To stay healthy, mariners need exercise, and a place to do it

While attending California Maritime Academy, I spent part of each day exercising. I might jog with Jim, who’s now master on an oceanographic ship; box a few rounds with Dave, who became a West Coast bar pilot; or lift weights with Joe, who spent time as a tug engineer and is now working at a power plant. Keeping fit was easy, as the academy had excellent facilities and top-quality equipment.

When I graduated and began working for a large West Coast towing company, I missed the convenience of having such good exercise equipment available, but figured that the hard physical work on board would be enough to keep me in shape.

Being physically fit means more than just having good overall health.

With going up and down ladders, handling lines and wires, and making or breaking tow, my 12-plus hours of work on board each day was strenuous. Whether doing ship assists, barge moves, or coastwise towing, at the end of my watch I would fall into bed exhausted. Then one morning, about six months after joining the company, I put on my work pants and found them so tight they almost didn’t fit. Figuring it was because they had been washed the day before and then put in the dryer on high heat, I didn’t think too much of it. The following day, when my other pants didn’t fit either, I thought, “Uh-oh. It wasn’t the dryer.”

Though I did not want to admit it and for a while refused to believe it, working as a deck hand on a tugboat was just not enough to keep me in shape. So, I decided to try and work out some while on the boat. Because the tugs had no exercise equipment on board, I started doing push-ups and sit-ups in my room off-watch, but was never able to exercise with anywhere near the same intensity and consistency as I had while at Cal Maritime. Needless to say, at the end of that work tour, I ended up buying new pants.

Being physically fit means more than just having good overall health. A mariner who is physically fit has no problem doing whatever specific job he or she is assigned to on board. For decades, most mariners never had to worry about anyone questioning their level of physical fitness. Then, in 2008, along came the U.S. Coast Guard’s Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circular (NVIC) 04-08. For the first time in U.S. history, all merchant mariners had to meet a comprehensive list of physical-ability guidelines. NVIC 04-08 requires that mariners demonstrate that they have the agility, balance and physical fitness needed to work on board a vessel by successfully completing 13 different performance tests. Being unable to meet any of the guidelines can result in a restriction of a credential or even an outright denial. Interestingly, within months after the new physical requirements were mandated, the number of mariners medically denied a credential began to soar, increasing nearly 300 percent from 2009 to 2011 (Professional Mariner #160, August 2012).

Last year a report out of the University of Wisconsin noted that of nearly 400 licensed U.S. deck officers studied over a seven-year period, 40 percent had high blood pressure and unhealthy cholesterol readings, and 60 percent were obese, according to body mass index (BMI) standards.

Though working as a mariner is physically demanding, I can speak from experience that it’s not easy staying in shape while on board a vessel. When ashore I work out at my local gym, do yoga at a studio not far from my home and am part of a local walking group. At sea, I’ve found exercise opportunities to be limited at best.

After I began to sail on larger vessels, I figured that exercising on board would be easier because of all the extra space to put fitness equipment. Once when I was a mate on a crude oil tanker, both captains agreed that one of the unused staterooms on the ship would be converted into the “gym.” The “gym” itself was outfitted with donations from the crew, and consisted of an old treadmill, rusty universal weight machine and a partial set of barbells all bought at a garage sale. On a trip to Valdez, Alaska, one winter, I was working out when we took a sharp roll. One of the barbells dropped out of the rack and down on the deck, narrowly missing my foot. I stopped going to the “gym” after that, and never did increase my level of exercise while on board.

The International Medical Guide for Ships, third edition, notes that some companies have dealt with the problem of a lack of exercise aboard ship by providing “well-equipped fitness rooms.” I think that’s a great idea — one that shows a true concern for the health and well-being of the officers and crew. In fact, I know of a number of foreign and U.S.-flag operators that willingly pay for top-quality fitness equipment to be placed on board their vessels. OSG’s ships have company-provided gym equipment such as elliptical machines, stationary bikes, treadmills and weights. Even the company’s tugs have a stationary bike provided for crew use. All of this equipment is designed and installed so it can be safely used on board ship.

These days, along with the physicals mandated by the U.S. Coast Guard, many companies also require an extensive physical exam before a mariner is hired — including stress tests on a treadmill, obstacle courses that must be done in a certain amount of time and balance/agility exercises. I’m sure that maritime insurers approve when a company mandates pre-employment physical exams, but it seems to me that the insurers would be even happier if shipping companies also provided their crews with quality exercise equipment to use. That way, it would help ensure that the mariners working for them were not only physically fit when they were hired, but after they came aboard as well.

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