After six years of life at sea all I’ve got to show for it are a lot of white hairs, a car, a plot of land, a few good and plenty of bad memories. I dedicate this article to all young people who are considering a career and life at sea.
I did my first six months voyage in 2010, during my last year at the naval academy and I was among the lucky few who caught a cadet contract during the academy years…. Now that I think about it, I was among the lucky few from my class who caught a cadet contract at all.
I was happy and excited when I first left. This was my first grand adventure in life, the first time I was leaving home for such a long period, the first time I was going across the ocean to America and on my plane ticket was written Los Angeles. Los Angeles I didn’t get to see that time, I only saw the highway from the airport to the ship. This turned out to be the usual case unfortunately. The enthusiasm vanished in less than a week, when I realized that I would spend the next six months sleeping in a narrow bed, in a narrow cabin, on a ship with a narrow deck, where everybody abuses you, where you work absolutely every day and where everyone only cares about their own skin.
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I chose this career of life at sea mainly to get to see the world rather than for the money. But I soon realized that you get see the world only during airports transits, or when you are woken up in the middle of the night to assist with the ship’s docking maneuvers. You can also see it in your only 6 hours break time, if you sacrifice your sleep hours and if your legs are still able to support you. Port views are usually limited to a large container yard, often far away from any settlement, usually a 25 $ taxi ride away from the city. There are exceptions of course, ports like Hong Kong or Singapore, where the port is practically the downtown area. On special occasions you get to stay one month in a shipyard, or sit idle with your engine broken down somewhere nice. Sometimes when you sign on or off from the ship, you’re lucky enough to catch a night at a hotel. In this case you can really get to see and enjoy the city. But due to economic reasons, this rarely happens.
It does happen sometimes to catch a long port stay in some countries. Usually this is the case where the cargo operations are very slow due to the port management. But this is usually the case in third world countries where you don’t want to stay long, and you definitely don’t want to go out to the city.
In these years of life at sea I have learned, usually the hard way, that there is no justice on board the ship. No matter how many rights and goodwill you have, you will still end up getting screwed over. To survive here and climb in the ranks, you have to step on heads and be like a snake. And I also realized that in an isolated environment if you give the power to a mentally deranged individual who had a bad childhood, he will start acting like he is the master of a slave plantation and will fuck everybody, and there will be no one around to keep him under control.
But this isolated environment also creates good things: you will make tight bonds and friends that in an office environment would never happen. Apparently if you spend a few months, day and night in a small confined space with the same few people, you either become very good friends with them, or you will find a thousand ways to kill them in their sleep and throw the bodies in the ocean at night without being seen by anyone. If you’re not a racist you will probably become one, because most people on board are. This is also caused by the shipping and crewing companies who assign ranks and set the length and wages of your contract based on your nationality.
There is no more honor in this business. Virtually all your life you will be a mercenary of the sea, in search of better conditions and pay. Before, each country had it’s own merchant fleet, manned with national crew. Nowadays you are likely to find yourself celebrating New Year’s eve somewhere in West Africa, among pirates, in the company of barbed wire, surrounded by Russians and Filipinos, on a German ship sailing under the Liberian flag. Isn’t globalization beautiful?
And then there is the other life: the life ashore. Your time spent home between voyages, which may be shorter or longer, is not just a vacation, it’s basically a glimpse of your old life from before you started sailing. The life that you are trying desperately to cling on to, but with each voyage it becomes more distant and unimportant to you. After 6 months on the high seas, you land in your country for 2-3 months and you simply do not understand what is going on around you. You missed your mother’s birthday, you missed the wedding of your best friend, you missed the latest movies … you missed a lot. And by the time you clear your head and start to adapt somewhat in society, your phone rings and you have to pack up and leave again.
Now imagine what it’s like to start a serious relationship in these conditions. Unless you’ve had your wedding in your early 20’s, or you are in a good consolidated relation with your high school sweetheart, you realize how hard it is to start and especially maintain such a relationship. Be prepared to face situations like: you just finished a contract and come back home to find that your girlfriend is pregnant and already moved in with another man. But the good part is that because of these situations you will have a stronger character and you will cope more easily in future years. And more important: you will know how to select and value those who remained beside you during hard times.
Years of continuous non-interrupted daily work with long hours, little and random sleep periods, eating food of doubtful quality, extreme swings of temperature, years of living in a vibrating and rolling environment where your time zone can shift daily, where the only available comfort you will find in alcohol and tobacco and where coffee in large quantities is your best friend, will inevitably have an impact on your body. If you managed to escape serious physical injuries and accidents, you can be sure that you will pay in other ways. Those many white hairs that appeared on your head are just the surface syndrome.
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There is also the good part of the life at sea that everyone is thinking about: the money! If you live isolated on a floating prison, means that you won’t really have on what to spend the money you earn and you will put them aside. If you got some brains in your head and at the end of the contract you don’t not spend them all in one shot on a BMW, after a few contracts at sea you can actually think about buying an apartment, a piece of land, or a house with cash down payment. So while your friends are struggling with mortgages at the bank for the next 30 years, you have a chance to avoid all of this. But as I said earlier, you will pay in other ways, whether it’s with your time, your health or happiness. It is the price worth it? … . That is for You to decide!
Perhaps I am being subjective here, and on other ships, at other companies, life on board is better. I write to you sharing my experience on container ships, deck department. But one thing is certain: nobody will give you back the time spent at sea.
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