Four Things I Learned During a Summer at Sea

Aug 31, 2017

by Johnathan Thayer, SCI Senior Archivist

This summer I spent 45 days at sea acting as Ship’s Librarian on SUNY Maritime’s training ship Empire State VI. As a novice sailor and librarian, I observed and participated in life at sea for the very first time from a unique perspective. Here are four things that I learned along the way.

SHORE LEAVE IS A FUNDAMENTAL RIGHT

After spending up to 16 consecutive days slowly crossing the Atlantic, I discovered how valuable shore leave is, especially for seafarers, some of whom work much longer stretches of time without setting foot on land. The simple act of ordering a coffee from a cafe, or being able to go shopping for supplies becomes a transformative luxury.

Every year, the Seamen’s Church Institute conducts its Shore Leave Study to measure seafarers’ access to shore leave in U.S. ports, and to identify the most common barriers preventing seafarers from getting off their ships. Fortunately for me, this process was relatively straightforward. Negotiations with port customs officials were taken care of by the very competent (and largely cadet-run) security detail. I received a TWIC (Transportation Worker Identification Credential) card in the spring, and therefore had permission to come and go from the pier. And, a simple laminated “Liberty Card” was distributed to me at the gangway when I disembarked in any port, and collected upon my return in order to track who was on ship at any given time.

There is a long legal precedent that has established shore leave as a fundamental right that all seafarers should be entitled to. As I experienced this summer, this is with very good reason.

SHIPS ARE INFORMATION SILOS

There are many deprivations at sea. But given that most of my shipmates were young enough that they were practically born with a mobile device in their hands, isolation from information must be among the most challenging.

For most of the cadets and crew, our ship at sea was an information silo; we worked with what we had on board. No internet and strictly-limited email meant turning to encyclopedias, atlases, dictionaries, and old fashioned books on shelves. It also meant shared hard drives and local networks to exchange digital files. Laptops loaded prior to cruise were worth their weight in gold.

At the sight of any speck of land the rails would crowd with bodies huddled over cell phones, trying to discern a signal. I heard that the Captain kept us just far enough out of range intentionally in order to keep us away from our cell phones as long as possible, so that cadets could acclimate to life at sea.

As the ship's librarian, news from home and the wider world came to me in a simple email from the campus library which I would print out: one copy for the library, one copy for the officers’ mess.

HEALTH AND WELLNESS CAN BE IMPORTANT PARTS OF THE DAILY ROUTINE

Ship life, for me, simplified every aspect of my daily routine.

Each day I would wake up, spend an hour or so reading in my room, head down to the library for my first shift, eat lunch, return to the library for my second shift, eat dinner, return to the library for my third shift, and then head to my room for bed. This left about two or three hours of free time during the day. Options for how I spent that time were limited; I could watch a DVD, read a book, or chat with shipmates. Fortunately, there were three separate gyms on ship, and I chose to use the cardio room for about an hour almost every day. Food services were regular and predictable, so that amidst all of the other deprivations at sea, cutting out simple things like dessert or carbs did not feel like an enormous personal sacrifice.

The takeaway for me was that ships do have the capacity to facilitate the personal health and wellness of seafarers on board, but that capacity depends on resources being made available.

SAFETY AT SEA IS PARAMOUNT

I stood on deck of the T/S Empire State staring at the bottom of lifeboat #2, hanging from its davits, for about half a dozen hours during fire and emergency drills this summer. During these drills my thoughts drifted back to the 1915 La Follete Seamen's Act, also known as the "Magna Carta of Seamen's Rights,” that Congress passed in the wake of the Titanic disaster.

The 1915 Act set regulations for continuous watches and musters, dedicating about 2/3 of its text to specifications for the strength, buoyancy, capacity, weight, and equipment of lifeboats. Even the davits were scrutinized. Many of these provisions remain intact even today, as was evident onboard the tightly regimented Empire State.

Since we were a training ship, we usually did not have a tight schedule to follow as a commercial ship typically would, and we were able to avoid storms and poor conditions at sea. Most seafarers are not in such a fortunate position, and encounter working environments that surpass any of the challenges and discomforts that I experienced this past summer. Safety at sea for these seafarers is not abstract historical legislation, but a way of life on ships.