Live and Work on a Container Ship
For almost five months now, I have been living and working as a deckhand on a 906 foot container ship making 57 day runs from New York to Singapore, while hitting many ports in between. We are importing/exporting goods from the Middle East, Asia, and America. As I am writing this we are making our way through the Gulf of Aden on what will be my last trip. Here is a little description of what its like to go to sea in the merchant marine.
I work in the deck department as a watch standing "AB" or Able Bodied Seaman. We are all members of the Sailors Union of the Pacific (SUP), and most of us are out of the San Francisco hall over on Harrison and 1st. I am on the 12 to 4 watch, which means seven days a week, from midnight to four a.m. and from noon to four p.m., I am up on the bridge, steering the ship while in congested areas like the Suez Canal, or being a lookout while we are at sea on auto-helm (a.k.a. "the Iron Mike"). In addition I usually work overtime on deck from eight am to noon, tightening/greasing the containers' lashing gear, chipping rust, painting, or doing whatever odd jobs need to be done. Overtime is where a sailor makes his money, so we take as much as they'll give. I typically get around 12 hours work each day at sea, and in port I can work almost 24 hours straight at times. So any sleep is much appreciated.
Our typical route takes us down the coast after leaving New York, stopping briefly in Charleston, Savannah, and Norfolk. In port, the deck crew handles the mooring lines as we dock then works late into the night running the ships crane, taking on steward, deck, and engine stores for the long journey. All the while giant hammerhead cranes maneuver huge containers overhead as longshoremen load and unload cargo nonstop through the night with shuttering crashes of steel against steel. When our work is done we run ashore for our few free hours to make fools of ourselves, sticking out like sore thumbs with our international gang of miscreants in the conservative South. We go most of the East Coast on almost no sleep, sometimes hitting ports for no longer than half a day, and breathe a sigh of relief when finally heading out to sea. Crossing the Atlantic flies by in under a week. We usually take a northerly curve called a "Great Circle" saving hundreds of nautical miles based on the curvature of the earth, similar to how a trans-continental plane may take a polar route. Sometimes we take a rhumbline or even slightly southerly route to avoid heavy north Atlantic storms.
On deck we tighten the lashing gear on the containers to keep them safe in rough seas offshore. While on watch on the bridge there is nothing but time to think, listen to music, stargaze, swap stories with the mate on watch, and just take in the scenery. As the coastal silt drops, the water becomes the most vibrant blue you can imagine. Further offshore you begin to see thick clumps of Sargasso Weed, flying fish, whales, and occasionally huge pods of dolphins. We will go many days without seeing any traffic at all. However, on our last crossing we were hailed by the coast guard to come to the assistance of a sailboat that had a broken rudder over 400 miles off the coast. We pulled alongside the boat during a storm, but the owner refused to abandon ship and told us to continue on. We had the feeling he wasn't speaking for his shipmates. Sure enough we heard days later they all got very sick and were evacuated by a helicopter that had to refuel mid flight on a military ship, leaving their 45 foot ketch to the sea.
For some reason timing wise, I am usually at the helm through the narrow Straight of Gibraltar, which marks the entrance to the Mediterranean with the impressive Morocco Rock to the south. In the shipping lanes we are a bit far to really make out the land, but you can finally smell the earth and the brine of the fishing ports. At night the lights of Spain are to the North and Algeria to the South. We slip between Sicily and Malta, and past a few small Greek Islands. The shipping traffic is more congested and can often resemble a freeway. Surprisingly, the worst conditions I have seen on the voyage have been in the Med. It can go from glass-smooth water to 70 knot gusts and 10 meter wind waves in the matter of a day.
The vhf radio, which here is not regulated like in the states, becomes a constant source of entertainment and misery at the same time. Some ship will transmit a Celine Dion song for way too long, then the audio from a fisherman's favorite porno will pierce the airwaves. There are a series of always touched upon racial taunts about the predominant seagoing nationalities; some imitate the formal call of a port control calling a ship. "This is port banana calling the Pilipino Monkeys, come in Monkey. How many tons of banana's do you have on board?" Then a Pilipino sailor will curse out the white bastards of the north and call his countrymen to join in. At some point someone will start grilling the Italians, saying "Maaaaaaarrrriioooooooo" in a long drawn out frog voice. No one is safe from the insults, and as Americans it is highly advised to stay silent because once they hear your accent you will not hear the end of the harassment.
