Seafarers and Shore Leave

The two are rarely seen in the same sentence anymore. And, (partly) because of it, the brain drain from the global mariner pool will continue unabated. But, there’s much more to the broken equation than that…

Joseph Keefe

The romance is gone. By 1986, it was all but missing from (my) equation of going to sea for a living. That said, and when I joined my first seagoing assignment in the steamy summer of 1980 at the tender age of 21, equipped only with an untested Third Mate’s license and a (clueless) outlook of total wonderment, you could still look forward to little bit of fun on the job at sea. I’m told that this is no longer the case. A MarPro reader recently caused me to take a second look at a recent GAO report that examined, among other things, “Risks Posed by Seafarers.” To say that the report is an eye-opener in terms of misguided priorities would not be overstating the case. As a minimum, it gives you a hint as to why someone might not want to go to sea in 2012. There is clearly more to it than that, however.

The Good Old Days (?)

My first ship was a government missile tracker based out of Port Canaveral, FL. For every day we spent at sea during that six-month tour, we spent another two at the dock; sometimes more. I had a lot of fun cruising around Cocoa Beach. In port, I even ended up with a local girlfriend. At sea, our primary task was to track and record data from various missile shots, usually coming from nuclear submarines. It was interesting, but not very difficult work. In our off time, it was even better.

Shipping out with RCA contract technicians has its advantages. Among them (and I am not making this up) was their ability to set up a two-station, on board television network that operated 24/7. And, if you wanted to relive the 1973 Sugar Bowl again (the ancient Second Mate – for example – had a ‘Bamafetish), all you had to do was dial them up and ask them to run it. They had dozens of those kinds of tapes and a movie library anyone would be envious of.

As it turned out, I just HAD to get off that ship. Convinced that I wasn’t learning anything and hungry to get on board those tankers (I’ve since had my head examined), I asked to be transferred. Before I did so, the senior AB on my watch took me aside and tried to talk me out of it. I think his advice went something like this: “Are you out of your mind?” Nevertheless, I knew everything back then and managed to get myself transferred to a 1940’s-era UNREP oiler named the USNS “MARIAS.” And it wasn’t too long afterwards that I found myself engaged in 12-hour underway replenishment sessions (that only seemed to occur at night for some strange reason) with seemingly half the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic fleet lined up in sequence for their turn at the pump. We made a lot of money in overtime and we earned every penny of it.

The MARIAS was a dirty, tired old relic that leaked steam from every orifice when underway and operating auxiliary machinery in UNREP mode. We got more than one nastygram from the fleet Admiral wondering why we couldn’t make 14 knots (12.5 was good for us) while simultaneously pumping JP-5 to the aircraft carrier on our port side and DFM to the destroyer on our starboard. I spent more than six months on board and when finally relieved, I was exhausted. That’s not to say we didn’t have fun. We did. Borrowing a line from Steely Dan, the trip we made to Rio de Janeiro is etched upon my mind. What happens in Rio stays in Rio. At least that’s what the Navy guys told me. I myself went ashore only to shop for Christmas presents.

Fast forward to 1982 and by this time, I really knew everything. I quit MSC when the holy grail of a real commercial shipping job finally became available and I eagerly jumped at the chance of sailing on a coastwise chemical carrier. Eventually – about 3.5 years later – they ended up scrapping my ship out from under me and that, as they often say, was that. In the meantime, I spent half of my life on coastwise voyages that could entail as many as eight docks in 11 days, discharging as many as 20 grades, followed by five days of tank cleaning on the way back to the loading berth. It was, in a word, miserable.

You didn’t get ashore all that often, and when you did, it was usually spent in line at the pay phone at the end of the jetty, waiting to call home. This was well before cellular telephones, Internet and anything else. Good entertainment on board was unheard of and you could only watch “Cool Hand Luke” so many times on that grainy-pictured, worn out television without going mad. Off watch, I read a lot of books, studied for my upcoming license exams and before going to bed, cherished that solo (secret) LITE beer at 0430 (following the mid watch) with the stateroom door securely locked and barricaded.

