By his own admission, it was not until he walked up the gangway of an ageing oil tanker that Captain Geoff English finally found his calling in life. After being all adrift at school and college, he was starting out as a cadet, kick starting a remarkable 50-year career that has seen him rise through the ranks to Master Mariner, working for a long list of blue chip companies all over the world, with offshore oil and gas and renewables as a main focus. A staff consultant mariner and warranty surveyor with Waves Group, he is finally taking a well-earned retirement. However, having been elected Senior Warden of the Honourable Company of Master Mariners, it looks as if he is not done with seafaring just yet.
Geoff was born in 1950 in Gateshead, a gritty industrial town in the northeast of England. Despite living on the doorstep of the River Tyne he recalls having little interest in the shipyards and docks that lined it. He moved to Yorkshire in the mid ‘60’s with his family and finished his schooling as “an undistinguished pupil at a very distinguished grammar school”. Having failed to make the grade academically, he ended up taking a business studies course, where, once again, his performance was less than satisfactory. “At that point,” he adds, “I was adrift and significantly unfocussed. Don’t ask me for the thought process but I eventually decided to apply for a cadetship with BP. There came a point, half way through my initial interview when the tone of the conversation changed from ‘if you were to join us’ to ‘when you join us’.” The rest, as they say, is history.
He joined the company as 1970 drew to a close and a few weeks later began working on his first ship, the rusting and well-worn MV British Flag. It was hard work but enjoyable, he remembers. Seemingly in the right place at the right time, he gained early promotion and found himself sailing as Second Mate within the four-year term of his cadetship. Then, just before sitting his Master’s exams, he was a promoted to First Mate.
The academic spark that Geoff had once apparently lacked kicked in and he passed all his professional exams first time round. After gaining his Master’s certificate he was appointed permanent First Mate on a black-oil product tanker, a position that was abruptly terminated after only two trips when the vessel was sold. By chance, he was made First Mate on one of a small fleet of ships, which BP Tankers manned on behalf of BP Exploration, opening an unlooked-for window on another world. “Tankers were good, offshore was great,” is how he puts it.
In all, Geoff spent almost 16 years with BP broken by a brief spell with Ocean Fleets, where he worked on general cargo vessels and bulk carriers. Having been made redundant in the “great offloading” in 1986, he became self-employed, deepening his involvement in the burgeoning offshore sector. The next couple of years were spent on a succession of contracts on various offshore construction vessels, including the cutting-edge Smit semi-submersibles, and also spells as Bargemaster and Barge Engineer on semi-sub and jack-up rigs. Although he found the work interesting, it was insecure and ultimately unsatisfying.” I’d seen people with my qualifications and background doing more interesting things and I wanted to be there as well,” he says. However, there was one development in his life that he had no doubts about – his marriage to the love of his life, Val, whom he had met while at South Shields Nautical College and she was a student at Durham University.
Geoff went on to secure a position on a survey ship carrying out seismic work in the Forties Oilfield in the North Sea, one of his old patches. Coincidentally, he was working for a boss who’d been Mate on his second trip as a cadet and it was as good a start as any to his work as a surveyor/rig-mover/consultant that lasted for nearly 25 years. One never-to-be-forgotten episode of that job was witnessing at first hand the immediate aftermath of the horrific Piper Alpha oilrig explosion in 1988 in which 167 men died. He was back at Piper two years later as Offshore Marine Superintendent for the Piper Redevelopment Project.
The next 20 or so years were spent in a series of mainly offshore projects and jobs, some long, many short, others memorable and, according to Geoff, the odd one best forgotten. They took him to Egypt, the Persian Gulf, West Africa, Canada, the Far East, Russia, North and South America and, occasionally, back to the North Sea. Over time, the scale and complexity of the projects gradually expanded and the words “marine warranty” entered the lexicon, starting with Miskar, offshore Tunisia with British Gas, through to spells in Mexico and the US Gulf. His biggest, most complex and, in many ways, most frustrating job was with Sakhalin Energy in Russia, where he was involved in what was at the time the world’s largest float-over installation.
Geoff’s CV is as long as it is impressive with Exxon Mobil, Total, BP Tullow Oil and Shell featuring on a lengthy list of big-league clients. His marine warranty experience also includes various offshore windfarm installations in the UK and Europe, including an early floating wind turbine installation and hook-up in Norway for StatoilHydro. Meanwhile, his expertise in all manner of maritime operations has seen him work with insurance brokers, P&I Clubs and lawyers on incidents of cargo loss and contamination and personal injury.
In 2011, Geoff was offered a job with Waves Group, (incorporating Cwaves and Mwaves). It seemed an appropriate time to make a change as the father-of-two had recently moved from Yorkshire to Suffolk, making working in London possible. He thought he would only stick around for five years but ended up staying for 11, describing it as an interesting journey in which he has seen the company grow, and entailed mostly sitting behind a desk instead of in an airport departure lounge or freezing on a windy jetty in the middle of nowhere.
Diligent, amiable and knowledgeable, he looks back on his brilliant career with fondness, recalling the many characters he’s met along the way, as well as the good times and great arguments – the warranty surveyor is rarely the most popular guest at the feast! He also believes that, when it comes to the big breaks, it was down to sheer good luck more than anything else, venturing, “I’ve been very fortunate with chance encounters and happenings.”
The truth is, despite his expertise, Geoff has never lost his thirst for knowledge or willingness to go that extra mile. “There’s also been the learning aspect ever since I walked up the gangway of my first ship and I don’t imagine it’ll just stop when I walk out of the office for the last time,” he says.
But it looks as though he will not be turning his back on the sea any time soon. Ten years ago, he joined the Honourable Company of Master Mariners in the City of London, an eclectic body of seafarers that provides support and advice in relation to all things nautical. After joining the Education and Training and Technical committees, he now sits on the governing body as Senior Warden and will hopefully be Master of the Company in 2023-24. “It’s a funny old life really, you never know what’s round the next corner,” he declares with his usual good cheer.