The Norwegian seaman in decline

The last old salt

Norwegian seaman

Photo: Tom A. Kolstad / Aftenposten
Captain Derbakk on the bridge of the Talisman.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

Norwegians have heeded the call of the sea ever since the Vikings set sail in their longships. With time, that inclination engendered a shipping sector that employed thousands and became a force in the country’s economy as well as its society. Understandably, Norwegians came to view their country as a seafaring nation. Today, that image is a relic of times past, as there now are few native Norwegian seamen. So the image of Norway as a seafaring nation seems at stake, a trend so significant that Aftenposten devoted a 14-page cover feature to it in the Aug. 3 edition of A-Magasinet, its weekly magazine (further reading).

The story starts on the eve of World War II. As told in fiction in the first of a series of five novels about the Norwegian merchant marine during the war, Jon Michelet’s En sjøens helt—Skogsmatrossen (A sea hero—The forest seaman), in 1939, Halvor Skramstad, then 18 years old, signed on to the Tomar, a Wilhelmsen shipping company freighter on which he served throughout the war. The real-life actions of the more than 10,000 Norwegian seamen of the merchant marine is considered to be Norway’s most significant contribution to the Allied victory. By 1960, the number of Norwegian seamen peaked at nearly 50,000, some 6 percent of all men in the workforce.


Photo: Tom A. Kolstad / Aftenposten
Jacques Eleazer Bealingo Bete, a seaman from the Philippines.

But now that’s history. The Norwegian sailor has returned to land. The ongoing competitive cost-cutting in the shipping industry has driven a shift toward hiring lower-wage seamen from other countries. Today, a mere 3,500 Norwegian seamen work on board freighters, less than two-thirds of 1 percent of the workforce. Many of the larger Norwegian shipping companies no longer have Norwegian crew. Some have a few Norwegian seamen, like Wallenius Wilhelmsen, Norway’s and one of the world’s largest ro-ro* shipping companies and the owner-operator of the MV Tønsberg, the world’s largest ro-ro ship. The company has eight Norwegian seamen, three of whom work on board the MV Talisman, the company’s second-largest ro-ro ship. The rest of the crew of 25 are Filipino, part of a floating diaspora of 50,000 on board Norwegian ships.

Talisman captain Espen Derbakk from Nesodden, a peninsula in the northern part of the Oslo Fjord, has served for 10 years. Pictured on the cover of the Aug. 3 A-Magasinet, he’s the living image of the old sea salt, with a full beard and a tattooed left arm. He sees the current status of Norwegian shipping as a collage of customs, changes, and challenges. He has experience with the venerable custom of being a Norwegian ship captain sailing waters abroad. He remarks that “it’s difficult to be married in this trade,” as he once was, but now is divorced, with a son, age 12. He sees change in the shipping sector as a potential threat to job security. As the Norwegian shipping sector phases out Norwegian seamen, he feels “uncertain about whether the company will keep us. We don’t think much about that; we repress the thought.” He’s pleased that in value of its merchant fleet, Norway ranks fifth in the world, behind Japan, Greece, China, and the United States.

That said, in Norway there’s cause for concern about the country’s status as a seafaring nation. Less than half the vessels owned by Norwegian shipping companies—779 out of a total of 1,771—fly the Norwegian flag. In the terminology of the nautical sector, that means they are registered in Norway and hence subject to Norwegian shipping regulations and taxation. This underscores the distinction in shipping between country of ownership and country of registration, known as the flag state of a ship. This distinction has led to what’s called a “flag of convenience,” the practice of registering a ship in a country other than that of its owners, principally to avoid that country’s regulations and taxation.

Three countries, Denmark, France, and Norway, maintain international registers to compete with flags of convenience. So Norway has two ship registries, NOS, the Norwegian Ordinary Ship Register, and NIS, the Norwegian International Ship Register. The operational difference between the two is that while NOS ships may sail anywhere, save some exceptions, NIS ships are barred from Norwegian ports. The Talisman and most other Norwegian deep-sea ships are registered in NIS.

Norwegian Minister of Industry Torbjørn Roe Isaksen is concerned with the flight of ship flagging away from Norway. So he has initiated legal changes to cope with the contemporary realities of shipping. The most recent one was to allow Color Line, the owner-operator of ferries between Norway and other countries in Scandinavia and continental Europe, to move registration of its ships from the NOS to the NIS registers.

The move was a competitive necessity. NOS requires that two-thirds of a ship’s crew be Norwegian, while NIS has no such requirement. The change will allow Color Line to replace 700 Norwegian employees with lower wage foreigners. The less attractive alternative was for the Color Line company to move out of Norway, in which case 2,300 Norwegian workplaces would disappear. Isaksen points out that though many seamen are affected, the overall impact of the move from NOS to NIS is less severe than it may seem, as many of the employees on board the ferries work in the onboard hotel and restaurant services. Isaksen believes that “We’ll never be able to offer the lowest wages. But we can compete in capability and competence. And we’ll continue to train seamen, even though the shipping sector changes.”

Capt. Derbakk is less optimistic about the calling of the seaman. But he has no regrets about his own choice of career. Now 54 years old, he intends to continue sailing until he’s 62. He aims to retire then and spend more time at home with his son.

Further reading: “Den siste sjøulk” (The Last Old Salt), by Pål Vegard Hagesæther, photos by Tom A. Kolstad, A-Magasinet #31, Aug. 3, 2018, Aftenposten: (in Norwegian).

* A ro-ro ship is a vessel purpose-built to carry wheeled cargo, including cars and other road vehicles, and railway cars, that are driven on and off the ship on their own wheels.

This article originally appeared in the November 30, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.