Thursday, May 08, 2008

Life on a container ship

In april 2008, Lloyd's List ran these great, insightful, pieces by Richard Meade, on life at sea as he experienced it, riding along with a ship's crew. I don't have all the parts, I think there is four or five, but the following three, I really enjoyed reading. The first is about his "signing on" the CGM CMA container ship Puget. The second part is about the various crew members, and the third is about the Master's perspective.

Part 1 - Signing on

IT IS 0930 hrs but the comprehensive log of security paperwork sitting on the master’s desk confirms that I am just the latest in a long and familiar line of visitors to the ship.

I’m late. I had to navigate my way out of Manhattan into the sprawling industrial hub of New Jersey’s port complex where CMA CGM Puget docked in the early hours of this morning. Negotiating security clearances and waiting for an escort to the ship only add to the delay.

Finally aboard with a visitor’s security badge in hand I find myself in the midst of a spot check by the ever-present Customs and Border Patrol. The crew’s extensive documentation is meticulous and they are efficiently given the requisite stamps of approval. The anomaly of a journalist with missing papers, however, proves to be more of a headache.

I’m confined to a spare cabin and told to wait. When a phone finally rings, I am summoned to the master's office and told in no uncertain terms by the armed officers that if I should step foot in the US without having the correct paperwork to hand again, the consequences will be more serious.

The crew are too polite to voice their obvious amusement that it is me and not them that has fallen foul of the humourless interrogators this time. But it is clear that the routine of inspection and interrogation are part and parcel of the job these days.

“There’s not much respect there. They don’t care about [International Labour Organisation] conventions or human rights,” explains a class inspector who happens to be aboard at the same time. In the past 14 years that he has been boarding ships as part of his job, he has seen a marked difference in the way that crew are treated by the seemingly endless parade of officials that now take an interest in crew aboard calling ships.

This time it is just a visa inspection, but more often than not there will be a full search of the ship, with particular attention paid to the crew’s cabins. This can be repeated every time a ship calls at a port, but as far as the crew are concerned this is just another part of the job.

“Post 9/11 there have been lots of changes to our lives regarding security,” explains CMA CGM Puget’s master Anic Majski. “The security part of the job in many ways did not exist before. Now it’s all about paperwork, logs, security clearance. It’s never ending.”

The rigours of the International Ship and Port Facilities Security Code have left many feeling that seafarers are now looked upon as a threat and treated “more or less like a terrorist suspect”. While Capt Anic believes that this is an exaggeration of the actual situation, he agrees there has been a fundamental shift in how crew are treated.

“It used to be that my priority was the crew and the cargo. Now, it’s ISPS, then cargo, then crew.”

When the International Transport Workers’ Federation commissioned a study looking at the effects of the ISPS Code, the overwhelming majority of respondents — 86% — claimed that the code had resulted in extra work and has adversely affected crew performance. Yet 96% of seafarers said there had been no increase in crew levels to cope with the additional workload. And 89% of them said that they had received no extra pay.


Part 2 - Meet the crew

RALPHY Dumon is an extraordinarily happy man. He faces the prospect of being confined to a claustrophobic series of near identical box cabins, day and night for 12 months.

If he is lucky he will touch dry land a handful of times, but that largely depends which country his cabin is in that day and what his schedule is looking like. He is a very busy man after all. If he does escape it will only ever be for a few minutes to run an errand and even then he is unlikely to get past the ever present perimeter fence or the all-seeing eye of high visibility security.

“Do I enjoy it? Yes, of course. I’m happy, this is what I want.”

At 23, Mr Dumon may be the most junior member of crew aboard CMA CGM Puget, but one day he will be the master of his own ship and for now he is more than content with the adventure and the money that being a cadet offers him.

His enthusiasm and ambition are perhaps an anomaly of youth, but his daily working routine is anything but. The pressures of living at sea for months on end are a reality for the 1.2m seafarers who work in the world’s shipping industry.

The 22 crew who work aboard CMA CGM Puget all have different reasons for being there. Some, like Mr Dumon, signed up for the adventure, but for many that has long since faded. Seafaring is a career like any other with perks and disadvantages, but crucially it often allows them to support their families back home with more money than they could hope to earn on land. In return, the common sacrifice they all make is a life of separation punctuated with all too brief periods ashore.

