Working the holidays can pay — in more ways than one

We had just cleared the Panama Canal’s Miraflores Locks westbound on the Pacific side. I was the second mate on a tug pulling a loaded 450-foot petroleum barge from Lake Charles, La., and Beaumont, Texas, to Long Beach, Calif. It had just turned midnight, the start of Christmas Day. 

Jerry, the able seaman on my watch, came up to the wheelhouse after making his round of the vessel. Looking morose, he sat down heavily on the settee and heaved a big sigh. 

“What’s up?” I asked, “You look down in the dumps.” 

He replied, “Oh, just bummed to be at sea on Christmas. Missing my wife and family.”

Then, turning to look directly at me he said, “For some reason you seem to be in a great mood. Why’s that?” 

I reminded him that Christmas Day and New Year’s Day are overtime days. “We’ll get double the money for doing the same job we always do. So yeah, I am definitely in a good mood.” 

It was my dad, who sailed for years as an able seaman and boatswain, who convinced me working during the holidays was a good career move. After getting hired by a large West Coast towing company, I was getting bounced around filling in for deck hands and able seamen on vacation. It had been six months and I had not yet been assigned to a steady vessel nor sailed on my license. I complained about this to my dad during a phone call home. 

“Here it is, November, and I am back at my apartment waiting for my next job, and don’t even know when I will be working again,” I lamented. 

“Back when I went to sea,” he shot back, “there were a lot of guys who got either their first job or a promotion by working during the holidays. In fact, that’s how I got my start, snagging a job as a coal passer on the Great Lakes by working over Christmas. So, the first thing tomorrow, Kelly, you call the port captains and let them know that you are available and very interested in working the holidays.” 

After following his advice, the next week, one of the port captains promoted me to my first officer’s billet as second mate on a 5,000-hp tug for a trip beginning in mid-November until around the first or second week of January. 

Breaking into the business for your first job or getting a sought-after position are excellent reasons why mariners should consider making themselves available at Christmastime. 

Another good reason to work over the holidays, as I told Jerry, is money. Many people go into debt at Christmas, but working then is a great time to get ahead financially. I’ve been willing to sail any time from October through February, and always told that to the “powers that be.” The human resources guy at a tanker outfit took me at my word and called me to work every holiday season I was with that company. My “dream” work tour, which I actually managed to do once, had me joining just before Veteran’s day in mid-November and getting off just after Martin Luther King Day in mid-January — making double pay for all five winter holidays. Ten days’ pay for five days work — happy holidays, indeed! 

When at sea, a “holiday routine” also applies on board, which usually means just standing watch and no mandatory overtime doing the regular maintenance — often making the job easier than normal. Plus, you can guarantee the food will be better, as Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year meals will be special offerings from the steward’s department. Even the captains recognize the time of year, and many give small gifts to each crewmember on board. Plus, the “goodwill” created by working over the holidays often extends to extra time off later in the year, when human resources acknowledges your “sacrifice.” I have used this many times to get a longer vacation with my family during the summer.

You might also be able to pick and choose job opportunities that you would not otherwise have. One year when I made myself available for work at Christmas, a crewing coordinator called me, offering a chief mate position on an oceanographic ship heading over to the Mediterranean — a place I had never been before. We worked out of Ancona, Italy, went through the Greek Islands, and I got off the ship in Istanbul, Turkey, where I flew to Athens, Greece, for the first time to meet my relatives on my mother’s side, creating relationships that continue to this day.

Which brings us to the biggest complaint mariners make about working over Christmas: not being with their family. With the extra money I’ve made, I’ve taken my wife to places we had always wanted to go, during the coldest time of year in the Pacific Northwest. Together, we met my relatives in Greece, and warmed ourselves in the Mediterranean sun. In other years we met in the Caribbean, or on the Hawaiian Islands.

Why just dream of paying off your bills, or yearn to visit exotic warm places and sun filled beaches in December? Try something different and work the holidays, then celebrate Christmas in January.

Till next time, I wish you all happy holidays and 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