‘Don’t let the bedbugs bite’ tall order on an unsanitary ship

After a long day of flying to Tampa, Fla., from Seattle, I paid the cab driver and grabbed my gear, having finally arrived at the shipyard where the 890-foot crude oil tanker to which the company had assigned me was finishing up a nearly two-month yard period. Heading up to “D” deck, where the third mate’s room was open, I set my seabag down and shut the door. I was planning to get a few hours of sleep before duty the following morning, until a foul smell wafted up to my nostrils as I sat on the unmade bed. Checking to make sure that I hadn’t stepped in anything, I soon realized that the scent of body odor mixed with a fecal mustiness was coming from the mattress. Not wanting to consider what bodily discharges may have caused such a smell, I decided that there was no way I was sleeping on that bed. Instead, I covered up with a clean blanket — part of the bedding and towels that the steward’s department had set out — exhausted enough to get a few fitful hours of sleep in the rickety recliner in the room.

The following morning I met the chief mate. During our conversation, the opportunity presented itself for me to slip in that the mattress in my stateroom had definitely “seen better days” and needed to be replaced. Evidently, mine wasn’t the only one. The mate replied, “A few other guys have similar problems. Supposedly, the office has already approved new mattresses for all the staterooms. They should come in before we leave the yard next week.” There was no way I wanted to sleep on the recliner for a week or longer, so I took matters into my own hands, switching my mattress with a somewhat better one from an unoccupied spare room on “C” deck. I was glad I did. The promised mattresses never showed up before we left the yard. In fact, by the time I paid off the ship 75 days later in San Francisco, they still hadn’t arrived.

Until I joined that tanker, I’d always thought unsanitary conditions and ratty mattresses were only found on foreign-flag rust buckets. Unfortunately, I was wrong. It happened to me again on another job. I was the relief mate on a U.S.-flag tug running from Seattle to Canada. Nothing more than a few plywood sheets nailed together, my “room” was up forward on the port side below deck, and it stunk of diesel fuel due to a leak the boat had before I joined the vessel. The mattress was so saturated with diesel fumes that I had a reaction to the petroleum gases, vomiting twice during the trip north, and had a low-grade headache the entire two weeks I was on board.

I have talked to a number of merchant mariners who’ve also had mattress “hygiene issues” while on a commercial vessel. “DW,” an able seaman I know, sailed on an inspected ship out of Seattle until an infestation of bedbugs on board drove him away. According to his narrative, the office had ignored the crew’s pleas to replace the mattresses, so after waking up one too many days with “blood tracks and bites all over my body,” he quit the ship he’d worked on for years. Larry, a chief engineer, told me of his experience on a U.S.-flag tug in the Far East. The day he came aboard the vessel in Guam, he was shown his stateroom and almost immediately noticed the moisture-stained mattress, which he said smelled strongly of sweat and fish. Larry told me that his first order of business was to go on the dock and talk to the office about arranging for a new mattress for his stateroom.

To its credit, in an attempt to ensure that U.S.-flag inspected vessels maintain a certain standard of cleanliness on board, the U.S. Coast Guard has established requirements for conducting sanitary inspections. Regulations in 46 CFR 31.10-45 for tankers, 46 CFR 71.25-40 for passenger vessels, 46 CFR 91.25-40 for cargo and miscellaneous vessels, and 46 CFR 126.430 for offshore supply vessels state that every one to three years, during vessel certification and periodic inspections, Coast Guard inspectors must check that all crew and officer staterooms are in a “sanitary condition.” A different set of rules — 46 CFR 35.01-5, 46 CFR 78.17-25, 46 CFR 97.15-10, and 46 CFR 131.515 — direct that while underway, it is the responsibility of the master to see that areas such as officer and crew staterooms are inspected on a regular basis. Unfortunately, these regulations didn’t prevent the nasty mattress I found in my stateroom or stop the bedbug infestation on DW’s ship, and they couldn’t avert the “issues” Chief Larry and I had on the tugs.

One flaw in the regulations, from my perspective, is that there is no definition of what “sanitary” actually means. Instead, the rules leave it to the discretion of those conducting the inspection. I think that the Coast Guard should incorporate a cleanliness inspection checklist for inclusion in the eight aforementioned directives. This could be developed in concert with the U.S. Public Health Service, and be designed to make sure that all inspected areas on applicable vessels meet the same minimum standard of cleanliness. Coast Guard inspectors and ships’ masters would be required to adhere to the checklist when inspecting crew and officer staterooms, ensuring a consistency in ship sanitation that the regulations now do not foster.

Another shortcoming is that these sanitary inspection regulations only apply to inspected vessels. Evidently, the Coast Guard feels that uninspected vessels are not important enough to mandate being checked regularly. Inspections should be required on all U.S.-flag vessels, inspected and uninspected alike. In addition, U.S. maritime companies that have safety management system or towing safety management system procedures should, without exception, be required to include a sanitation/cleanliness regime for their vessels.

This article is about much more than whether or not a space on board a vessel is clean and sanitary, or unsanitary. It is really about the maritime regulations governing our industry being specific and clear enough to do what they are supposed to do — protect our quality of life. When it comes to the lives of mariners at sea, there is no place for ambiguity.

Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin’.

Kelly Sweeney holds a license of master (oceans, any gross tons), and has held a master of towing vessels license (oceans) as well. He sails on a variety of commercial vessels and lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at captsweeney@profressionstg.wpengine.com.

By Professional Mariner Staff