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Merchant Navy Medal recipient Captain Stephen Gudgeon spent forty years at sea and still revels in the magic of crossing the Panama Canal

6 September 2022

A lot changed in the 40 years that Captain Stephen Gudgeon spent at sea, but he believes it remains a well-paid job with good leave, terms and conditions

In September 2022 Captain Stephen Gudgeon - now retired from the sea but still working in the industry - was awarded the Merchant Navy Medal, one of the highest honours within the British maritime sector.

Listen to Capt Gudgeon in the BBC World Service documentary Hungry at sea (available until April 2025).

Below is a Nautilus Telegraph interview from May 2020.

What is a typical day in your job?

For me currently there are no typical days at sea. I think that is why I like the job so much. 

I try to maintain as normal a work pattern as possible. However, the door is always open, and I am on call 24/7. 

I get up between 05:00 hrs and 06:00 hrs. Good time to get things done before the working day starts for everyone else. Up to the bridge to start the day with second officer. Check to make sure all OK and assess currently if we need to adjust speed at all for Estimated Time of Arrival (ETA). Check weather forecasts and remind myself of the passage for the next 24 hours.

Down to the galley to check all OK and discuss menus. Upcoming port deliveries with the cook.

TBT meeting with crew conducted by heads of department. Try to attend occasionally especially if I need to pass on some information that needs emphasising or just an opportunity for crew to ask me questions or voice concerns. Find crew more talkative in small groups. More reticent in full ship company meetings.

Most of the day is spent doing paperwork. Lots and lots of emails every day from people who want immediate answers. Can be frustrating but you must remember they don't understand the workings of a ship. 

Try to get around whole ship as often as I can usually with chief officer. Inspections, meetings, statutory drills and training also must be fitted into daily routines. These obviously spread over the week and not every day. 

I attend the daily work plan meeting where we discuss the days completed work and the work planned for the following day.

After dinner I try and relax for an hour or two before finishing my day on the bridge chatting to the third officer and writing night orders.

Why did you choose a career at sea?

The question everyone asks when I grew up in a Yorkshire market town as far away from the sea as you could get 'why the sea'. No family or friends at sea. I remember thinking I wanted something that would get me away from the town where I lived. I found it dull. I wanted an adventure. I saw a leaflet at a career's day in school. I wasn't the brightest button in the box at school. Also, lazy and a class clown. That masked my insecurity.

Probably not a good combination for a career at sea 48 years ago. It was tough. However, I had to get some qualifications before I could join a shipping company. I went to sea school in Hull for a year to get the required exam results. Who knew you could do GCSEs in Navigation and Seamanship. 

Tell us some of your career highlights – and challenges – so far

So many. Not so many highlights these days. I was spoilt throughout most of my sea career. Colleagues who were such good people they remain good friends today. The ships and the places we visited were fantastic, but it was the people who made my career so enjoyable. 

Sitting on the poop deck in the evenings being taught knots and splices by sailors who told stories of Russian Conveys and surviving submarine attacks and sinking in the Second World War. These guys were tough. You didn't mess with them. I left the classroom clown behind and moved forward with a more mature sense of humour, which I feel has helped me through the good and the less good times.

From the very beginning I loved my shore leave. Every opportunity I had I was ashore. It is true I saw lots of ports and countries from a bar stool, but I saw some great places too. Met some great characters. Lowering the lifeboat in the South Pacific. Running it up the beach for a BBQ and a few beers with the locals. They took me spear fishing until I spotted the sharks.

If you work hard nobody cares if you're first down and last back up the gangway in port. 

There were highlights then which remain when I experience them again now. The one that comes to mind is transiting the Panama Canal. Forty years after my first transit I still stare open mouthed as I look down from the bridge to the Pacific Ocean far below.

What are the best things about your job?

It's not nine to five. No two days are ever the same. Even these days you have experiences friends ashore can only dream about. 

It remains a well-paid job with good leave. Also good terms and conditions, which we have over the years fought hard to achieve and maintain. 

It has enabled me and my family to enjoy a good life. 

Would you recommend seafaring as a career?

I would, but only with a preamble of truth and honesty. Too many young people come away to sea having been told stories by manning agencies which paint a false picture of life at sea. 

You have to have realistic expectations. It has never been glamorous. But it is no longer a ticket to see the world. Shore leave is very rare and ships turnaround in ports in hours not days. Most ships are dry so no going to the bar for a chat after work. Most guys head straight for their cabin and watch a movie or FaceTime the family. That is if you are lucky enough to have good internet. Free internet is better. Have realistic expectations.

Tell us one thing that people may not know about your job?

The ship has 32 crew members who I see all the time. However, I am lonely. 

Ridiculous I know but it's true. Friends and family are so important. They keep you going. 

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