Monday, August 20, 2012

General Life at Sea

I've shipped with both SUP (Sailors' Union of the Pacific) and SIU (Sailors' International Union); I also worked briefly for NOAA, on a fishing trawler up in the Bering Sea. Got my sea card - Merchant Mariners' Credential (MMC) officially -  in 2000. You get them through the Coast Guard, and have to jump through a lot of beauracratic hoops, what with all that Homeland Security requires now. They used to call them Z cards in my dad's day because the ID number always started with a Z, but that went by the wayside a long time ago. I've sailed the Atlantic, Pacific, North Sea, Bering Sea, Gulf of Alaska, Norwegian Sea, South China Sea, Philippine Sea, Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf, Gulf of Mexico, Suez Canal, and the Mediterranean.

Best experience so far was steering a ship the size of an aircraft carrier through the Strait of Gibraltar in convoy formation with seven other big ships, with the Spanish Navy escorting us. It was just like the movies, only it was real. You can look out one window and see Africa, and out the other and see Europe.

Worst experience was crossing the Columbia River Bar at 2 am in December, with snow, sleet, rain, and hail all mixed up together. A lot of wrecks out there; it's called the Cape Horn of the Pacific. I've sailed through two typhoons and four hurricanes, and run into characters that defy description; sailors are truly like no other breed there is.

Came in in 2006 because I wanted a life; there's a lot you can't do out there, like go to the ballet, which I love, and a lot of guys have big time problems with personal relationships, both on and off the ship, for two reasons: great social skills are not an absolute requirement for sailors, knowing how to do this or that job is; and you don't have enough time ashore to solidify a good relationship with anyone. Alcoholism is still a problem as well, and there are drug tests too, both scheduled and random. I'm the only sailor I know who doesn't like beer, and I've never failed a drug test. I worked at a school and in a law office for a while, but went back out in 2010.

Uniforms - Only the cruise line in Hawaii that I worked for required the crew to wear uniforms. For the deck crew, this was a light blue work shirt or dark blue t-shirt with cruise line logo, dark blue long pants or shorts, and baseball cap with logo. On the cargo ships, we wore our own scruffy work clothes, old shirts, Levis or Carhartt pants, and the ship usually had baseball caps with the shipping line's logo on it we could buy from the slop chest, crew slang for the ship's store. Usually you could get toiletries, soda and candy from the slop chest as well.  For work coveralls, the colors are standard throughout the industry: white for officers, whether deck or engineering dept; black for engineering crew, and medium grayish blue for deck crew, with the shipping line logo on them.  All but one shipping company I worked for provided the coveralls free. 

Safety calls for hard hats and steel toed boots, but a lot of us wore sneakers because they were more comfy, and you're on your feet 24/7. Some sneakers do have steel toes. I always wore a hard hat though, and hearing protection, plugs and /or muffs, because the noise level is exceptionally high on cargo ships, what with machinery and reverberation in a steel container, ie., the ship itself. Enforcement of safety rules differed from ship to ship; on some we had to wear steel toed boots all the time.
Only the officers on the cruise ship wore standard officers' uniforms and hats; most cargo ship captains wore whatever was comfy, including tie-dyed shirts, and only wore their captain's hat if some VIP was coming aboard in port.

Hair length - I had long hair and tied it up in a bandana, then cut it short. You can't let anything dangly, including hair, get in the way when you're working around machinery, so guys with long hair had to keep it tied back.  A lot have beards, but Santa Claus length is not practical, and anyone who has to suit up for firefighting needs to be clean shaven so the face mask on the SCBA (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus) will have an airtight fit. Everything on a ship is geared toward work, toward getting the job done, and you have to keep things practical for safety.

Laundry - All ships have a laundry room; usually there are two, one for the officers and one for the crew, with from two to six washers and the same number of dryers. They are the same sort you would see in a laundromat but these are free. Soap and bleach is provided, but you have to get your own dryer sheets. On my NOAA ships there was only one laundry room for both officers and crew, and on the cruise ships, with 1000 crew, there was a laundry room on nearly every deck in the crew quarters, way down in the bowels of the ship - no portholes to look out of for us.  We did have our own bar down in the crew quarters, and that one, compared to the passengers' stately and proper facilities several decks above was kind of like the scene in Titanic - "Want to go to a real party?"

One of the NOAA ship's laundry had machines that were so old that they put red rust on your clothes, rather than getting them clean. When things got really rough in the Bering Sea (it is always rough out there; rough is normal, then there is really rough, super rough, and only-idiots-are-out-here rough), we couldn't run the washing machines, as they might have agitated themselves loose. There was a really filthy cargo ship I worked on, oil and grunge over everything, and the Stewards' dept, which does the cooking and cleaning and always wears white, was ticked off at putting their whites in the wash and having them come out all grease stained.

Linens are provided by union contract, but they are not always in the greatest shape - some are ragged, thin and stained. One sailor I knew made it a matter of course to buy some cheap sheets at Walmart for himself on every ship he crewed. And some ships only provide towels and top sheets - no fitted sheets, no washcloths. I always brought my own washcloths.

Speaking of rough waters, most people don’t realize that the ordinary tasks of life have to go on in spite of the weather, including cooking and bathing. Taking a shower in the Bering Sea was a wild rocking affair, and you got adept at scrubbing yourself with one hand while hanging on to the grab bar with the other. Plenty of grip stuff on the shower floor wasn’t just a good idea, it was a necessity. All pots have to be secured onto the stove, with the lids firmly clamped on, and pans inside the stove have to be secured there too. Once on a training ship, the chicken cacciatore wasn’t secured, and we had flying chicken. Everywhere.

Tattoos - Some of the older guys have tattoos of anchors, but the younger ones go for whatever is current in body art. I think I've seen more tattoo'd landlubbers than sailors lately. Some sailors, like myself, have no tattoos at all. One female third mate I know got her arms and back tattoo’d with seaweed. Another sailor had King Neptune tattoo’d on her back. Generally speaking, the US-born crew had more tattoos; the ones from Asia, Africa and south of the border seldom had any. Some sailors have body piercings besides and beyond their ears, but again, I think I've seen more and wilder stuff ashore. I have one piercing per ear, and wear pirate style round gold earrings. There was a 16th century Dutch law that said all sailors had to wear at least one gold earring, to cover funeral expenses if they died at sea close enough to land to bury them, or if the body washed ashore. That is how the practice of sailors, including pirates, wearing gold earrings originated.

Duffel Bags – Some sailors carry a duffel bag, but most have regular suitcases you pull on wheels, like everybody else you see at the airport. Sailors used to live close to the dock where they shipped out of, so carrying a duffel a block or two was not a big deal. Now the union flies us to whatever ship needs a crew member, wherever it is in the world, so we spend a lot of time in airports, and the wheeled suitcases make more sense. One sailor I knew traveled with his stuff in plastic storage bins. Another must have just been thrown out by his wife, as he brought half his household gear aboard, including his Bowflex exerciser. Speaking of which, every ship I was on had an exercise room with various weights and machines. Mostly the officers used them, as the crew got enough exercise on deck.