A NORTH-EAST maritime expert has brought his career full circle by being named principal of a world-leading training centre – almost 30 years after he first walked through its doors.

Simon Ashton, 46, has been appointed to the prestigious post at South Shields Marine School, where he began his training in 1993.

After gaining his officer accreditation, he went on to work for Shell and shipping firms P&O Ferries and P&O Cruises.

He returned to the marine school, the world’s oldest purpose-built maritime training centre, as a lecturer in 2006, becoming a head of school in 2010 and deputy principal in May 2018.

Mr Ashton, who is from Billingham, Teesside, and lives in Washington, admits to a baptism of fire after attaining the top job on a permanent basis amid the coronavirus pandemic.

But he insists the quality and dedication of his teaching team means the marine school has successfully adapted and its future is as bright as at any time in its 160-year history.

He said: “I’m incredibly proud and truly thrilled to be appointed Principal of this fantastic maritime centre, but I do see myself only as the current figurehead.

“Being made interim principal really was like being thrown in at the deep end but only because of the pandemic and the uncertainty that created.

“I’ve had great help from everyone associated with the marine school, everyone has pulled together and fully supported me.

“The marine school has been a very big part of my life and, personally, I do feel a sense of ownership which only comes when you know and love somewhere so much.

“One of my qualities is the ability to empathise with our students as I have been through everything they are going through.

“I have also developed good relationships with the shipping firms and the clients we work with, so I know what their goals are.

“The marine school has a hugely prestigious and impressive history – I know its future is in safe hands with the terrific team I have in place.”

He added: “It has been a daunting but also a very exciting period for everyone involved at South Shields Marine School and we have certainly risen to all challenge we have faced.

“We have been able to move much of our learning quickly and effectively online which in fact has had a number of benefits.

“This has included overseas students being continue their learning and for new recruits anywhere in the world to sign up for courses and begin their learning remotely.

“The marine school has very talented staff who love what they do and they all knew how to implement the necessary changes.

“I’m always hugely impressed by their dedication to the marine school, and they have certainly helped me in my new role.”

While at sea, and through continued training from the marine school, keen rugby union fan and qualified referee Mr Ashton gained his Chief Mate and Masters qualifications.

He has identified greater promotion of the marine school’s training expertise, at home and abroad – and expansion of overseas training partnerships – as key drivers.

Mr Ashton added: “South Shields Marine School really is a fantastic facility, one which the people of the region should be rightly proud.

“We want to increase understanding and awareness of what we can offer to a global audience.”

While deputy principal, the marine school won the prestigious Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education in 2019 for work in maritime computer modelling.

Influential to award success was supporting Tengizchevroil, Kazakhstan’s state oil company to develop a port and waterway on the Caspian Sea to serve the expansion of the giant Tenzig oilfield.

The marine school also made key computer simulations that ensured Britain’s two new aircraft carriers safely reached the North Sea from their berth on the Firth of Forth in 2017.