January 2017
A Life at Sea

Peter van Uden, CNCo’s Fleet Commodore.
Peter van Uden, CNCo's Fleet Commodore.

Peter van Uden has worked with The China Navigation Company ("CNCo") for 42 years and as Fleet Commodore since 2009. Currently Master of MV Siangtan, he talked to Swire News while in port in Brisbane about the ups and downs of a seafaring life.

What is a Commodore?

A Commodore is the title given to the Senior Master or Senior Captain within CNCo. It is a position awarded based on experience, length of service as Master and institutional knowledge. My operational job is to manage and direct the ship and sea staff. Essentially it boils down to being a conduit between the shore and the ship. Currently, I manage a ship that runs between the West Coast of North America, Fiji, Australia and New Zealand. It is a multipurpose ship, which means we can carry just about anything – we have a very beautiful gin palace [luxury pleasure-boat] on board and also a racing yacht and a helicopter.
Can you tell us about a typical day?

Peter van Uden

Each day starts with an early morning visit to the bridge, where I get updated on the progress we have made during the night. I get an idea what the weather is like and how that may affect the coming day. The weather plays a big part in what we do and how we progress the voyage. I also get a chance to talk to the Officer of the Watch and build up a bit of a working and personal relationship. After breakfast, it's time to see what emails have come in and how they impact the day's activities. This is followed by meetings with the Chief Officer, who looks after the deck and cargo, and the Chief Engineer, who is in charge of the machinery and maintenance. In the evening, many of us meet in the Officer's Bar before dinner for some social time.
Tell us about your journey to becoming a Commodore.

The seeds were sown in 1967, when my family re-emigrated by sea back to Holland from New Zealand. It took six weeks. It was a fascinating experience. In 1975, I joined CNCo as a Navigating Officer Cadet straight from high school onto my first ship. After four years at sea, I did my shore-based training and sat my examinations that allowed me to move up in the ranks. While I was in the New Zealand Nautical School, I managed to get my name on the honours board for my Master's licence, and a few years ago, I also did a management course through the Nautical Institute. Over all those years, I ended up as Senior Master, eventually earning the title Commodore.
What are your priorities and challenges as the Commodore?

Peter (left) believes building a good social and working relationship with his officers and crew is the basis for a happy, wellrun ship.
Peter (left) believes building a good social and working relationship with his officers and crew is the basis for a happy, well-run ship.

I am the company's representative and am in charge of a very expensive asset with a defined budget, so the main priority is looking after the ship in any kind of weather and safely transporting cargo from A to B. The power of ocean storms has increased greatly over the years, so while we've got better weather forecasting, there is still an increased element of danger. Piracy around the South China Sea, Indonesia and Somalia also presents its unique set of problems.

As well as the ship, there is a group of 26 humans who need to be looked after. I always have an open door and tell my crew that any time of the day they can come in and see me. Homesickness can be a challenge for them. There is a certain time of the day where all the officers get together and talk about their home lives and the situations in their home countries. This can help. I also encourage crew to prepare food from their homelands and share it, so we get to learn about each other's cultures. If they have national days, we celebrate them on board and mark festival days in foreign ports.
How frequently do you sail and for how long?

I go away for four months, and then have two months and ten days off. My wife and I spend a lot of our time off in Europe tracing our roots (I am Dutch and my wife is from Cyprus). We enjoy the history and culture there. But we can't get away from the sea. Even if we stay somewhere in France or Italy, it's got to have a sea view!
How do you maintain relationships with your family?

My wife is currently on board with me. In the early days, when it wasn't uncommon to be at sea for eight months, it was quite normal to have families on the ship. My son travelled with me twice. But when I was apart from my family, it was very difficult. In the 1970s and 80s, we only had letters and the occasional telephone call. By the time we got to know there was a problem at home, it was too late for us to do anything. Emails and the internet have made things easier, but there is still the physical separation to deal with.
How and why did you join CNCo and what makes you stay with the company after 42 years?

Peter van Uden

There are always new challenges coming up in different places with various types of ships, which have kept the job interesting. The fact that CNCo is a family-run company plays an important part. We run on traditional values and two-way loyalty. We have a can-do, will-do attitude and in the 144 years CNCo has been around, it has weathered a lot of economic storms, but has been flexible and nimble to keep pace with the dynamic environment.
Do you have any advice for someone who would like to go to sea for a living?

A lot of young people who come to sea now are "wedded" to their phones and this stops them from appreciating the countries they go to and the people they meet. I would like to encourage them to adopt an open mind, grab every opportunity to go ashore and meet people and talk to them. That mind-set will also help people overcome feelings of isolation and being far from home.
Swire News January 2017
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