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The MCA’s Officer Trainee of the Year Matt Gigg talks about Warsash Maritime Academy, cadetship and careers at sea

3rd January 2019

Matthew Gigg, 27, grew up in Plymouth and always had a fascination with the sea. As soon as he could walk, he could swim. He knew he wanted to work in, around, or on the water. He began sailing from a young age, which led to a job teaching watersports. But it was his thirst for adventure that propelled him to look into doing a Merchant Navy deck officer cadetship. 

We spoke to Matthew about his training at Solent’s Warsash Maritime Academy, what he hopes to achieve in his seagoing career, and the moment he found out he’d won the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA)’s Officer Trainee of the Year award. 

You recently received the MCA Officer Trainee of the Year award – congratulations! How did you feel when you found out? 

I was humbled and honoured to be nominated and win. I actually found out both at the same time! I was shocked and excited, and I’m still overwhelmed to have won. 

Why do you think you were chosen for the award? 

I faced a life threatening illness, but I didn’t let that affect my mental wellbeing or my approach to my studies. I saw it as my challenge, not my holdback. I applied myself to the course and my academics speak for themselves in the face of adversity. I like to think I was an integral part of my cohort and a good representative for Warsash at the events I attended. 

What was the award ceremony like? 

The ceremony was held at Trinity House in London. The building is spectacular – I would highly recommend anyone to visit it. The ceremony was small, around 100 people, but that made it more personal and more special. My proudest moment was having my fiancée and my family with me to see me receive the award. 

Matthew Gigg with his family outside Trinity House for the MCA Officer Trainee of the Year award

Tell us what made you want to work in the maritime industry, particularly as a deck officer in the Merchant Navy? 

While I loved teaching watersports, there was something niggling away. Something wasn’t fulfilling my needs, and I realised it was my thirst for adventure. I loved the idea of seeing the world. I spoke to a friend who was doing a cadetship, who told me about his course and his sponsoring company – from that point on, I was hooked! 

I did a lot of research and applied to a number of sponsoring companies, and was overjoyed to be offered a sponsorship with V.Ships (previously Bibby Ship Management).  

I couldn’t wait to get started. After six years out of education, the thought of going back to school was scary, but definitely worth the risk. I wanted to take on a cadetship as a challenge to myself.  

How did you come to study at Warsash? 

Cadets don’t really have much control in which maritime training college they end up at. Lots of the sponsoring companies send cadets to a college a long way from their home town to get them used to being away. Thankfully, as an older cadet, I had no issues with this. Warsash has a lot of prestige, and I feel it still boasts the best nautical training in Britain. 

Tell us about your training. What was the best thing about the lecturers and facilities at Warsash? 

Every lecturer has their own style of teaching, and you will not always get on with every lecturer or every teaching method. But you have to work past this, adapt and be versatile; the lecturers are ultimately there to help and get you through your cadetship, they don’t want to fail you! Every lecturer who taught me had an abundance of knowledge which was very useful to me.  

During my cadetship, the cadet training was transitioned from the old Warsash campus to St Mary’s, in the city centre. There were some teething problems, which was to be expected, and the transition happened just before my cohort’s SQA exams, which wasn’t the best timing, but we all passed. 

The facilities at St Mary’s are so much better. I think this new campus has a lot of potential and will continue to supply the merchant navy with officers trained to the best standard. 

Has anything you learned during your academic studies really stuck with you? 

I found I had a real passion for celestial navigation. I loved the stories behind the stars and I loved being able to replicate what seafarers of old used to do. I loved learning how to use a sextant – and this actually came in handy in my orals! 

What was your first sea phase like? Was is what you expected? 

My first sea phase was busy! It was a four-month trip on Foreland Vessels’ roll-on-roll-off (ro-ro) cargo ships. I loved it. I had an amazing chief officer who was very knowledgeable about celestial navigation. He knew I had a passion for it and was more than willing to pass his knowledge on to me. 

I would advise any cadet to get off ship as much as possible to explore every location, because as an officer you won't get as many opportunities to do so. During my cadetship I visited countries such as China, Oman and Bahrain.

The first trip is always the hardest. It’s the unexpected. It’ll be different to your classmates’. No two cadetships are the same and as soon as you stop comparing and competing, the more enjoyable yours will be. It doesn’t matter if someone sailed on a cruise ship and you were on a bulk carrier – you will have both done things that will help you progress your own career. 

Matthew Gigg on board a container ship

Did the academy or university give you any help or support when you needed it? 

Yes. I had a life-threatening illness during my cadetship and I had the utmost support. [Cadet Manager] Dawn Edwards is a saint, and Angela [Winteridge] is brilliant too. Both are great people to know. 

The experience actually taught me that life is fickle and you cannot let things hold you back; all I cared about was to graduate and attend the passing out ceremony with my cohort. It taught me that being strong isn’t just a physical trait, it’s also a mental one – and that gave me the determination to succeed.  

What was it like coming back to the academy after your sea phase? 

I found coming back to school really hard. I didn’t like being back in the classroom – it really tests your mental capability. After four months of shift work, going back into a daily routine is a challenge. However, it’s nice to get back to see your classmates and talk about what you did and where you went.  

What’s your favourite memory from your time at Warsash Maritime Academy? 

There are so many! I loved doing the 24-hour liferaft challenge, that was a great bonding experience. I also loved the short courses – they’re a vital part of your training, but it’s also a relaxed, enjoyable working environment. 

I was also lucky enough to be selected to take part in a number of events during my cadetship: the 2017 Festival of Remembrance; the official opening ceremony of the St Mary’s campus, which was attended by HRH The Princess Royal; and the 2018 annual UK Chamber of Shipping dinner.  

The passing out ceremony is also a highlight as it’s an event where everyone enjoys themselves, and I was very proud to receive the Commendation for Individual Achievement award – it tells you you’re doing something right! 

One of the best memories you will take away is passing exams. It’s nerve-wracking when the results are posted, but there’s no better feeling than seeing your results with your buddies. But my favourite memory is passing my orals. This is the BEST feeling.  

Matthew Gigg with Kathryn Neilson, Head of the Merchant Navy Training Board, after receiving the Commendation for Individual Achievement award at the Warsash Maritime Academy passing out ceremony

Tell us a bit about your career so far 

I started out working for an independent dredging company called Severn Sands, sailing as first mate. I was responsible for navigating, maintenance of fire-fighting and life-saving appliances and all the dredge gear.  

But I’ve just recently gained a position in an offshore fleet, which was always my ambition – I’m 2/O and navigation officer on a platform supply vessel for V.Ships Offshore. Next step is to gain my dynamic positioning tickets, and from there I’m aiming to achieve chief officer status, and ultimately master mariner. 

What advice would you give to someone wanting a career in maritime? 

Do your research to pick the right training provider for you. Different providers offer a different variety of vessels you can sail on. Take every opportunity you get, and get ashore as often as you can while you’re away. 

With this line of work, you take out what you put in. I put everything into qualifying and have come away with many people who I would consider lifelong friends. 

During the Sail4Cancer liferaft challenge while he was a cadet at Warsash Maritime Academy

To find out more about our maritime degrees and cadetships, visit our maritime pages or our Warsash Maritime Academy site.