Maritime; A Strange Trip. By Bob Burke

Maritime is a strange trip. It is worldwide and at the same time feels like living in a small village where everybody knows everybody.

Too often you run into somebody in some random maritime den of inequity and you both go: “Great to see you! Was it 30 years ago we last hung out?”

When I attended the HACC-NACC Shipping conference last month, Bob Burke, shipowner extraordinaire, was the luncheon speaker. I am sure Bob and I passed as ships in the night a number of times in the last few decades, but I had not worked with him or exchanged a word with him since probably the early 1990’s.

Nothing wrong with that. We both have been busy with shippy things and happened to be running in different trades. Bob is fun to hang out with though, and I was ready to enjoy his luncheon speech.

His speech was fun, but also one of those speeches that lays out the truth of maritime and actually was a wonderful recruitment speech for young people to start to think about careers in maritime.

This is a lightly edited version of his speech. Enjoy, and don’t hesitate to pass it on to young people who wonder what maritime is really about.

Bob Burke has the floor:

When Brian and Live asked me to speak, I asked them what topic they would like me to address. They annoyingly said: “anything you would like”.

Really “ANYTHING”? That’s kinda like when my wife asks me what I want for dinner, and I say: “whatever you feel like cooking”.  Her usual reply is: “You mean wherever you want to take me?”.

Brian and Live, you have left yourselves wide open, so I decided to talk about a favorite topic; well……… me.  Why not?

With all of The Ridgebury ships sold, I am at a crossroads, but since I turned 60 a few years ago, the term “crossroads” might be a bit inaccurate?  Maybe a fork?   Maybe I just need to decide to go on STBY or do something else?

Should I stay in shipping, or dedicate my time to some other higher pursuit?

Go climb a mountain, sit on a beach, explore the world some more? Work for a charity……..or just hang around with you guys in shipping.

Like The Clash song says: “Should I Stay, or Should I Go?”

I began to question my career: “Why have I been in this business for my entire life?”

We all know that the long-term financial returns in shipping are not great. We have zero control over the revenues. We have many, many, years of misery followed by a couple of years (like now) of complete euphoria.

Our public image is rotten. We are only in the press for really bad events.  So why are we all here and not in, say, tech, or banking. Or maybe, I don’t know, real estate?

What is it about this industry – our industry – that keeps us coming back for more?  People seem to get stuck here…… forever!

So, in order to find some real answers, I did some research. A real deep dive, which to me, being basically pretty lazy, consists of sending out a whole bunch of texts to as many people as I can in 30 minutes time.

Everyone answered me, most within minutes.  I asked people for their top reasons for sticking around in shipping.

There were a lot of real thoughtful responses, which I will get to shortly, but first I found these remarks entertaining as well as insightful:

We were allowed to leave?

From a broker: Two words……….Posidonia. NorShipping!

From an owner: It feeds my gambling addiction!

Or: Drinking and more drinking???

The industry-wide bottomless pit of optimism. In just six months rates will soar!!!

From an owner: Years of boredom – punctuated by episodes of sheer terror – interrupted by moments of bliss.

From a banker: The deeply rooted masochistic tendencies of the players!

From a broker: Well if I was a Banker, or a Lawyer, I couldn’t call my clients jackasses in the morning and close a deal with them in the afternoon.

From a charterer: When I lose a good row with my wife in the morning, I am all warmed up for my negotiations with a Greek when I get to the office!

Because the average IQ in the room makes me feel smart!

  • One of my favorites:

Great people and horrible rogues – and horrible people we can chose to ignore.


Big egos get to play with BIG toys

Big things are REALLY cool. Big things that move a lot of crap around the world are even cooler!

Everyone is stupidly notoriously constantly positive.

From a newbie: I got sucked in by the romance. I stayed for the drama. And now I am addicted!

We get to talk to crazy people; many of whom are smart!

          • And my personal favorite from my business partner Hew Crooks:

      You can outsource everything, even this speech, and still grab all the credit for yourself.


Now for the insightful comments that I promised earlier.

First, I can report that people really like this business, and that feeling went from newbies to retirees.

Almost everyone mentioned “The People”, as their first reason, and “International Aspect” as second, but in reality, the two go hand in hand.

Top mention was the camaraderie; the banter, the characters, the lifelong friendships across continents/cultures/religions/pandemics/international economic crises/wars/ and natural disasters.

Knowing and listening from completely different perspectives across the globe from people we know on a daily personal basis.

Having a first row seat on world events. Every day, every week, all life long.

Real diversity – not some silly acronym – or rules from an HR handbook; real understanding and acceptance of the rest of the world and our role in it all. Our industry’s role, the role of our own country and the role of other countries as expressed by people we know personally and whom we have grown to respect.

In our business we all knew the meaning of Ramadan, Chinese New Years, Orthodox Christmas, The Golden Week and numerous other national and religious holidays across the globe and across religions well before DEI was cool.

We actually live international lives.  We get our news from people we know, not filtered through the BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera, or the Chinese government or FOX.

It turns out that a good many of us came from modest backgrounds and in our wildest dreams we could not have anticipated the experiences that this industry has provided us.

I could hear in peoples’ voices, even 2-3-4 decades later, how they were completely dumbfounded to find themselves in London, Tokyo, Sao Paulo, Oslo, Shanghai or Singapore when they were 20 nothing years old.

One guy said: “At the age of 25 I find myself at the Dorchester in London negotiating with a Greek shipowner, how did that happen?”

Some of us have experienced the world starting as cadet at sea, then graduated to seeing the world as a superintendent, or a chartering manager or even a CEO.

Today’s Gen Z’s often say: “Oh yeah, I did Amsterdam”. We don’t “do” cities or countries. Traveling the world is part of our lives and speaking to people all over the world is an integral part of our lives.

Even today I find it pretty cool to run into a friend from London in the Cathay Pacific Lounge in Hong Kong, with me headed down to Singapore and him headed into China.

So I think I will stay in shipping.  Where am I going to go?  Real Estate?  How terribly boring!!

Values and rates don’t fluctuate 100%, 200% or more in a year!

No revolutions or wars are going to trap your assets on Fleet Street in London.

There are no Houti rebels lobbing bombs into the middle of Copenhagen, no Somali pirates taking over the Chrysler building this week.

Buildings don’t collide or sink. During the Pandemic they actually let your people out of the building when they are sick and get to the hospital!

So, no, I will stay here. In the little understood but terribly exciting and rewarding shipping industry, where I can hang out with all of you and enjoy our view of the world from a vantage point understood by few but fully appreciated by those of us lucky enough to be here today.

Live video of the speech can be found here.