“Look at this,” says one of the officers, holding up his mobile phone. “My wife asking what New York looks like at night. How the hell I am supposed to know? Everyone thinks we see all these places we visit. We don’t, we just see ports. It’s like jail.”

Bosun Robert Manoso first went to sea as a cadet in 1977. “When I started it was very different,” he explains. Back then getting off the ship at each port of call was a matter of routine, but in the era of just-intime delivery, box giants and tightened security, the job has fundamentally changed. Despite calling regularly at the port of New Jersey, none of the current crew aboard CMA CGM Puget have ever stepped outside the port’s perimeter fence, far less had the opportunity to visit neighbouring New York. It seems unlikely they ever will.

“The changes have made a big difference for us. It’s become harder for you to do your job. Now we are always busy,” Mr Manoso explains between his shifts overseeing the loading and unloading of boxes from the ship. Contrary to popular belief it is not draconian US security restrictions that prevent crew from leaving the vessel. “I cannot go out, but it’s because there’s not enough time. We don’t stay long enough.”

CMA CGM Puget may have only docked last night but in a matter of hours the crew will be leaving New Jersey for the short journey down the US east coast to Norfolk and then again onto Charleston. After that it will be a straight run to Port Said, then Jeddah, Karachi, Nhava Sheva and Mundra, then back across the globe along the same route. It sounds glamorous, but says Mr Manoso, containers look the same no matter which country you are in and he rarely sees anything else on his travels.

As boxes swing rhythmically overhead courtesy of the three deafening cranes working the ship, 2nd mate Christopher Anudon explains that he has just one month and 29 days left on board before he can return home. His precision is understandable. He has a 13-month-old baby girl waiting for him who he has not seen since starting his latest six-month contract.

He takes pride in his work and has won the respect of all senior officers on board, but he is realistic about his reasons for being here. “If I could earn the same money onshore I would. This job is not about respect, it’s about the money.”

The benchmark monthly wage for Filipino ratings is about $1,400, although union officials concede the figure doesn’t mean that much when some companies offer half that wage or less. But for those aboard CMA CGM Puget, working for a reputable company like CMA CGM allows crew of all rank the opportunity to earn well above the average wage available to them back home.

Like many of the other crew members, Mr Anudon has been sending most of his wages back home to invest in a small business. He plans to stay at sea for two more years before returning Quirino province where he plans to set up a small holding where he will farm corn.

If everyone’s plans pay off, within the next five years the crew of CMA CGM Puget between them will establish several new smallholdings, as well as a new Cebu taxi service and a chicken farm. They will also see dozens of children put through school and university.

Not one of the crew or officers aboard wants to see their children enter the shipping industry.

“I wouldn’t let them,” says Mr Anudon. “Besides, why would they want to? You spend half your life away from your family. It’s not right.”

Chief mate Dean Dakic agrees. He followed his father into a career at sea, partly because of it was seen as a prestige job back in Croatia and partly, he admits, for the adventure. “It used to be that a career at sea was something that you looked up to,” he says. But looking back, he barely remembers seeing his father when he was growing up, and with children of his own now back home, the adventure and glamour have long since faded.

Two floors underneath the ship’s bridge is the crew’s lounge. The sparse but comfortable room is empty during the frenetic port call as most are on deck going about their jobs. A notice on the wall points out the separate meal times and makes clear that “food will not be served beyond these hours except in an emergency”. Only the CD and DVD players parked next to an empty ashtray marks this out as being the communal hub of the ship.

Despite cook’s strict regime and the limited entertainment options, the crew agree that there is a good social atmosphere onboard, but conducting a social life between shifts is hard.

As on most international vessels there is a noticeable division along the lines of rank and ethnicity. Aboard CMA CGM Puget the majority of lowerranks are Filipino, while Croatians all hold senior positions.

“There is a good group on this ship,” says Mr Manoso. “But for every nine-month contract I will meet new people so it changes. Sometimes I get to work with old friends from other ships, but mostly it is new faces all the time.”

For Mr Dumon, it is hard work and he misses his family, but is happy because this is what he wants to do. “I want to be a captain,” he says.

The fact that he can earn three times what is on offer to him back home in Isabela is an obvious draw, but that is not the whole story. He has heard the experiences of his crew mates and he knows what lies before him if he is ever to make the leap into the captain’s chair. The fact that he still wants to try is a testament both to his own determination and to the conspicuous family atmosphere aboard CMA CGM Puget and the professionalism of all who work on it. The odds, however are stacked against him succeeding. The simple truth is that Filipino crew generally don’t make it to the senior grades.

