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Maritime Personality of the Month. Captain Qasim

Maritime Personality of the Month. Captain Qasim

At first glance, Captain Qasim Mohamed Fulhu resembled any other retiree, with kind eyes and an easy smile as he recalled how he decided to pursue a career at sea.

“There I was sitting in the office reading the morning paper, where I saw an announcement from the President’s Office about free government scholarships for Navigation Officers. Later on, whilst sitting with some friends at a teashop, we discussed about the scholarship, and all of us at the table decided to apply. I was one of the 9 of us, that passed the entrance test.” 

Captain Qasim is an accomplished Master Mariner, the absolute pinnacle of a career at sea, or on shore in the maritime industry. A person who possesses the qualification of a master mariner can be the captain of any ship of any size in any part of the world.

Captain Qasim’s identification card, during his time onboard.

Unexpected Beginnings Down the Path Less Traveled By 

Admitting that this was not a career path that he had expected to follow until that fateful day at that teashop when he was a fresh graduate at only 18 years, Captain Qasim nevertheless fell in love with his studies and everything to do with the sea. He still remains passionate about maritime studies, but as a treasured guest lecturer with 42 years of experience, expertise, and exciting stories about life on the big blue.

“I’ve been on many different kinds of ships, but I started on a very small ship back in 1971,” Captain Qasim recollected memories of his first time onboard a ship. “We had one year of training on shore at Male, including practical work at the Male’ power house, before we all got divided into these small ships, after one year we were transferred to larger ships for a 3-year apprenticeship. During the training I had to do very hard and difficult works, which lasted more than four years. Looking back, I am extremely satisfied about how those experiences helped me at different stages in my carrier and even in day to day activities.   

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He laughed as he confessed that he was only paid 100 Sri Lankan Rupees as remuneration back then, “not even enough to buy an outfit”, admitting that it feels like even less compared to how much marine experts are paid now.

“The field of study, the amount of time, and what we have to study is extremely different now from when I was getting into the thick of my career” Captain Qasim elaborated. “It took me 9 years to save up enough money to do the exam for Second Mate. And when I studied, you have to do 7 subjects simultaneously, and if you fail one, you fail it all. Studies in this sector are far more efficient now, and students don’t have to take as long as I did to be able to attain a more professional title.”

“The field of study, the amount of time, and what we have to study is extremely different now from when I was getting into the thick of my career” Captain Qasim elaborated. “It took me 9 years to save up enough money to do the exam for Second Mate. And when I studied, you have to do 7 subjects simultaneously, and if you fail one, you fail it all. Studies in this sector are far more efficient now, and students don’t have to take as long as I did to be able to attain a more professional title.”

Master Mariner at Sea – Entrepreneur, Lecturer and Leader on Land

His enthusiasm to further this career path within Maldives had Captain Qasim appearing as guest lecturer at the Maritime Training Center regularly in between seafaring trips, where he enjoyed sharing his knowledge with students every opportunity he had. As for those trips, Captain Qasim worked at a variety of well-known international and local organizations, including Maldives Shipping Limited, STO, and Lily Shipping Pvt Ltd. He also served as a member of the Maritime Advisory Committee for a time.

“Even though our so-called scholarship only lasted just one year, I decided to continue in this field. I worked hard as a junior officer to save enough to study for 1st exam. I enrolled to study, at one of the best maritime institutes in Asia (at that time) The “Lal Bahadhur Shastri Nautical and Engineering College” in Bombay (Present day Mumbai), India. I passed my 1st exam as a Second Mate in 1980 and joined back to ship to work as a second officer to get the required sea service for next exam. I joined the same college once again and I passed the exam for Chief Mate in 1983, after which I went back on board and served as Chief Officer. Once I got required sea service, I went back to same Collage and passed the exam for Foreign-going Master in 1986. Since then, I have been in command of many, many ships throughout my career. My last experience as Master of a ship was in 2011, as I recall, on an ship owned by STO shipping. By this time, I had a wife and children too, and they wanted me to leave the sea, and stay home and spend more time with them.”

Back on shore, Captain Qasim delved into several successful endeavors related to his field, such as marine surveying, making international tonnage measurements and started life-raft servicing station (approved by Lloyds and iso certified) for last 25 years, work which he continues to this day in partnership with a close friend, another well-known local Captain. He found himself drifting right back to education though, lecturing at the Marine Training Center again for a time. When he heard that the center was looking for a new head, it seemed like the perfect opportunity and he was the ideal candidate for many other lecturers working there. Captain Qasim went through the interview process and proudly served as the Head of Centre for maritime studies (Maldives national University) for 4 years, from 2012 to 2016. As a retiree, he still gives lectures and guest lectures at the institute now, taking joy in passing his knowledge to young and bright-eyed beginners of the trade. 

Then and Now, Through the Eyes of a Retired Master

“When I was a Third Officer, I remember one time in Bay of Biscay (known as seamen’s grave yard), we were in a cyclone. We heard the sad news of a ship, just a few miles in front of us that went down due to the turbulent sea, with no survivors. It took us a few days to get out of that storm and it was truly, truly a terrifying time for me.” Captain Qasim had a clever twinkle in his eyes as he told his ominous story. “There was another time, I was the Master of a small ship traveling from Male’ to India, and she met a cyclone at the Bay of Bengal. It was scary, and it made me hesitate, because back then we didn’t have satellite communication. We get the weather update every 6 hours, and with places like the Bay of Bengal, the route changes suddenly and we didn’t know about it until too late.”

