The age of the hero is long past, we are told, overtaken by the cult of the celebrity, although it’s not a proposition to which I subscribe. I often think that the invisibility of the maritime industry, which most people only realise is there when volcanic ash grounds all the aeroplanes, stems from the fact that we don’t have giants like Samuel Cunard, Albert Ballin,YK Pao, or Lord Inverforth still stamping about, pushing over buses and making headlines. Modern maritime corporate folk cling to their anonymity and it’s a pity, when heroes are in such short supply.
One of my real maritime industry heroes died last month, after a long life that deserves both celebration and recognition. Professor David Moreby was one of the most inspirational teachers in the shipping world during much of the second half of the 20th century. After pre-sea training at South Africa’s “General Botha” maritime college, this Northern Rhodesian spent a dozen years at sea in the tankers of the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Company, before coming ashore in 1959 to the School of Navigation in Plymouth. And for the rest of his life, David was associated with Plymouth, although his influence as an educator was to spread around the world.
Today we are thinking about “the human element” a great deal, but when David started to teach, it was barely recognised, although “human error” was seen as a panacea for any sort of accident which couldn’t be blamed on the machinery. Unusually, he saw people as the most crucial contribution to successful ship operation, to the development of worthwhile marine industry careers, and, of course, to marine safety. He regarded the natural qualities of the seaman; tolerance, an ability to anticipate and then tackle adversity, humour and adaptability as a foundation which could be built upon to empower genuine industrial leaders. Get the right people, with the right attitudes, and provide them with the knowledge they need and “bingo” – commerce and technology mesh in an unbeatable combination.
In the world of maritime education, David Moreby was something of a one-off, establishing close ties with the industry itself and offering a lot more than training for ship-drivers. His was the impetus behind the famous Galbraith’s Shipping Course, which put intellectual rigour into industry education long before the business school or the MBA was even recognised by those who ran shipping companies. And when Plymouth moved out of the certificate training for ships’ officers, maritime studies remained a hugely strong faculty, providing higher education for mariners and non-mariners alike.
David Moreby , irreverent, impatient of the “establishment” way of doing things, made people throughout the maritime industry think. I interviewed him on a number of occasions, writing down his words with a smoking pen and scarcely having to say anything at all. He was invariably kind and helpful. He put across ideas about the way you could make the seafarer’s life at sea more worthwhile, becoming more closely attuned to the commercial criteria surrounding a ship, effectively “on-board ship managers”. He had such important things to say about the things that were going on during the 70s, 80s and 90s, with the disappearance of so much of the UK fleet, and the emergence of new shipping forces in the world. He made friends easily with people from every country and culture. He said such important and wise things about the way shipping companies were run, the way that ships were manned. “Everyone panics in his own language”, was a Moreby-ism that has come down through the years, and is as apposite today as it was when it appeared in his comments on polyglot manning of ships, and the need to approach this with a certain common sense.
It was his ability to link human nature to the way people behave aboard ship and in shipping company offices that made David Moreby such a one-off. He had boundless curiosity about the maritime and business worlds, he was years ahead of the pack in his ideas about human behaviour, personnel management and influenced many top-flight students, and indeed others in the industry who went on to great things.
He was also one of the most courageous people, cheerfully shrugging off the frightful medical calamities that he was to encounter over many years as if they were little more than common colds. Cancer of the larynx, numerous heart attacks, further cancers, the amputation of both legs, these life threatening conditions were something to be laughed about. David Moreby was a hero for our times, and our industry, and we will not see his like again.