From the bedroom window of his St John Street, East Dry River home, a five-year-old Wazim “Waz” Mohammed would gaze at ships as they sailed back and forth in the Port-of-Spain harbour. Ever since he could remember, he had been captivated by the vessels, a few of which his father Razak worked aboard. These ships would inspire Mohammed to combine the unique qualities of capturing maritime vessels on paper and following in his father's footsteps to answer the call to go to sea.
Recently Mohammed's collection of drawings of maritime vessels and scenery was featured when the Shipping Association of Trinidad and Tobago presented “Maritime Art Exhibition” an evening of art at Scott Bushe Street, Port-of-Spain. Though some of his drawings hang in places like the Panama Canal Administration office, Panama, local coastguard offices and maritime companies, or have been gifted or sold to navy officers, and maritime art lovers in England, France and other parts of the world, Mohammed told Sunday Guardian he does “maritime illustrations” simply as the hobby he started as a child. His main role is that of a marine pilot with the Trinidad and Tobago Pilot's Association.
As a marine pilot, Mohammed advises on and manoeuvres vessels entering ports in T&T using tug boats and various controls such as thrusters. Explaining that a marine pilot is a ship's captain who works on behalf of a port, he said ports throughout the world, from New York and Fort Lauderdale in the US to the Panama Canal in Panama, to the Yangtze River Delta in China and Sydney in Australia, have marine pilots. Such pilots are responsible for the safety of the ships they are navigating, and other nearby vessels and for the protection of the harbour they are entering.
Wazim Mohammed's rendering of the Port-of-Spain II the dredger that shaped his childhood and career.
“It's part of the law of every maritime nation that foreign vessels entering their local waters will carry a local guide. So basically we board the ships, advise the captains and monitor how they are coming in because we know the local conditions, where to turn and when to slow down, the use of the tugs, communication to the ports etc,” Mohammed said.
“It would be hard for a captain to simply go from here to China and come in on the Yangtze Delta (China's main waterway) or go into the Hong Kong harbour which is a very heavily trafficked harbour and anchorage. So, that's where the local knowledge comes in.”
To perform such a role, Mohammed had to obtain his Master Mariner licence (unlimited). He did so in the UK and is authorised to captain ships of unlimited tonnage anywhere in the world. Before becoming a marine pilot, Mohammed sailed internationally for years on LNG tankers, methanol tankers, and aboard large passenger and car ferries between England and France before taking up posts locally as chief officer of the T&T Express, the T&T Spirit and captain of the water taxis under the National Infrastructure Development Company (Nidco).
He also captained the Jaden Sun a small fast ferry which operated between Kingstown, St Vincent and its smaller islands Bequia, Canouan, Mayreau and Union Island, and which also provided service between Montserrat and Antigua.
Like his father, Razack, who had been a seaman for 36 years, Mohammed has docked at numerous ports across the globe at various stages in his career. Countries like Brazil, Mexico, the Mediterranean, Algeria, Libya, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and England make up his long list of stops.
Wazim Mohammed, second from right, with a navigation team on the cross channel British ferry Pride of Burgundy.
He has crossed the equator three times, having sought permission from the Roman god of the sea Neptune on his first crossing, as is customary for sailors. Mohammed has witnessed the ocean's bountiful and beautiful wildlife, striking sunrises and sunsets and has enjoyed doing navigation by stars at dusk and dawn where a device called a sextant would help him measure the angle of stars or other celestial bodies in relation to the horizon to determine the ship's position. Of course, he also has experienced the adverse side of the sea, having endured harsh weather conditions and storms.
An avid reader of books about Vikings, explorers like Columbus, Francis Drake, Ferdinand Magellan, James Cook, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn adventures along with other maritime topics, finally having the opportunity to sail alongside old steamboats on the Mississippi in his early career was a glorious moment for Mohammed. So too was docking in New York Harbour, NYC around 1999 as a trainee and gazing with wonder at the Statue of Liberty and the New York Twin Towers up close for the first time. Sadly, two years later the Towers would be cut down in the 9/11 attacks, Mohammed lamented.
The sea captain thoroughly enjoyed his time aboard the LNG tanker Isabella which loaded in Algeria for Gas Natural Fenosa of Spain, and docked at Barcelona every five or six days, and shared fond memories of the Pride of Burgundy a large British passenger ferry that sailed between England and France, but the old dredger that his father worked aboard from around 1978/79 and the very first ship he boarded will remain ever dear to him.
Growing up on the hills in East Dry River, overlooking the Port-of-Spain harbour, the ships he saw from his home engaged his imagination.
“When dad was on board the dredger I would see when they were going out to dump or when they were actually dredging, so I picked up the call of the sea from him at a young age,” Mohammed recalled.
Dredgers are vessels that dredge or remove silt or debris from the bottom of the harbour, to deepen the harbour for ships to better navigate and reshape the seabed for improved drainage. Mohammed's father, a motorman, would speak to the captain, or first engineer for permission for Mohammed and his older brother to board the ship.
“We'd get the launch and go out to the dredger. One guy would grab me and pull me across and he would climb up. I made my first steps as a baby aboard that dredger.”
Wazim Mohammed with his parents, Razack and Lutchmin Mohammed, a few months before his father's passing in 2017.
The dredger the Port-of-Spain II became his playground, his second home, and its crew his “godfathers”. It was on that very dredger that around age five or six that Mohammed began to nurture a love for drawing vessels. His father's crew members would encourage him.
