Some will argue life at sea was easier back before regulations were established by the IMO, US Coast Guard and ABS. But was it really? Most of the ships were Foreign Flags. That meant long tours of duty and no union. Today you’ll find seafarers prefer American flagships; the pay is better, and they’re unionized. “There’s a lot more paperwork today,” says Third Mate Mike Loesch. “Instead of doing just the noon report, you’re now doing three reports a day.”
In 1875, nine Houses of Refuge were built along the Florida coast; between Miami and
Jacksonville; every 25 miles. Each Refuge House was commissioned by the United States Life-Saving Service. They had a keeper whose only job was to maintain the house, keep it supplied of food, clothing, and walk the beaches after the storms. When they came across a shipwrecked sailor they gave him “refuge” in their house. The men got to stay for a week or two. Some got back on ships heading north. A lookout tower was built and used to watch for enemy submarines in World War II. Over the years they’ve been operated by the US Coast Guard and the Navy. Today only one house remains in Martin County on Gilbert’s Bar. In 1976 it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
This year the IMO’s theme for International Seafarer Day is well-being. Since this is a huge topic I thought I’d stay the course. And, enlist the help of a few seafarers. Tour duties last anywhere from 75 days to six months on board a ship. Before the sun even warms their faces, Third Mate Mike is on the bridge for his morning watch. Captain Tod is busy getting the morning report out before breakfast. After breakfast, Captain Tod continues his day responding to emails, handling personnel issues, payroll, orders, etc. Third Mate Mike attends to his safety inspections or maintenance if the chief mate needs it done. After lunch he relieves another third mate and stands watch till dinner. The end of his 12-hour day and another sunset. If the ship is docked, instead of standing watch on the bridge he would be in the cargo control room monitoring the cargo operations. Also making rounds on deck and checking the lines. One thing you don’t need is the ship to slip away from the dock.
Hot and cold meals are provided three times a day. Breakfast is your standard fare. Lunch and dinner offers a variety of fish, meat and a salad bar. If anyone has a food allergy, like I do, you need to let the Captain know when you board the ship. According to Civilian Mariner Wendy, I would starve on the navy’s ship. Their food is mostly deep-fried foods with a salad bar and overcooked veggies. Not exactly nutritious. I find this ironic since she’s on a logistics ship. They provide other Navy and NATO ships with fuel, parts, food and sodas.
Must be inspection day today. Tensions are high. Everyone’s stressed. Not sure why. To me an inspection is a good thing. If they find something wrong on the ship it gets reported, then fixed. Right? Well, not necessarily true. Each inspector has their own interpretation of how things should be done. Usually from first-hand experience years earlier when they crewed. Surely not how things are done today or what you were told to do. Regulations are changing all the time, and everyone is expected to adapt. However, resources are not always made available.
Woohoo! After countless sunsets of reds, pink and gray, land is finally in sight. The ship is heading into port where its crew members get to go onshore for a mental health break. The only question – is it full of security checkpoints or can you walk right off the ship and be in the middle of everything? Some guys like to get away or take a break. The ones that come in on a Foreign flagship usually head to Walmart before heading out again. Poor Wendy, that’s when she gets the busiest. She arranges travel for any of her crew members that are leaving the ship for vacation. They don’t get to leave the vessel until their replacement gets onboard. Mike and Captain Tod don’t always go ashore either. They have this philosophy work is work. I don’t always agree. Sometimes it’s good to get off the ship for a change of scenery. Even if only for a couple hours. Maybe today, a few more crew members will join the ship. That would be a great help. Just like in corporate, the crew is asked to do more with less people. According to Mike, the difference is that the office building isn’t going to run into something.
If you’ve read any of my stuff, you’ll know safety is a mega concern. Crowley Maritime puts it high on their list as well. Every meeting starts with a safety and cultural moment which includes wellness and behavior. They realize to be a high performing company they must support their employees work life balance and health. Their trainings vary depending on the ship. Its operations. The seafarers and shoreside personnel. Each petroleum ship has magnetic signs throughout the ship. “We don’t want to be reactive,” says David DeCamp, Sr Communicator, Strategist for Crowley Maritime. “We’re thinking prevention and avoiding incidents as much as possible.” Just remember, when you’re on the ship, it’s one hand for the ship and one hand for you. Keep your balance and stay safe.
Back riding the waves, the crew appears happy. Many sunrises and sunsets later end of tour duty is fast approaching. I begin to wonder what signs to watch for that people are ready to get off the ship. Oye! How do they handle the stress? After all, my stints on recreational boats are much shorter and less crew. So, I asked around.
“When the guys get quiet,” says Mike. “If you’re standing watch with them and for four hours they don’t say one word when normally you’d be having a good conversation. After that you’ll see them start fouling things up a lot. Some guys will just explode, or they’ll do something – either conscientiously or subconscientiously – where it’s jeopardizing their job.”
Wendy says you’ll hear of someone who starts giving things away. Saying goodbye to others on the ship or just seems despondent. These are usually signs of suicide, she says. Especially, amongst the younger crew members.
When it comes time to destress, hit the gym onboard the ship or do some form of exercise. Talk with your peers and find some alone time. Regular contact with your family is also important. Especially if you’re married. It helps ease their stress as well. If email is not readily available, write those emails anyways, then once in port send them out all at once. Guaranteed the receiver will be looking forward to them. “Remember it’s important to take care of yourself,” says Captain Tod. “Not just mentally but physically. Sometimes you have-to eat that pastry at 3:00am or drink that thick coffee. Working long hours adds extra stress to your body both physically and mentally.”
Finally, it’s important to enjoy your time off. Isn’t that one of the beauties of going to sea? Somebody else is doing your job on the ship for the next 75 days or however long your tour of duty is. Get rested up. Recharge. Then get ready to get back out there for those long hitches.