Life at sea sounds exciting, and it can be. The perception wasn’t created by a mythical good time had by sailors from long, long ago. No, life at sea was exciting back in the day, and it is now. It’s probably not as glamorous as it may seem to those on the outside looking in—but it is exciting.
However, if you are not careful, some of that ‘excitement’ you were looking for in a life at sea could be because you are running from riot police in Busan, Korea, or because you come face to face with a squad of soldiers in Eastern Europe pointing their weapons at you.
For any of a number of reasons, you could find yourself stranded or in jail in some country you’ve never heard of before. Not the kind of excitement you wanted? Well, if you play your cards right, you’ll never experience that kind of ‘excitement.’
There are some common problems, and pitfalls merchant mariners may come across while traveling from port to port in foreign countries. Some will be more common if you have to fly out to meet a ship while other scenarios are more prevalent when you go ashore.
Losing any of your travel documents can create all sorts of issues and make life pretty scary until the situation is resolved. While abroad, those documents serve as your identification. So, of course, you don’t want to lose them. But it doesn’t hurt to be prepared in case you do (or they get stolen).
Make a couple of sets of photocopies of everything. Keep one set with you while traveling to your ship or when you go ashore. Keep the other in your bag. If you are not tech-savvy, find someone who is so they can scan the photocopies and create a PDF of your documents for you.
Download a copy to your phone, tablet, and laptop (if you have it with you). It wouldn’t hurt to have a copy “in the cloud” in case you lose all your devices.
Should you be shoreside and discover everything is lost, get in touch with your ship’s agent immediately. He or she will likely tell you to contact police (if they were stolen) and your embassy as well (or they may cover those bases for you).
Make sure your documents are in good condition and do not have anything stapled or glued to them.
Ideally, it is nice to be able to join a ship at a port in the United States. That way, if any issues arise you are not stuck in some foreign land without anywhere to go. But that is not always possible. If the job requires you to fly to Tokyo to catch the ship, you fly to Tokyo.
Should that be the case, do not make arrangements that give you a tight window to make a connecting flight or catch the ship before it leaves. Planes get delayed all the time and for all sorts of reasons. Including a tiny window in your travel plans is as good as asking for trouble.
If you do miss a flight, don’t waste any time and talk to someone in charge who can tell you how long you are allowed to stay at the airport. You may need a transit visa after a period of time at the airport. Then contact a company representative asap. If they can’t find an alternate flight to meet the ship, they’ll make sure you get home.
It’s never a good idea to play games with one in the United States, and it certainly isn’t a good idea to play any abroad (airport and otherwise). Whether it’s an airport checkpoint or one on the street, it’s a good rule of thumb never to show any form of aggression or anything that can be misconstrued as aggression. Do not bring any weapons of any kind; certainly, don’t bring a gun and leave your knife in your bag or on the ship.
If you are going through an airport checkpoint, be aware of what the country will not allow you to carry on. For example, you can’t have a stun gun or taser in your bags in Hong Kong.
Social customs, traditions, and norms
Be aware of the customs and traditions of any country your ship is going to be visiting. You don’t want a problem to arise because you inadvertently insulted someone. Even if you were ‘just defending yourself’ the local authorities will probably not hesitate to throw you in jail.
You really don’t want to miss your ship because you were in jail.
If you aren’t aware, does that mean you should remain on board whenever the ship reaches port? Of course not, but keep in mind that you are the foreign visitor. Be nice and be quiet.
In a perfect world, we would all speak the same language and would have no trouble understanding each other. But we don’t live in an ideal world. A language barrier can make it very hard to get whatever help you may need or just catch a taxi.
To avoid any language issues, write down or memorize a few common questions travelers would ask. You’ll still have trouble understanding their answer, but at least they can point you in the right direction.
Part of the fun and excitement about traveling abroad can be trying food that you would otherwise never try. But if you are adventurous when it comes to food, be careful. Many countries do not have the sanitary standards that the United States does. One of the last things you want to do is get sick from eating the wrong thing in a foreign country.
You’re an American
In case you haven’t noticed, much of the world is not too fond of Americans. Locals in tourist locations are desensitized to us, but merchant ships travel to more non-tourist locations than tourist ones. So, when you head into a bar for a beer, there could be quite a few people that are just a little liquid courage away from telling you how much they ‘like’ Americans.