Becoming a mariner takes time and dedication
By Rod Evans
It can’t be argued that technology has greatly changed the way mariners operate at sea and in port. Whereas ancient sailors relied upon the stars and equipment like sextants and quadrants to navigate the oceans, today’s merchant vessels are equipped with sophisticated radar, sonar and GPS systems that have greatly increased safety and decreased the likelihood of catastrophic groundings or collisions between vessels.
But as the March 22nd collision between a barge and an ocean going tanker illustrates, even with today’s technological advancements, collisions can and do occur. The collision between the MV Miss Susan tow boat operated by Kirby Inland Marine and the Liberian-flagged Summer Wind container ship, which took place in the so-called Texas City Y—the waterway between Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula—that resulted in the spilling of 168,000 gallons of fuel oil, was a vivid reminder of what can happen when large vessels laden with hazardous materials ram into each other in the densely trafficked area where ships inbound from the Gulf of Mexico either steer into the Port of Galveston, the intracoastal waterway, the Port of Texas City or into the Houston Ship Channel. The U.S. Coast Guard says the area saw over 159,000 transits, or total ship movements, last year, up from more than 130,000 about 15 years ago.
And while modern mariners certainly rely upon high tech equipment in the day-to-day operation of their ships, the most important factor in maintaining safety on the seas and in the Houston Ship Channel is the experience, skill and attention to detail utilized by crews, pilots and masters.
With at least five different types of deep draft ocean going vessels regularly calling upon the Houston Ship Channel and Port of Houston—wide body tankers, car carriers, freighters, container ships and bulk carriers—and several types of tow boats operating within the channel and the port, the options are many for candidates longing for a career at sea.
But a budding mariner can’t just step from operating his 20-foot Boston Whaler fishing boat around Galveston Bay to serving on board a large ocean going tanker or tow boat. Years of experience are required before a sailor can assume a position of authority on board a merchant ship. According to maritime industry sources, the majority of crew members begin their careers after graduating from a maritime academy.
Maritime academies, including the highly regarded Texas A&M Maritime Academy on the campus of Texas A&M University-Galveston, provide the opportunity for students to earn a four-year degree in fields like marine transportation, which then allows them to seek a position as a junior officer—typically a third mate—on board ocean going merchant vessels.
The third mate’s duties generally entail being in charge of navigation watch, cargo handling operations, safety training and other collateral duties. Once they have completed their term as a third mate, the sailor is elevated to second mate, where his/her duties and responsibilities increase incrementally.
The next step up the career ladder is the position of chief officer, who serves just below the ship’s master. The length of time required to ascend from third mate to master is generally about seven to eight years, with most mariners earning the rank of master by their mid 30s, with the Coast Guard responsible for issuing the appropriate licenses each step of the way.
There are less than 10 maritime academies located in the U.S. In addition to the one based in Galveston, the most prominent maritime academies are the United States Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point (N.Y.) and the Maritime College at the State University of New York. While potential academy students must have demonstrated competent, if not above average, classroom aptitude throughout their scholastic careers, perhaps the most important characteristic that any potential maritime academy student must possess is a clear criminal record, which must be sustained throughout the course of their career.
But attending an academy isn’t the only way to earn a job on board ship. Entry level seaman called Hawspipers, unlicensed merchant seamen, start at the bottom of a ship’s hierarchy and can ascend to the master level. Hawspipers sign on to work as a deck hand and put in long hours to work their way up the food chain. The typical route includes joining the Seafarer’s International Union and earning what’s called a Z card, which allows them to work aboard ship. Industry statistics indicate that it’s not uncommon for a mariner who began as a hawspiper to earn a master license in about 10 to 12 years.
On the Job
The often romanticized life of the mariner conjures images of adventure on the high seas, but the reality of life on board a merchant marine vessel is far less glamorous. And, while life at sea is relatively easygoing, situations can change on a dime thanks to worsening weather conditions, mechanical failures and other factors, such as the increasing danger presented by piracy in certain parts of the world. As the old saying goes, “Smooth seas never made a mariner,” but being prepared to deal with whatever may develop while on the open sea is the key to successfully completing any voyage and that preparedness comes with experience and an acute attention to detail.
Once in port, the intensity ramps up considerably due to the hustle and bustle of navigating in relatively tight quarters with fellow ships. In some cases, shipping contracts necessitate crew changes once the vessel enters a port. Whether at sea or in port, the master must be able to rely on his crew and executive crew members (the chief officer and chief engineer) to work in harmony as a team to operate a safe ship and maintain a constant state of readiness.
Mariners, especially master license holders, are required to constantly maintain their certifications by going through safety management systems that keep them abreast of the latest developments in collision prevention and safety.
A typical schedule calls for crews to work at sea for two months, followed by two months at home, which means they work about eight months out of the year. While the work can be grueling and being away from home for two straight months can be difficult for those with a family, the average salary for mariners is pretty good. Industry estimates indicate third mates make around $120,000 to $160,000 per year, while masters earn around $240,000 to $300,000 a year.
Visiting Texas A&M University-Galveston’s website (Tamug.edu) is a good place to start if you’re looking for information on careers in the maritime industry. The Seafarers International Union (Seafarers.org) can also be a source of valuable information for prospective mariners.