Friday, July 8, 2016

There are unions and there are unions. I guess I was in the latter. (Part 1)

I've been reading the blog of a new mariner who is finishing up his training at the Harry Lundeburg School, the training school of the Seafarer's Union. 

 He's still getting his feet under him, but hopefully you'll meet him one day.

 I never did belong to the SIU, the largest maritime union in the US. I spent 8 years in MMP  back when they had an unlicensed division. I stumbled into my first shipboard job. At the time, I was VP of a regional commercial fisherman's association and was doing side work as a marine biologist here and there.
      Anyhow, after growing up with stories of shipboard life from my dad, and faced with growing discontent with my career path (I loved fishing, but I lived check-to-check), I approached a new member of the fisherman's association who was also chief mate on an oil tanker, and started jumping through hoops to get my Z-card.

     My first trip on a ship, well, I spent it in the double bottoms of an engine room, chipping rust in the dark for 12 hours a day, wearing a respirator and a mining light. Filthy work, but I loved being on a ship. In my off time, I could explore, walk out on deck, ask people about their jobs. I knew I wanted to be on deck, but I enjoyed my time in the engine room. My supervisor was a real asshole, but so it goes. You meet the best and the worst people on boats, and he got fired or quit after about a month, and the chief engineer took over looking after the 4 rustbusters, and he was a great guy. Really made me see why my dad preferred the engine room.

 I didn't know it at the time, but being humble (no, really, stop laughing. I was), I asked questions and did my job without complaint. Someone heard my wicked strong Boston accent, a new 3rd mate, and we talked about home, he having grown up 30 miles from me. From him, I got permission after a couple of months on board to learn to hand steer the ship, and I met the captain that way. The bridge was off limits except by permission, but I was there late at night and with permission, and loved the quiet and the feel of the wheel in my hand, and steering a 40,000 ton ship is different from a lobsterboat, but the principle is the same, and 20 years of that helped, too. The captain was amused by it, and encouraged me to learn all I could. It wasn't exactly a marriage made in heaven, but I was able to go upstairs once a week and was welcomed. I never stayed longer than an hour. Didn't want to wear out my welcome. Towards the end of my trip, the captain poked his head into the crew's mess one day at lunch, and told me to clean up, that I was going to hand steer us to the dock in Savannah, GA that afternoon. Which I did. I had been prepared for it by the 3rd mate and captain, between learning the commands and learning how to compensate for the inertia of the ship while making course changes at sea. The added complexity of current and working in shallow narrow waterways with other traffic was a new challenge, but learning how to feel my way in the dark out at sea with no reference points,  and not oversteer while the captain and mate tried to make me do exactly that- it was good preparation. The pilot on board gave his permission for me to steer, the AB on the wheel was happy to get to sit in a chair and relax, and all went well. It's silly, but I was more proud that day than I was when I graduated from college or when I published my first scientific article.

 Along the way, over my first 4-month voyage, I learned the job of the AB's on a tanker, and in my off time, I got permission to help out. It wasn't paid work- MMP's Offshore unlicensed union was pretty watered down. I already had close to 3,000 days at sea before I stepped foot on a ship, from my time fishing, so I knew how to be an AB, and took the exam as soon as I had 180 days on a ship- 2 voyages, so I could get the helmsman certification.

  So, my learning the ropes on a ship was a natural, organic process, I guess. I had a lot of freedom, more than I ever really appreciated. 12 hours on/12 off for 120 days, there was time for learning, making friends, going ashore (I didn't stand watch, so I explored, drank while ashore, and, being single, mapped out the titty bars of the US seaports to a point). There were some little headaches that the passage of time has smoothed over, but overall it was a great time in my life.
     What I didn't appreciate at the time was how lucky I was. A combination of intertwining series of good luck, in fact. I got on a ship that had an existing cadre of misfits and professionals in equal number, no conflict between officers and crew, decent food, shore access in most ports, and all I had to do was do my job, be polite and ask questions- I had no idea at the time that it's a rare ship where someone will not just tolerate a new mariner, but give them free rein to indulge curiosity and actively assist them in advancing themselves.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Maybe not as rare as you think. I did a couple of months on a Sea River Maritime tanker doing the Anacortes to Valdez run (in January and February to boot). I was technically a cadet with Coast Guard papers and everything but was training to be on the design side of things. The Captain and Chief Engineer were incredibly professional, patient and understanding with me and my fellow "casual" cadet as they called us. Most (but definitely not all) of my classmates on different ships had a similar experience.