How Ancient the Mariner? A new career as an AB

He went like one that hath been stunned
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.
excerpt from:
The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner
 by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The recent popular news has been telling us about the wave of Boomers who are approaching retirement but still need and want to work. I count myself among this crowd. After closing my seafood business of 15 years, Maine’s Best Seafood in Hancock, Maine, in December of 2006, due to a lack of scallops, mussels, crabs and other items, and anticipating an avalanche of paperwork that would soon be required by the State for all purchases from fishermen, I brought to a close my 40 years of involvement with the Maine/New England seafood industry as both a harvester and a dealer. I naively thought my 40 years of business skills plus a master’s degree would help me in the search for a new career. Like the ancient mariner, I searched and searched, and was stunned to find that 40 years of business experience and a master’s degree didn’t trump the fact that I was 57 years old. In a state whose governor consistently talks about the benefits of an education, I was repeatedly told by those at the unemployment office to delete my master’s degree, and in some cases, my college degree, from my resume. So, after a year of looking for jobs where experience is a disadvantage, (read too old), I decided to see if there was still a chance to restart my career and become an ancient merchant mariner.
After consulting with many in the Merchant Marine industry, I came to the conclusion that age isn’t feared in this industry, and in June of this year started school to train for my AB Merchant Mariner license. For those who don’t know, AB stands for Able Bodied Seaman. It is like being a corporal in the army. You are one step up on the long ladder to the pilothouse. One needs to have a minimum amount of sea time to prove that you are in fact a mariner, and are qualified to be an AB. If you have no sea time and wish to start on the bottom of the ladder, you start as an OS, or an Ordinary Seaman. However, it isn’t that easy to even start as an OS. You must pass a Homeland Security background check, get a physical, pass a drug test and prove that you are a US citizen. Another important aspect of Merchant Marine life that is a deterrent to many is the fact that one must stay sober while on board any U.S. Merchant Vessel. I received my Merchant Mariner OS document in April of this year and quickly sent out inquiries to many companies. I received no replies. I decided then that I would need my AB rating to prove that I was in fact a mariner who, despite my age, could still splice and throw a line.

There are three levels of ABs and they are all based on how much sea time you did, when you did it, and where you did it. My sea time occurred when I fished on my two Draggers out of Point Judith, R.I., and covered a period from 1976 to 1991 and was mostly within 10 miles of shore. This qualified me for an AB Special Rating. I filled out my sea time forms, sent them into Boston REC and was told two weeks later that I indeed did qualify to be an AB special. Now it was time to head off to school.

The Coast Guard holds exams for many licenses, but prefers that all mariners go to an approved maritime school and get their professional requirements accomplished in the private sector, thereby saving the US government the cost and time involved in the administration of exams. Maritime training has thus become a huge business. NE Maritime Institute in Fairhaven, Mass, where I went for two classes, is an example of this growing business. NorthEast recently entered into a joint venture arrangement with one of the biggest barge and tug companies on the Mississippi, American Commercial Lines, or ACL. NorthEast will be training over 2,000 ACL tug and barge workers as new standards are brought to the inland river systems that will require river workers to have the same professional capabilities as those that work on the oceans and coastal waters of the US.

My first week of class was devoted to safety, first aid, fire and survival training, all subjects that are required for your STCW certificate. This certificate is an international standard that all mariners will soon need to possess to show that they have minimum safety training. The hit of the week was a day of training at the Connecticut Fire Academy, which is like a camp for anyone who wants to learn all there is to know about fighting fires. Mariner students must be able to don a full protective suit and Air Pac, enter a building/engine room while crawling with two other firefighters, and put out a fire in an enclosed room. It is hard and scary work, especially when your Air Pac runs out of air. Besides fire and first aid, Merchant Mariners also need to know how to swim, something that was new to some of the students from the inland river system. Students are also required to get into a liferaft from the water and know how to right it should it get blown upside down. With every practical hands-on learning exercise, there is also a follow-up written test that every one must take. With one course down and two to go, I was now on my way to what I hoped was a new career on a tugboat somewhere on the East Coast.

For my second course, called “The 40 hour Able Bodied Seaman Course”, I only had to go as far as Freedom, Maine. The DownEast Training Center, run by Dr. Shawn Ahearn, has been training merchant mariners for many years and offers courses at all levels of training, often in conjunction with Maine Maritime Academy. For this course, there were three separate exams testing one’s knowledge of vessel construction, operation and navigation. There was an exam for knots and line throwing as well as Rules of the Road. Many of the questions on the different exams are the same questions that would be on the exam for a 100-ton captain license, the only difference being that those that sit for a captain license must get at least a 90% on the test. It is with this coursework, training, and tests that an everyday fisherman or sailor starts to learn the language of the merchant marine. Marine terminology, as anyone who lives on the coast well knows, can be very regional in nature. In the Merchant Marine, everyone has to speak the same language and know the same terms. Therefore, what may be a fisherman’s bend on a fishing boat in Portland is a sheepbend on a merchant vessel anywhere else. The AB course makes sure that all U.S. merchant mariners speak the same nautical language. This language happens to be very international in nature. A crewman on a container vessel from China must be able to communicate with the pilots and tug boats of New York harbor. Though not perfect, this international nautical language has help to keep our coastal waters free from major maritime disasters for quite some time.

