Sunday, June 1, 2014

First Crew: The Seafarer's Apprenticeship Program



It will be two weeks on Monday since starting my adventure. For those who haven’t been following my life with the same detail that I have been following it, I left my polling analysis job in August and searched frantically for something better, and then merely for something else. A stray comment on Reddit.com and four months of government licensing later and here I sit in Piney Point, Maryland at the Seafarer’s Union’s Harry Lundeberg Seamanship School.

The apprenticeship program is a five phase course. Phase 1 is 13 weeks of classroom study and long hours of working for the union hall at Piney Point, followed by Phase 2, 90 days (or more) aboard a ship in an entry level position. For Phase 3 we come back to the classroom, affectionately called Piney Point Penitentiary, and begin seven weeks of specialized training to rate as a Able Bodied Seaman of the Deck Department (throwing ropes, driving the ship, swabbing the deck), a Oiler and eventually a Qualified Man of the Engineering Department (fixing things), or a Steward and Cook (Cooking and Cleaning). After that we go back out to sea in our new rating for 120+ days (the length of a normal deep sea contract runs 4-9 months), then come back briefly for 4 weeks to finish up our rating.

When our class came in (a class comes into phase 1 every month), we were told that 380 people had applied to this particular class, and everyone who hadn’t made the cut for whatever reason was forbidden from every re-applying. From that, they built a class of 20, having judged that 20 American Seamen had left the industry in some average monthly calculation of the last two years, a calculation they make with very high precision, since nearly every US flagged deep sea and coastal freight ship hires through the union and one man here on this campus is ultimately responsible for matching corporate vacancies with union members for the entire industry. That said, 3 failed drug tests, 2 ran out of money to get through the licensing, and 2 didn’t show up for personal reasons, leaving me in a class of 12.

Those twelve members of my phase 1 class are my first crew, and the school does everything in their power to emphasize that. We eat together and sleep together and bathe together and smoke together and work together and go to class together. If any one person screws up on a ship, they can sink the whole boat, and if anyone screws up here, the school comes down hard. I don’t know why everyone asks me if there are any women in the merchant marine, because the answer has been absolutely not for the last thousand+ years, and even today the answer is still pretty much no. Our class of 11 men (aged 21 to 33) and 1 woman appears to be very demographically close to the average of the other classes. Two of us have finished college, me and a former seminarian who had second thoughts about his calling. Three are married (two with children) and one is engaged. Three African Americans, two Muslims (both from Yemen by way of Detroit) and, unusually, no Hispanics, makes us a bit whiter than normal for both the class and the industry. About half of them never moved out of their parent’s house (including the 32 year old), and two of us moved back before coming here. Two of us came out of desk jobs to come here, four or five from grocery/retail, one former security guard (not the largest and most imposing member of the class), one former metal scrapper, one small business owner who built and repaired small boats, and one guy with a hundred different stories from the hundred different places he has worked. They are generally a good crew who, with a few exceptions, understands and values hard work and keeping your head down as ends of themselves.

Overall, the “trick” to the school is that on one hand the classes go through everything needed for an entry level rating, and on the other hand they work us long hours (4:00AM to 7:30PM, then more cleaning until 9PM) for weeks at a time in the kitchen, plus night watches and other assorted tasks to keep us awake and active, partly because the school needs these tasks done to function properly, but mostly to make sure we aren’t whiners, shirkers, or grossly incompetent. To be completely honest, most of the people in my crew have more experience with long hours and menial jobs than I do, and I seem to be the cutoff point where the four people with less work ethic than I have are really struggling. As for me, the whole experience is demanding in the sense that I do need to pay attention to novel information and work without enough sleep, but I have yet to have it be as difficult as it is reputed to be. They say that this first month is the hardest, thanks to the restricted living style (no TV, cell phones, restricted movement etc.), the least engaging classes, the culture shock, and the hardest working weeks, and everything falls down to a more civilian pace as you get closer to working on real ships.

Back in the old days (which was, apparently, as recently as 20 years ago), someone could sign on to a ship with minimal fuss or hassle as an entry level something or another, as had been the case all the way back to the Roman era. But the present set-up of this school and the stories of every single experience mariner that we run across says that the maritime industry is changing radically and rapidly. Cargo ships that used to take crews of 40-60 as recently as the 1980s are down to a standard size of 20-21, and may fall to a minimum of 12-13 before they become 100% robot ships. With all this automation on one hand and piles of new national and international regulations on the other, even an entry level seaman is expected to be a highly trained unit nowadays, and a lot of older men are having trouble or are unable to climb up to the new standard. As of right now, and for the last few years, Piney Point has been pretty much the only route through which it is possible to become an entry level seaman, grudgingly doling out 10-25 new seamen per month. I will leave the economic implications of a highly regulated, union dominated, key strategic industry as an exercise for the reader, though I fear my own answers show up on my face whenever the bosses come to class to cheerlead for the union. Can’t complain too much (not yet at least), because I am on track to get mine and don’t rightly care who can’t get theirs as a result.