We had it better than most of today’s merchant mariners. The company’s shipping schedule of 75 days on and 75 days paid vacation was as good as most outfits (or unions, or that matter) were giving and, getting back to my original purpose for writing this eColumn, if you wanted to go ashore, it was rarely a problem. In a pre-9/11 world, gangway and terminal security in 1985 was, for the most part, nonexistent. I know that some folks will find it hard to believe, but in those days, you could walk down the gangway at Port Everglades and saunter into town without ever going through a gate or seeing a security guard. Today, that place is the Fort Knox of maritime security. I mean that as a compliment. On the other hand, I’ll bet the average tanker mate arriving there on a foreign registered vessel doesn’t have a prayer of getting ashore to buy a tube of toothpaste.

Combating the “threat” of seafarers

The GAO’s January 2011 report, entitled, “MARITIME SECURITY: Federal Agencies Have Taken Actions to Address Risks Posed by Seafarers, but Efforts Can Be Strengthened,” gives you a birds-eye view of why it is virtually impossible for the typical foreign seaman to get ashore at a U.S. port of call. And, why it may just get harder. As my reader told me pointedly, “For those who have seen firsthand the treatment accorded to seafarers, the question is WHY?” At face value, the answer is obvious and yet, the perceived risks have not yet panned out to a realistic picture of the actual situation. But a summary of some of the data within the report (based on data from FY-2009) is also worth looking at:

  • 55,560 vessel calls were made in the U.S. in fiscal year 2009 or about 8% of the global total;
  • Report acknowledges that number of seafarer arrivals in U.S. is small;
  • The report estimates that there are 1.2 and 2 million seafarers in the world;
  • 27 million passenger and crew arrived in the US via seaports in 2007;
  • 92 million passenger and crew arrived in the U.S. by air in 2007;
  • 300 million arrived in the U.S. via land border crossings;
  • Total seafarer arrivals in the U.S. amounted to just 5 million;
  • 80% of all seafarers arrived onboard passenger vessels;
  • 10 of the 132 ports of entry received 70% of all seafarers;
  • Top 3 ports where seafarers arrived were Miami (16%), Port Everglades (14%) and Port Canaveral (10%).

Presumably, the big concern is that seamen will arrive at our shores, depart the vessel, and never come back – or worse – do something terrible while they are ashore. So far, though, the numbers do not bear out those presumptions. Moreover, the approach being applied by U.S. authorities to make that happen does not make a whole lot of sense. According to the report, “…to date there have been no terrorist attacks involving seafarers on vessels transiting to U.S. ports and no definitive information to indicate that extremists have entered the United States as seafarer non-immigrant visa holders”. That same document goes on to add that Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) does not have accurate records showing the number of deserters and absconders. Apparently, “CBP has reported continuing challenges with its seaport field units’ recording of absconder and deserter incidents in CBP database systems”. Swell.

An absconder is defined as a person detained on a vessel and who left the vessel without permission. A deserter is a crewman with a permit to land who did not depart on the vessel. The number of absconders and deserters (nationally) do not amount to much, but they are also worth looking at. And, arguably, CBP / U.S. Coast Guard efforts to make sure that the perceived “problem” does not grow are arguably yielding some fruit. In 2005, about 195 absconders were recorded and by 2009, that number had decreased to about 70. More than 1 million seafarers arrive at our shores annually.

The scrutiny is warranted because seafarers do visit critical parts of our industrial infrastructure, such as refineries, shopping centers and the ports themselves. My reader, however, rightfully points out that those who experienced and remember visiting ports behind the Iron Curtain also recall the armed guard posted at the foot of the gangway. In the U.S., however, the guards are posted not at the ship but at the entrance to the facility. While the facility is nominally being protected against the American public, the same cannot be said for terminal when it comes to the crew. Hence, the effort to keep mariners (er, potential terrorists) from coming ashore is admirable, but falls way short in actual practice.

My sources nevertheless tell me that there are “significant barriers facing a terrorist arriving on a ship and wanting to inflict some damage. He must first get permission from CBP to go ashore. That may not be as easy as it sounds, because CBP may or may not meet the ship on arrival and probably not in the middle of the night. Next, he needs to find someone to escort him in the terminal. If not, the facility will receive a penalty.” Beyond this, crews on cruise ships are only inspected every 90 days and yacht crewmembers also get preferential treatment, which leaves the question of why the heightened attention on cargo ship mariners is needed.

