A wish for happy, healthy holidays: hand-washing, sanitizer, garlic

I had taken a job on an oceanographic ship over the holidays, to give the permanent mate the opportunity to be with his wife and young son. On a cold, dry Thanksgiving night my wife drove me down to the ferry terminal, where I had to catch the 0030 departure to begin my long journey to the East Coast. Arriving at the terminal early, she parked the car and we held hands, waiting quietly for the ferry to come in. After a few moments she sniffed, then turned toward me with a funny look on her face and asked, “Kelly, what’s that smell?” Smiling, I opened up my carry-on bag and pulled out my lunch, admitting to putting 10 cloves of raw garlic on each of the turkey sandwiches she’d made me for the trip.

Working on a ship during the holidays means great meals on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day and extra pay if it’s the company policy or in the union contract. It also usually means at least one person in the crew will be sick. Having done relief work during the winter numerous times in my career, I know from experience that staying healthy on board when others around you have a cold or flu can be challenging at best. So, over the years I have developed strategies to keep myself healthy.

The garlic I piled on my turkey sandwiches is one of my old standby techniques. Medical studies suggest garlic’s effectiveness in preventing the common cold, and I have been a big fan of fresh garlic ever since reading about its benefits nearly 20 years ago in a book called Spontaneous Healing by Dr. Andrew Weil. We grow our own garlic at our home near Seattle, and I make sure to bring a bag of it with me when catching a ship. When I am at sea and a cold or flu starts to go around the vessel, I begin eating my raw garlic cloves with every meal.

A ship or boat is an easy place to catch a cold, with everyone working closely in an enclosed space and some even sharing a stateroom with another crewmember who may be ill. As a deck officer, I think that the wheelhouse is one of the main areas where cold and flu germs are spread, because of all the people who handle the radar controls and other bridge equipment each day.

According to government health officials, about 80 percent of infectious diseases are transmitted by touch. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that hand-washing is the single most effective technique to keep healthy and protect yourself. One year, working during the holidays on a chemical tanker, the able seaman on my watch caught a cold. Eddie was hacking and coughing, seemingly putting his hands on every doorknob and handrail in the wheelhouse. I washed my hands every half-hour on watch for a week until he was healthy again. Although I did begin to feel a bit like Howard Hughes, I never caught his cold.

These days, in between hand-washings, I also use a hand sanitizer. A study from the University of Colorado pointed out that college students who washed their hands often and used hand sanitizer developed fewer colds than those who didn’t. Even the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends the use of hand sanitizer for cold prevention. I recently have gone to using a lavender oil/alcohol spray, and always pack a few bottles in my sea bag.

Once when I was on a crude oil tanker, eight of the 25 in the crew were sick with a tough winter cold going around. During a phone call home while we were docked at Richmond, Calif., near San Francisco, I complained to my wife, a teacher, about how uncomfortable the situation was. She replied, “Quit complaining and try to improve your attitude — staying positive helps me when my students come down with colds.” Admittedly, I was skeptical. However, a 2003 study from Carnegie Mellon University reported that people who were energetic, happy and relaxed got fewer colds than those who were depressed, nervous or angry. Maybe it is just a coincidence, but ever since that study came out I’ve noticed that the people on board who have the best attitude really do seem to get sick less than their pessimistic counterparts.

Anyone who has spent time at sea will tell you that it’s a real drag catching a cold or flu going around the vessel, especially in these times of crew cutbacks, when there is no one to take up the slack when someone is sick. Because ill crewmembers are still expected to continue to do their 12 to 14 hours of work and drills each day with the same level of professionalism as when healthy, trying to do a good job with a cold or flu is a real challenge. Plus, with no days off, I know from experience that it can be extremely hard to get enough rest to get well once you are sick.

Nobody plans on getting a cold or flu at sea, but to paraphrase the great Robert Burns, even the best-laid plans can go awry. When it comes to keeping healthy this winter, should you decide to try any of my tips, I hope that they help you — as they have me. I would recommend, however, that if you bring your own garlic to the vessel you may want to ask Santa to put some breath mints in your Christmas stocking…

Till next time I wish you all a happy, healthy holiday season, and smooth sailin’.
Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at captsweeney@profressionstg.wpengine.com.

By Professional Mariner Staff