Engine Man

Bhanu Mulay’s dad was the seventh child of a landless labourer in Gadhinglaj, Kolhapur. He put himself to school on his own – and surprised the entire district by topping the matric exams of Bombay state in 1942. His achievement was noticed – and he ended up getting admitted to the prestigious BHU (There were no IITs those days.) He continued his further education in the US – getting a Masters degree in hydrology. He spent 5 years in the US – primarily to repay family debts – and came back to India to join the newly started Damodar Valley Corporation, which was putting up a dam in a remote area in Bihar.  

Thanks to his dad’s job, Bhanu’s growing up was in Bihar. After finishing his schooling in 1974, Bhamu joined the engineering program at BITS Pilani. Bhanu feels that somewhere between the ages of 12 to 15 most kids realize what they want to do in life. (I differ here – I got that enlightenment at the ripe old age of 26) Bhanu grew up with the Meccano as his favourite toy. Growing up in Bihar, he would spend hours building his own small earth moving equipment, which he would see in mines close to his home. His role models at that age were bulldozer operators. In his mind he was clear that he was going to be a tinkerer of stuff that moves. In the seventies, BITS Pilani offered a 5 year program with the branch being decided looking at your performance in the first two years. Bhanu’s acads were not strong enough to get him into mechanical, and BITS offered him a major in pharmacy. 

Bhanu’s advice to kids was that plan B should not be drastically different from plan A. If medicine is plan A, then plan B should be pharmacy, not engineering. Bhanu may have accepted an electrical engineering course, but getting pharmacy was Bhanu’s plan Z. (Having said that, all his friends who did go on to do pharmacy, ended up getting lapped up by top notch pharma companies at campus.) Bhanu quit BITS Pilani and headed back to Mumbai. In hindsight, this early failure in life has helped him a lot. He always attacks failures now with a solution mentality. He got accepted at VJTI’s civil engineering program as a lateral entry into the second year. Even that was not good enough for Bhanu – so he ended up starting from scratch in the mechanical apprenticeship program at Mazgaon docks and from there on a career in the merchant navy.  

The merchant navy fleet strength across the world is about 80,000. There are broadly 5 types of ships in the merchant navy fleet: passenger, general cargo, bulk cargo, containers and tankers. Safety norms are the highest for tankers since their cargo is usually flammable. These vessels are built with special safety features to ensure that leaks do not happen. In addition, all tanker crews need to complete many additional safety courses and demonstrate their ability to handle emergencies. Tanker crews need to follow safe working habits such as no smoking on deck, no creation of sparks, hotspots and the like. Mistakes can be expensive and deadly.

A typical vessel requires a crew of 20. The lower ranks are dominated by Filipinos, Chinese, Burmese and Bangaldeshis. Bhanu feels that the reason for this is that these guys have very limited opportunities in their own countries – and hence there is a lot of pressure for labour to emigrate. Also, deck side guys don’t have too many options on shore. Since the supply of labour in these countries exceeds demand so much, there is pressure on the guys who are onboard ships to perform. If the captain gives an adverse report, the agent can choose from a long waiting list for the next journey. In the higher ranks, the proportion of Indians is higher. Possibly, because these ranks require better communication skills. But one thing we must keep in mind, is that life in the merchant navy is quite a physical one. No desk-arm-chair jobs. One of the interesting side effects is that you never see any pot bellied merchant navy men. 

The lingua franca onboard ships is English. However Japanese and Russian ships are exceptions. They continue to use their mother tongues aboard the ship. Wonder how they communicate with other ships / harbour personnel on international journeys. Most of the official communication happens through email – so I guess translation softwares will ease the pain. Morse code and radio officers are passé.