In any case, the maritime industry is rich with history and suffused with technological genius. There is lots to do and lots of downtime (though not at the moment). It is good, honest work at the foundation of the global economy that is both steady and well compensated. I have found myself in a good place.

Feel free to post questions in the comments, and I will check them as I have internet access (pretty infrequently, cell reception is poor and available computers are scarce). As has been suggested by multiple people, I will post every vessel I work and every port I stop in, as well as any noteworthy adventures. My studies have been completely interrupted and I am too tired for much philosophizing, so don’t expect too much of that.

19 comments:

  1. How similar is your training to military instruction - is there a Coast Guard connection?

    How is the food?

    Mom & Dad

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  2. With regard to the military focus, it is a little strange. The person who founded the school back in the 50's was an ex-marine drill instructor, and the current commandant has a massive military fetish. This means that the very first things we learn on the very first day are military style basic training things like marching, military spec bed making, cadences, uniforms, and the like. Aside from those two people, every single person on the trainee campus thinks the military fetish is bullshit. It gets enforced hard the first month, then with increased laxity as time goes on. Obviously, it is a civilian program for a civilian industry, so I won't be marching anywhere once I get on a ship, but until then it is just one more strange and nonsensical thing I get to put up with.

    As for a coast guard connection, not the way you are thinking. The SIU is a trade union and 100% civilian. The Coast Guard, however, is the main regulatory body for ships at sea, and acts like a civilian regulatory agency (with more guns). This means for me that all my classes are USCG approved, and that my ratings/licensing all gets logged through USCG, but in their capacity as paper pushers interacting with US citizens, not as a military branch.

    The food is variable, but never bad, running from unexciting to the occasional really good. We had some fantastic pork chops for dinner last night, and then some stringy, sickly sweet east coast brisket tonight that I couldn't bring myself to finish. The variance is because they have current seamen training in the Steward (cook) department taking classes here, and as part of the classes they come out and cook for everyone. So you can tell when they are having their "Italian" class or their "Potatoes" class or whatever.

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  3. Jeb, Whatever the rewards of your adventures as a Seafarer's apprentice, your timing is awful. You are missing Season 4 of Game of Thrones.

    Last night for example, we got to see nubile, bare breasted young nymphs cavorting, the Mountain squish out the eyeballs of the Red Viper and then fall over dead from a mortal wound inflicted by the Viper, and Sansa Stark turn from a whiny princess and paradigm of self pity, into a clever girl not at all above using her female assets to her advantage.

    I was sorry to see the Red Viper go. I was rooting for him although, having read that installment, I knew he was a goner. Unlike the greedy and perverted Lannisters who were dedicated only in the acquisition and retention of power in the world, the Red Viper saw poetry and believed in a kind of justice.

    Arya is still out there roaming the countryside with the Hound. (She is my favorite because she has a mountain of pluck). Jon Snow is holed up at the Wall awaiting the attack of Mance Raider. Too bad about his red headed girl friend; she's a goner.

    The best is yet to come. Next week while you are scrubbing the decks or something like that, Tyrion the Imp will at last extract his revenge on his father who sentenced him to death. I know your going to miss that, seeing your affinity for all things scatological.

    I hope that I haven't given you second thoughts. After all the reruns will be around for a long time. Unfortunately for you, they are just that: reruns.