Data indicates that one officer trainee in 10 fails to complete training. The world fleet is short of 10,000 officers, according to the last edition of the most comprehensive study of the subject available. Broadly speaking, there is a requirement to have one cadet on every ship to maintain seafarer supplies.

At 54, Mr Manoso is the most experienced Filipino on board, and unlike Mr Dumon he is clear that there is no chance he will make the step up an officer rank.

“At the moment I can support my family, but I will stop when my two sons finish their studies. After that I just want a small field to farm on,” he says.

His career at sea has helped his eldest qualify as a computer engineer and allowed his youngest to study Italian. Neither of his two boys has ever considered following their father into finding a job in the shipping sector.


Part 3 - The Master Mariner

Counting $30,000 in unused notes is surprisingly tricky, particularly when you have only slept four hours and it is 6°C in your cabin.

New $100 bills are the problem. They are sticky and unyielding, but on the plus side they are worth more than used currency when paying sweeteners in Middle East ports, especially when they are accompanied by a carton or three of Marlboro cigarettes.

Majski Anic and the 21 crew of CMA CGM Puget arrived at the Port of New Jersey at around midnight last night. It was 0230 hrs by the time Capt Anic had seen the ship’s agent and signed off the most urgent of the documentation, so he decided to catch a few hours sleep before the next parade of visitors started to demand his attention at dawn this morning.

The sticky $30,000 came with a company agent who needs him to sign off on some papers. Queuing up behind him is a class inspector and the engineer who has come with a plan to fix the broken boiler and heat up the freezing cold ship. Outside, the bunkering operation is nearly completed and there is a consignment of food and medical supplies that needs his stamp. But before he has had a chance to finish counting the cash, two humourless officers from Customs and Border jump the queue and an immediate crew inspection is called.

“It’s normally like this, although it’s not usually so bloody cold,” Capt Anic says as he signs yet another piece of paper and hands it to the waiting bosun.

Despite appearances, the pace of a port call in New Jersey is pretty relaxed. There are two CMA CGM vessels alongside at the moment and the priority has shifted away from the CMA CGM Puget, giving Capt Anic nearly 30 hours to prepare for the next leg of the voyage.

“We are busy all the time but this is easy, we have time to spare. When we do China we are looking at staying in the port between six to ten hours absolute maximum, then move on to the next. I’m like a zombie by the end of those trips.”

On a typical China route, CMA CGM Puget can expect at least five port calls in a week amid very heavy traffic often consisting of smaller, and sometimes erratic local vessels. It is a job that requires the full attention of an alert crew, not zombies.

There are, of course, rules governing working hours, but the reality of working on a containership is often very different.

When CMA CGM Puget leaves the Red Sea to pass through the Suez Canal later on this voyage, Capt Anic will face a familiar dilemma. Follow the rules or arrive on schedule.

“We drop anchor at say 2300 hrs, the pilot arrives between 0300 hrs-0500 hrs and I have to be on the bridge during the whole passage until probably 1600 hrs. After that I have two hours navigation to the port of Damietta. What else can I do, turn round and say sorry gentlemen I am very tired? It doesn’t work like that. I will finish at about midnight. That’s around 20 hours on the bridge without sleep. That is the reality”.

If the pace of life at sea is speeding up, then the crews are simultaneously getting smaller.

Just a decade ago, Capt Anic worked aboard smaller ships manned by 35 crew. Now he is in charge of 282 m of vessel with just 22 crew members, and two of them are cadets.

Given a choice he would take at least 24 for a vessel of this size and preferably include an additional ‘sparky’ for the ubiquitous and never ending torrent of paperwork that seems to flow into his office. “I just don’t seem to ever leave this room. The paperwork is a reality of the job these days but there is just too much of it.”

Given a choice to go back and start again, many of the senior crew aboard the CMA CGM Puget tell me they would seriously reconsider a life at sea. But sitting in his office, tired and cold, Capt Anic disagrees. “I’m satisfied. I could change jobs if I wanted, it’s not too late for me, I’m 44. But I enjoy it.”

“For the family, of course, it is not so nice, particularly when you have small kids.”

Capt Anic’s four-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son do not see him for four-month stretches and each time he returns it takes a while to get back into family life. With break periods in between contracts generally only running to about three months for senior officers it can often be very hard to balance family life with the job.