Bhanu joined a foreign shipping company as a joke played on him by his friends. In those days, foreign companies were not preferred by the apprentices. These companies had a reputation of being tough task masters. Bhanu’s first duty was in 1982 onboard the M/V Progresso Argentino, a 1964 built, 4-hold, 14,000 mt general cargo ship plying between the USA and South America. This was also the first time he flew in a plane. It took him 3 days to get from Mumbai to New Orleans. He ended up having a chief engineer who was a terror. He made Bhanu work like a slave. But at the end of 12 months, Bhanu was promoted to fourth engineer on the 1956 built M/V Al.Haider a 4-hatch, a 14,000 mt, general cargo ship plying between Asia, Africa and Europe. He signed-off at Chittagong scrapyard, where the vessel was beached and broken-up.

In 1984, the Indian certificates were derecognised across the world, thanks to some lapses on part of the Indian authorities. His employers insisted that if he were to continue his job, Bhanu would have to recertify himself. These were recessionary times in the shipping world – but Bhanu put in all his savings and shifted to England to get himself recertified – and in the process got a tanker certification too. He got a job on a bulk cargo ship as soon as he finished his course. But the ship contract got cancelled in the recession and Bhanu returned to India jobless. At that time the shipping world was undergoing a  massive recession, which bankrupted the weak players and forced even the mighty names in shipping companies such as P&O, Nedlloyd, Scindia, American President Lines, NOL Singapore, SCI India, to re-think their business strategy or perish. It was a particularly dark period for Merchant Navy officers and crew. A particularly shocking incident was when SCI, a government of India major ship operator with over 200 ships, suddenly sacked 300 2nd Officers who had just completed 3yrs of cadetship onboard SCI ships and cleared their 2nd Mate examinations! This nightmare continued from 1981 to 1989. Baptism by fire for the young Bhanu. 

In such bad times, Bhanu was surprised that a British company picked him up for a tanker assignment, on a promotion of third engineer – and all that even though he had not had a single day of experience on a tanker. And that too for a dream job of taking delivery of M/T Golden Fleece, a 92,000 dwt, double-hull tanker at the Hyundai shipyard in Ulsan. Bhanu did not get touched by the recession – the only reason is because he used that time to invest in himself. And that is what his advice is to all of us. He feels that a can do – will do – attitude is what will take you through recessions. Maybe an early failure at BITS Pilani also helped Bhanu become more resilient when it came to facing recessions. He has become an opportunist, who when he falls into a pond, has a bath and comes back. Getting his ships pass through inspection is a big challenge for a vessel owner – and Bhanu though his work – and relationship management skills – ensures that this has always happened. His management style is never to sack – because he feels that if a guy is not working well, it is Bhanu’s fault not the guy’s. Never leave anything for your boss, when he gives you a job.

The merchant navy has a long history of many centuries. And one cannot imagine the next few centuries without a merchant navy. Water transport is much more efficient than road transport – so the navy will continue to do that job. What could happen, methinks, is that crew size aboard the ships could shrink further – and go down to single digits. For example, if ships start running on batteries and motors, which require much lesser maintenance, the engine team (maybe we can re-baptize them as the motor team) will not need as many people. Similarly if Tesla’s self driving technologies start coming in for navigating ships, then you may need fewer people in the deck side team. (Comment from Bhanu: The present ship design is a no frills one. Expensive AI is not the answer when very high damages are recovered in case of accidents or oil-spills. Electric propulsion is nowhere on the horizon for the foreseeable future.)

We were interested in knowing what happens to a ship when it encounters a severe storm. Modern ships are not supposed to nor are they designed to withstand full-blown storms, typhoons, hurricanes or cyclones. This is because all ships compulsorily receive local weather forecasts daily, and must route their voyages accordingly. But human error does happen and I have seen a few storms. But even then they do end up getting stuck in a few. The role of the engineering department in such situations is to ensure that the ship is prepared to face such kinds of battles with nature. An engine that does not work in such a situation means that the ship becomes a huge floating log. A leaking hatch can also be the end of the ship. He had an interesting comment to make – in such situations the ship itself is the best lifeboat. So the crew will do their best to not let it sink. Most of the responsibility in storms is with the deck side team – but the Chief engineer and the captain work as a team – and need to advise each other regularly. Bhanu recounted an interesting typhoon that they encountered off the coast of Yokohama in Japan. Winds were howling at 180 kmph. Although they were aboard a reasonable large ship, they got tossed around quite a bit – with the deck under water. Here is Bhanu’s first hand account of the sailing:

