Seafarer Stories: Yrhen Bernard Balinis, Ordinary Seaman

SAFETY4SEA: What do you love the most out of your career at sea?

Yrhen Bernard Balinis: There are no two days which are ever the same in this profession. The uncertainty of what tomorrow will bring; the thrill of surprises waiting on a brand new day— those are the things that draw me back to the oceans.

Growing up, people would always say to me “This kid will go places!”, and never in my imagination did I think of taking that literally. My passions have always centered in exploration and freedom. Before becoming a sailor, I was an active campus journalist bagging awards for my college, Mariners’ Legazpi. Now that I look back, I have come to the understanding that there are more similarities of becoming a journalist, and being a seafarer than what I originally knew. That these two are not of opposite poles and you can be one without sacrificing the other. Both of them offer the thrill for the adventure of going places, and the longing for freedom— all of which define the entirety of me.

I’m a seafarer by profession but a writer by heart. And we can all agree that creative juices flow richer with the melodious sound of waves, the calming starry moonlit night while a soft breeze slowly caresses the pages of your notebook as you glide your pen to what will be a part of your memoir. The seas indeed have a therapeutic effect (not until it rocks-and-rolls the entire vessel— but even then, it can also be a source of inspiration).

And of course, as mainstream as it sounds, I also love immersing myself on another culture. For what better way is there than living with them for nine months on a floating community?


S4S: What have you learned over the course of your career at sea?

Y.B.B.: I learned so many— be it technical or practical know-hows. But above all, I learned more about myself and that I am capable of the things I once thought I couldn’t. It made me realize that although I can do things alone, work will be much easier when shared, and rushing things will either diminish its quality or compromise your safety. There are other insights which I shared in my article with Royal Institute of Navigation (Navigation News, Sept/Oct 2020) and The Nautical Institute (Seaways, Oct 2020) written by a young navigator for a young navigator. If I will have to summarize my thoughts, it is that: Seafaring will shake your very core, question your long-held beliefs, seed doubt to your principles and alter your concept of living.


S4S: How would you describe your daily life at sea/ work in a few words?

Continuous learning progress.

In my contracts, I am always the all-around runner. My previous officers and captain put my job description best. They called me “the sanitation officer,” “the junior third mate,” “alternate to the alternate security officer,” and “the little captain.” I have no escape with the deck works since that is a part of being a holistic seafarer. The cleanliness of the lobby, ship’s office, and other common areas is also under my care earning me the title “sanitation officer.” I am also one of the “rust warriors” keeping the vessel in shipshape condition. However, my eyes are fixed on the goal of becoming an officer hopefully by next contract. I am treading the waters with the officer works believing that one should prepare for the next higher rank.)


S4S: What is the biggest challenge that you have to face on board?

Y.B.B.: Loneliness may be the unanimous answer for seafarers. The contributing factors being: we are away from family, the absence of social cohesion, no culture of supportiveness, and a lack of sense of purpose.

When you are a young starry-eyed dreamer, you may have envisioned of creating an impact that will echo long after you’re gone. A nagging feeling of lack of sense of purpose will therefore eat you alive when you feel that you are wasting away nine months on an isolated metal prison. Experience taught me that when it arises, you have to step back and reassess: am I happy with what I’m doing? Will my current actions create the reality I imagined? Are my skills and capabilities aligned here? Am I willing to strengthen my strengths and weaken my weaknesses? If you answered no to any of the above, then it’s time you re-evaluate your decisions in life.


S4S: What is your piece of advice to fellow crew members onboard?

Y.B.B.: Unless your name is Atlas the world does not rest on your shoulders. You do not own all the problems of the world, nor should you own them. Loosen up, you look so tensed. Relax. Shake off that negative energy. Smile; the world looks brighter when you do. Turn that frown upside down believing that your time will soon come. Count the days but never forget to make the days count. I know that you are doing your best even in these challenging times in a pandemic— your family is proud of you, your children (and siblings) look up on you, and your country applauds your heroic deeds keeping the economy afloat. Above all, know that you are never alone.


S4S: What inspires you every day onboard?

Y.B.B.: The idea that I am doing something that will alleviate my family’s standards of living; that I may be able to give back to them and provide them the life they so-deserve; these are what wake me up in the morning. My family has always been my source of inspiration. We, Filipinos are known for being extremely family-oriented, I am of no exception; until such time that I have my own family, all of my efforts are directed for their benefit. The fulfillment of my family’s dream is my dream.


S4S: What has been the most extraordinary thing that you have experienced onboard?

