LIFE ABOARD A SHIP

 
During my years at sea, many friends have asked me what life is like aboard ship. It is a good question, especially for a prospective passenger. It isn't an easy one to answer, either. Much of your experience aboard ship depends upon your temperament, and your situation in life. Are you a person who doesn't mind being alone, or do you need company? If you have some free time, would you like to read a book or to have a party? Are you single, or married with children? No matter what your answers to these questions are, you may or may not enjoy going to sea, but they do have an effect on the type of ship and type of voyage.

Seamen usually spend at least 8 months a year at sea. Sea duty depends on how much vacation they get, and how they schedule time off. Life at sea isn't conducive to a home and family. For that reason I remained single until I was almost 40. I have had many friends who remain single all their lives. I personally decided that I wanted to have the company of a family in my older years. Seamen who try to care for a family are often not happy with their career. Many of them ask, "Why would anybody pay money to be out here as a passenger? They ought to have their head examined". Personally, I was always happy aboard ship, and could easily understand why someone might want to spend their time on a freighter voyage.

As a passenger you have few worries, and virtually no stress. You have no duties to perform except getting to the dinner table on time, and washing your own clothes. For people burned out by the trials and tribulations of daily life, a trip on a ship may give you a new perspective. After retiring four years ago I find that my life now has more prolonged stress than before.

Sailing as a Captain I knew that if I were unlucky, or made a bad decision, I may suffer a collision or grounding that would get my name on the Six O'Clock News. That was stress, but it was not daily, nor prolonged as it is ashore. Now I need to meet daily schedules of school, after school activities, getting meals on the table on time, and dealing with traffic as I rush about town. If I make a mistake, I won't make the Evenings News, but the demands are greater and more persistent.

Until very recently we had no T.V. reception at sea, and radio broadcasts were mostly via short wave. Unfortunately I now see in maritime periodicals advertisements for electronics that allow you to hook up your T.V. with a gyro stabilized satellite antenna. Personally, I don't want to see the constant barrage of bad news that we hear daily while ashore. At sea you breathe clean air (unless you get down wind from the stack gasses). You can enjoy stars at night, the tranquility of a sunrise and sunset over the ocean. You can enjoy a conversation over dinner, one of the few social activities aboard a freighter.

I am amazed that the average Able Seaman has read more best selling novels than even the better educated college graduates ashore. We were always reading and trading books with one another. Now that I'm ashore I rarely have time to read a book, and fall asleep minutes after going to bed. At sea you can appreciate the sky, wind and sea, which are always changing. There is a certain sense of adventure lurking in the background and solitude is ever present.

At sea you don't really need to worry about phone calls. Telemarketers are not going to spend $8 per minute calling a ship. Many of the ships I sailed on weren't even equipped with satellite phones and telex, we relied on the radio officer to get messages in and out. Radio Officers used to have a good job. They didn't have to work in port. They drew the wages of a Second Mate. They had their own radio shack, with the transmitters, receivers, and communication equipment of the ship. I was surprised that they kept sailing as long as they did. If you had a good one, who could keep the bridge electronics maintained, he was a great asset to the ship. If you had a cranky one, you longed for the day of his replacement. In recent years, mostly since I retired (1995), automation has done away with the Radio Officer. They are but a footnote to history.

When I started sailing we used flashing light to communicate with other ships and the pilot station. In the early 70's we got the bridge to bridge VHF radio phone. It made things a lot easier. I still remember the International Morse Code, but I don't think it's part any examination any more.

With the advent of radar, computing the range and relative bearing of other ships is accomplished with the click of a mouse button. It is no longer necessary to perform manual computations. Global positioning systems (GPS) enable the watch office to get a fix on the ship's actual location within a few yards; accordingly, the venerable sextant remains in its case. The ship's gyro has eliminated the need for a helmsman on the bridge; the ship 's electronics know where she is and where she is going; even the vessel's speed is automatically controlled based on sea conditions.

In the 80's we got satellite telephones (Marisat) where you could dial the area code and number and get to talk to the rest of the world. Of course, like all automation, these things can break down. I pity today the poor Captain who loses his ability to communicate due to technical problems with the equipment. In my experience the home office views the failure to communicate as a problem of the ship. If they don't get an immediate response, the Captain is to blame, but then the Captain is always to blame when things go wrong.

Is going to sea on a freighter exciting? It involves long hours of low stress, tranquil, some may say boring life, interjected with periods of great excitement and adventure. Will you like it? I don't know. I hope these pages help you to figure that out.