I was looking forward to getting married in a few weeks. My fiancée and I decided on a backyard ceremony at her Long Beach, Calif., home. Everything was going according to plan except for one thing — we had not had any luck arranging music for the wedding.
I was complaining about that to Dana, a cook on the tug I was working on, and was surprised when he said, “I play in an Irish fiddle band on my time off. I would be honored if you allowed us to play at your wedding.” I remembered then how Dana would rosin up his bow and practice his fiddle sometimes when we were at sea. I gratefully accepted his offer to play at our ceremony. A few Saturdays later, “The Ceilidh Band” played at our July wedding, a wonderful first day of marriage to the beautiful woman I am still happily married to.
Our profession, with its scheduled periods of work and vacation, offers ample opportunities for mariners to follow their passions outside of the job. Indeed, there are few other occupations I know of that are as “user-friendly” for those interested in developing themselves when not at work. Seafarers generally get paid well enough to afford their hobbies. Plus, not being constrained by the typical Monday through Friday, 9-5 routine most people are saddled with, we have the time to pursue our interests, whatever they are. Over the years I have sailed with many men and women who were able to follow their avocations while on vacation from the vessel.
During the four to six months most mariners have off from work each year, putting in one or two quarters of school is doable. Chris, an engineer I sailed with, took welding classes at the local community college to sharpen his skills during his time off. After a few years, he completed all the welding classes the community college offered and earned certification as a master welder, opening many more maritime job opportunities. Jim worked as a deckhand and mate in the Bering Sea for seven years, taking college law classes during his vacations. He is now a successful practicing maritime lawyer. These are just two examples I know of where mariners learned new skills, or advanced proficiency in old skills, during time off from their sea-going job.
Many mariners I have worked with have had what I call a “side hustle,” things they made money at while at home. We did not pay Dana for playing at our wedding, that was his gift to us. But he made extra money playing his fiddle at parties and small clubs. He told me he loved polishing his fiddle skills and making a few bucks on the side. Another guy I worked with on tugs, an engineer named John, restored old cars while at home in San Pedro, Calif. One time during our vacation he invited me over to his place, and showed me the work he was doing restoring an old Ford Fairlane. He later sold the restored car for a big profit, which paid for a vacation he took to see his relatives in Italy. Even my Dad, who sailed for years as an able-seaman and boatswain, would paint houses on his vacation. He felt it was healthy being outside in the Spokane sunshine, and liked the interaction he had with his clients. The extra money he made paid for some great family times I will always remember warmly.
Other mariners I have known have even made their “side hustles” a formal business. Davey, my friend and roommate at Cal Maritime, has a firearm company he runs during time off from his job onboard a ship. Over the years he has traveled to gun shows throughout the country, selling both new firearms that he has purchased and ones that he has restored. He enjoys his “second career,” and plans to expand his business even more in retirement. Floyd, a ship captain I sailed with, used his earnings to buy a mobile home park in Eastern Washington. He feels good about supplying people with a place to live, and makes a healthy extra living from the park year-round to boot. His mobile home park is a big part of his retirement plan.
Shipping is a notoriously cyclical business, which was made abundantly clear during the covid-19 crisis. Having a side interest can help smooth out the rough spots employment-wise, and be personally satisfying as well. We are lucky as merchant mariners to have the option to take advantage of opportunities outside of work. So, the next time you are on vacation, get off that couch. I encourage you to follow your dreams.
Till next time I wish you all smooth sailin.’ •
Capt. Kelly Sweeney holds the license of master (oceans, any gross tons) and has held a master of towing vessels (oceans) license as well. He has sailed on more than 40 commercial vessels and lives on an island near Seattle. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.