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An ‘old salt’ shapes a new breed of seafarers

An ‘old salt’ shapes a new breed of seafarers
YASHIKA F. TORIB August 07, 2019

A quick sweeping glance around Chief Engineer Antonino Gascon’s office would give any visitor an immediate impression of the man whose long, determined strides, firm handshakes and piercing eyes remind you of “an era when ships were made of wood and men were made of steel.”

His office walls are covered with framed representations of the old seafaring world, pictures that have been washed into monochromatic stills by time, and perfectly aligned medals from countless naval achievements. Now in his “senior” years, C/E Gascon continues to exude the sturdy form of a sailor, dressed in practical wear, and converses in the blunt and booming manner of a true seadog.

As with many boys of his time, he was swept by the torrents of poverty to the sea; finding a profession with lucrative wages in exchange for a lonely, and oftentimes perilous, life in the high seas.

“There was no other motivation for us back then but the financial stability of our family, in my case, providing for all nine of my siblings,” C/E Gascon said. “It was not about being the best crew in the ship, or being the best nation in the seafaring world. We only knew that if we don’t do our jobs well, there are 10 others who are waiting to replace us and there’s no going back.”

C/E Gascon started sailing at the age of 18 in 1968, a time when sailors brave the raging seas onboard manually operated ships, relying on the efficiency of radio officers to ascertain the weather, and having no labor unions to protect and promote their welfare.

“None of us then could afford complacency while on ship. It was either we repair a broken engine days on end without sleep, or be pounded to capsizing by towering waves. The pay was good, but being left in the mercy of nature was most distressing to us,” he recalled.

The world’s oceans toughened the young Antonino for a decade until he became the youngest Filipino to be promoted as chief engineer by the German shipping company he was working for, the H. Glahr & Co. GmbH.

“It was a challenge; heading a ship full of Germans, a nation known for pioneering the world’s best machineries through excellent engineering. I was the only Filipino onboard, I was the youngest, and I was their chief,” he reminisced with a smile, narrating that it only took a couple of years until Filipino seafarers replaced most of the European crewmembers on vessels when ship owners finally realized their ingenuity, industry and quality.

Molding a new generation of seafarers

C/E Gascon’s tales of the old seafaring world was shared with much vigor and passion. He remembered strong deckhands pulling chain blocks and tugging pistons, of cadets working for eight hours and staying for another four to study sextants or engine performance, of radio officers taking four-hour shifts to determine weather forecasts, and of months on end without hearing from their families.

It was an era reminiscent of old maps, celestial navigation, and pure brawn from the old salts. It was a time that is now gone forever.

“Technology changed the shipping landscape rapidly and ship operations are undeniably faster; crew members get the job done with a simple click,” he said.

“On the other hand, I think technology has softened our new generation of seafarers. They are now dependent on sophisticated shipboard equipment and their constant use of messaging services leave them susceptible to the problems of their families back home, it easily affects their morale and attitude at work. I’ve seen this so many times with my crew,” C/E Gascon explained while referring to the seafarers he is deploying through a manning company he owns and operates, the SSM Maritime Services Inc.

“I always remind my crew, especially the young cadets, that discipline is imperative while at sea. They have to be in full control of their attitude, their personal hygiene, work ethics, and camaraderie with fellow crew because at the end of the day, it’s not their skills that will keep them in this profession. It is, and will always be, their attitude and discipline.”

Regardless of his evident admiration with the old ways of shipping, C/E Gascon refused to be reactive to the challenges of technology. Being one of the pioneers in maritime training sector, he was the first to introduce simulators in the country through his training center, Protect Marine Deck and Engine Officers of the Philippines Inc.

He is also actively heading technical working groups to assist the Maritime Industry Authority in updating and revising the practical assessment for deck and engine officers and ratings; this is on top of several other advocacies to elevate the quality of maritime education and training in the country.

With retirement still drifting on the distant future, C/E Gascon couldn’t help but reflect at the lesson the sea has taught him. “I was not a religious person, but being out there in the middle of the deep, stormy sea, I really learned how to pray and hold fast to my faith,” he concluded.