Honoring the Mariner
It entails more than better food and pay.
In the choppy wake of the holiday season, there is always a lot to be done and much to catch up on. You know exactly what I am talking about. That said; the time spent with family during these hectic times is always, for me, special. The gift of time with loved ones isn’t always available to everyone, however. For example, for those mariners signed onto the world’s merchant ships during the past month or so, this can be a difficult and lonely time. For that reason, I took a few minutes this week to reminisce about my time spent at sea, over the holidays, and during routine times as well.
For full disclosure, I haven’t signed onto a ship in more than 30 years, so I can probably be considered a dinosaur in many ways, but I’ve stayed on or close to the waterfront since (involuntarily) coming ashore in late 1985, when they scrapped my ship out from under me. I like to think I’ve got my finger on the pulse of things. Or, maybe not. A lot has changed about going to sea in the intervening years and much has not. It is still a dangerous, lonely job that takes people far from home for extended periods of time.
I started out with the Military Sealift Command, and in those days, you could easily spend six months or more on board during an assignment. It was great for upgrading your license quickly but the long hitches could get tedious. Eventually, sailing for an oil company in the coastwise chemical trades, my regular routine for many years was 75 days on and 75 days off. I liked that schedule. During that time, though, I also spent more than a few Christmas and Thanksgiving holidays at sea.
Being single and young, I didn’t have many close ties ashore in those days, hence being on board for the holidays wasn’t necessarily a burden for me, but I knew many shipmates who were married with kids. It took an especially steep toll on some of them. For my part, I tried to put it out of my mind for the most part. That wasn’t always easy, especially when the steward department would insist on dragging out that tired old plastic Christmas tree and then planting it directly in the middle of the officer’s mess. I am quite sure that this part of the ordeal hasn’t changed much.
Comms: Good and Bad
Probably the hardest part of going to sea in my day was the lack of shoreside communication once you had taken last line. Sure, you could have a radio conversation with someone on an obscure channel when in close proximity to shore but you could also be assured that half of the planet would be listening to whatever you had to say, so I rarely did it. Plus, it didn’t take much for the FCC to come down on you for something they deemed inappropriate for some strange reason. That left, in a pre-cell phone world, the stroll down the gangway, up the pier, and then the sometimes lengthy wait for the one pay phone installed on the berth (assuming someone hadn’t ripped the receiver off the stand or perpetrated some other kind of violent mischief).
Unofficial protocol in those days (for those of you now surgically attached to your smart phones) said that you kept the call to less than ten minutes when others were waiting. Beyond that, and even if you had a phone ‘calling card’ from your home phone provider, you were getting dinged by the minute. It could get expensive. Worse, sometimes you would come down to make your first call in more than two weeks only to find (seemingly) the entire crew of a Panamanian tanker from the adjacent berth all milling around and waiting for their turn. In those instances, I simply turned around and went back on board.
On the flip side of the coin, today’s mariners probably need those cell phones since getting off a merchant vessel to go ashore – especially in a U.S. port – is sometimes an ordeal, if not outright impossible because of ramped up security, and in some cases, the refusal of the terminal itself to let foreign mariners pass through the facility. I can remember going ashore (often) in Port Everglades to take a run along the beach, returning to the ship for a shower and then having dinner at a nearby restaurant. Today, it might take you that long just to get permission to go ashore.
Ten or fifteen years after coming ashore, and after personal cellular phones became the norm as opposed to the exception, I found myself envying the mariners who could, when in appropriate range, whip out those phones and talk to anyone they pleased. I don’t know if the advent of the personal cell phone made going to sea any more pleasant but at least you could stay in touch more easily. On the other hand, one mariner told me, “It sounds good, but it’s a double edge sword. You find yourself getting tangled up in all sorts of things shoreside from 3,000 miles away that your wife now expects you to solve, simply because you can make a telephone call.”
There was, of course, always the good old postal service. I actually penned more than a few letters when out to sea, and my girlfriend (now my wife) would send me a card and a note every ten days or so. I looked forward to them very much. I got into the habit of handing my outgoing mail to the harbor pilot as he was departing the bridge on the way out of port – that is, until the time one particular guy reached into his raincoat and pulled out a stack of mail he had forgotten to send off from a previous vessel. God only knows how long those love letters had been festering in that dirty coat. He actually laughed about it.
MLC: More Luxury Coming?
