It was a cool windy November day when I joined the vessel in Morehead City, N.C. Coming up the gangway, I was met by the 8-to-12 AB.
“Welcome aboard, mate,” he called out. “Ahoy, shipmate!” I replied, “How’s it going?” He answered, “I’m draggin’ this morning. Working on this ship is a real backbreaker.” That was not necessarily what I wanted to hear my first minute on board. I began to question if I had made the wrong choice taking this relief mate’s position. I soon found out this was a “user-unfriendly” vessel.
Poorly placed winches made tying up and letting go a hassle, staterooms were small, stuffy and uncomfortable; and the old oversized manual valve wheels, plus open gauging, made cargo operations cumbersome. After 50 days, I paid off the vessel in Curacao. As the cab taking me to the airport pulled away, I looked back thinking, “We had a great crew and went to some good ports, but this certainly wasn’t my dream ship.”
On the way to the airport I began daydreaming, realizing that I had never really thought about what my dream ship would be like. “A luxury yacht?” I mused. “No, not my thing.” I’d skip the Grey Poupon and make it a “working vessel.” My dream ship would be designed, built and operated with the comfort, safety and well-being of the crew in mind. Of course, the budget for it would be as big as Bill Gates’ bank account, but it would be my dream ship, so I’d have no worries about cost.
To start with, a state-of-the art motion control system would be built into the vessel to reduce heaving and rolling. There’d be no more lugging gear or meals up five, six or seven decks of narrow, hard steel steps either, because the ship would be equipped with an elevator from the engine room to the captain’s deck and a dumbwaiter from the galley to the wheelhouse. Every crewmember would have his or her own stateroom and head — spacious carpeted rooms with a recliner chair, individual room temperature controls and a porthole that could be opened for fresh air. The watch call system, unlike the old heart-attack-inducing buzzers, would be a computerized wakeup call programmed to play whatever music the mariner chose. I’d start with a Jimmy Buffett watch call.
This wouldn’t be the 1800s either, when going to sea meant years of no contact with loved ones. Every mariner could see and talk with friends or family ashore during their off time — at no cost. Each stateroom would have a wide-screen computer with a webcam, 24/7 satellite Internet/TV and surround sound.
A well-equipped gym designed as part of the vessel, not some empty stateroom with used equipment bought by crew donations, would be available to all. Those not interested in the universal weight machine might choose the heated whirlpool, Finnish sauna or endless swimming pool. For anyone who just wanted to relax and hang out with other crewmembers, both the officer and crew lounges would be equipped with satellite TV/radio, current movies and a fridge/microwave.
Considering how much diesel exhaust many of us have inhaled in our careers, I decided that my dream ship would be ecologically benign and completely pollution free. A friction-reducing hull coated with environmentally friendly paint, LED lighting, an array of solar panels and wind turbines would all be included in the vessel design. That way, as in the days when sailing ships plied the world’s trade routes, the officers and crew on board would breathe just the good sea air. Plus, there would be no loud engine noise to drown out the calls of seabirds flying above, as dolphins surfed the bow wake.
Knowing from experience that when life on board is good it makes things on the job go even better, my dream ship would be operated in a way that truly valued the mariners in the crew — ensuring they were well fed and in good health. Fresh, gourmet organic meals are all that would be served. The drinking water would be filtered extensively to take out even the most elusive contaminants. For crew health, an EMT or registered nurse or maybe even a doctor would be there to provide emergency medical treatment on the spot.
Of course, the safety and security of the crew is of paramount importance. Armed security guards would be permanently assigned to the ship, and there’d be a fortified “safe room” with full communications capability. Every window in the wheelhouse would be equipped with long-range night vision for enhanced surveillance and improved navigation. The ship would have one of the new GPIRBs (GPS-enabled emergency position indicating radio beacons). Each of the fireproof covered lifeboats would also have its own GPIRB, along with a solar-charged satellite phone, as standard equipment. An advanced man-overboard tracking system would be installed, with each crewmember being issued a PLB (personal locator beacon).
Finally, to eliminate the debilitating effects of reduced crews, increasing work hours and mandatory pay cuts faced by so many commercial mariners these days, I’d dip into that Bill Gates-sized budget. There would be enough officers and crew on board so that no one would have to work more than eight hours a day. Everyone would have plenty of time to get enough sleep and enjoy the vessel’s amenities. And the daily pay would be double the going rate for all positions.
Every professional mariner has his or her own vision of what makes a dream ship. Admittedly, some of these ideas are flights of fancy, while others are tangible and derived from real-life lessons based on actual experience. Whether hard-edged or fanciful, I believe that these kinds of ideas should be sought out and listened to with an open mind by those who design, build and operate ships. After all, history has shown that the most innovative and successful changes in the maritime industry began as someone’s dream.
Till next time I wish you all smooth sailin’.