Business isn’t always about boardrooms, briefings and black coffee. So, in tribute to the North-East men and women who take a more unusual approach to enterprise, Andy Richardson takes a look at the unconventional, alternative or downright difficult careers in the region’s economy

Captain Hamish Elliott, who lives in Sunderland with his wife Gail, skippers the Seabourn Sojourn, one of the most luxurious cruise vessels in the world

How did you get into this business?

If I am honest I never wanted to be captain of a cruise ship but from as far back as I can remember I wanted to work at sea.

I was inspired by my grandfather, Fred, who was also a sea captain.

He would tell me stories of his life travelling the world and it fired my imagination.

When I turned 16, I signed up with the Merchant Navy as an officer cadet.

My first job was working on Shell tankers transporting oil from platforms in the North Sea. It was tough work and a far cry from what I ended up doing but it gave me a grounding in all aspects of the job.

After working on cargo carriers I moved to cross-Channel ferries for Sally Line where I was promoted to captain. The offer then came to work on the QE2, not as a captain – I had to drop down a few notches – but it’s hard to turn down a chance to work on such an iconic vessel, so I went for it.

My plan at that stage was to do it for a few months just for the experience. But here I am 16 years later still on cruise ships.

What is it like being captain?

Cruising had never really appealed to me. The idea of standing around at cocktail parties chatting with the very elderly wealthy did not sound like a proper job to me.

In reality it is like being in charge of a floating village of up to 800 people. Everything you can imagine happens on board. Births, deaths, marriages, you name it, we have encountered it at some stage.

But in many ways it is like any senior management role.

I have three people reporting in to me. The hotel manager, our chief engineer, who is charge of the technical reports that involve the vessel itself, and the staff captain who is concerned with nautical matters.

The diversity of information coming at you is mindboggling so you need a pretty broad range of skills.

There is never a dull moment and the variety of challenges you face every day is what makes this such a fascinating job.

What effect did the wreck of the Costa Concordia have on your business?

Mercifully, tragic incidents like that are very rare indeed and I think our passengers understand that. But in the wake of the Costa Concordia it was understandable that passengers wanted reassurance about the robustness of our safety procedures. In my job, you must be a good communicator and it is the job of me and my staff to ensure our passengers feel as safe and relaxed as possible.

Have you been involved in life-threatening incidents at sea?

About five years ago I was working on another ship travelling through the Gulf Of Mexico when two people fell overboard. It was midnight and we spent the entire night searching for them. Rescue boats were deployed and we plotted currents to work out where they were most likely to be. At 6am we found them alive and well. You are overcome with a feeling of huge relief.

You must have visited some amazing places.

Yes of course. In the past six months we have been around Cape Horn, along the e a s t coast of South America, to Canada and up the St Lawrence Seaway, through the Panama Canal, across to Europe to the likes of Monte Carlo before coming to the British Isles and my home in the North- East.

Is it difficult to be away from home for long stretches?

We work three months on and three months off so it’s not a bad life but of course you miss your family and friends a great deal. My wife is very understanding and knows how much I love my job.

I know of captains who are still working into their 60s and it would be nice to think I can do this for as long as I still enjoy it. I would recommend this to a young person considering their career options.

Few jobs can beat it for sheer variety.