For my final course, I headed back down to NE Maritime to take a week of training for the operation of a lifeboat. All ABs are now required to know how to operate a gravity-operated lifeboat as well as a life raft. NE maritime is one of the few training facilities that has a lifeboat set up on the shore. If you thought shipboard terminology was arcane, lifeboat terms date back to early England and are a language of their own. Taking the course with me were a group of 12 or so employees from ACL as well as a few new career types like myself. I completed the course, passed the written test and had my lifeboatman’s certificate by 2:00 pm Friday. The Coast Guard REC in Boston had it, as well as my other class certificates, on Monday, and by the following Friday, I had my Merchant Mariner Document with an AB Special Rating.

Recent Professional Mariner Magazine issues have been focusing on the impending manpower shortage in the merchant marine industry. Stringent professional requirements, brought about by 9/11 and events such as the Exxon Valdez, have made the process of becoming a merchant mariner harder and harder. Our modern way of living is also running straight into a traditional way of life, where one of the family breadwinners must be away for weeks at a time. In this age of “feel good now”, iPhones, and Paris Hilton, who wants to put up with what is in effect life on a floating monastery? Life on a tug or any other merchant vessel means you will not see loved ones for weeks at a time, live in cramped noisy conditions, and share dinner every night with people you may not care for. In the case of a tugboat deckhand, it also means crawling over barges at all hours of the day and night, often in wet and dangerous conditions, lifting heavy lines to help dock large ships and constantly taking care of the tug by chipping and painting. The Franciscan Brothers have it easy. It is no wonder that many Maine Maritime graduates never go to sea, but instead opt for good paying jobs ashore which mean they are home every night. This shortage, however, has a silver lining for those who don’t feel the need to see Entertainment Tonight every day. Salaries have been rising due to the shortage, and Merchant Mariners are finally getting paid well for the hard work they do. A recently renewed labor contract with a large tug company in New York had ABs getting paid $300/day plus benefits. Some captains are now getting paid $550/day and ship pilots make well in excess of 6 figures. For an AB with a two week on, two week off rotation, at this particular company (not mine), this means you are getting paid $54,000 to work 26 weeks a year. For a geezer from Maine who needs health insurance for himself and his wife, it doesn’t seem like such a bad gig.

The big question in my mind was, “Would my age make a difference as it had for so many other companies I had applied to in Maine?” My experience with being unemployed in Maine was one that ran true to all the common beliefs about life in Maine. Applying for many different jobs at Jackson Lab, the so-called employment haven in Hancock County, produced not even an e-mail acknowledging my application. Other friends have confirmed the lack of appreciation for Maine residents at Jackson Lab. Applying for a job with the State, I was told the state jobs go to those already in government. Applying to construction-type jobs, I was passed over due to too much education, or at least that is what the people at unemployment told me. Job after job, I would hear that the person hired would have less experience than me, but was also considerably younger. Would this pattern hold for the Merchant Marine industry or would experience and training trump the reality of age? I was about to find out.

With my new AB card in hand, I e-mailed many different tugboat companies on the East Coast from Norfolk to Maine. Unlike when I had applied to the same companies as just an OS, I now received many replies saying that there were openings for ABs, even those as old as me. So after considering the merits of different companies, I called back the oldest tugboat company in New York Harbor, Moran Towing, and said I would like to sign up with them. I talked to them on Friday and was on my first boat, the Kimberely Turecamo, the following Wednesday. Crew changes take place on Wednesday, and on August 22nd , I joined the 5-man crew of the Kimberely to start my career as an AB deckhand for Moran Towing.

As I finish this article, I am in the galley of the Kimberely and have been aboard for 18 days of my first 21-day training period. I have been with two different crews as a crew change took place one week after I had arrived. I have met some very interesting and capable people, who have years and years of experience and yet are tolerant of the new geezer AB. I have been privileged to hear their life stories, as that is what one does aboard ship when there is down time. The galley is the new family room and the crew is, like it or not, your new 2nd family. Though festooned with tattoos and scars from battles with ships gone astray, broken equipment and labor strifes, they all come together to make the best of their 2 or 3  week stay on this floating monastery. From them, I have learned how to properly tie up to a ship or a barge, have made numerous meals for them, learned how to get by on a 6-hour watch, have scrambled up and down a moving barge in the middle of the night to help get it secured to a dock, have seen New York City lit up at night while picking up a ship under the Verrazzano Bridge, and have found that, though too ancient for the job market back home in Maine, my experience and knowledge are still appreciated in the world of professional mariners in New York Harbor.

Above, Rob Bauer on the back deck of the tug Kimberely Turecamo

While still aboard, my first paycheck made it to Maine, and with the soon-to-be great benefits package offered by Moran, I have found that all the hard work was worth it. So from the galley of the tug Kimberely Turecamo, “may the wind be at your back, the tide in your direction and may the crew on the container ship ease that heavy ship line down to you, so it doesn’t get wet.”

Rob Bauer
Blue Hill, Maine

By Professional Mariner Staff