Smoking rules can be a hot subject

There are many more rules and regulations we mariners have to follow today than when I began sailing in the early 1980s. Sometimes they come from the Coast Guard or other government agency, other times the company. Though we know they are generally well meaning, many times sailors look at the new rules and regs that come our way and we think, “How in the world did they come up with that?”

Take smoking rules on board ship: Many companies have established smoking policies on their vessels in accordance with the International Safety Management Code (ISM 7) requirements, or simply because it needs to be addressed as an occupational health and safety issue. Some of these smoking policies are thoughtful and fairly applied. Others, in the words of a chief engineer I know, “Don’t make a lick of sense.”

I have a number of friends who sail for the Washington State Ferries, an ISM-compliant government ship operator. Recently my wife and I ran into an AB I know as we were going into a local restaurant for breakfast. He was outside having a cigarette, since state law restricts smoking is public places like restaurants, ballparks and ferries. He’s been following my writing for years, and asked what my next article would be about. I answered, “I was thinking of writing about something we all live with — smoking policies on board ships and boats. “Good one,” he said, “Why don’t you start with the crazy smoking policy on the ferries?” “Fill me in,” I said.

He replied, “For some reason, the people in the ferry office decided that since smoking is not allowed anywhere inside public places anymore, there shouldn’t be smoking anywhere on the ferries either. So now, whether we’re underway or at the dock, on the bridge or in the engine room, even during our lunch or coffee break — smoking is never allowed.”

He continued, “It gets worse. On the San Juan Islands route, most of us stay on board overnight because of an early run in the morning. There are no passengers on the boat and we’re not on company time, but we can’t even smoke a cigarette in our room. The office people just don’t understand what it’s like for us, Kelly. They can go outside and have a cigarette. We can’t.”

Luckily, not all employers establish such polarizing smoking rules on their vessels. I sailed as a relief mate on a large fish processing ship last year. The company’s fleet-wide policy made it clear that because each vessel is unique and works in different areas, individual captains were to develop a shipboard smoking plan to submit to the office for approval. The two main guidelines were that the policy had to meet legal requirements and be workable. On my ship, the captain decided on a plan that permitted smoking in individual rooms — unless you shared a room. In that case, your roommates had to agree to your smoking or it had to be done outside. Smoking wasn’t allowed in the galley or mess room, but at workstations like the bridge or engine room it was, provided that all watchstanders agreed.

One day, as we were approaching Queen Charlotte Strait on the way from Seattle to Sitka, Alaska, I was navigating with a sailor at the helm in hand steering and a lookout on the port side of the wheelhouse. After we cleared Blackney Pass and put the helm back in autopilot, “On the mike,” the assistant engineer stopped by to do a small electrical repair on the bridge. When he finished, he pulled out a pack of smokes and started to light up. I said, “Jim, I’d prefer it if you didn’t smoke up here on my watch.” He scowled a bit and replied “We all smoke up here on the captain’s watch.” I told him, “You know the smoking policy. Both the lookout and I don’t smoke, so the 12 hours I’m up here on watch I’d prefer it if you smoked down in the engine room or outside.” He wasn’t overly happy about it, but he put the cigarettes back in his pocket and headed down below. As he left, the lookout smiled and gave me a “thumbs-up” sign.

Obviously, cigarette smoking on board commercial vessels is a touchy issue — but it’s not going away. The flames of controversy were fanned recently when Britain announced its intention to ban smoking on every merchant ship in its waters, even those just “passing through.” Hearing this, a number of mariners I know who are smokers began grumbling about “restricting seamen’s rights” and “where is it going to end?” On the other side of the issue, I’ve sailed with many nonsmoking mariners who point to their right not to have to breathe second-hand smoke. One zealous tug captain I know is so irritated that the company allows smoking on board that he went to the American Lung Association Web site, printed out several copies of its list of second-hand smoke dangers and posted them all around his boat.

From my perspective as an actively sailing merchant mariner, the crux of the problem regarding smoking on board centers around the fact that while a ship or boat is our workplace, it’s also our home for the time we’re on board. That’s why I think that a shipboard smoking policy needs to be thoughtful and realistic if it’s going to be effective — and the best way to guarantee that is to ask the mariners themselves. The sailors live and work on the vessel, day in and day out. They know what areas of the ship should be designated for smokers, in what areas smoking should not be allowed and under what circumstances smoking should be permitted. Most sailors I know will give their opinions when asked. If companies want to establish smoking rules that make sense, they need to ask their mariners before a policy is adopted — and then listen and incorporate their input.

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

By Professional Mariner Staff