A career in the Merchant Marine does not usually come to mind when considering career paths. Many folks either aren’t aware of the opportunities a seafaring career offer or they’ve heard too many untoward merchant marine myths.
Ask any Merchant Mariner you meet about their profession, and you can bet he or she has already answered the same question one-thousand times before.
There are many questions planted by the myths, quibble, and illusions portrayed in Hollywood or spread by people who have no knowledge of, or connection to, a merchant seaman. So, Out2Sea.com is here to bust the merchant marine myths and mysteries surrounding the profession once and for all.
Myth #1: A girl in every port
Long ago, ships pulled into port for days or weeks at a time, and sailors could expect to find a lineup of women eager to greet them. Those days are history. For one thing, most crew members in today’s Merchant Navy don’t have time to hook up
For modern Merchant Mariners, turnaround times vary according to the type of vessel they’re crewing. Ships traveling the Alaska Marine Highway System can spend a couple of hours or so in port on a scheduled run. Cruise ships usually spend a few hours to one day in port. Ships carrying particular cargo could spend several days in port. A container ship, carrying hundreds of forty foot standardized containers will spend less than a day in port, the average being around 16 hours. These massive container ships are expensive to run—$30,000 to $40,000 per day, and shipping companies continually look for ways to trim the time spent in port, leaving little to no time for shenanigans.
As safety regulations began to be established in recent decades, such as the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code and other security controls, such debauchery has been grandfathered out. Today’s Mariners are acutely aware of the health hazards associated with any philandering, not to mention that most have spouses or significant others waiting for them back home. Their relationships are just as important to them as to anyone else. Rather than weakening their relationships, time at sea away from loved ones strengthens the bonds of love.
Myth #2: Seasickness is a given
One of the most common questions seafarers get asked is whether he or she gets seasick. The truth is, few people experience seasickness, and seventy-five percent of those who do eventually become acclimated to the sea and are cured naturally. If you’re one of the twenty-five percent of people who are afflicted with seasickness every time they step on a boat, a career in the Merchant Marine is probably not a good choice. But generally, it’s not a problem for most.
Myth #3: Mariners do not need an education
If you’re guessing that joining the Merchant Marine is an excellent way to skip college and jump right into a good-paying career, guess again. Merchant Mariners operate and maintain deep-sea merchant ships, tugboats, ferries, research vessels, and other important boats. Some work with large machinery and hazardous cargo. The United States Merchant Marine maintains strict educational and training requirements for its employees. All officers and operators must become licensed by receiving their education from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, which issues bachelor’s degrees in marine engineering or nautical science.
Every rank, including the ship’s crew, has to be well-informed, educated, and adept in theory and practice. U.S. Merchant Marine wannabes can get a four-year degree at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy or one of the six state maritime academies. Part of the schooling includes compulsory basic training and getting the required documents. Upon graduating, you could be certified to work as a deck officer or engineer. If you don’t succeed in graduating, you can probably still work in an unlicensed capacity.
Other ways to join
Another way to join is to cross over from the Navy, Coast Guard, etc. If you qualify, you can be certified for a licensed or unlicensed position based on the amount of sea time you have. It can work for careers in the deck side—Quartermasters, Boatswains or Mates, for instance. It can also work well on the engineering side.
Or, you can go to a school that certifies entry-level people. The coursework is shorter: between eight to eleven months. Various commercial schools perform this certification, particularly in port towns like New Orleans, Norfolk, Honolulu, San Francisco, Seattle, etc.
Assuming that a career in the Merchant Marine is as easy as showing up at a port the day after high school graduation is very misguided. Today’s Mariners are vastly educated in subjects like terrestrial and celestial navigation; vessel stability and trim; marine materials handling; pollution control and prevention. There is also meteorology; maritime communications; integrated electronic navigation systems such as radar, ARPA, and ECDIS; bridge resource management, and various domestic and international rules and regulations that govern these activities. In addition, there are maritime business courses that give midshipmen a broad understanding of management issues and specific skills required for critical thinking and decision-making in business.
Myth #4: Seafarers drink a lot of alcohol all the time
The notion that sailors have a bottomless capacity for alcohol is a merchant marine myths that individuals foster worldwide. Many people also believe that alcohol is readily available onboard for free! In fact, there are strict regulations banning drinking among crew members, and officials routinely conduct random alcohol tests onboard. Drinking on board can lead Mariners to make mistakes that are life-threatening. Alcohol is available onboard some ships, and indeed it is cheap. But shipping companies have stringent regulations preventing crews from drinking freely. Today most ships have “no-alcohol” policies.
Myth #5: Pirates everywhere
Unless you’re traversing the waters around Somalia, pirate attacks are uncommon on the world’s seas. Even in those areas, ships usually pass through without incident. There are safety and security measures that Mariners execute to prevent pirates from boarding their ships. Shippers are becoming proactive in piracy prevention, utilizing new protective measures that make it tougher for pirates to attack. While the threat of piracy is an issue a Mariner must deal with, it’s not an every day, everywhere occurrence.
Myth #6: Seafaring life is glamorous
Travel to exotic countries! Snazzy uniforms! The vast enchanting sea! It sounds appealing, but the soiled boiler suits, worn out safety boots and fatigue at day’s end are more like the reality. There is an excitement and a sense of good fortune that comes with having a career at sea, but it is not without its grit.
Myth #7: Seafarers spend six months working at sea, and six months off on land
Merchant Mariners contract for different terms. For some, it can be four months at sea and two months on land, or a variety of other combinations depending one’s position. Additionally, during those months off, some Mariners are not earning wages. Companies typically reduce pay even for those who do receive pay during the months that they’re home. And the work performed during the months at sea makes those months at home necessary for family time and unwinding. Plus, many Mariners are taking courses and tests during their months on land, so there’s little time “off.”
Myth #8: Merchant Mariners have to fight wars
Unlike the defense Navy, the Merchant Marine does not get involved on a daily operational basis with the armed forces. The Merchant Marine is an auxiliary organization that may be called upon to assist the Navy if the country goes to war, or in the event of a national emergency. The Merchant Marine is a commercial operation responsible for the transfer of goods and cargo across the world. Merchant marine myths surrounding military service are rather prevalent among many sectors of society but are ultimately false.
Myth #9: Seafarers must be strong swimmers
While Merchant Mariners work at sea, it doesn’t mean they work in the water. But for some reason, many people believe that seafarers need to be able to swim to shore or to other ships if the ship they’re on meets with an accident. If that happens, even an Olympic swimmer is unlikely to swim to shore or even stay afloat in extreme weather conditions. Besides, there is protective equipment available to Mariners to keep them afloat in an emergency. So, the ability to swim is not a requirement.
Every seaman has heard all the merchant marine myths regarding their profession, some of them unseemly. You would think they would become disheartened by the folklore and falsehoods that cloud their occupation. But the truth is, this does not change their love for the sea. The next time someone asks you an absurd question, or you hear someone repeat merchant marine myths as if they were the truth, direct them to this blog. Folks should only trust the stories of seafaring life if they come from seafarers themselves.
Tell us about some of the weirdest merchant marine myths you have heard, or the craziest questions people have asked. How did you respond?