Well Beyond Shore Leave: the real picture…

Unspoken in all of this is the plight of the mariner who arrives on a VLCC offshore Galveston, lightering to five shuttle vessels offshore and then turns around to go back and load another 2 million barrels of Bonny Light Crude Oil at an offshore mooring buoy in the lovely environment of offshore Nigeria, where increasingly, he might be at risk of a pirate attack. That mariner might well go to sea for 6 months or more and never walk down the gangway even once. And, we haven’t even broached the concept of containerization and what that development has done to the world of commercial freight. Typical port calls are over in a heartbeat, and those that drag on a bit involve multiple roadblocks to those who might want to take off a few hours and visit the local shopping malls. The romance is gone; indeed.

Today, the focus of seafarer advocates naturally points towards shore leave issues and piracy. But there is more that impacts that metric; much of it has nothing to do with shipboard security and/or port security.  As industry ramps up to try and find ways to keep competent mariners where they belong – on board the ships – they’ll also need to concentrate on finding ways to keep them happy. And I’m not just talking about increased internet privileges and the ability to call home once in a while. Our MarPro reader rightfully puts the white hot spotlight on the low hanging fruit of shore leave issues here in the United States, but I would argue that the problem goes much, much deeper.

Decisions, Decisions…

The choice to go to sea in 2012, at least here in the United States is driven by many variables. Among them are the increasingly onerous regulatory burden (OPA-90, ISPS, ISM, STCW, etc.), the criminalization of mariners, shorter port calls, denied shore leave, piracy and increasingly longer seagoing assignments. That list is not all-inclusive but goes to well illustrate the reasons that many of our best and brightest no longer want to deal with the hassle. Certainly, it gives me pause to think that if the cook cuts his finger in the galley in a U.S. port, it is also likely that the Chief Mate (and everyone else) is going to have to urinate into a cup, despite being 700 feet away on the bow at the time of the accident.

Recently, we published in the 3Q print edition of Maritime Professional magazine (page 62) a graphic which showed that less than 50 percent of all U.S. state maritime academy graduates are choosing to obtain marine licenses as a function of their education. Still fewer opt to go to sea. And now, you know why.

Circling back to the early 1980’s and my experiences at sea, it was also true during that era that pay differentials between a seagoing career as a ship’s officer and that of the typical entry level yuppie were significant. I earned about $48,000 in about six months work in 1980 and considerably more in my first full year of employment that followed. It was a lot of money back then, especially for a 21-year old just out of college. My Houston-based roommate, also fresh out of college (Yale / BS Electrical Engineering), in contrast was earning just $22,000 working at Texas Instruments. It WAS worth it to go to sea, especially in a time that involved far less nonsense than today’s mariners have to endure.

That $75,000 annual salary for today’s newly minted third mates (so they tell me) buys far less than my $50,000 in 1980. Today’s American kids, though, have options. Overseas, that’s not so true. So, the foreign mariner – making up 99 percent of all global seafarers – may not be so fortunate. Notwithstanding the lingering poor economy, these folks might not have a choice.

I’m happy to highlight the plight of today’s mariner and the challenges facing them as they try to wring out a little joy out of what is – and always has been – a tough job in an even tougher industrial environment.  On the other hand, I don’t have any real answers for them. A reasonable attempt by the U.S. government to fix a broken system of shore leave privileges here in the United States is a good place to start. – MarPro.

* * *

Joseph Keefe is the lead commentator of MaritimeProfessional.com. Additionally, he is Editor of both Maritime Professional and MarineNews print magazines. He can be reached at jkeefe@maritimeprofessional.com or at Keefe@marinelink.com. MaritimeProfessional.com is the largest business networking site devoted to the marine industry. Each day thousands of industry professionals around the world log on to network, connect, and communicate.

Source: http://www.maritimeprofessional.com/Blogs/The-Final-Word-with-Joseph-Keefe/November-2011/Seafarers-and-Shore-Leave-.aspx

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