It was recently suggested to me that I write about the expectations surrounding our lives and work at sea, in the hope that I can prevent a few people who are looking to start a cadetship from being disappointed by how things might appear and who knows maybe even give a little advice to those who are a little more experienced. This post is by no means an attempt to scupper anyones dream of being involved in the Merchant Navy, far from it, but merely serves to dispel any idea that it’s a walk in the park, it explains that even when qualified it is important to stay realistic about what you expect when you join a vessel at any stage in your career.
There is a mystic about our lives/work at sea, there always has been, after all every great adventure starts with setting sail right?
This really is the big one, yes it is true that a mariner gets to travel, in fact, in one year of being on a container ship I went to over thirty countries and got souvenirs from most, an amazing experience for sure but that was as a trainee. As an officer shore leave is much more unlikely, half a day at most generally and that’s if you can be bothered after the long work hours, most officers have a few favourite ports where they make the effort to go ashore and not bother with the others in favour of sleep. My favourites were Singapore and Hong Kong, I miss both places very much. This is even true of engineers, often the only time critical maintenance can be carried out is whilst alongside and can result in every member of the engine department working for in excess of 24 hours to get the job done and avoid delays, this often, unfortunately results in no shore leave for them either.
As a trainee you will have to learn about cargo (engine maintenance for the engineers) at some point and that may well be during a busy period in a place you were really hoping to get ashore, there’s little getting away from it but we all had to do it at some point.
When it’s not timetable related, security restricted or cargo training necessitated the one thing stopping you from exploring could be your line manager being, well, a dick! I once spent 2 months alongside ice floes in the deep Antarctic and wasn’t allowed a single picture on the ice and had to spend my days counting people who were allowed on the ice as they came and went as they pleased. Then we receive emails from the sister ship were all the crew were playing football on a floe, this kind of frustration is common place on ships and they can quickly make you feel isolated if you don’t keep an open and positive mind set.
I also once had my parents onboard my first ship, had done 2 months at sea and countless cargo watches, it had been organised that I could have them onboard and show them around and then go for lunch ashore, the Chief Officer decided that this didn’t suit him as it meant he would have to actually get up and go outside and monitor the cargo instead of instructing me to go on deck and only come back for 5 minutes on the hour to update the log. Well… thanks to a very sympathetic second mate, I went ashore and he went head to head with the C/O and I’m forever grateful, oh to end this story… the Captain got involved and the C/O was not allowed me on his cargo watch again for the remainder of the trip for abusing his position and well… being a dick!
If the only thing you are interested in getting out of a career at sea is travelling to as many places as you can and don’t mind just one day alongside then cruiseships is your way forward. If you are interested in seeing a fair amount of the world but getting your hands dirty and learning an incredible amount and gaining transferable skills then choose a company that offers to send you an a variety of different types of vessel, this gives you the best of it all, different types of ships generally means different types of places, cargo & schedule and gives you the chance to figure out first hand which type of ship you’d prefer to work on and is good for the CV.
|Pagen Volcano, Mariana|
No matter what stage you are at in your career at sea you can always spend your time getting better at what you do. But it’s hard to arrive on a type of vessel you were really looking forward to joining and finding out you are going to be at anchor for a month or conducting one type of work rather than the plethora of unique opportunities you expected.
In fact a perfect example of this is the cadets we have onboard currently, both on their last trip before going back to qualify, both excellent, intelligent, enthusiastic and frustrated! Due to the nature and duration of our current charter there are things that they had hoped to be doing on an Anchor Handler that we have not been able to do, an example of this would be that we can show them a only a limited amount of the DP system because it is a live system and being used for this heading control job here at the Gryphon. They are also understandably disappointed that we have not had any other type of charter during their time onboard; we usually reside on the spot market- available for many different types of work, rig moves, supply runs, construction work, towage etc. I’m pleased to say they haven’t let this hinder their enthusiasm and have taken pride in their maintenance tasks, portfolio work and any other jobs we throw their way; finding the spare bubbles for the spirit levels and the glass hammers etc.
This doesn’t just apply to cadets, it can apply to anyone joining a ship in the hope of doing one thing and ending up doing the complete opposite, the trick here is to run with it, for every new experience there is an opportunity to learn. It is also possible to learn something new even if you have been doing the same thing over and over.
My favourite example of disappointment turning to joy was in 2010 on the RRS James Clark Ross, whilst working for the British Antarctic Survey, shortly after I joined I learned that we would be doing something called Swath Bathymetry for two months, great news, learning something new but after a week or two it became monotonous and interest began to wain for almost everyone onboard. ‘Swath’ is in its simplest explanation is the study of the sea bed using a powerful echo sounder and creating a 3D image after rendering the data, after 2 months of this it began to feel pretty pointless, back and forth back and forth, occasionally going in close to an island or two. at the end of the science cruise we found that the scientists had been keeping a log of how many sea mounts (underwater volcanos) that each officer had found on their watch and were allowed to chose which ones they wanted to name… my two are shown below, a truly amazing privilege!
Another big expectation is earning lots of money, whilst it is possible to be on a 6 figure salary it is rare and specialist. We get paid, that’s all I’ll say, it’s not a mind blowing amount but it’s the way we earn our money that makes it slightly more acceptable; going away for 3 months with no friends, family or anywhere to really spend your money generally means you will go home to savings to enjoy on your time off which is generally spent travelling all the places you missed out on when onboard. If you want the mega bucks, be a pilot or get yourself on dragons den!
This is one issue that always amuses me, the sigma of being a seafarer and therefore an alcoholic couldn’t be further from the truth (in most cases). Many many companies at sea operate a strict no drugs or alcohol policy, there are no exceptions, get caught get gone, if you cant live without drink you can’t live at sea, look at cruise ships, they have drink still, for now!
Just because we make it look easy doesn’t mean it is, it’s taken every officer many years of hard graft to get qualified which means they are at least half worth their salt and should be shown respect, if you disagree with something say so, but do it in a manner that won’t result in confrontation. Often we appear to be doing nothing but what people don’t realise is that seafarers have a kind of sixth sense, call it common sense if you will, eyes in the back of our heads! Often found leaning on railings or standing on bridge wings in sunglasses but ask us the cargo status or the nearest vessels course and speed and we will give you an accurate appraisal without breaking a sweat. If we are being lazy, we will tell you!
The good thing about being at sea is variety and circumstance, we tend not to do the same thing for very long, always on the move, always somewhere else to be and with that comes opportunity and experience, after all the adventure is often the journey to the destination not the destination itself.