The best navigator steers future captains to excellence

  • 2009-10-15
  • Interview by Linas Jegelevicius

Ricardas Lucka, the 70-year-old ex-captain and president of the Captains' Club in Klaipeda, doesn't tell his would-be seafarers and future captains about sirens or the dangers of the Bermuda Triangle, as one might hear in the Caribbean region. 'Ship steering,' as he calls it, the most 'earthy' subject at the Lithuanian Maritime Academy in Klaipeda, has brought him his students' respect as 'the best navigator.' With 15 years behind the ship's steering wheel and 14 years as the Second Officer at Klaipeda Seaport, the youthful retiree has much to share. Every two weeks he presides over the Captains' Club, the only club of its kind in Lithuania, where former- and active-duty captains alike deliberate on issues regarding maritime heritage, youth outreach, the strengthening of Lithuania's two maritime schools. The Baltic Times sat down for an interview with the exuberant Captains' Club president.

To my knowledge, former captains cannot complain too much about their social security benefits. You could spend your days cradling your grandchildren, or catching plaice somewhere, but instead, you have chosen the life of an active retiree. Don't you want to live a stress-free and worry-free life?
I am convinced I would not be happier if I sat around doing nothing. I love being among young people - my students. After all those years at sea I have a lot to share with future captains, boatswains, and mariners. When I started my job at the Lithuanian Maritime Academy, for two years I held the position of Head of the Navigation Department, but then I started feeling that the job was somewhat bureaucratic, so I asked to be transferred to the lecturer's position. It feels great to deal with young people every day. I feel energized when teaching.

When you see a group of young people in front of you in the class, can you predict who will be a good captain and who won't?
No, I cannot. I am not a prophet. How can you judge about someone that you have known for just a year or so? However, when my students reach the fourth school year, we know each other much better, so then I feel capable of saying who could be a good seafarer, but not captain. I can tell from my own experience that those students who were very diligent and tended to score excellent grades at the maritime school weren't that good with their practical skills afloat, and vice versa.

What characteristics make for an excellent captain?
First of all, the student has to devote himself completely to his profession. Being a seafarer is more than a profession. It is a lifestyle. One ought to have that in mind. I cannot imagine a captain who is insincere, unfair or narrow-minded. Every captain-to-be should be knowledgeable.

The Captains' Club will celebrate its ten year anniversary next year. What prompted its founding?
Such a club is not a completely new thing. We used to have two of these clubs during the Soviet era. When Lithuania proclaimed its independence, the previous clubs, under the new laws, had to undergo new registration. However, most captains of Russian nationality were not keen on joining the newly established club, so eventually it became a club of Lithuanian captains. Nevertheless, I want to make clear that no restrictions regarding nationality are imposed on its members. Initially, the Captains' Club's goal was to protect captains throughout the process of the privatization of shipping, but it was not meant to be a type of trade union. Later its objectives became more 'humanitarian' 's taking care of maritime heritage, youth outreach and helping colleagues in need.

What achievements have been made over the past ten years?
The most important thing we have achieved is that we are here for each other when we feel the need. During the privatization, many captains lost their jobs, and I, then the Second Officer at Klaipeda seaport, was able to help them out providing jobs. We have been actively lobbying for increasing maritime student quotas at both maritime schools, and I am proud to say that this year we have three groups, instead of two, of sea-navigators. That is the result of our ongoing efforts to promote seafaring among schoolchildren.

Does Lithuania measure up to being a maritime country when it comes to expansion of its fleet and shipping?
No doubt, Lithuania matches the description of a naval country. We have all the institutions necessary 's the Marine Transportation Department at the Ministry of Transport and Communications, two marine schools. More importantly, we have our seaport and the fleet. However, I believe that our authorities place little importance on this fact. It has always been that way, starting with the great duke Gediminas, who extended his policy eastward, and ending with our high-profiled politicians, who tend sometimes to underestimate the fact that our nearest way westward is from Klaipeda. The maritime business has never been of major importance through Lithuania's ancient, medieval or modern history. I am sure that, even with expansion of the modern Klaipeda seaport, some possibilities remain overlooked. Generally, our Klaipeda seaport is quite competitive in comparison with other seaports in the region.

When speaking to the media a couple of years ago, you complained that because of privatization and maritime reformation, many gifted Lithuanian captains are undeservedly underestimated, or forgotten.
You see, not all our captains work under the Lithuanian flag. I mean such companies as LIMARKO or DFDS. However, many of them work for some shady foreign companies as well. The problem is that some of the companies are constantly avoiding paying European Union set salaries. Such dishonest employers make up reasons for getting rid of Lithuanian captains, instead choosing ones from non-EU countries, like Ukraine, Kaliningrad or Belarus. Regretfully, in such cases of violation of EU labor law, there is not much the Captains' Club can do. However, in such unfortunate cases our captains, who work for respected foreign companies abiding by EU laws, help their less fortunate counterparts by bringing them along. Our club plays a mediator's role in such cases.

What kind of philosophy do you wish to convey to future seafarers?
I like repeating that people who want to work at sea must be extremely strong, mentally and physically. Besides that, I stress the necessity to always be knowledgeable. I want them to believe that the world and the market is so global that, if they mess up during their first or second apprenticeship, the notoriety will spread globally, damaging their careers for years to come.

During the Soviet era, a seafarer's profession signified the possibility of breaking through the 'iron curtain' to bring in a stack of Levis jeans, that would be sold on the black market for the price of a month's salary. Has the profession lost its former charm?
Let me correct you. Each sailor was allowed to bring in only one pair of foreign jeans. Just imagine the awkward situation the sailors with two or three kids were put in. I recall a captain who asked a mechanic to procure another pair of jeans in his name was subsequently fired. It is now ridiculous to remember that! Being a seafarer now means having a regular, well-paid job.

Can you share some other cheery recollections from that era? Have you encountered any paranormal phenomena on high seas?
I have never seen a sea monster. I've never heard of disappearing ships in the so-called Bermuda Triangle. Honestly speaking, luck was on my side when crisscrossing the seas and oceans. I never experienced a shipwreck nor was I ever taken hostage. The most brilliant memories will never fade. Once I was on the captain's bridge when I noticed a streaming fountain on the horizon. When the ship got closer, I saw it was a huge whale resting on the surface. In another case, during a storm, a sailor fell from his upper bunk and sustained a serious concussion. When he recovered, he started writing maritime poems - quite well, we had to admit!

Do your children continue your best maritime traditions?
My son Darius graduated from Klaipeda University Maritime Institute. He never went to sea, but worked for a shipping agency for some time. He is a competitive windsurfer, so he spends quite a lot of time at sea anyway. We own a yacht, so from time to time I still get my chance to take a firm hold of the sail. o