Pathways: Sea to Shore
From Sea to Shore: “It’s like going from the fish bowl to the open sea, you discover a whole new universe.”
To many working at sea, the prospect of coming onshore to advance one’s career may be daunting. Many may be apprehensive about whether it is possible to pursue fulfilling careers both at sea and ashore.
We sit down to speak with 58-year old Rama Chandran, who after spending nine years at sea, now oversees the marine business at QBE Singapore. As one of many mariners who decided to take the plunge ashore mid-career, Rama describes his transition as “relatively smooth, 98% hard work and 2% luck.”
He shares with us the story of how he charted his own path, diligently navigating the high seas to the far shores.
Life at Sea
Rama recalls his days at sea with a tinge of nostalgia, “My experience at sea laid the foundations for everything I’ve achieved in life.”
He first came to know about the Marine Engineering course offered by Singapore Polytechnic (SP) through his seniors in National Service (NS) after his completion of the GCE A-levels. During his time, a career at sea was highly sought after because of the high remuneration. As a teenager, he was drawn to the adventure of going out into unchartered waters. Eventually, his decision to enrol in Marine Engineering at SP, as well as the scholarship with Neptune Orient Lines (NOL) were instrumental in pointing him towards a career at sea. Only after two years of studying Marine Engineering, he found himself as a cadet on a ship and went on to become the Chief Engineer within eight years of sailing.
Rama describes life at sea as a self-contained little community where you get to live, eat and work together with your colleagues, later turned friends. “I miss the camaraderie. Being in a community like that is quite exceptional. You just don’t find this kind of work relationship nowadays. Today, all my friends at sea have moved on to shore-based jobs, except one who prefers to remain captain of the sea after 35 years of sailing and not having anyone else to report to,” he laughs, warmed by the fact that their bonds of friendship have been so strong; they are still friends after more than three decades since they first sailed together.
Yet these bonds of friendship were not formed easily. We often hear people sharing about their disagreements with their co-workers, let alone the close living proximity on the vessel where you interact with your co-workers for more than 12 hours every day. Through these experiences, Rama shares that he’s learnt the importance of good conflict management and the skills to quickly de-escalate rising emotions and tense situations.
“Seafarers are trained to have good interpersonal relationships and can even pre-empt emergencies. These skills have helped me along the way to become a professional negotiator and people manager after I came onshore.”
Life on Shore
Rama made the decision to come ashore in 1990, curious about the opportunities available in what he knew to be a huge global business, and in consideration of family commitments as well.
In his next role as a surveyor, also known as an auditor of vessels, he soon began to realise that his management and leadership skills served him well and complemented the technical skills he had acquired at sea. “We’re guns for hire, expected to act on behalf of anybody. Today, I would be acting on behalf of a classification society to inspect vessels. The next day, you could have a casualty, and I’d be asked to investigate the case.”
He acknowledges that although in the beginning, the learning curve was steep, he enjoyed the job because of his dealings with an infinite number of people, across a network of ship owners, charterers, banks who value the ship, classification societies, prospective buyers of ships, engine manufacturers, flag state, ship managers, lawyers, and expert witnesses, etc.
“The marine consultancy world widened my perspective of the maritime industry as I realised that it is an international playing field. At sea, it is the crew above you, below you, and the vessel, but ashore, our clients and partners are from every corner of the world. It’s like going from the fish bowl to the open sea, you discover a whole new universe, and it was a remarkable chance for learning.”
He recalled volunteering for every weekend job because he wanted to learn “as much of the maritime sector as possible.” Still, that did not satisfy his unquenchable thirst for knowledge, so he went on to sign himself up for a year of law school, “not for the qualifications, but for the pursuit of learning”.
All these, he believes, set the stage for an accelerated path of onshore learning.
He spent 13 years as a Marine Surveyor, and left as the Managing Director of Ritchie & Bisset (Far East) Pte Ltd.
Rama went on to join Swiss Re as a marine insurance underwriter – a completely new job profile. His role demanded a different approach and an even deeper understanding of the industry. As an underwriter, he covered the loss and damage of ship cargoes, terminals, ships and their properties. He also evaluated the risk faced by potential clients and process their applications for insurance coverage accordingly “The basis of your technical knowledge has to be so profound for you to articulate what you want to negotiate, which includes rates and terms and conditions. All those interactions and negotiations with customers and business partners really made me better appreciate the sheer expanse and variety of the maritime world,” he commented.
The opportunities that Rama had may not have existed if he did not take learning into his own hands. His education and range of roles shaped him into a unique hire. “Not many in the world has my skillsets as a chief engineer, consultant, marine surveyor and underwriter,” he says proudly.
Keep your goals challenging
As Singapore strives to create S$4.5 billion in value-add and over 5,000 jobs for the maritime sector by 2025, there are various career pathways available. And as someone who now makes hiring decisions for the company, we asked him what he would be looking out for in new hires.
“Seafaring experience is a criteria to become a marine surveyor, as a solid foundation of technical knowledge is necessary to excel in this role,” he tells us with absolute certainty. He is convinced that seafarers have a lot of inherent courage that will take them far in life, the same way it took him.
“The same courage will also help you move from a career at sea to something new onshore. After that, all of life is about constantly upgrading yourself and learning so every transition into the next role is easier.”
Rama shares that he expects his next move to be bigger in scope. “Most people should want to move forward,” he says, his eyes gleaming with aspiration. In this time where lifelong learning is a recent lingo, Rama has certainly lived his life with this in mind from the start.
About Rama Chandran
Rama Chandran was appointed in August 2015 as Head of Marine for QBE Insurance (Singapore). He is also the Asia Pacific lead for hull and liability. He is currently the Chairman of the Ocean Hull Committee at the International Union of Marine Insurers (IUMI). He has over thirty years of both industry and extensive marine underwriting experience. Prior to QBE, Rama worked as a Class Underwriter, Marine and Energy for Argo Global Underwriting Asia Pacific. Before that, he was the Head of Marine, SVP for Asia Capital Reinsurance Group Singapore, managing a team of Underwriters for both Facultative and Treaty business covering Asia, GCC, Central Asia, Turkey, Australia and New Zealand. Rama is a marine engineer by trade and has sailed with Neptune Orient Lines Singapore for eight years prior to joining the insurance industry.