Sunday, June 29, 2014

Dreaming the Dream

At Piney Point, you hear a lot about people's plans for the future, usually phrased as "when I get all that money, I'm gonna...". There isn't anyone here unmotivated by money, and it is the promise of that money (plus the benefits package, but even the older guys aren't really old enough to get excited by a fully funded pension plan) that keeps us going during the shitty parts of the program.

I have learned that the much bemoaned lost weekend right after the first galley rotation was not, in fact, merely poor timing, but something that happens to every class. Apparently, it is imagined by some administrator that allowing us a fully free day after two weeks of 18 hour days generates discipline problems both for that weekend and spilling over into the next week of class. I will defer judgement on that aspect, but in my mind what it really did is remind us that there is a scale of work, not just working/not working but a whole spectrum related to effort and enjoyability of a task. Having this weekend completely free after the last week of "cool-down" and finally eliminating my sleep debt is perhaps analogous in miniature to the schedule of a ship. After all, even if we have two disastrous weeks on a ship, we don't at the end of that get a day off if we are still in the middle of the ocean. Days off come when the ship reaches port and not a day earlier.

This is part of why the seafaring life is so very unique, and why there is so much room for so varied dreams. I know of no other industry in which the trade-off between income and leisure is so direct. In most industries, there is a standard hours and compensation package; different companies can offer more or less of the other, but variance is typically pretty low. At sea, a rated seaman earns $10,000 - $15,000 a month, and officers even more. This means that a four month journey (the standard minimum one can sign on for) drops you back in port with more than the mean annual salary and only eight months in which to spend it. And seeing that money all at once instead of trickling in every two weeks has an undeniable psychological effect on a person. For example, I have never seen so many fancy cars as the ones in our upgrader parking lot.

Generally speaking, people talk about three employment paradigms; standard packages of income and leisure available to anyone at any rating based on how they feel that year.

At the most leisurely are the people who want to work four months out of the year. This should give an AB, Cook or Oiler around or a bit over $40,000 at the end of the trip, plenty enough to live off of and even to indulge in an inexpensive hobby. An experienced AB, Steward, or QMED can come back with closer to $50,000 or more off if they get on the right ship. Some of these people also take seasonal work for the other eight months, though I don't understand that impulse on a visceral level. Though from a modeling standpoint, they are just trying to fine tune the leisure/income ratio to a moderate value not provided for in the industry.

The "Standard" package is four on and two off. This is the ideal that the union assumes a good seaman should strive for. You take a ship in the first half of the year, take two months off, then get on another four month voyage followed by two months off. This is not infrequently stated as getting summer and Christmas off, though I am sure some take the spring and fall off instead. Working eight months as a rated seaman means you can expect between $80,000 and $100,000, depending on rating and voyage, with only four months out of the year to spend it all, and, indeed, only four months in which to worry about paying bills and rent. This is where people buy really silly cars and other silly items, but many of the union benefits are predicated on shipping X days in the last year and X days in the last six months before they lapse.

The really hard workers work ten months out of the year or more. It is hard to work all the way year round just because shipping schedules rarely match up that well, but a real go-getter or someone without anything to come home to can get ten or eleven months of shipping, with a month back in port to keep continuing education and licensing up to date. Even an entry level rating on a pretty crappy ship has a good shot at making six figures (and for, at that level, being nothing more than a fancy janitor) when putting in that many hours, and basically no living expenses for the whole year. Additionally, working that many days at sea will increase your earning potential, since the key factor in rating upgrades (and, therefore, pay increases) is accumulated sea time. Just one year with 10 months at sea puts someone pretty damn close to the next rating in the deck department, and the jump from rated to licensed (officer) is only three years of sea time (which would take a four month-er nine years to reach).

There are people in my class who want to buy fancy cars and one who wants to buy every "Jordan" branded sneaker ever produced and some who want to use the shipping money to open a business or get into real estate. I have never wanted many expensive things other than a top of the line computer, but as I have talked with others in and around the industry and it is hard not to think of what sort of things I imagine doing once I am a real person again. Obviously, I am a long way from being a real person, so this may all change.

Once I get out I will be an Oiler in the engine department (technically a Fireman/Oilman/Water Tender) with a chunk of sea time at that rating. The first goal is to ship as much as possible to hit the 360 days required to reach QMED (Qualified Man of the Engineering Department), and come back to Piney Point for my first 4-week specialization class. Electricians make the most money, but pumpmen are needed on oil tankers, but they aren't mutually exclusive paths. From there, my plan is to ship eight months a year and spend two months a year upgrading, with only two months vacation. After every four month trip I am (I believe) eligible to add another QMED certification, and by the end of that I should be able to take any rated job in the engine department, at which point the only restriction on where and what I can ship will be my schedule and preferences (and the general state of the market).

That plan should take around five years, at which point I should have a good bit of money saved. That money will go towards an RV into which I can move permanently. People buy RV's thinking they can live anywhere, but for a seaman it really is true. I can spend two months at a time driving to any part of the country as long as I end up at any US port by the time I need money again. While I intend to be based in Houston for the most part to make contacts among tanker captains, there is no reason in the world to restrict myself. Additionally, I find that possessions typically cause stress, and most people are well past the point that they have more things than they need. An RV and the packing restrictions on a ship inherently limit the amount of crap I can keep and allow me to pre-commit to a less material lifestyle, hopefully with both pecuniary and spiritual benefits.

Of course, I anticipate that my main leisure activities will continue to revolve around portable screens-- reading, TV and gaming, which can be done in any environment. I cannot be picking up any drug or alcohol habits, given how strongly the anti-intoxication measures are enforced aboard ship. I cannot have much in the way of community, given how I will be disappearing for months at a time. I cannot have too much in terms of onshore assets, because I will feel absolutely ridiculous paying for things year round that I only have access to for a few months out of the year (which is another reason why an RV is superior to renting an apartment, and cheaper and more mobile than purchasing a home). Basically, I hope to live pretty much how I have been living, but while getting paid to travel the world at the same time.

Small addendum: If I make it to a million dollars and still project that I have ten good working years left, I will trade in the RV for a houseboat and small motorcycle and instead of driving around the country, I will move to the west coast, and spend a summer boating from Alaska to Baja California.

Basically, the only thing that motivates anyone in this shithole is dreams of the future, and as I keep my head down, mouth shut, and hands busy, this is what I am doing it for.


  1. Hey man, just wanted to say thank you for all of the great info you posted. I applied for the program but haven’t gotten word yet on whether or not I will be continuing to phase 2 of the application process. I myself have no connects in the industry and it seems this program is the only way I can get my foot in the door. Do you think we could keep in touch through email if I get accepted? I’m going engine to. It would be cool to have a friend in the industry. I plan on traveling a lot to. Mountain biking, snowboarding, state parks, I want to see it all. Check out the Unity U24MB
    Thanks again man, keep up the good work

    1. Hope you get in. I didn't have any connections either, nor do a lot of the guys here, so this is a pretty good program for people like us. Just remember that there is a very strict zero tolerance for drugs and alcohol in the modern shipping industry, so as long as you piss clean and are mildly healthy and not a complete moron, then your chances of getting in are not bad.