I had been mentoring Shaun, a student from the California Maritime Academy, who was now set to graduate. Excited and ready to go, he was looking forward to entering the industry, making money and paying off his student loan.
A few days after graduation, his third mate license in hand, he texted me with news of his first job. He got hired as an entry-level ordinary seaman. I gave him a call and we had a good conversation, mentioning that I too had started as an ordinary seaman, something not unusual when shipping was slow.
His reply was, “On a foreign-flag ship?”
“No,” I told him. “It was a U.S.-flagged tug. If you plan on working foreign flag you need to be cautious, they are not the same as a U.S. flag in many ways.”
The job he took was on a foreign oceanographic ship, and not long afterward he was on the job. Shaun soon learned the average pay varies greatly between countries, and that he was making about half of what he would make on a similar U.S.-flag oceanographic ship. In countries like the United States, Norway and the United Kingdom, the pay rates are higher, and the jobs are highly competitive. In other countries, such as Bangladesh, the Philippines and Burma, wages can be as much as 50% less. At the wage he was getting, Shaun wouldn’t be paying off his student loans anytime soon.
Shaun also got a firsthand look at what the living and working conditions on a foreign-flag vessel could be. He was not a fan of the manning on board, which seemed to be low, and he thought it made his job harder than it should have been. Unlike U.S.-flag inspected oceangoing ships, whose crew sizes are essentially set by the U.S. Coast Guard, no such situations necessarily exist on foreign-flag vessels. As the new ordinary, Shaun found that his work schedule consisted of 12- to 16-hour days. The workload made it impossible to get his needed rest. He felt like he was either “on call” or working all the time.
Plus, the food was only okay. It seemed to be fish, fish and more fish with a little rice every day. By the end of his tour, he had lost 10 pounds and was exhausted.
He was also concerned at what he saw as a lack of safety equipment and maintenance protocols. By his estimate, there was a shortage of fire hoses, not enough survival suits for everyone on board, and old and worn safety goggles and gloves. It wasn’t equipped like the U.S. vessels he had sailed on while training at the academy. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) and overseas countries of registry often grant exemptions for certain safety equipment that would be required on ships registered in the United States. Shaun didn’t feel safe until he was back home on American soil.
When he was at Cal Maritime, Shaun sailed on Golden Bear and as a cadet he worked aboard several U.S.-flag vessels. Working under a foreign flag made him realize just how important the regularly scheduled safety inspections of the U.S. Coast Guard, and the safety regulations of the 122-year-old Jones Act, are for U.S. ships. Foreign ships are not subject to either of these. Shaun has only sailed on American ships ever since.
I have worked with multiple American seafarers who had similar experiences sailing on foreign ships. They worked on vessels that, had they been U.S.-flagged, would have been considered inspected, and therefore subject to scrutiny. One deck officer told me that he was always concerned about the safety of the foreign-flag oil field vessel he worked on, and believed the lack of maintenance ultimately caused engine problems. Another worried about the reliability of the equipment on the foreign-flag cargo vessel and had no doubt that the deficiency of care and scrutiny of the cranes led to an accident while he was on board. Lack of maintenance and inspections on many foreign-flag vessels should be considered and investigated by any U.S. mariner contemplating work aboard a foreign ship.
Substandard, inadequately regulated and maintained ships not only put mariners’ lives at risk, but our ports and coasts as well. We have repeatedly seen such vessels become grounded or cause environmental damage to U.S. waters and others. I believe the IMO needs to up its game now by strengthening inspection schedules and being given more power to enforce them.
Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin.’
Capt. Kelly Sweeney holds the license of master (oceans, any gross tons) and has held a master of towing vessels (oceans) license as well. He has sailed on more than 40 commercial vessels and lives on an island near Seattle. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.