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When the ship comes in

Teaching children about the sea

Stephanie Zarach, maritime historian and writer, emphasises the need to foster a better understanding of ships and shipping, starting with the school curriculum

Take an ordinary, everyday sitting room and dining room. Fill it with the usual paraphernalia of twenty-first-century life – a sofa, coffee table, television, computer, dining table and chairs and a rug or two. Add in a nuclear family: Mum is wearing a simple dress because it is summer; Dad is sporting chinos and a polo shirt; son Tom is in the latest jeans and trainers with a T-shirt, and his MP3 earphones tucked firmly in his ears; and daughter Miriam, wearing the latest leggings and a long stripy shirt, is engrossed in her tablet computer. There is a car in the front drive – a new Honda – and flowers brighten the garden.

Where did they come from … ?

Where did they come from … ?

Got the picture? Then let us try a little test. Which of those items in this scene of domestic normality do you think was made in Britain? The mahogany dining table? Tom’s jeans? Miriam’s tablet? The television? Any other thoughts? In fact, only one of the items described above was made in the UK – the Honda car, in Swindon – but even then most of its components were imported by ship. All the rest, perhaps with the exception of the flowers – always remembering that some of the tulip bulbs came from the Netherlands – arrived here on a ship.

If you are not at all surprised by this, then you are probably in the maritime industry. If you are surprised, then join the club of which the vast proportion of the UK’s population are members. It is the club of sea blindness.

The maritime industry has become so streamlined in recent years that it is barely visible and utterly taken for granted. The container revolution has brought enormous benefits in terms of keeping cargoes intact and greatly reducing the cost of transportation by sea through economies of scale, but this has had one unintended consequence: it has removed ships and the sea from the national consciousness. Whereas vegetables and fruit, white goods and clothes, mistletoe and wine and most of the usual contents of a household used to be seen lying on the old docks awaiting their onward journey, they have now disappeared into anonymous boxes. Jobs that were associated with docks have given way to machinery, and the ports, once the hub of a community with ships coming and going, have now largely disappeared behind security gates on remote sites. The fact that is completely lost to the majority of the British public is that without the regular flow of ships into our British ports, we would soon run short of most commodities, including medical supplies and fuel.

Why should people care about ships and shipping?

We must care, because some 90 per cent of global trade is transported from country to country by ship, and trade with other counties is the lifeblood of any successful economy. As an island nation, the UK is dependent upon transport by sea for trade. The items we cannot produce and the items we want to sell to other countries are mostly imported or exported through our ports.

There may be more mechanisation, but there are still wide-ranging opportunities for work in the industry that are little known. They include seafaring, engineering, technology, law, insurance, port operations and administration, coastal protection of the environment and borders, rescue services and fishing, ship suppliers and even chefs for ships. Careers advisers and parents alike are woefully unaware of these possibilities, and children have no concept of the industry. If the general public had a better awareness of the importance of the maritime industry to their health, wealth and standard of living, perhaps there would be a bigger push for the government to focus on policies to support it. The industry contributes heavily to the country’s coffers in the export of unrivalled professional services in insurance, international maritime law and arbitration, accountancy, classification, protection and indemnity, shipbroking and maritime education: in all these areas the UK, with its long and strongly developed maritime history, is a world leader.

How the maritime world adds value to the school curriculum

It is difficult to persuade adults, many of whom have done with learning and are busy earning, that they need to look at something new. The best way to persuade a population to take the maritime industry seriously is to teach the young why it is so important, how it will affect their own world, and what opportunities it provides.

School curricula are set and must be taught, but the maritime story of the British Isles can enhance the teaching of science, engineering, environmental issues and technology. The study of the oceans and their ecosystems furthers knowledge of biology, chemistry and physics; information on maritime engineering adds a new dimension to engineering courses; discussing the damage that plastic consumption on land does to the creatures of the sea – and hence our food chains – raises awareness of environmental issues; and the uses of modern technology offer great opportunities to learn more. One example of such technology is the satellite-based GIS (geographic information system), which is now part of GCSE and A-level courses. This digital way to explore the world enables students to use vast amounts of data for their research projects, and makes geographical fieldwork exciting and much more in-depth. In maritime terms, GIS can be used for special topics, such as the story of the ill-fated Titanic and the location and range of ports and their supply lines. Tracking ships and their cargoes as they go around the world is both exciting and enlightening, providing all sorts of possibilities for individual projects.

A maritime teacher’s pack

Bertha the Bulker and her Cousin Beryl Get Breakfast

Bertha the Bulker and her Cousin Beryl Get Breakfast is the first in a series of little books written for children.

Knowing about ships, what they transport, where they pick up their cargo, the economics of the enterprises and the technology of navigation and weather prediction provides a better understanding of the globalised world. A maritime teacher’s pack, which will fulfil all these objectives, is now in trial.

The pack will include small books, either printed or available on the Web, that tell the story of a particular type of ship: how it is crewed, where it goes to pick up goods, what goods it picks up, what happens to the goods when they reach the destination port and a description of the seas it travels through. These books also match types of goods to specific ships – a bulk carrier for grain and sugar, a container for jeans and iPods, a tanker for oil and so on.

Bertha the Bulker and her Cousin Beryl Get Breakfast is the first in a series of little books written for children. Bertha the Bulker goes to Canada to pick up grain, and her cousin Beryl collects sugar from Brazil. Both ships voyage back to the UK, one encountering storms and the other seeing wildlife, before unloading their cargoes – which, one way or another, are processed into the nation’s breakfast. There could be innumerable combinations of these books: the container ship that delivers refrigerators and jeans: the ro-ro (roll-on roll-off) ships that import and export cars; the tankers that bring fuel to power stations and petrol to the pumps. The formula can be used to cover any type of ship including coastal vessels, dredgers, lifeboats, fishing vessels and passenger ships. The books will include ‘Did you know?’ facts, and can also be provided as black and white colouring books and adapted to any age group. Older children using them to teach younger children is a particularly good way for both age groups to benefit.

Maps are also included, containing the ports relevant to each book and trade routes, but these can also be provided using GIS technology. Wall charts with silhouettes of ship types, quizzes and questionnaires, and group visits to ports can also be included. Each pack can be tailored to a specific school’s requirements.

The maritime industry’s duty

Why should it be the maritime industry’s duty to take time out to teach others, who are often not very interested in the subject, about the sea and ships? Because industries that slip the gaze of the general public tend to be ignored by government and politicians, who are then quite capable of making damaging decisions without realising the harm they do. With Brexit, Britain will need to enhance both its position as a trading nation and its welcome to all ships, while increasing its naval presence on coastal and border controls. The reasons for changes to the Register, better port infrastructure and logistics, and sensible tax laws for non-domiciled shipowners who provide employment will need to be understood and supported by the population. It is only the efforts of the maritime industry to engage with the population at a local level that will make that happen, along with a clear programme of information that fits in with the school curriculum.

For further information on the teacher’s packs, please contact Stephanie Zarach or Peter Dolton at berthaandberyl@btinternet.com.

Stephanie Zarach, a writer and historian, has specialised in the maritime industry for many years. She has written for many organisations including BIMCO, HKSOA, the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers, the Baltic Exchange and Hong Kong-based shipowners.