Monday, 25 June 2012

Day of the Seafarer

Today is International Day of the Seafarer.

Ok, you say.. so what?

If you are a regular reader of this blog then you should by now, have a pretty good idea of what it is I do for a living. I drive ships. At the moment I drive cruise ships. But with the ticket I have, I could quite as easily drive tankers (oil, gas, chemicals), or container ships (er... pretty much all the shiny stuff you buy in shops), or bulk carriers, (grain, ores, scrap metal, coal, cotton... anything solid in BIG quantities) or ferries (cheap way to pop to any number of places on this continent, and you can take your car), or cable/pipe laying ships (how oil gets from the north sea to here, and you like your communications don't you!), or car carriers, (I don't need to tell you what they transport do I?) or any number of small support type vessels (buoy tenders, tugs, standby vessels for oil rigs, etc).

All these vessels, basically, make your life possible. 90% of the world's trade is done by sea. Real trade, not hedge funds and mythical money that moves about mysteriously without anyone ever seeing anything tangible, but real trade. Stuff you can pick up and hold and use and enjoy, your clothes, your gadgets, even a lot of your food, all comes to you by sea.

We used to have a proud seafaring tradition here in Britain, everyone knew who we were and how important our jobs were to the country. Sadly, these days, I tell people I am in the Merchant Navy and they leap to the conclusion that I am in the Royal Navy. These are not the same thing. No. The Royal Navy, gods bless them, are a fine and wonderful lot of people who are part of our nations defences, and work alongside the Army and Royal Air Force. The Merchant Navy is difficult to define in some respects, if you're going to get finickity about things, but, when it boils down to it, all ships, unless they are part of a county's military defence, are part of the Merchant Navy.

As you can imagine, there are thousands and thousands of ships, and each of those is crewed by people: people of all nationalities, people of all religions, races and creeds, people like me, and like you. And you never see us. That is what today is about. To remind you that we are here, and how much you rely on us to make your life happen. Seafaring is, statistically, the most dangerous profession in the world (out of this, fishing is the most dangerous). At any given time there will be some of us out there facing terrifying storms and high seas: or piracy; or simply the loneliness and heartbreak of being far, far away from those we love, for months on end.

So spare a thought for those at sea today, take a moment to appreciate how that shiny computer you are reading this on got to you (Made in China?), how the food you ate tonight reached your table (look at the label, New Zealand Lamb? Danish pork? Veg grown in Spain? Bananas from Dominica?), the toy your child adores (made in Taiwan?)..... It's a career we chose, but without us, your life would be much emptier, so please take a second to say thank you for seafarers.

A couple of videos for you to peruse...

Follow @IMOHQ  and @SeafarerDay on twitter to find out more. And me of course @size4riggers

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Real life vs Ship life: Part 1. Ship life.

Life has been happening, at an alarming rate it seems, I'm over halfway through my leave already and am only just starting to feel like I'm catching up with real life. Guess I won't be learning to drive this leave then...

Generally, for me, life stops when I am at sea and then kicks in when I am on land. Well it doesn't stop, it just comes under a completely different heading. At sea it's all about whether the lifeboat is going to work (or at least not fill with water), or when the life-jacket lights last got changed, or which life-buoys are in desperate need of replacement, or why the immersion suit got mouldy, or trying to get something that is out of date or knackered or  degraded replaced. It's a never-ending fight: to stay on top of things, to stay sane, to get enough sleep, and to do all that while looking presentable. We have an open bridge policy, so watches aren't just about driving the ship, (that does come first though, and if it's busy I'll happily kick people off the bridge so I can concentrate). I also end up playing the role of tour guide and star expert, I end up repeating my life story ad-infinitum, (the Quartermaster could just as easily tell it by now), explaining the bridge equipment over and over again, and being given verbal pats on the head by a good 70% of those who visit the bridge just because I'm a girl.

To be honest, that's the only bit that really gets me. I'm proud of my job, and what I've achieved so far in my life, I'm only too happy to educate people about what we who drive ships actually do and how we do it, I love stars and learning about the constellations and sharing that with people: one of the best bits of the job is standing on the bridge wing on a clear quiet night being utterly overawed by the night sky. If you've never seen it from the deck of a ship away from land, you've been missing out.

But, to be told "Well, good for yoooou" over and over again, is something that really gets my goat. None of the other (male) junior officers get that, you certainly wouldn't hear the Captain being told that, (and believe me, my last Captain slogged his backside off to get where he is), no it's because of one thing and one thing only that I am singled out as the plucky little soldier who deserves a patronizing comment congratulating me for doing what thousands of other seafarers do every day, many of whom, I'm sure, have had to fight bigger battles that I have. My gender. And that pisses me off.