“We were on a Chevron ship. We had completed cargo discharge in Yokohama port and been repeatedly reminded by the port to leave asap, as a massive typhoon was expected that night. All ships had left port, which is the norm  when a major storm is expected. But we were in the middle of a grand party to celebrate 25 years in service of some senior hands. Result, we departed about 4 hours late !!! Soon our small 39,000 mt tanker, empty with just ballast, was being flung around amidst huge towering waves and massive rollers with crazy wind speeds, surf blasting our portholes. I remember seeing the ships bow (front part) go vertically up to above the height of the bridge mast and then the next moment our accommodation / the deck house (at the back  of the ship) go up in the air, whole ship shuddering as the engine would over-speed with the propeller well  out of the water !!! The mountainous sea and winds so violent that our 48 yr old fitter (Norwegian), was flung out of his bunk bed despite its safety side walls fully raised to prevent such a happening, but this did happen and he broke two ribs – and thus snatching our ship’s “NO ACCIDENTS ONBOARD FOR 1465 CONSECUTIVE DAYS” safety record! 

As you can well imagine, such violent pitching caused all the main engine sump oil to alternately rush forward causing the LO pumps to loose suction, activate LO low pressure alarms and give MAIN ENGINE ABNORMAL ALARMS !! This was a somewhat unique situation, as I, 3rd Engineer (a teetotaller) happened to be on UMS Duty in my cabin that night, was the only engine officer in his senses, while the entire ship slept peacefully, dead drunk after the party, including the Icelandic Chief Engineer, Danish 2nd Eng. With each such major alarm I would risk taking the Lift, which thankfully gave no trouble despite 25-30’ rolling, as I would rush down the 6 floors to the Engine Control Room to reset alarms, return to my cabin, try and get some sleep till the next alarm happened !! Were I to reach late, God forbid, and had the Main Engine shutdown even once, we might have lost the ship as the rolling would have completely gone out of control and other machinery failed too.”

We end with some personal notes about our man. Bhanu’s favourite game is Badminton. He remembers that when he was growing up, the family had a badminton court in its garden. In 1980 & 1981, he participated in the 1st & 2nd International Himalayan Car Rally as Service team Manager. tracking and repairing the competition vehicle to stay in the race. Being in the support team meant that you have to ensure that the car is up and running asap in the event of a breakdown. In his first rally, only half of the participating teams managed to finish – his team being one of them. The second time around – a broken differential was the end of the story for the team. However, Bhanu did build up a reputation as an expert mechanic. One of the team’s sponsors entrusted Bhanu to repair his Ford Mustang. And in doing so, Bhanu ended up using it for 28 days – and impressing his future wife along the way. 

Bhanu married Abha, his girlfriend of 4 years in 1985. They have a daughter, Sanjana, who was born in 1990. She is enrolled in a Masters/PhD program in environmental sustainability at University of Freiburg in Germany. During the long vacations that he gets in the Merchant Navy he does an immense amount of environmental volunteer work. Talking of sea creatures – dolphins are sighted quite regularly. But what Bhanu remembers quite clearly is journeying with a swarm of whales for a day. They had been warned by the local wildlife authorities and were told to do their best to avoid getting close to the blue whales. Their presence is marked by the steam spouts that they release when they come to the surface for breathing. 

Bhanu’s parting advice to the younger generation: 

Roll with the punches. Be flexible to reduce the impact of blows that life hands out to you. 

Whoever tries to succeed, will succeed. 

Make very good friends.

Be true to yourself. 