The Rosary Boys' RC and St Mary's College graduate never missed an opportunity to tour ships that docked at Port-of-Spain, offering viewings to the public. He would often draw them as well and give the drawings to his father's co-workers. The others he kept and started building a portfolio. The back pages of his copybooks were often covered with drawings, and not even some licks Mohammed collected from one of his teachers one day could not deter him from his beloved pastime.
On completing his secondary education, he landed a job as a trainee officer or cadet on his first vessel the Alcoa Steamship Company based in Tembledora, Carenage, in December 1996.
“My father had sailed there and he had actually written to his former boss who was close to retirement and vice president for Maritime Operations Alcoa in Pittsburgh. He got me on board for a couple of months just to get that break at sea, my first ship,” Mohammed informed.
His art, however, took a back seat as learning about navigation through chart work, navigating with compass radar, navigating with stars, and cargo aspects like loading cargo quickly became his focus. From learning about the operations of ships, he worked his way up to management and later captain.
Though Mohammed's father before him had “loved his time at sea,” after spending ten years traversing international waters and even seeing South Africa in the height of apartheid, the elder seaman had decided to take up home-based jobs. By 1976, he had secured a position through the Port Authority of T&T on the MV Tobago ferry.
“I'm grateful to the Port because the Port paid his salary that sent my brother (who formerly worked at TSTT and is now in telecommunications in Canada) and me to school, paid all the bills,” Mohammed said of his father's long-time employer.
Sadly, Mohammed's father passed away in 2017 due to terminal cancer. He is also grateful to him and his old crewmen whom he credits with fostering a love for the sea, maritime art and influencing his career. He still keeps in touch with those who are still alive.
Praising his mother, Lutchmin Mohammed, he said she had always been his pillar of support.
Mohammed has been cultivating his little library of books about ships, ship captains and the maritime industry. Some of his sketches were yellow with age when he returned to drawing in 2019, but he invested in better quality materials and better cataloguing of his pieces.
The sea captain, who has also done a little part-time lecturing and interacted with “dedicated, brilliant” cadets while he captained the T&T Express and T&T Spirit, looks forward to continuing to work with students who have an interest in maritime studies at the UTT, Chaguaramas campus. With new generations of students pursuing fields like maritime logistics, and maritime surveying, he said the UTT, and by extension T&T, had the potential to energise the local maritime industry. Mohammed who knows of one female captain, one female marine pilot and “quite a few” females coming up through the UTT, believes women work just as hard as men in the local maritime industry. He said that while T&T was becoming more accepting of women as seafarers, there was a strong need to continue to promote women in the industry.
Q&A with Wazim Mohammed
Any interesting adventures or gripping moments at sea you can recall?
Crossing the equator. That is a tradition from centuries ago. When you cross the equator you ask King Neptune (Roman god of the sea) to cross. There is an interesting ceremony where you line up on deck and earn your certificate as one of Neptune's knights. My first trip to Brazil was fun; seeing the land of football and samba. Sailing on the English Channel ferry was fun as well. Scary times? There was some really bad weather there (English Channel) as well. We had to do some ice navigation going up to St Lawrence River and heading up there to Quebec in winter. Temperatures were in the -20 degrees and that was really bad for the ship, so we had to use ice breakers to carry us through.
Some of the roughest weather I've seen was about 40 to 50 foot-wave height going up to a place called Come by Chance, New Foundland in winter in 2005. It's not too far from where they filmed the movie The Perfect Storm. We got caught when we left. We had a German captain. I was a navigation officer at the time. There was a hurricane-force storm due to hit the area; what you call a frontal system. Eventually, when we were leaving, we got caught in the tail end of that storm and then another storm came on top of it, and then another one again. So for about five or six days the ship, we had to heave to, which means you're not travelling in your intended direction. You slow down the ship and you put the ship into the heave with the waves just slightly off the bow and you ride it out. But we got a real bashing. Things were breaking, the ceiling, banners falling, detriment outside.
How would you communicate with your family back home while you were at sea?
We had satellite phone calls but those were very expensive, US$4 or US$5 a minute according to where you were and the system that you were using. So that would basically be a one-minute call maybe once a week to make sure everything was OK.
While you were captain or as a marine pilot, was there any tough decision you had to make, anything that challenged you?
Sometimes things are routine. At other times, things happen that are not routine and sometimes you have to think outside the box, use your judgment, and think about the crew and people you're working with. Sometimes if there's an emergency, you have to make decisions on the spot, and if you make decisions in this industry, I guess just like with airline pilots, you have to follow through. You can't second guess yourself or switch off and say let me come back to it tomorrow. You have to be proactive. It is the responsibility for people's lives, the environment and people's property as well. There's a lot of pride in having a career at sea.
Of the sea captains, sea heroes and even villains you've read about, who would you compare yourself to?
Admiral Horatio Nelson. He was a British Admiral who won the major battle for Britain–The battle of Trafalgar against France in 1805. It stopped Napolean from crossing into England. He was a great naval leader and his crew had a great respect for him. His ship the HMS Victory is about 250 years old, a commissioned warship in the Royal Navy, sits on dry dock in Portsmouth and I've had a chance to visit it twice. Other people that come to mind are Juan Sabastian de Elcano, Harold La Borde and his wife and my daddy.
Mohammed wishes to dedicate this article to his parents, and the crews of the vessels of the Port Authority of Trinidad and Tobago, Marine Division.