It's not just on ship though, for example, my mother related a conversation she had with an acquaintance recently, while not exactly verbatum, it went something like this:

Aquaintance: And what do your daughters do?

Mother: Well, my eldest lives in Reading with her husband, she works in *some sort of IT related place* and they just bought their first house.

Aquaintance: Mmm lovely.... And your youngest?

Mother: Well she's away at the moment, she works at sea.

Aquaintance: Oh really, how adventurous, what does she do?

Mother: Oh she's working on a cruise ship a the moment.

Aquaintance: Oh wow, that must be lovely, what does she do? Stewardess? Croupier?

Mother: No, no, she drives she ship, she's the 3rd Officer.

Aquaintance: GOOD GOD!! 

The shock and incredulity that I, a 30 year old woman, could be left in charge of not crashing a whole ship for 4 hours at a time makes me sad. Are we still so steeped in inherent sexism that it's that crazy an idea? Yes, the Merchant Navy is still a male dominated industry, but haven't we as a society finally reached the conclusion that ability is not based on gender? Apparently not.


The rest of my trip can be summed up fairly succinctly: Wet dock. This was not a refit period while tied up alongside in some out of the way dockyard. This was a complete rip out and replace of the entire hotel side of the ship, while en-route from Panama to Barcelona, stopping for about 3 days in St Maarten and Algeciras. It was... interesting. It's not something that I wish to repeat. Ever.

There were up sides, such as being able to go for a drink in the Pool Bar after watch at midnight. (No passengers on ship, just 50 odd British contractors) and there were downsides, such as working 14+ hour days and getting massively behind on my planned maintenance because other things had to take priority. I spent most of my watches crossing the Atlantic navigating around rain clouds - rain + holes in deck and/or wet paint does not mix well. Somehow, it pulled together, the night before we arrived in Barcelona, the spa girls were polishing railings, the VP of hotel operations was wielding a paintbrush, we had Quartermasters scrubbing decks at midnight and floors being waxed. The next morning the new 2nd officer was varnishing the pool surround and the pool bar still looked like a bombsite. However, by 1300, when I took the new crew around on their familiarization tour, the place was spotless.

The last month of the trip was spent catching up on my planned maintenance, catching up on sleep and wondering who, if anyone, was going to relieve me.

Overall, despite all the whinging I have just done, I had a ball this trip. I had fantastic people to work with, in particular, the last Captain and C/O I had, who ripped the piss out of me almost constantly, and ensured that I almost cried with laughter at least once a day. And the first C/O I had too, who took me under her wing and mentored me through my first few weeks as a new officer. (Mostly by standing about chatting shit while smoking too much and occasionally giving me a kick up the backside if I screwed up). She also threw me the first proper birthday party I've ever had. (And, more importantly, gave me the watch off the morning after!).

Other highlights of the trip were:

Swimming off Coiba beach on several occasions, where I also met a crocodile, got stung by tiny jelly fish, saw a ray, saw a shark, chased vultures and ate a lot of delicious bbq food.

Going for a post work swim off the stern platform.

Eating fresh out of the oven warm mini chocolate cakes.

Getting her up to 8kts with no engines.

Turning 30: this is because it involved a party, dancing so hard I ached the next day, a lie in, cake and presents.

A free hot stones massage.

Zip lining in Nicaragua.

Free Nicaraguan rum.

Being able to afford Raybans and a pair of swanky binoculars.

Seeing humpback whales, leaping, breaching, fin slapping and tail slapping as we left St Maartin. (New binoculars were very useful at this point.)

Portoferraio, where I climbed a hill and admired the view, then sat in a cafe with a small glass of white, overlooking a picturesque little harbour. On the way home I bought the biggest ice cream I could find: Waffle cone, 4 scoops - blackcurrant, mango, tiramisu and ricotta with burnt caramel. (The Italians really do make the best ice-cream in the world.)

Amalfi, where I visited the Cathedral and bought chocolate and pizza.

Santorini, where I took the cable car to the top and had lunch while admiring the view.

Myknonos, where I simply wandered through the back streets.

And Kusadasi, where I went on tour to see the ruined city of Ephesus.

There are photos, and I will get around to editing them and posting them on flickr, once I have edited and posted up the years worth of pictures that are also waiting to be done.

I was going to rant about all sorts of real life things today, but it seemed necessary to put some kind of chronological order to things. So I will write about real life next time.

Meanwhile, I'm always on twitter.