Life at sea

Life at sea

Mariners live on the margins of society, with much of their life spent beyond the reach of land. They face sometimes dangerous conditions at sea. Yet men and women still go to sea. For some, the attraction is a life unencumbered with the restraints of life ashore. Sea-going adventure and a chance to see the world also appeal to many seafarers. Whatever the calling, those who live and work at sea invariably confront social isolation.

Findings by the Seafarer’s International Research Center indicate a leading cause of mariners leaving the industry is “almost invariably because they want to be with their families.” U.S. merchant ships typically do not allow family members to accompany seafarers on voyages. Industry experts increasingly recognize isolation, stress, and fatigue as occupational hazards. Advocacy groups such as International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency, and the Nautical Institute are seeking improved international standards for mariners.

Ocean voyages are steeped in routine. Maritime tradition dictates that each day be divided into six four-hour periods. Three groups of watchkeepers from the engine and deck departments work four hours on then have eight hours off watchkeeping. However there are many overtime jobs to be done daily. This cycle repeats endlessly, 24 hours a day while the ship is at sea. Members of the steward department typically are day workers who put in at least eight-hour shifts. Operations at sea, including repairs, safeguarding against piracy, securing cargo, underway replenishment, and other duties provide opportunities for overtime work. One’s service aboard ships typically extends for months at a time, followed by protracted shore leave. However, some seamen secure jobs on ships they like and stay aboard for years.

In rare cases, veteran mariners choose never to go ashore when in port. Further, the often quick turnaround of many modern ships, spending only a matter of hours in port, limits a seafarer’s free-time ashore. Moreover, some foreign seamen entering U.S. ports from a watchlist of 25 high-risk countries face restrictions on shore leave due to security concerns in a post 9/11 environment. However, shore leave restrictions while in U.S. ports impact American seamen as well. For example, the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots notes a trend of U.S. shipping terminal operators restricting seamen from traveling from the ship to the terminal gate. Further, in cases where transit is allowed, special “security fees” are at times assessed.

Such restrictions on shore leave coupled with reduced time in port by many ships translate into longer periods at sea. Mariners report that extended periods at sea living and working with shipmates who for the most part are strangers takes getting used to. At the same time, there is an opportunity to meet people from a wide range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Recreational opportunities have improved aboard some U.S. ships, which may feature gyms and day rooms for watching movies, swapping sea stories, and other activities. And in some cases, especially tankers, it is made possible for a mariner to be accompanied by members of his family. However, a mariner’s off duty time is largely a solitary affair, pursuing hobbies, reading, writing letters, and sleeping.

On modern ocean going vessels, typically registered with a flag of convenience, life has changed immensely in the last 20 years. Most large vessels include a gym and often a swimming pool for use by the crew. Since the Exxon Valdez incident, the focus of leisure time activity has shifted from having officer and crew bars, to simply having lounge-style areas where officers or crew can sit to watch movies. With many companies now providing TVs and DVD players in cabins, and enforcing strict smoking policies, it is not surprising that the bar is now a much quieter place on most ships. In some instances games consoles are provided for the officers and crew. The officers enjoy a much higher standard of living on board ocean going vessels. Crews are generally poorly paid, poorly qualified and have to complete contracts of approx 9 months before returning home on leave. They often come from countries where the average industrial wage is still very low, such as the Philippines or India. Officers however, come from all over the world and it is not uncommon to mix the nationality of the officers on board ships. Officers are often the recipients of university degrees and have completed vast amounts of training in order to reach their rank. Officers benefit on board by having larger, more comfortable cabins, table service for their meals, etc. Contracts average at the 4 month mark for officers, with generous leave. Most Ocean going vessels now operate an Unmanned Engineroom System allowing engineers to work days only. The engine room is computer controlled by night, although the duty engineer will make inspections during unmanned operation. Engineers work in a hot, humid, noisy atmosphere. Communication in the engineroom is therefore by hand signals and lip-reading, and good teamwork often stands in place of any communication at all.

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