities 6 were on my ship, and 4 wounded.
We lost 6 ships, and many others damaged. The Argentineans lost a lot more, we took 12,000 prisoners of war, and definitively treating them decently was logistic effort by itself.
My wife gave birth to our 2nd Son Michael 2 weeks after I got back (he is now a Policeman). A few weeks later and I sailed off to the Mediterranean.
Ask any questions you would like to, war is not my favourite pastime.
I have been shot at on 2 continents, bombed on one…very inconvenient.
I don’t necessarily mind talking about it but war is mostly complete boredom punctuated by periods of fear. When it stops it is hard to deal with there is no euphoria, or feeling of victory, you just feel empty.
Just have a look at the picture of me in the white jumper; I would describe myself as cold, dirty and frightened… and I was 23 years old.
I fully understand your point about war experience but looking at the numbers, the Falklands war took up a fair amount of your career
I returned to HMS Collingwood for training in 1983, more electronics, explosives, electro technology, then more in the Marine Engineering school. I then took up the position as Instructor in power and distribution in the Marine Engineering school. In December 1983 I was sent back to the Falklands as Weapons Engineering Officer Naval Party 1242 Falklands based in Port Stanley. I was based on a captured Argentine Offshore Supply Vessel. Probably the most dangerous ship I ever sailed on.
I then spent some time back in Fleet Mainternance Group Rosyth, joined HMS Orkeny on Fishery Protection. After this I spent 2 years teaching fire fighting and damage control in Phoenix NBCD School (Nuclear Biological Chemical Defence).
Later on the second part of my time with Royal Navy I had positions such as Captain of the Flight Deck, Armed Boarding Party and First Aid.
This picture is of me with my Father and HMS Leeds Castle, I spent 2 years on Leeds Castle and left in Port Stanley in January 1989. We sailed to Grytviken in South Georgia, dropped scientists on Bird Island.
The last course I did was the First Aid was the military course which involved working in the accident and emergency department of a civilian hospital…
You told us that you Grandfather was at D Day and your Father went to become high rank in the Ministry of Defence.
I think that 13 years in Royal Navy was a fair contribution from your side to this tradition.
Yes – after 14 years of service I decided to leave Royal Navy and so I served on Merchant Ships between 1989-1998. This is MV Scirocco Universal in Salerno in 1990.
My favourite vessels were always Refrigerated Cargo ships and the best companies were Swedish and Norwegian, they treated their people better than most.
I was now Electrical Officer with CI Shipping and stayed with them from February 1989 to May 1990.
My wife came to sea with me joining in Dubai, sailing to Somalia, through Suez to Greece and Italy, then Panama and down to Valporaiso. From 1989-1998 I was at various times Chief Electrical Engineer, 1stElectrical Engineer, ETO and Electrician. I worked for CI Shipping, P&O, V Ships, Stena Line, Blue Star, Northern Marine CSM and Holy House Shipping.
In 1998 I was in Africa and was stuck up the Bonny River in Nigeria on a Tanker while the locals (all carrying AK47s) were having a dispute.
I decided to come ashore with a Norwegian company between 1998-2007, then had my own business before joining DNV in Germany in 2008 on newbuild cruise ships, in this example Celebrity Eclipse.
In 2011 I moved to Aberdeen specialising in Dynamic Positioning Systems, also did some accident investigation. After moving to Newcastle in 2013 where I have stayed.
In mean time I found the time to take in 2003 the Diploma in Marine Surveying National Sea Training College and North West Kent Kent College.
In 2008 I started the MSc Engineering and Management at University of Portsmouth, graduating in 2010 age 51.
This is quite a career and definitively the story of an “unrested” professional.
Please don’t take my words wrong. In general a professional of more than 40 years old is well settled… to not say 50…
You managed to start an MSc at 49 and finished it at 51… if this is not an excellent example of a professional searching continuously for professional development then what could be?
I don’t think that it was about “unrest”; I truly think that it was about learning first of all the basics, leading on to the more advanced, a lot of courses make too many assumptions about pre-existing knowledge … and ultimately it is about education.
Learning is a progression and culminates in Education but Education is not a one way road… it is not only about one receiving it or one giving it.
Education is a two ways road and, from a certain point of the career all professionals should be ready to go both ways…
Over the years I have been very interested in education, but not necessarily that which is taught in Universities, there are many jobless people with qualifications they are unable to benefit from.
I started being involved in training back in the dark days of the Falklands War and started small study groups as a means to taking my lads minds off the current predicament, they were in.
As mentioned, I later instructed in the Engineering School in 1983, the NBCD School from 1985-1987. I get very enthusiastic in my subject and found I had no problem teaching. In 2004 I became author and tutor on the Diploma in Marine Surveying with the Electronics and Electrical modules, this was distance learning and I continued until 2018.
DNV allowed me to construct courses for Surveyors and customers in Hamburg on electrical and control systems. Not just teaching the rules, but actually explaining how things work.
