We all have to do something with our lives. Some people find a job. Others go to study. Some dream of getting married, having a family and raise children, while others don’t know what to do with their lives at all. But we can all agree on the fact that things mostly work out different than we all expected.
Because I did not know anyone who did this job before I signed up at the maritime academy, my ideas were shaped by information that was provided by schools, books written by engineer and writer Fleur van der Laan and my own imagination. Little did I know what was waiting for me…
Surprisingly, the emphasis is always on the positive side of the story. I can also call it the ‘Instagram’ kind of reality and you probably get the point. But it is not all sunshine and rainbows, of course. I want you to know how it really is. Time to face the truth about 5 very important topics.
1. Travelling the world
Back in the days, seafarers were away from home for months. They travelled the world. Loading and discharging could take days or even weeks. Besides the hard work there was time for pleasure. It’s a romantic image that made me step on board every time again.
The reality is that seafarers are still away from home for months. The amount of crew has decreased. The workload has increased. Loading and discharging is done in hours instead of days and instead of bounty island and idyllic places you will mostly see smelly harbours and airports. (OK – cruise and yacht industry excluded 😉 )
There is almost no time to go ashore anymore because of the short port calls and the hectic schedule of the vessel. The higher the rank, the more responsibility, the less opportunity. The few hours of rest seafarers have are mostly spend sleeping instead of discovering local shopping malls, restaurants or bars. The corona pandemic makes it even impossible to leave the vessel. Result: you are a prisoner on your own ship. Treated likewise by authorities. We eat, work and sleep and the next day we continue doing what we do without complaining. Keeping the world economy going without getting the respect and understanding we deserve. Clearly a lot has changed. One thing will always remain the same. The most wanted port is and will always be… the airport!
2. Earning a good salary
This is a tricky one because this depends on various factors such as your rank, the type of vessel or industry you are working in and your nationality. Asian and Eastern European seafarers can make multiple times the average income in their country. That is one of the reasons why this profession is so popular there. But for a Dutch seafarer this is not the case. And while in some countries the tax rates for seafarers who spent more than 180 days at sea are lower, dutch seafarers don’t have that benefit (anymore). When I was still studying, I was told that I would earn very good money. In reality it is a struggle to pay the rent in a city like Amsterdam or Rotterdam. The salary is not bad, don’t get me wrong… but I’m not exactly living the life of Riley here. Comparing the costs I made for studying, the amount of hours I work onboard and the responsibility I have over equipment worth millions of dollars, there are many other jobs in which you earn the same or more money with a lot less effort.
3. Conditions on board
When I first came on board as a passenger on a cruise ship, I was amazed by all the facilities cruise ships were offering. There were many bars and restaurants with delicious food and drinks, multiple swimming pools, jacuzzi’s, a spa, a gym, a theatre, a cinema, a casino and so on. The reality is that most other vessels are not equipped like this.
I was on board a ship without WIFI for three months. The only way of communication was via e-mail, where the captain was reading all personal e-mail from the crew. So bye bye privacy. I have seen cabins with broken tiles, leaking sinks and dirty mattresses. I have slept weeks on board a ship without a working air conditioning in the Caribbean, where the temperature in the accommodation was 40º C. I have experienced a legionella infection in the freshwater tanks and cockroaches crawling over my food. I have lost a lot of weight (and hair) after only eating rice and chicken for three months because of lack of food supply. I worked weeks under constant stress because the ship had a hole in her hull. And so on…
Luckily now I also know how it is to have a swimming pool, a nice gym, a sauna, healthy food and a for seafarers ‘fast’ internet connection. Although the Maritime Labour Convention is in force, unfortunately, still many seafarers living in poor conditions. So my advise is if you don’t want to end up in an episode of ‘the world toughest prisons’ … do your research and choose your company wisely.
4. Equality and discrimination
On this topic my expectations match my reality. You have to be strong and determined to survive in this culture because unfortunately, there are still people who believe that this profession is not suitable for woman. I quote: “You should stay home and get married. Your husband should provide for you and your future kids”. I’m perfectly capable of looking after myself, thank you! That’s is how my parents raised me. My husband can stay home if he wants.
“This job is too heavy for you, you should become a deck officer”. I’m smarter than you and not the one complaining about back problems, so how about no.
“You are so sensitive. You live in a men’s world so you should adapt to that” said a 65-year old chief engineer with who I had a fight. He didn’t want to work with woman and called me ‘pussy’. Uhm?… What about we live in the 21st century and it’s time for you to go with pension and talk about the good old days! Fuck off idiot.
These are just a few examples. I have been rejected once at a dredging company because of my gender. There were multiple female applicants but that company only wanted to hire one female apprentice. Why? Because the crewing manager told me they had a bad experience with the previous female apprentice and they did not want to take the risk.
The reality is that as a female seafarer, you are under a magnifying glass. I have been monitored day and night by a chief engineer who saw me as ‘his project’. I had to visit the second engineer (my mentor) every evening in his cabin for one week in a row so he would sign my training record book. I had to listen to a lot of mysoginestic jokes and I have been asked by a second officer who was new on board if I was capable of doing the job I was telling him I was planning to do. EXCUSE ME?! I don’t think my male colleagues have experienced the same things.
But it is getting better! The maritime industry and the culture on board is slowly changing. (Besides the scantily clad ladies now also scantily clad men are shown on the screensaver 😉 )
The percentages of women working on board is increasing. Acceptance is growing. And I had and still have so many good people around me, teaching and supporting me and showing me a lot of respect for which I will be forever grateful. Keep it up guys!
5. Social life
Let’s face the truth. This job has a huge impact on your social life and relationships. It started already when I made the decision to go to the maritime university. I moved from my small hometown to the big city. I said goodbye to a lot of friends. Simply because our lives were going in different directions. I chose a less traditional path which made me an outsider. But that was ok for me. It also caused many relationships to break down. Also something that I have accepted. When working as an engineer you spend more than 6 months per year at sea. This means you miss birthdays, weddings, holidays and other important moments from your friends and family. It is a big sacrifice and not always easy. And let’s put dating aside here because that topic deserves a dedicated blog!
Once at home the first things people ask you is when you came back. The second question is when you leave again. Don’t expect substantive conversations or understanding from non-seafarers because they have no idea what you’ve been up to. I have a switch between two lives. When I sign off I try to leave my life at sea behind me and switch back to ‘normal’ life.
On the other hand… there is no other job in which you have so many weeks of holiday. I love this freedom. When traveling is your biggest passion, like it is mine, this is the best job for you! There is also enough time for friends, family, hobbies and other projects. Only one BIG remark. No world is as uncertain as that of shipping. This means: many times you will stay longer on board (or home) than planned, schedules change last moment, vessels change, colleagues change and you… you are the one who needs to adapt all the time. You are the one who is cancelling appointments that are made, selling your festival ticket or cancelling your holiday to confirm your readiness.
I live by the day and almost never plan ahead to prevent disappointments. A big frustration sometimes for the people around me but it is what it is.
Yesterday is history. Today is a gift. Tomorrow is mystery.