    David

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    1. Nonsense. Everyone knows that the best way to watch shows with continuous storylines is to watch it all at once after the season ends. You are just making yourself suffer by keeping it at one hour a week. You should consider calling a self-harm hotline, because you may have a problem ;)

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  4. Jeb, my precious Mariner, how I loved reading of this new chapter in your life, and the rigor doesn't seem to bother you one bit which is no surprise to us! It made me Google "Merchant Marines" which kept me on the computer a long time and delayed my writing sooner. I learned a lot, from little details of your getting ten paid vacation days a year which made me wonder where you'll spend those...maybe Singapore...or maybe Texas...:)...to more important information...and I was particularly interested in reading about the call of the Merchant Marines during wartime! Your Aunt Janie turned 66 yesterday! I don't feel "old" since I awake every morning as if I've been shot out of a cannon! :) We'll continue to look forward to each update! We're so proud of you, Jeb...always have been, always will be! Love this day - Aunt Janie and Uncle Mike

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  5. Jeb, great first update from school. Keep them coming! I know you went into school with an idea of what part of the ship interested you the most but I'm curious if your preferences change as you finish up this round of classes; and especially after your first ship assignment. One question for you, does your entire class get assigned to the same ship in Phase 2 or do they divvy you up across multiple ships?

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    1. We get stuck wherever they put us, and they put us wherever they have space. From the class that just left, about a third went to a cruise ship in Hawaii (which is reputed to be a hellhole with 200%+ turnover each cruise) and everyone else went to individual assignments. I spoke to one guy right before he left for a plane to Seoul to board an oil tanker, and another guy who got flown out to Guam (all at company expense) for a cargo container. It sounds like luck of the draw, all based around shipping company schedules.

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  6. How's the pay, after the first 3 months? Just curious, I've been accepted for school just waiting to get my MMC in the mail. Good luck to you man.

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    1. The pay after the first three months, phase two of the program, is shit. Depending on the particular ship you end up on, you can expect to come out with a few thousand dollars. Then you go to phase three, another two months, and don't make anything, but after that you are provisionally rated (and soon after, properly rated) and for your first ship as a rated OS, Oiler, or SA you can expect about $5,000 a month, again depending a lot on the ship and how hard you work. The real money comes a few years down the line when you hit AB, QMED, or Chief Cook/Chief Steward and can expect $10,000 - $15,000 a month or more, plus pension, healthcare, and continuing education provided by the union.

      Based on how long it took me to get here relative to where you are in the process, it sounds like there is a good chance I might see you when I get back for third phase. Whether I do or not, keep your head down, your hands working, and your nose clean and you will get through it without a problem, because phase one is a whole lot of bullshit and will suck for three months, but the industry as a whole is nothing like the crap you have to put up with here.

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  7. Thanks for the feedback, as well as the other detailed experience. Found out I'm in the November class so, their probably is a chance that we'll cross paths in this adventure. I'm guessing you're out to sea for your training. Tell us about that experience when you return. I'm sure that'll be interesting to hear about. Thanks again.

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  8. Hey J Andrews, is that the nov 3rd class? im in that class as well!

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    1. Yes @ Ian. I wonder how big our class will actually be. I'm excited and curious all at once about what to expect. Are you all prepared?

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  9. Thanks for all the information, it has been very helpful. I will probably apply to the apprentice program in about a year. I have a few questions and would be grateful if you could answer them… Are contracts that are less than 4 months easy to come by? The best scenario for me would allow me to pick up one 4 month deep sea contract and then find a shorter contract, say a 2 monther. Is this flexibility possible? I only want to be gone for half the year as I will supplement my income with something else. I know all ships are different but what are the berthing assignments like? Do you have to share a room as an AB? When you are through with a contract can you opt to stay in whatever port you happen to be in, explore, and use the money for your flight home for a different arrangement? What is the minimum about of sea time you can do and still receive all of your benefits? When do you actually start receiving these benefits? Lastly, in the first 13 week phase are you ever allowed to call home since communication is limited and no cells are allowed?

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  10. Hi thanks for your post. I wrote a solid essay and sent my application in three days ago. I received the email back from the school telling me that I have just entered part 1 of the application process. My question to you is, when the committee does get together to decide who they will accept, what are they going to look at on my application and will my essay have any bearing on how they decide?

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  11. Hey Entirely Alive Your Post was Very Helpful, i Start my Class in August of 2016, very excited and curious myself as for what this new experience wil be like. Any advice??

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  12. Is 42 too old to get into piney point?

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  13. I just came back from butthole -Pride of America-Cruise ship. I want to join apprentice program in February 2017. I am 34. Any updates ?

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  14. Is phase 1 just like boot camp?Do they shave your head,and if so,when will you be able to grow it back.How hard is the program.Is there another way to become a Merchant Marine without going through the program.Is going to the program worth it?How much do AB's make?When you finish the program,are you a AB or a OS?

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  15. Thanks for taking the time to discuss that, I feel strongly about this and so really like getting to know more on this kind of field. Do you mind updating your blog post with additional insight? It should be really useful for all of us. apprenticeship opportunities

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