I think that your enthusiasm about education is amazing for our days and the young people having the change to get you as mentor are extremely lucky.
My enthusiasm for education is still intact (Mr. Nicholas finally smiles) and it is not up to me to appreciate how lucky might be the young people working with me.
However, on the topic of mentorship I have to tell you that I recently turned down an invitation from UTC to mentor young people, because of the way they are going about it.
Universities (in UK) try to make people think in a certain way, and in my opinion stops them from thinking for themselves. The product is that the person leaves University thinking they are the finished product. Many of my colleagues tell me they cannot employ young people, as they leave University with a poor skill set, and a high opinion of themselves. University is the beginning, not the end. We need to engage young people in Engineering and Science, but the method of teaching should have some practical element.
Many facts can be learnt in a Classroom, but if you want to understand it, you have to get out there, University is OK for some, but I see a need for a restructure of courses with more emphasis on discipline and real learning.
I agree that something should change about education in general, and it is not about a change in UK, in Europe, States or any specific place on Earth.
I think that the education based on the principles and ideas of the industrial era should change and focus now on preparing creative people and not workers for “Mr. Ford’s production line”.
I would also want to make clear that the points mentioned by you as critical for a real learning - discipline and practical element – are not in contradiction with the idea of creativity.
Creativity has to be disciplined… otherwise is just fireworks; engineering creativity has to be orientated to practical elements … otherwise is just … waste of time?
I also think that it is inevitable that the pseudo intelligent repetitive tasks of the production line so common in the industrial era will go to robots and machines in general… and if we touch this so fashionable “hot potato”… I would like to take the chance to ask your opinion about the unmanned and/or autonomous ship…
In 2017 I was in Strathclyde University presenting at the MECSS Conference with IMarEST. Rolls Royce were unveiling their autonomous ship presentation which gave rise to a number of issues. I reflected on the experience of the last years and came to the conclusion that I have never encountered a vessel that cannot break down. And if no-one is onboard who is going to get it going again. On top of that if you knew enough you would not insure that vessel. As for Port State Control you may be dissuaded from letting that vessel into your waters when it is being controlled from another part of the world. We then move on to cyber security and it is re-assuring to know that the rules are being constructed to deal with this important issue. However software is not infallible, I have seen a vessel fail leaving a diver on the seabed, the system had been in place for 4 years with no problem.
On an autonomous ship with the current technology available to let a vessel loose without the ability to intervene manually is extremely worrying. In 2018 I presented on behalf of the IET at another University, where a post grad asked me if when something failed, “did the ships staff have to fix it themselves”.
This demonstrated to me that the Marine Engineering course they were on was not addressing the issues currently faced out at sea. As an answer I gave the story of how many times steering has been lost because of minor issues, but issues difficult to find. Had we not fixed the Container ship I was on mid Pacific it would have taken several weeks to get a tug there, I have many examples of various problems that have had to be solved without outside support. And it is still the case.
I take on board your points and especially concerns about unmanned and autonomous vessels… however as Futureoftheocean team representative, I am more inclined to think that engineers could develop reliable solutions for unmanned vessels first and maybe later, autonomous vessels later…
Another “hot potato” topic in today’s maritime word is the zero carbon solutions for vessel’s power… in the first instance, the solution for a zero carbon propulsion.
On the subject of propulsion I believe that we have a ready energy source called the wind, and it has been remiss of mankind to ignore this most valuable resource.
As we talk about low emissions, and keeping fossil fuels in the ground, consider my Great Grandfather Thames Sailing Barge Master on SB Black Eagle, just him and the Mate moving 100 tonnes of cargo with sail only and no engines. I had the good fortune to sail on one of these, SB Hydrogen built in 1906, not built with any engine.
Definitively wind propulsion might be to consider for a green future... as well hydrogen.
By the way… SB Hydrogen… sounds amazing … like a foresight …
How many trucks made the 100 t carried by your Grandfather with no engine, just with wind?
The biggest lorries would carry under 50 tonnes, but burn a lot of fuel
Steering can be heavy when steering into the wind, no hydraulics… just using the horse.
Oh, probably you have no idea what it is “the horse”.
The bar across the bottom of the mast is called a horse, easy to tack
What are you plans for the future?
I think that talking about plans for future in the actual conditions is a little bit of outstretch.
My current schedule consists of short notice requests sometimes followed by sea trials, where communication is often unreliable or non-existent.
It is true that such poor communication won’t stop me thinking one or two steps in advance… so in November I will be at the local war memorial to remember my friends, especially those lost on HMS Fearless during the Falklands War.
We have to shape the future learning from the past… paying respect to our heroes, parents or past in general is very good point for starting thinking about the future.
After discussing so much about navy, profession, history… I can’t resist asking something about just the private Stephen…
What about hobbies? Do you have any?
Yes, definitively… beekeeping… something as different as possible of sea …
All pictures have been provided by Mr. Stephen J. Nicholas. Thank you Mr. Nicholas!
More about the film mentioned in introduction - “Fisherman’s Friends” – can be found here:
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