“I like to tell these stories,” He continued with a smile, “because it’s not something that can happen now, to my students when they go out to sea. Forecasting the weather is very different from how it was in my day. Now, we get the weather forecast map printed and available on command, satellite communications are always up, weather warnings and alerts are immediate. Shipboard experiences are so much more immensely safer now than it was even a mere 20 years ago.”

“There is adventure, when you’re on the sea. There’s going to new places, meeting new people, and hours and hours spent with seas that stretch to eternity.” Captain Qasim reminisced about some of his shipboard experiences. “There could be crew from many different nationalities working aboard the same ship, and it can be very difficult to lead all of them towards the same goal. Their thoughts, cultures, ideas and languages can vary slightly or be vastly different. It’s a moment of pride to be able to keep a crew like that happy.”

Captain Qasim also addressed the obvious issue of gender disparity within the maritime and shipping industry. “One of my favorite junior officers that I remember was actually a woman sent for training onboard by the Coast Guard – she carries-out and could manage laborers better than any of the other members of my crew. It was truly impressive.” He said, addressing the obvious elephant in the room. “Don’t think for a second that life on the sea is just for men. Sure, when I started out women only served as Radio Officers, and only in the European regions. It is admittedly still a male dominated field but I see more and more girls studying in this field now, and I see a lot of engineers too who are women, and I think women should join this field in all the different career prospects. There’s no reason not to.”

“There are challenges that we face on the ship, whether a man or a woman.” He said, “You’ll have to resolve it, move on and do your work the best you can because you’re still on the same ship, the same crew, and that’s not something that is based on gender. I would welcome each and every woman who decides to join this field.” 

“My most challenging trips are also very memorable for me, one of them was, “Just one voyage from Ukraine to China, carrying bulk, general cargo and dangerous cargo which consisted of heavy arms like Missiles and even Radioactive materials. I remembered spending hours at the telex machine negotiating with Charterers (in the USA). The deal was almost cancelled, but I managed to secure the charter and get all the internationally required documents to carry these cargos (passing through different countries and channels) which was most difficult part. That was a voyage where I had to utilize all my studies from college and the experience gained so far in my carrier. “After all, we are supposed to learn from those, right? Getting to different ports have a lot of challenges attached to them, like going into a river. I recall an especially difficult time I had trying to sail across a narrow river with weather forecasts that were not updated. There wasn’t a lot of software, we used to do all the mathematics by hand, so things were so much more difficult to navigate. Now, you get the route map for you on a GPS with live indicators of where to go and where not to go- it’s so safe.”

An Endeavor with Stunted Yield

Captain Qasim visits different schools to raise awareness among students about maritime and shipping careers, and does his best to encourage students to engage in this career path. He has even traveled to different islands in the Maldives to visit schools there and speak with students, advocating for the advantages of building a career in this field.

“The outcome is low,” Captain Qasim admitted, “I don’t think it’s just in the Maldives though, it’s everywhere. The sea-life is not one that anyone imagines to be an easy career route. It takes a lot of study, mental discipline and engagement. I may see about 6-8 students in a class at the beginning, which is so low to start with, and it ends up being 2-3 students by the end of it. It’s such a great career path with so many lucrative professions, but not a lot of students seem to want to join it.”

“There’s also the idea in a lot of young people’s heads that they would be away from their families for years, which is just not true anymore. It’s not like when I was on a ship with one year contracts, and having to wait till we reach a port to receive a handwritten letter from my family as the only contact we have had in months. Contracts are shorter now, 6-8 months, and you can send messages and make calls easily with satellite communication.”

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“The academic certificates and qualifications required back then were also different. Under the new global system from the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the 1978 STCW Convention, the qualifications needed to enter this field are now more streamlined than ever before.”

He recommends eager new students to think about building a firm background in mathematics, physics, and english, noting that students who are weak in these subjects could still get through by taking more tuition and working extra hard. Exams are also easier now as students can opt to take one or few exams at a time, rather than all of them at once as Captain Qasim had.

Low Demand and Supply in a Wide Market

Captain Qasim also had a lot to say about the lack of companies in the maritime and shipping industry in the Maldives, stating that with the low number of shipping companies in the country, the need to create more apprentices has also remained low. He considered it a shame that such a lucrative career option has been shunned to the sidelines for so long, giving the example of the recent border closures due to the global Covid-19 pandemic.

“The borders closed, the sea routes were closed, but the maritime industry kept going, the ships kept going. A lot of seafarers were stuck at sea for longer than their contract because of the problems from Covid, but 80% of the world’s goods are transported via the sea. The ships need to keep going because the world needs to keep going.”

“This is one of the best industries to join today, the future is extremely bright, and I’m not just saying that as someone who has been working to develop this field in the Maldives. There is a new company now called MSS, so I think we may be back or atleast getting on the right track. There are newly announced scholarships and training opportunities too. I personally think this is the best way to go about this, people should be working to find more young people to enter this trade, and trying harder to build people because there aren’t enough private companies for it to develop organically.” 

In Closing

In finishing the conversation, Captain Qasim’s final statement was aimed at young people interested in entering this field for the first time, and those who are already on their way down the same path he took so many years ago.

“There is a satisfaction you get from doing something well, that is the feeling that you should chase after. You don’t have to spend 40 years on the sea like me, but this will still be an investment for your better future.”

*translated into english from a conversation held in dhivehi

Rubaa Ali
Author: Rubaa Ali

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