Pretty soon we reach Egypt and begin the transit through the Suez Canal, which connects the Med to the Red Sea. It is standard procedure to bribe all Egyptians with cartons of cigarettes. You literally will not be put in a convoy if you do not cough them up. American's are known for being particularly generous with tobacco and between the agents, pilots, and line handlers that come onboard, we typically average about 20 cartons of Marlboro's each passage. "Please for my family, one more carton, I know you have." We pick up a small boat of line-handlers with our crane. The line-handlers are onboard to help us if we must temporarily tie up to the side of the canal to let another convoy pass, and to sell us useless Egyptian tourist crap made in China. I bought some fishing line and lures and made a ghetto fishing pole for while we're at anchor. We pass small lush irrigated farming communities, the desert of the Sinai Peninsula, ramshackle Egyptian villages, and finally the glittering resort town at the mouth of Port Suez.
As we enter the Red Sea the water gets really warm (which kills our ocean cooled air conditioning) and we begin to prepare for pirate country. There are designated lanes that are recommended for passing through the Gulf of Aden. This makes it easier for warships to patrol the enormous area and occasionally lead convoys for the slower ships. Still we hear reports of attacks all the time. Some are failed attempts, while others are quite successful. We rig large pointed metal bars on the stern, designed so that if a grappling hook was thrown, the bars would break free and fall on a pirates. As we enter the most dangerous area off the Somalian coast, the deck crew rotates lookouts on the stern throughout the nights. Pirates are known to have Rocket Powered Grenades; all we have are fire hoses that we rigged to the rails. We have not had any trouble so far, but it can be a bit frightening sitting there in the dark on calm night with nothing but a pocket knife to defend yourself.
Once into the Arabian Sea, we begin hitting our foreign ports in rapid succession after about 15 days without touching land. Salalah, Oman, was a surprisingly beautiful port with dry mountains running along gorgeous beaches with good surf! US Navy and Marines were friendly but drunk and embarrassing at a local British style pub, starting U-S-A! cheers among the scornful stares of Muslim locals, who oddly enough are there for the bowling alley. Dubai is a jarring mix of Middle Eastern oil money and Western eccentricism. Women fully covered in black cloth, peer out from Gucci sunglasses. They boast the biggest and best: hotels, skyscrapers, malls, and even man made islands. I visited one mall in particular with an indoor ski slope! The port however, Jebel Ali, is a city unto itself and was a dramatic juxtaposition with tributaries of thousands of bicycling men in blue boiler suits flowing to/from labor camps to factories and packing yards.
In some ports, such as Pakistan, we are required to keep a gangway watch because of the possible risk of terrorism, even with a Pakistani security guard standing by with a sawed off shotgun at the foot of the dock. In some ways this is nice because we get to hang out with the local stevedores a bit, learning phrases in their language and finding out what life is like in their country. We were warned not to go ashore there for risk of decapitation, but some SUP sailors go anyways, because SUP is awesome.
Finally we hit Singapore, our eastern most port and longest dock period. Pretty much everyone goes ashore at some point. Some do sightseeing, some go to bars, and honestly some go straight to whorehouses. Singapore, being the mall-loving place that it is, even has a mall of prostitutes known to sailors as "Four Floors of Whores." I am not condoning it, but the sex trade is a harsh reality that I'm learning exists just about everywhere. Sadly some of these older sailors have been at sea for literally decades of their lives and being unable to keep a relationship with a normal woman, turn to other options while on shore. But there is plenty more to do and see in Singapore, it's a very clean and modern city with all the amenities.
Our last port on our way home is Colombo, Sri Lanka. We usually only get a few hours to jump in one of those three wheeled open cabs and take a whirlwind tour through the city. There are elaborate Buddhist temples (some with elephants in them), great food, and super cheap but excellent teashops. And just like that we are rushed out of Sri Lanka and start the long journey home to New York, where after a sleepless night running ashore to visit friends, it starts all over again before you know it.