Mariners may argue about pay rates, the burdens of licensing and regulatory compliance, and the right ways to do their difficult and demanding jobs, but there’s one thing they don’t argue about: the level of comfort found on today’s commercial vessels. I’m speaking from experience going back almost 50 years, from a deckhand on creaky old standby boats to master of creaky old ocean freighters, so I can write without fear of controversy that mariners have never had it so good.
For a deckhand on a modern U.S.-flagged vessel, he or she lives the life of Riley when compared what crewmen went through years ago. Air conditioning is now standard and most crewmen live in two-person cabins with private heads. Inland mariners and most offshore crews can call their families and friends at any time while off-duty. Movies? DVDs, of course. TV? Well, that’s coming.
Considering that as master I never served on an air-conditioned ship — and a steel ship in the Caribbean in the summer is a hot, hot place — I am continually amazed at the improvements I see in newbuildings across the spectrum, from U.S.-built supply boats to Chinese-built Panamax bulkers (although admittedly foreign-flag vessels don’t offer the varnished oak paneling and self-serve ice cream bars you can find on U.S.-flagged vessels). Coupled with quantum improvements in safety and some long-overdue rest-and-work-hours regulations, today’s mariners face the same challenges and some of the same deprivations faced by mariners throughout history, but the improvements in their lot are unquestionable.
At one time, the life of a seafarer was so brutal that the 1840 publication of “Two Years Before the Mast”, an autobiographical account of a seaman’s life by Richard Henry Dana Jr., sparked such national outrage that a series of laws were passed to protect seafarers, culminating in the Jones Act in 1929. In fact, the treatment seamen received from heartless owners was so egregious that judges were moved to declare seafarers “wards of the court,” a classification lumping them together with children and lunatics but reflecting the desperation of their plight.
Now consider the difference another 100 years has made. I recently visited the state-of-the-art offshore supply vessel Harvey Energy for the April WorkBoat cover story. In addition to the OSV’s oiled wood common areas and self-service ice-cream bar, I had a chance to admire the crew’s bunks. Completely enclosed and curtained, each bunk has its own wide-screen HD television at the foot of the bed with a built-in DVD player and its always connected to 14 channels of satellite television.
And the march goes on … on March 20, Inmarsat Marine, the satellite-communications giant, launched its latest service, Fleet Media. According to the company, the new service will “bring Hollywood to the high seas with a comprehensive catalogue of international blockbuster films, television programming, as well as sports and news.” Ronald Spithout, the company’s president, claims that the service permits seafarers to be “more integrated and connected with their lives ashore than ever before.”
Nothing can erase the abuses of the past or change the fact that those who work on the water face unique risks and hardships, but the comforts U.S. mariners now enjoy do offer some reassurance to us hard-bitten old salts that, overall, the world is indeed a better place.