Y.B.B.: “People believe in you, and your unbelief to yourself is an insult to those who trust you. You are too busy doubting yourself when others are amazed by your potential.”

That is my key takeaway to what I recently experienced. I am aware of my relatively newness to the industry and thus by far this is my most extraordinary experience:

Before 2020 ended, The Royal Institute of Navigation launched their first W.G.P. Lamb Awards in recognition of “a major contribution to the development of a more navigable world by a younger person.”

I, imbued with the nothing-is-wrong-in-trying attitude, submitted my nomination form. I was my own proposer but was then faced with a dilemma! Who will be my seconder? I searched and reached out for my connections through social media. But since I am onboard and cannot personally present myself and my credentials, they declined. And when I was about to give up, as if by divine intervention, I remembered that I am in fact onboard, and who else is the most credible person that can attest my suitability for the award? My Captain! However, hesitation then again crept down to my spine. What if he does not sign? What if he thinks that I am not up to that level yet? Doubt started to seethe in my core. My mind is overthinking! Should I abort mission? But I have not come this far only to come this far! Shaking off the negativities, I decided to have second and chief officers endorse me to captain to strengthen my application. With some insane amount of courage (and a bit of luck), I presented my recent accomplishments along with the nomination form to Captain. And guess what happened… he signed! My eyes are welling up with tears! I was in the brink of abandoning my application for the award only to find out that my officers also believe that I have created a strong argument for my credentials. The RIN Awards Committee will still deliberate early 2021 on who will be the recipient of the first W.G.P. Lamb awards, but for me, I felt like I’ve won. That experience is a life-changer; it taught me to stop doubting myself and start trusting. That we are capable more than we think and sometimes it takes someone else to see those potentials.


S4S: What is the one thing that should change to make life better onboard?

Y.B.B: Colors should only be discriminated in rainbows never on skin. Your race, gender, age, religious belief and political inclination have nothing to do with how well you should be treated and respected. In a floating community detached from the rest of the world, the one thing that should be developed is a culture of support and learning.

Fostering an environment where communication flows freely; where people can speak their minds without fear; where mentoring is present— it is the utopia of seafaring, and a perfect ground for safety culture to flourish. As how The Nautical Institute emphasizes the value of mentoring, officers and engineers too must see the benefit of training the young bloods. For who else will soon relieve them and take the helm?

As I learned, mentoring does not always have to be hierarchical— it does not have to be from top to bottom. One can also learn from their subordinates. Let the cadets speak, they can also offer valuable insights. Listen to what they have to say. They are fresh from colleges and therefore theoretical knowledge is still ever-present. Also, in an age of automation and digitization, their tech know-hows may be put into good use. Who knows, the input that they are holding is the critical information you are missing.

The main factors for a successful mentor-mentee relationship as I observed are: language, willingness and enthusiasm. Language needs not to be English; it can be anything so long as both the mentor and the mentee can understand each other. I have had Russian, Ukrainian and Filipino officer-mentors; they all made me who I am today. This brings me to my next point.

Mentoring will only be successful if both parties are open to learning. Willingness and enthusiasm is therefore vital. Imagine delivering a speech to an audience who are yawning and disinterest is written all over their faces, would you feel continuing the presentation? Certainly not!

One can never underestimate the value of mentoring, especially in the eyes of a newcomer in the field. As somebody who has been taught, it gave me a sense of responsibility and accountability. Even just by doing the mundane tasks of maintaining the fire hoses, ventilation flaps, helping with the ENC updates, stationery and demonstrating during drills; those are huge confidence boosters. That somehow, somebody views me more than my rank, that I have potential. I just have to turn that potential energy to kinetic- into action. Teach the cadets and show them that you care and they will look up to you. Share your experience; look after them during mooring operations, it makes them feel belonged. The way that an officer will become in the future is largely reflective of how they were treated in their formative years as a cadet. As they say “it takes a village to raise a child” but I say “it takes a vessel to raise an officer.”


S4S: What piece of advice would you give to someone thinking a career at sea?

DONT (Acronym explained below)

Dedicate your great works for the greater good and the Greatest God;

Onwards, upwards, inwards— find that spark that will make your journey enjoyable;

Need help? Ask. People are born helpful. They are always willing to help;

There’s more! Read my articles with Royal Institute of Navigation and Nautical Institute for some of the things I wish somebody told me before I started sailing.

Sea you in the great big ocean! Onwards we sail to a stronger maritime industry!



The views presented hereabove are only those of the author and not necessarily those of  SAFETY4SEA and are for information sharing and discussion  purposes only.


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