When he met his wife, Capt Anic had already been at sea for several years and as a naval architect herself she was well aware of the pitfalls of being married to seafarer. But understanding it is not the same as liking it. When his son was born Capt Anic was at sea and while he managed to get home for his daughter’s birth, he admits that the job can often be equally tough on those left behind. “It’s by far the worst aspect of our job,” he admits.

Despite the obvious pressures he continues to take pleasure in the work and does not see himself changing anything for several years to come.

“I am happy, if I wasn’t I couldn’t do this. I find this a good company to work for and this is a good ship,” he says.

The fact that CMA CGM Puget is a relativelynew ship also helps, in that everything works, with the current notable exception of the heating system. Working for a management team that understands how a ship needs to be run, however, is vital, says Capt Anic.

“We have a good relationship with the company, particularly with [the head office in] Marseille. It feels like we are a family.”

Despite the rapid growth at CMA CGM over the past few years, efforts have been made to keep in touch with all employees and address staff issues from the bottom up.

It is a policy that appears to have gone down well. Several of the crew and officers aboard CMA CGM Puget have been to France for one of the company’s regular staff meetings with senior management. The fact that they are encouraged to talk frankly about their jobs and what they need has won a great deal of appreciation from the crew.

“It seems that any problem can be sorted out. We will generally be able to find a solution,” says Capt Anic.

When one of the Filipino crew recently had a death in the family it was arranged for him to fly home for the funeral. “You do not get this with every company, they are very human company.”

This attitude also translates into the ship’s galley where food is taken very seriously. “Food is very important to the good running of a ship.”

Inside the galley’s fridges Capt Anic is proud to say that he can find different types of cheese andsalami that he would not even be able to afford at home. The produce they buy is varied and good quality and he is encouraged to make sure that the crew are satisfied with their menus. To him this is indicative of a company who knows how to look after its staff.

“I was working for a German company before where they were very strict on what we could buy. We were told not to buy more expensive options. We always had to look for cheaper food. I like mustard, but there were people looking at our shopping lists saying that this was too expensive. They were even moaning about the water for the table.”

But as a man with $30,000 for expenses sitting in his safe, stocking up on knock-off pots of cheap mustard is presumably the least of his worries.

The paperwork is stacking up once again in his office. The next port of call requires 24-hour advance notice of all cargo manifests and he has not yet finished dealing with the onslaught of forms from this port call. When he does finally arrive everything will need checking all over again and there will be the usual parade of around 30 visitors, officials and inspectors demanding his immediate attention, a signature or perhaps some of the $30,000.

Hopefully, before that happens, the boiler will get fixed and he can get some sleep.

4 comments:

RICHARD TOWER said...

GREATLY ENJOYED THE ARTICLE WORKING ON GETTING MY PAPERWORK TOGETHER NOW PRAYING FOR A FUTURE IN CONTAINERSHIPS

Long said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Enamored of the old freighters and banana boats as a youngster, I longed to be a merchant marine officer, but couldn't pass the physical for the M M Academy in those days for my near sightedness. So I did it the the hard way with a Navy career first. After 26 years learning navigation and seamanship and engineering there I finally crossed the street when I retired and started at the bottom all over again, using my Naval experience only when it proved convenient or necessary, not pushing it, but keeping it in my hip packet, until I finally worked up to taking my first licensing exam.

Now that the old freighters that caught my youthful imagination are for the most part thing of the past, Ive finally made it to top a few years ago now at age 62. The container ships are OK enough. They are comfortable, efficient, but under manned, in today's land based world. I can understand that. It takes a real sailor to leave all the enticements ashore for weeks at a time.

I feel more like a train Conductor than a ship's Master, hitting all the stops but never seeing anything but the depot. The romance of being a sailor and seeing the world I enjoyed in the Navy has given way to endless parade of paperwork, port inspections, officious and haughty young lads calling themselves customs inspectors, and missed birthdays, weddings, reunions and other family events.

The only thing that's the same now as it always was , is my fascination for the sea, the last great wilderness. When they take that away, Ill now I'm ready to tie up for the last time, knowing its been, for all the headaches and heartpangs, a good career.

Chris Birkett said...

Thoroughly enjoyed the article, it was very informative given that I will be on this ship for 3 months engineer training! The food sounds decent, so it's looking good!