You mustn’t call a member of the United States Merchant Marine a marine. You call him (or her) a sailor, seaman, seafarer, or mariner – preferably a mariner. The Merchant Marine is the fleet of civilian-owned ships that moves cargo and passengers not only between countries but within the United States.
The fleet is privately owned but can be nationalized during wartime, when it becomes an auxiliary of the US Navy. During some other type of national emergency, the President can commandeer or seize a merchant vessel.
The Merchant Marine was always an excellent source of opportunity for men in this country regardless of their backgrounds. The US Maritime Service started training officers and crew members for the Merchant Marine in 1938. What’s remarkable is that the Maritime Service had a non-discrimination policy at a time when the US armed forces were segregated. Black men served in all positions in the Merchant Marine, from the lowest levels all the way up to captain, on integrated ships.
A 16-year-old can go to sea. That’s the minimum age to get a US Merchant Marine Credential (MMC), issued by the US Coast Guard in accordance with international standards. You’ll need a parent’s permission as long as you’re under 18, but the MMC allows you to work on a merchant vessel, whether it’s a cargo ship, an oil tanker, a ferry, or a passenger ship. You’ll work in either the deck, engineering, or steward’s departments.
The deck department oversees proper watchstanding and maintains the hull and cargo gear. Here you’ll find apprentices, Ordinary Seamen (OS). An OS doesn’t have to stand watch but he gets tested on his watchstanding and helmsman skills. He spends much of his time working on metal structures – removing rust, refinishing, and painting. He also secures cargo, does rigging, splices wire and rope, and launches and recovers lifeboats.
It’s the OS who gets swabbing duty – keeping excess water and salt off deck to prevent slipping and rust accumulation. It’s one reason an OS looks forwards to to working his way up to Able Seaman (AB).
An AB stands watch and acts as helmsman. He also performs general maintenance and repair and operates deck machinery and cargo gear. Some of his duties involve chipping, scraping, cleaning, and painting metal structures.
The senior unlicensed man in the deck department is the Bo’s’n (Boatswain). This is typically a senior AB. He’s in charge of of the able seamen and ordinary seamen, in a position between them and the ship’s chief mate. The bo’s’n is responsible for everything concerning maintenance of deck equipment and cargo. He also secures the ship for sea and oversees the loading and unloading of cargo.
A new seaman might instead find himself in the engine department. Seamen there handle the propulsion systems and support systems for the crew, cargo, and passengers. They maintain the electric power plant, lighting, water distillation, air conditioning, refrigeration, and such. The entry level position here is wiper. A wiper performs manual labor – cleaning, painting, and assisting with repairs.
An oiler’s main job is equipment maintenance, including oiling the bearings of the main engine and auxiliaries. His general duties also include pumping bilges. A watertender tends fires and maintains proper water levels in boilers. A fireman operates oil-burning systems to generate steam in boilers.
In addition to these crew members, the engine department might employ machinists, electricians, refrigeration engineers, or pumpmen – pumpmen are always found on oil tankers, operating the liquid cargo transfer system.
The other assignment is the steward’s department. Here sailors operate and maintain the ship’s galley and the eating and living quarters for the officers and crew. An entry-level position here is that of messman, also called a steward’s assistant (SA). The messman sets tables, serves food, and waits tables. He also cleans the galley, eating areas, and officers’ saloon. He might also have general housekeeping duties like cleaning living quarters.
The chief cook (or, cook) directs the preparation and serving of meals. The department is headed by the chief steward.
The US fleet of merchant vessels has been diminishing since the 1950’s. The pool of qualified mariners has been shrinking along with it. There is intense competition for skilled mariners, if you ask the operators of offshore supply vessels. But some mariners say that part of the problem is that companies don’t want to take on inexperienced sailors, creating a Catch-22: companies need qualified people but the trainees can’t get the experience they need to become qualified.
Because of international treaties, higher standards, and more required training and security rules, it can be hard to qualify for even entry-level jobs on a merchant vessel. The Sailors’ Union of the Pacific, which has represented mariners since 1891, has had programs to make sure new union members have the proper training to find work.
I found, in fact, that the ongoing claims of a mariner shortage are controversial. Some mariners say that cost-cutting measures in the industry are leading to increases in workload and fatigue; others point to industry shifting to non-union labor. Some say the work schedule, where you spend more time at sea than at home, isn’t acceptable to men with families.
Other mariners say the workforce is aging, with veteran mariners retiring and fewer young people interested in going to sea. One vice-president of the Seafarers International Union thinks the industry and government should do a better job of recruiting high school kids.
“We’re a strong alternative to joining the armed services,” he told the press.