JOHN “Madge” McGartland began his working life as a seafarer at the age of 17, and 25 years later, he is still doing it. The Maritime Union of Australia stalwart from Wollongong was named Delegate of the Year at the recent ACTU National Union Awards in Melbourne. Now working on the offshore oil and petroleum industry as a fly-in/fly-out worker, Madge is an active delegate, campaigning for health and safety in his industry and mentoring younger seafarers.
“My father was a seafarer and was in the industry his whole life, pretty much. He went away as a boy and shipped out of a place in the north-east of England called Middlesborough. In those days he was on international rosters, so he shipped out all over the world, out of Singapore and Hong Kong and all that. When we moved to Australia, he shipped out of Port Kembla as well, and that’s what exposed me to the industry and the union side of things.
“When he was on his ships when we were little, me and my three brothers used to go down there to see the ships. We’ve all got memories of going on board the ships, having chips for breakfast, it was unheard of. It sparked an interest in me, and I was always fascinated hearing stories about overseas places. That was really what got me interested. I was the only one in my family who ended up going to sea.
“I went to sea as a 17-year-old under the new integrated rating [IR] system. Before that you’d be a deck boy or work in the engine room, but in the mid-80s the system transformed and I was actually in the first intake of trainee integrated ratings, in 1988, 17 of us down at the college in Tasmania. We spent two years in training. We had to spend 20 weeks at the college, that was doing all different studies with tests and exams, people failed, and then we had to go to sea for 20 weeks straight doing assignments and they had to be sent back to the college to be marked, and then after that we did 36 weeks at sea where we were a provisional IR. I did that in ’89 and ’90 and got my 36 weeks at sea in, and then got my IR certificate.
“I want to get everyone who comes to work offshore or come work on ships to get back home in the same piece as they left. That’s really important.”
“Most of my career I worked for BHP on the iron boats as they were called. I was probably on a dozen of their vessels, doing the triangle run. We’d take coal on the bulk carriers from Kembla or Newcastle or Hay Point in Queensland, we’d take it to Japan or Taiwan and then sail it empty to West Australia, to the BHP iron ore ports, Port Hedland, load iron ore and bring it around to Port Kembla or Newcastle where they’d make steel.
“Then they got taken over by another shipping company in 2001, and I left the bluewater industry in 2005 to go and work in the oil and gas side of things, which is referred to as the offshore industry.
“A lot of people lost their jobs, it was terrible. In the mid-90s, I think we had 17 iron boats, and then under the Howard years the fleet just got decimated and then with the downturn of BHP we just saw more and more ships leave the coast, so unfortunately, we lost the backbone of the industry.
“Obviously on a ship we were taking cargo from one port to another, whereas where I am now on the FPSO [floating production story and offloading], we’re just stationery, we don’t move, we just produce oil. So the whole mentality is we only do three week swings, whereas before we did a few months at a time. Minimum you’d do would be six weeks on, six weeks off. Longest trip I did was five months, and since I’ve been married it was three months. And because we’re stationary, a lot of the work involves crane operations and rigging and dogging and that sort of stuff, it’s not what you’d call a traditional seafarer’s role.
“I’ve got two teenagers, a son and a daughter, and my kids don’t know any different. And just by pure coincidence, when I met the lady I ended up marrying to be my wife, she’s got an uncle that goes to sea. So just by being exposed to the industry, she knows the industry and deals with it very well.
“I joined the union in 1988 and in those days it was the Seamen’s Union of Australia, the SUA. I had to go to college for the 20 weeks down there, and when we came home, in those days you got given what was called a white card.
“I’ve actually still got my white card from 1988. It was given to you by a union official in the port, and after three months on a ship you’d have to go see the delegates and they’d have a meeting and they’d vote whether they’d let you join the union or not. I had to put a case of beer on, and I rung the ship’s bell and when I came back to one of the union rooms, that’s when I got my union book after three months. At the time, I remember panicking, thinking Jeez, I hope they vote for me.
“From the early part, I’ve always taken a big interest in the union and obviously our safety campaigns have been paramount. Over the years, when you’ve seen people being killed it’s been bloody horrible. So I’ve always been elected as delegate pretty much, always had a fair bit to say, and always been conscious of the work environment and trying to do it as safely as I can. I want to get everyone who comes to work offshore or come work on ships to get back home in the same piece as they left. That’s really important to me.
“To anyone interested in seafaring as a career, I’d say it’s a great industry. It gives you the opportunity to have a great life, to see a bit of the world.”
“In the FPSO industry at the moment, you’ve got certain companies who are trying to get rid of marine crew, purely because we’re organised, union-orientated marine crew. And you’ve got these major companies trying to get rid of any marine ratings on these FPSOs where I work. That’s the biggest thing we’re facing at the moment. We have a big campaign going, dealing with NOPSA and AMSA and all the regular bodies to say why we should be on these vessels and facilities. We’re still fighting to maintain our position on these facilities.
“When I got away to sea, it wasn’t the same environment as it is now. It was very, very hard in the late-80s. You’d be away at sea for months at a time. We were kids, but we were in a man’s world so you had to grow up very quickly and that wasn’t many support networks. And there were a lot of hard men there. You had to really find your feet very quickly, and I had some experiences that weren’t very pleasant. Because it was hard being away from home and you’re lonely – and of course this was in the days before they had phones or internet – so you left port and you’d be away at sea for three or four weeks before you could contact anybody when you got to the next port.
“I always remember how I used to feel in those days, so I made a conscious effort, as I got a little older, to make sure I made the young blokes feel welcome and said my door’s always open if you want to talk. And it’s paid off over the years, a lot of blokes, especially 10 years later, bloody huge blokes now, come up going, “I remember you” because it had positive effect on them. And I feel really good about that. Because I made a conscious effort in my role as delegate to try to train people up and always gave them a lending hand or put an arm around them to say it’s alright mate, don’t worry about it. And it does mean a lot to them.
“My advice to anyone interested in seafaring as a career is I’d say it’s a great industry. It gives you the opportunity to have a great life, to see a bit of the world, give yourself a good education too.
“It really teaches you to appreciate what being home means. And you really put a value on things that everyone else takes for granted. Simple things like birthdays, Christmas, anniversaries. Just simple things like tucking your kids into bed at night, you really appreciate it when you’re away from it.
“If a young bloke asked for advice I’d say go for it, it’s a great industry. And I’d recommend they spend the first five years of their life at sea working on ships, getting a bit of experience, because that’s where you learn all the knowledge from, working on a ship as a seafarer going port to port, gives you a real understanding of the industry, you really find your place. Everyone I’ve worked with looks back on it with great memories and fondness because that’s where you learnt your trade.”