Mariners need time, proper facilities to maintain hygiene at sea

I was a young mate working on a crude oil tanker connected to the single-point mooring at Barbers Point, Hawaii. Because we had to keep our engines “live,” the captain ordered the watch-standing deck officers to work at least 16 hours a day for the entire discharge. We did eight hours on the bridge and another eight hours of cargo operations on deck. With meals, two 30-minute pre-watch callouts and getting ready for work cutting deeply into my “rest periods,” I was only able to get about four and a half hours of sleep each day. By the time I got back to my stateroom exhausted after watch, I’d think to myself, “Do I really want to give up a half an hour or more of sleep just to take a shower?” For three days, the answer was no. I would just throw off my sweat-soaked work clothes and fall right into bed. In the cargo control room the final morning before departure, the chief mate came in, curled his nose and commented that “someone smells a little bit like road kill on a hot summer day.” 

With the reductions in the size of shipboard crews over the years, everyone on board is working more hours as part of their daily routine. In fact, in accordance with 46 CFR 15.1111, the authorities have approved a 98-hour workweek of seven 14-hour days for commercial mariners and, under certain circumstances, 18-hour workdays with just six hours off are allowed. Fourteen-hour workdays for weeks or months take their toll, and with meals, pre-watch callouts, drills and preparation for work all factored in, there is seldom enough time for a full seven to eight hours of sleep — and that doesn’t even take into consideration the extra hours needed for taking care of personal hygiene such as cleaning staterooms, bathing and washing clothes. 

The international Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) basic training course module of “Personal Safety and Social Responsibilities” emphasizes the importance of personal hygiene at sea. But bathing regularly is more than just being a good shipmate by not subjecting others to an olfactory assault. According to the U.S. Public Health Service’s 2003 edition of “The Ship’s Medicine Chest and Medical Aid at Sea,” personal hygiene habits of bathing daily and putting on clean changes of clothes are conducive to good overall personal health at sea and lessen the chance of infection — something that a riding gang mariner I sailed with once learned the hard way. 

Our tanker had left the shipyard in Florida the week before, carrying a riding gang of four who were hired to do certain extra extensive and difficult projects in the engine room. One night, in the passageway on my way back to my stateroom after supper, I ran into one of the riding gang and was nearly blown away by the stench of his body odor. Two weeks later he came to me, as I was the “medical officer” on board, complaining of three large abscesses on his lower back. They were inflamed, swollen and 2 to 3 inches in diameter each. After cleaning and warming the area and then spraying some numbing antiseptic, I donned rubber gloves and put on a pair of goggles. As I lanced the abscesses, globs of yellowish pus erupted out. After the sores were drained, while cleaning and dressing his wounds I said, “There is a very good chance you got abscesses because you don’t bathe enough. From now on I want you to take a good shower after work, no excuses, and then change into clean clothes.” I checked on him each day and it wasn’t long before his wounds healed and complaints from the other crewmembers about his “olfactory offensiveness” faded away. 

In accordance with 46 CFR 92.20-40, laundry facilities must be provided for crew use. The law only stipulates, however, that “sufficient facilities” must be available — there is no official definition as to what “sufficient” means. From my experience, two washers for unlicensed crew and two machines for officers are usually found on oceangoing ships. These machines get a lot of hard use day in and day out, and there is almost always a queue. 

I was on a tanker running between various ports in the Gulf of Mexico and the West Coast. As we transited the Panama Canal, I began to notice that some unlicensed crewmembers were wearing the same dirty clothes they had been working in previously. This continued, and after a couple of days I mentioned it to George, the AB on my watch. He told me that both crew washers had broken down and weren’t working. Only having two washers for the 14 unlicensed mariners on board, it was hard enough for them to get their laundry done during their “rest periods,” but with both machines not working the only option available was hand washing. Consequently, many in the crew just opted to keep wearing their dirty work clothes. It was about 10 days before we arrived at Long Beach, Calif., and a couple more days before the company got two new machines delivered to the vessel and they were installed and operating. With it being as hard as it was for the unlicensed crew to find the time and an open machine to do their laundry, in my opinion two machines just weren’t enough. I think four would have been better — two for less-soiled garments and two for oily or very dirty clothes. 

In my experience, most mariners understand the need for personal hygiene and do the best they can to keep themselves, their clothes and their personal spaces clean, if given time and adequate facilities. The authorities have no problem setting a 14-hour workday as standard now, but in my opinion they overlook the ever-increasing encroachment of other obligations into our “periods of rest.” Doing laundry, taking a shower, cleaning our rooms, drills, meals, 30-minute watch callouts and getting ready for work are not “rest.” All these regular activities need to be factored in to our work time by the authorities, and then a minimum of seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep mandated for every mariner at sea. In my opinion, anything else leads to sleep deprivation.

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 captsweeney@professional

By Professional Mariner Staff