I’m told that the advent of the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC 2006) has also impacted conditions, or is slowly do so, on board merchant ships everywhere. This entails minimum standards on accommodations, food, pay and a myriad of other things. Beyond this, the need to recruit and retain quality mariners is pushing operators to add more and more perks to their vessels, in way of upgraded workout areas, better cabins, Internet access and in some cases, live, streamed entertainment. The bosun can now watch his daughter’s birthday party in Manila, assuming his employer has allocated enough bandwidth for the ship’s complement. Some operators actually do.
In contrast, on an almost new vessel that I sailed on briefly in the early 1980’s, the operator removed the elevator from the building plans to save money. On board that tanker, one with a very tall aft house, I can assure you that you would only forget a tool once when coming down to do work on deck in the morning. It was a long way back up, if you did. On another vessel in the same fleet, it was the unofficial responsibility of the mate on watch to scurry down one deck from the bridge wing to reset the A/C unit breaker when it tripped; something that occurred at least twice per watch. Besides, the last thing you wanted was the sweaty, hot Captain coming up in the middle of the mid watch in a bad mood.
Returning from a 75 day vacation from that same 40-year old tanker during the summer months, I found that the company had finally replaced the malfunctioning A/C system. It was wonderful – all that cool air being pumped into the wheelhouse on a 100 F day in the Gulf of Mexico. Upon seeing the same, friendly (?) Master upon arriving on the bridge for my first watch, I remarked, “It sure was nice of the home office to get this A/C working correctly for us.” He looked at me rather strangely and after a pregnant pause and a deep draw on his cigarette, he deadpanned, “That air conditioning has nothing to do with you, or me, for that matter. The radars keep overheating – hence the A/C upgrade.” Oh.
It is easy, on face value, to think that going to sea has gotten a little more pleasant, over time. And, some aspects of it truly have. During a Port Captain assignment on board a newbuild RO/RO car carrier in the late 1990’s, I marveled at the fact that the operator had cared enough about the crew to install an international size squash court on the vessel. I vowed then and there that if I ever went back to sea again, then this would be the ship I would sail on. Similarly, today’s vessels are being built with all sorts of bells and whistles for the crew, including but not limited to sound and vibration dampening measures, more comfortable accommodations, and a raft of other amenities. But, given the requirements foisted onto today’s ‘reduced manning’ sized crews, these are no longer just nice things to have; they are rapidly becoming absolute requirements.
Weighing the Pros & Cons
All in all, however, and looking at all the improvements to living conditions aboard most vessels, the physical aspect of being on board the vessel perhaps has gotten a little easier. On the other hand, the mental aspect of the job certainly has not. An international and domestic regulatory and enforcement climate now dictates that there are rarely any more ‘mistakes’ made aboard commercial vessels. Rather, these lapses are considered criminal acts and treated as such with obscure tools such as the Migratory Bird Act to mete out punishment.
And then, the job is difficult enough without some lunatic (all in the name of the environment) dangling from the center span of a bridge you need to navigate under and impeding your deep draft vessel’s progress. If something goes wrong, the environmentalist will likely get a light slap on the wrist before his organization releases its triumphant press release. The mariner? He’s going to jail.
Looking at it a different way, and while today’s seagoing pay levels certainly look attractive to the average landlubber, it is also true that in many cases, those pay increases have not kept pace with inflation. A 1984 Second Mate earning $55,000 annually probably had more buying power than today’s newly minted Third Mate who toils for $75,000. And, the road to obtaining those credentials is substantially more difficult (and expensive) to navigate, especially with myriad STCW training requirements added to the burden of sitting for a license.
Separately, the closer scrutiny of mariner medical records and more frequent physicals might make for a healthier mariner, but it also disqualifies many from making a living because of obscure rulings from someone behind a desk located 2,000 miles away. Beyond this, even when today’s mariner actually gets ashore for vacation, waiting for him (or her) are probably two weeks of refresher training, competency assessments, or some other additional training certification to obtain. These typically involve time away from home as well.
There are a lot of things about today’s merchant fleets that I wish we’d had, “back in the day.” All that said; I don’t think I would trade my experience for what transpires at sea and on board the typical commercial vessel today. A mariner’s life back in 1985 was certainly a bit more inconvenient in many ways. It was also a lot simpler. I have a great deal of respect for those who walk up that gangway in 2016. We often only reflect on their sacrifices during particularly difficult times like the holiday season, but these maritime professionals deserve everything they get, and more – during the holidays, or at any other time. I hope that you feel the same way. – MarPro
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Joseph Keefe is the lead commentator of MaritimeProfessional.com. Additionally, he is Editor of both Maritime Professional and MarineNews print magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at Keefe@marinelink.com. MaritimeProfessional.com is the largest business networking site devoted to the marine industry. Each day thousands of industry professionals around the world log on to network, connect, and communicate.