I was the cadet on a containership running between Anchorage, Alaska, and Seattle’s Terminal 5, assigned to the second mate’s watch. On a cold and windy St. Patrick’s Day in the North Pacific at about 0730, I was tracking a couple of targets coming toward us on the 3-cm radar when the wheelhouse door opened. In walked Capt. Virgil Robinson, wearing a green sweater and wishing everyone a Happy St. Pat’s Day. An excellent master who had worked his way up the hawsepipe, he grabbed a cup of coffee and sat down in his chair. Spying me at my usual spot at the radar screen, Robinson called me over. When I got there he smiled and said, “Cadet, let me remind you that the most important pieces of equipment a mariner has are his eyes. When you were blessed with two eyes with 20/20 vision and no color blindness, the good Lord meant for you to use them by looking out of the wheelhouse windows every now and then — not standing there glued to the radar screen all the time!”
Robinson was right about the need for deck officers to look out of the wheelhouse windows in addition to monitoring the radar. He was also spot-on about how much mariners rely on their eyes at sea. Whether a deck officer observing navigational lights and shapes on watch, an engineer tracing systems and using schematics or an able seaman on lookout, our eyes are so important for doing our jobs that for decades the U.S. Coast Guard has required all merchant mariners, other than entry level, to meet officially established standards for visual acuity and color blindness.
Today, these standards are listed in Coast Guard Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circular (NVIC) 04-08, enclosure 5. In addition NVIC 04-08 lists 24 disorders and diseases of the eyes, such as macular degeneration and glaucoma, that necessitate a comprehensive medical review of a mariner’s fitness to work at sea. A friend of mine named William who sails as a second engineer recently told me that he is taking high doses of vitamin C and zinc, in accordance with a recent study conducted by the U.S. National Eye Institute, to help maintain his healthy eyesight. William is wise being proactive, because these days not being able to meet any of the officially established vision standards for merchant mariners can end a career.
With so much riding on keeping our eyes healthy and fully functioning, protecting them is of paramount importance. There are many potential hazards on board any working vessel, but perhaps the greatest threat to the health and safety of our eyes comes from the effects of the sun. It is medically proven that years of overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, both UVA and UVB, can be harmful to the eyes. In fact, my dad attributed his cataracts to the effects of UV radiation from the sun, from his years of standing lookout on the bridge or bow as an able seaman on commercial vessels.
As the mate on watch of a tug pushing a large oil barge off of San Pedro, Calif., one summer day early in my career, I narrowly averted disaster after I momentarily lost sight of a dinghy in the glare off the water. It was sheer luck that kept our barge from running over that small boat after I lost sight of him. Long-term exposure to glare off the water may cause health issues such as damage to the optic nerve, and it can definitely wreak havoc on vessel safety as well — something I found out that day near San Pedro.
To protect the eyes from the detrimental effects of the sun when working on board, I’ve learned from experience that, in addition to a good hat, a pair of polarized sunglasses is essential. Polarized sunglasses are designed to reduce the effects of glare, not only protecting the eyes but also making it easier to see dangers to navigation that might otherwise might be “lost in the sun’s reflection.” To be truly effective polarized sunglasses should provide protection against the effects of both UVA and UVB solar radiation. Polarized UV-blocking sunglasses are so important that whenever I am at sea I always bring two pairs in case one breaks or is lost.
Besides the sun, the other major hazard to eyes at sea comes from foreign objects, ranging from dust and paint to metal shards and glass. A pair of goggles saved my left eye one time, when I was sailing on a product tanker running between Corpus Christi, Texas, and Lake Charles, La. Going out on deck to do some maintenance, I grabbed a hand grinder from the boatswain’s tool room along with a pair of safety goggles and earplugs for the job. “Feathering” the metal on the bulkhead with the grinder in an area that I planned to prime and paint before doing some stenciling, I stopped working to clean my goggles, thinking that something had got on the left lens. As it turned out it wasn’t dirt or grease, but a piece of metal the grinder threw off that got embedded in the goggle lens. Without those goggles, the metal shaving would have been embedded in my eye instead.
I was glad that the company had provided good safety gear for working — and that I’d been wise enough to use it. On a few vessels, however, I have seen “shabby” eye goggles and glasses provided for crew use. That’s why I recommend investing a few dollars and buying your own pair of goggles to pack in your sea bag when you go to work — just in case.
I’ve never forgotten the slogan on a safety placard that was posted on the bulkhead in the officer’s mess of a chemical tanker I worked on. It said, “You can eat with false teeth, walk on a wooden leg and even live with an artificial heart, but you can’t see with a glass eye.” Protecting your eyes at sea is your responsibility. Don’t forget: They’re the only pair you’ll ever get.
Till next time, I wish you all 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 Seatlle. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.