Essential tools of the trade: a good hat and sun block

It was a hot May afternoon on the 12-to-4 watch, as the old boatswain and I unbolted the blank flanges sealing the cargo headers we’d be using to discharge gasoline to the CITGO Terminal in Tampa, Fla. He was a wiry 70-year-old, and had caught a 60-day relief while the permanent boatswain was on vacation. When he reached over to grab a spud wrench and hand it to me, the sleeves of his coveralls moved up, and I couldn’t help but notice that he had a number of Band-Aids on his arms.

He saw me looking and said, “Third Mate, what you see on my arms is the sailor’s curse — the ravages of 50 years of working on deck in the sun. Every one of those Band-Aids covers a spot on my arms that either had skin cancer removed or is keeping a spot from getting more sun and turning into cancer.â€

Ask any merchant mariner, and he or she will likely tell you that the best days at sea are the sunny ones. There’s nothing like being underway on a calm sunny day, breathing that good clean sea air and enjoying the reflection of the sun’s rays on the water.

Unfortunately, too much of a good thing can be a problem. The International Labor Organization officially lists UV radiation from sunlight as an occupational hazard of working on board ships and boats — something medical studies have confirmed. A report out of Iceland noted that over a 28-year period the rate of certain skin cancers resulting from sun exposure was significantly greater among merchant mariners than in the general public. A 2007 British study verified that finding. Danish researchers found that merchant mariners had a rate of skin cancers that was double that of the public, and that the longer the time at sea, the greater the danger.

On another hot and sunny day, our tanker was off the coast of Panama on the Pacific side. Reporting on deck for maintenance after lunch wearing just my Carhartt overalls and a light t-shirt, I was hoping to keep cool, but with the sun beating down on the steel deck, soon became uncomfortable. When the mate sent me back to get some tools in the boatswain’s storeroom, I passed a couple of ABs painting the rail. Both were from Honduras and knew how to work in the blazing tropical sun, and each was wearing a long-sleeved collared shirt.

“Aren’t you hot?†I asked Julio. He replied, “Hey, Seattle man, you’re the one who looks hot. If you want to stay cool and protect your skin, don’t wear short-sleeved shirts in weather like this. You should cover your arms and neck loosely to keep off the sun.â€

The next day I tried a loose fitting 100 percent cotton long-sleeved collared shirt and found Julio’s advice was right on. The shirt stopped the sun from stinging my arms and neck.

A few years later, while getting ready to head back to work and join a crude oil tanker in Lake Charles, La., I was throwing my sea bag in the car when my wife asked me, “Did you pack a hat?†I replied, “Yes, I’m bringing a baseball cap.†A native Californian and long-time lifeguard, she said, “I’ve lived and worked out in the sun for years, Kelly. You need to wear a brimmed hat to protect your skin.â€

She knew what she was talking about. Medical studies have shown that over 90 percent of skin cancers occur on the face, head and neck — all areas where a brimmed hat would offer protection. I’ve packed a hat with a large brim in my sea bag ever since.

Even after I began using a long-sleeved shirt and a good hat, my hands were still exposed, and I often got a sunburn on my face from the reflected sunlight off the water. That’s why I started using a good sunscreen to shield any exposed skin.

Deep-sea mariners already have access to an effective sunscreen, as the natural sunblock zinc oxide is one of the items the World Health Organization recommends be included in the ship’s medicine chest on board oceangoing ships. On smaller or uninspected vessels I’ve had to bring my own. These days I always have a tube of Badger sunscreen, which has a large amount of zinc oxide, in my sea bag.

It took years at sea for me to slowly become aware of the need to protect my skin from the sun. Last summer I found myself on the 14th floor of a medical building in Seattle, looking out at a Matson ship being loaded. A few months earlier, I had noticed a red bump on my nose while working on a ship. When I got home, it started bleeding after a day spent outside, and my wife demanded that I have it checked out. Thank God it wasn’t a life-threatening cancer, but a basal cell carcinoma. I ended up going to a Mohs surgery specialist. During the three-hour procedure, it took the doctor three tries before all the cancerous cells had been removed. The surgery left a rather large hole in my nose, too big to be closed up by the sutures smoothly. Now, whenever I look in the mirror and see the scar, it reminds me of my foolish, cavalier attitude toward sun exposure that I had in years past.

After that operation last summer, I put an article about protecting your skin from the sun on my list of future topics for this column. An added incentive to write my story for you came when U.S. Coast Guard Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circular (NVIC) 04-08 entered into force recently. That NVIC clearly states that malignant skin tumors such as melanoma within the previous five years will result in additional medical review at the minimum — and could prevent a mariner from obtaining or renewing a Merchant Mariner’s Credential. So now, if melanoma skin cancer doesn’t end your life, it could end your career.

We are all responsible for taking care of ourselves, and, especially for merchant mariners, that includes using protection to shield your skin from the effects of too much sun. Don’t wait like I did.

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 Seattle. You can contact him at

By Professional Mariner Staff