Appendix: Careers @ Sea


Navigation, ship handling, cargo calculations, cargo loading and unloading operations, deck maintenance, catering Ch.Cook, cabin steward



Captain / Master, Overall Vessel in-charge, Owners representative

Ch.Off, Head Of Deck Department

2nd Off, 

3rd Off, 

Deck cadets (optional) =>  Need to do 1 – 3 yrs BSc Nautical Science or other options

Deck Crew

Bosun, Crew In-charge                                    

Pumpman / Deck fitter (optional), 

3 or more ABs (Able Bodied seaman), 

1 or 2 OS (Ordinary Seaman or trainee seaman)




Assist Ch.Off, 

Keep 0400 – 0800 and 1600-2000 hrs watchkeeping on Bridge / Wheelhouse with him, help with anything and everything, typically chipping and painting on-deck, cleaning and squaring-up, inventory keeping etc.  14 – 20 hrs daily

In personal free time study for examination, complete TAR Book, (Training-Record-Book) to qualify for DG-Shipping examinations after cadet sea-time.



Heavy manual work on open deck, inside hatches or cargo tanks in all weathers with adequate PPE, rain, snow, wind, day or night as per ship schedule and orders. Calls for excellent health, physical fitness.



For maintenance and repair of all equipment like SatNavs, radars, communications, cargo handling, main and auxiliary engines, power generators, motors, pumps, boilers, bilge oily-water separators, fresh-water-generator, alarm, monitoring and control systems and much more.



Chief Eng Off, Technical In-charge, Head of Engine Dept.,

2nd/Eng Off

3rd/Eng Off

4th /Eng Off (optional), 

Electrical / Electronic Off, 

Engine cadets (optional) => Normally 4-yr B.Tech Marine Engineering after Class XII


Engine Crew:



1-wiper (optional)



Report to 2/Eng.off. As most Engine Rooms are UMS (Unmanned Machinery Space), assist duty engineer with Log book, watch-keeping and maintenance work; Detail prep for 4/E jobs as it will be his next assignment on gaining certification. 10 – 15 hrs daily

In personal free time study for examination, complete TAR Book, (Training-Record-Book) to qualify for DG-Shipping examinations after cadet sea-time.



Heavy, extensive, manual jobs E/R conditions, typically 35 – 50’C temperature, about 120dB sound (80dB is max normal human limit), hence ear-protectors are necessary PPE. Large no of pipes, valves, power and control cabling for all machinery along with machinery alarms that need prompt attention. Engine Room service calls for physical fitness, dedication, seriousness, attention to detail, as too many factors, slip-ups can easily happen. 



Before taking admission to any course, BSc. Nautical, B. Tech Marine or equivalent, it is advisable to seek sponsorship from some shipping company to ensure you have a confirmed ship job on completion. On the other hand, if you don’t get any opening or change your mind about going to sea, then after graduation a possible PLAN-B could be to use this marine degree as a stepping stone to higher education such as MBA or MSc etc, but do investigate in advance.

Due to lower wages and superior productivity of other nationalities at lower ranks, (Filipinos, Chinese, Bangladeshis, Burmese, Nigerian etc), Indians find it quite difficult to enter foreign shipping even at 3rd Engineer / 2nd Off level and hence many prefer to join Indian flag vessels in their initial years. It is therefore imperative to be very good in your work, keep the boss happy, and remain with the same employer for as long as possible.

As a general rule, unlike ship’s Engineers who are high quality, hands-on engine and machinery technicians, Deck Officers do not have any particular skill usable on land and hence find it very hard to get a well-paying job on land in case they need to leave the merchant navy. One result of this is the constant OVER SUPPLY of Deck Officers at all ranks ESPECIALLY CAPTAINS, whereas this is not normally the case with Engine Officers who often leave sea service for an easier life on land after 45-50. This IMPORTANT POINT must also be considered when making your choices: Shouldn’t you be employable in case you have to leave the ship?