Captain’s Corner: Off to Sea

Off to Sea

Considering the limited pool of qualified and experienced U.S. mariners to fill job vacancies as of late, I felt there would be no better time than the present to write this piece. The result of this shortage has given way to some incredible employment opportunities for brand new, entry-level sailors.

With that being noted, recently I have encountered some very basic, yet valid questions by these “greenhorns,” and it made me think back to my very first trip to sea. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing or what to expect, what to do once I was aboard or even what to bring with me for this ocean-going adventure.

Furthermore, there was no one in my life to really ask either, so I just packed up what I could, crossed my fingers and hoped for the best. I survived, but I wish I had some basic guidance to help me prepare for my hitch to make life a little easier. So here is a little insight for those who may want it.

So, as it usually goes, the prospective employee finally gets that notification that they have been offered a position aboard a working vessel. The first emotions are usually ones of pride, happiness, excitement and opportunity.

However, as the reality sets in and the departure date encroaches, the panic begins and the questions start. What type of clothes to pack, how many pairs of each, do I need my own bedding and linens, what will I eat, is it hot or cold where I’ll be working, how do I pay my bills while I am away, will I have cell service or internet access, what type of work will I be performing? There’s a million other questions and concerns too.

Being able to ask friends or colleagues who are already employed in the industry for advice is a huge advantage, and if you are fortunate enough to be shipping out of a Union Hall, then referring to the veteran members and staff hanging around can offer a wealth of knowledge as well, since they have probably sailed the same vessels and routes you are headed toward.

Over the years, I have put together a generally simple, reliable and reasonable list of items to bring to sea with you. Keep in mind this is for work purposes only. You will still want to bring street clothes and personal effects with you as well for traveling and off-watch activities.

What to Bring

First, let’s start with a large durable sea bag to hold all your gear. As a rule of thumb on work clothing, a minimum of eight pairs of work shirts (short and long sleeve), pants/shorts, socks and undergarments. One for each day of the week plus a spare.

It’s not uncommon when working in the heat to sweat through a pair of clothes on each watch. A few pairs of coveralls for engine department personnel are extremely handy, if not necessary, as well. Add one pair of comfortable shoes, a pair of high-quality work boots and a pair of slippers or casual footwear of your choice for inside while off watch. Warm clothing, foul-weather gear and other specialty work wear should be considered, depending on the geographic location and time of year you are sailing.

I recommend always having some variety of warm clothes just in case the vessel gets diverted from its regularly scheduled route or in case of an unforeseen emergency. Many vessels provide bedding, but I also encourage folks to bring their own as to possibly improve their rest quality, just in case the provided pillows and linens are not what you are used to —getting good sleep while you can is vital while working at sea. Personal grooming kits should include multiple toothbrushes, toothpastes, deodorants, shaving supplies, soaps and shampoos, etc.

Remember, running to the store if you need something isn’t that easy when you are in the middle of a body of water. Also, it should be noted that good hygiene is an important part of shipboard life for not only yourself but the other crew members you are living and working with. Everyone will appreciate it!

Other very important items to consider include ample, if not extra, medications or prescriptions, sunglasses, hats, reading glasses, a quality knife or multi-tool, flashlight/head lamp, cell phone, laptop and tablets and the appropriate charging devices associated with them.

Sort Out Obligations, Responsibilities

Taking care of your affairs before departing for a hitch can be a daunting task. But it is necessary. Take time to sort through your financial obligations and other responsibilities and decide if programs like auto pay or online banking are right for you. Having family, friends and other support on shore is a huge help if needed.

People can feel helpless if things go sideways back home and you are thousands of miles away, which is why having people you can rely on is a godsend. The good news is, that in this age of technology, handling most issues that arise far away are more manageable than they were in the past. And finally, possibly the most important items not to forget, your MMC, TWIC, Medical certificate, passport, ID and wallet. You won’t even make it up the gangway without most of these documents in hand and unexpired, so as mentioned in the previous column, treat them like gold and check the expiration dates regularly.

Now that you have everything, you need to board the vessel. It is a good idea to refresh some of your basic skills. There are so many apps for knot tying, COLREGS, CFR’s, U.S. Coast Guard rules of the road, navigation aids, maritime terminology and nomenclature and marlinspike seamanship that one could refresh their memory in a rather short period of time.

Remember the unspoken understanding to show up to your watch 15 minutes before the hour prepared, in a good head space and alert. Safety is of upmost importance and should never be compromised, so if you are in doubt about anything, notify someone. On a vessel, it truly is better to be safe than sorry.

The reality is becoming a prudent mariner can be achieved through a good attitude and years of experience. The best advice I can give to a new hire is to have an open mind, show initiative, ask questions and don’t be afraid to say that you don’t know how to do something. Never stop trying to hone your craft and never reach a point where you think you know it all. I have been working for 20 years on the water and I still find myself learning new things—that’s what keeps me interested.

For those of you who will stick with the industry and advance your license and career, you will come to understand down the road that being a professional mariner is much more than a job. It somehow gets rooted in your identity and entrenched in your blood. Yes, there will absolutely be days at sea where you question your career choice and your sanity. But there will be many more days where you gaze out at the sun setting on the horizon and couldn’t imagine doing anything else in the world.

Aloha, Capt. Michael S. Anderson Jr.

Capt. Michael Anderson Jr. currently serves as the Regional Director of the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific, Hawai’i Region.
He has worked in the commercial towing industry most of his career both domestically and abroad, most recently sailing as a captain on harbor tugs performing ship assist duties. He also holds both Deck and Engine license/ratings. He resides in Honolulu, Hawaii with his wife Julia.