The merchant marine is a unique profession. Even the ways in which we do charity work differ from our landlubber counterparts.
When commercial mariners choose to be on ships providing aid to others in need, it's not like giving up one day or an evening to be at the food bank — it means a 24/7 commitment for weeks or months away from friends and loved ones while the ship goes to distant ports. Unlike people ashore, when we work on charity ships or those providing humanitarian aid, we often forgo more lucrative pay elsewhere or give up paychecks altogether just to help out, and many times we travel to risky areas or through dangerous waters to do our service. Despite these challenges, merchant mariners throughout the world still choose to "give back" and help others.
At 499 feet and 16,572 gross registered tons, with six state-of-the-art operating rooms plus hospital beds for 78, Africa Mercy is the largest charity hospital ship in the world. Owned by Mercy Ships, a well-known charity organization, Africa Mercy takes doctors, nurses, and other health professionals to ports in Third World countries. There they perform operations and give treatment to those who are suffering and would otherwise be unable to get health care.
Because the ship requires fully-documented crewmembers in accordance with international regulations, merchant mariners must be part of the crew. Nearly all of the mariners working on Africa Mercy have jobs on other ships and volunteer during their time off. They not only donate their time and expertise, but also pay their own travel expenses to and from the ship as well as room and board.
I know two top-notch commercial mariners who have chosen to sail on Mercy Ships. Kathy, an old shipmate of mine and a graduate of California Maritime Academy, sailed on Mercy Ships and ultimately became master of Caribbean Mercy. Eric, a second mate I've worked with, has volunteered as a crewmember on Mercy Ships for over six years. I once asked him why he returns again and again to volunteer, and he replied, "Kelly, you actually get to witness the sick get healed and the hopeless find hope. It just feels so good to be part of that."
Mariners who cannot afford to volunteer on a charity ship find other ways to help those in need. Last year, when the tragic Haiti earthquake struck, close to two million people were killed, injured or left homeless. The U.S. Maritime Administration activated five ships specifically for Haiti relief work, and by doing so provided a way for concerned, caring American sailors to earn a paycheck — yet still help relieve the suffering. With many mariners taking time away from their regular jobs to crew up emergency relief vessels, it wasn't long before U.S.-flag ships and crews were on the scene providing supplies, medical treatment and temporary housing.
Coral, a third engineer, and Rod, an able seaman, were among the many U.S. merchant mariners who answered the call to work on vessels providing this humanitarian aid to the earthquake victims. Afterward, Rod told me, "This was the first time I volunteered as a merchant mariner to help out during a crisis. I'd do it again in a heartbeat."
The fact that they got paid for their work in no way diminishes the importance of what mariners like Coral and Rod did — or of the lives they saved.
Many commercial mariners show goodwill by working permanently on certain types of vessels. I sailed for an outfit that operated over 100 tankers but which also had a couple of old break-bulk "stick-ships" that carried government-aid grain to Third World countries around the globe. None of the deck officers I knew wanted to work on the break-bulk ships, because they often went to dangerous areas of the world, paid less than the tankers, and required the crews to work 120-day tours — which meant 45 more days of work for each tour.
At advanced firefighting training through Texas A&M, I met a chief mate from one of the break-bulk ships and asked him why he chose to work on them when he could have been sailing on the tankers. He looked me straight in the eye and said, "In some of the ports you actually see people lining up holding baskets for the food. I know what I do makes a difference."
Going to dangerous Third World ports and transiting through pirate-infested waters are among the inherent risks of working on a ship providing humanitarian aid. Africa Mercy has had encounters with pirates at sea. Maersk Alabama, which was attacked in a high-profile piracy incident a couple of years ago, was carrying relief food aid for Africa when it was hit. The crew of Rozen, carrying 1,800 tons of humanitarian food aid, was taken hostage, beaten and held at gunpoint for 40 days in Somalia until released. Despite the dangers, merchant mariners continue to volunteer to bring aid to those in need.
Every day, merchant mariners are making the world a better place, not only by volunteering but also by bringing the goods that people need and use. In my opinion, we mariners should all be proud of the work we do. Being that it's the holiday season, however, I think it is fitting to give a special thanks to those mariners who "go the extra miles" to help others.
Till next time, I wish you all happy holidays and 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.