What do modern sailors do when their ship is docked?
January 20, 2013 7:01 PM   Subscribe

Do the crews of ships such as container and bulk good carriers leave the ship and get to see the place they are visiting? If not, why not? General descriptions of the lives of modern seafarers that illuminate this question are more than welcome.

This question has come about from a discussion between my partner and I. We live in a small town with a big port but never see the crews from the boats in town. We are both curious as to why.
posted by deadwax to Travel & Transportation (19 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Crew contracts generally call for ten months or more service at modest wage rates and few benefits. For those ten months, the seafarer works and lives in virtual isolation in the middle of the ocean. For the brief time that his ship is in port, the seafarer will be regarded as a security risk and often denied shore leave. In those ten months, he will miss his family desperately. He will have no television and daily newspapers. He’ll run out of toothpaste and other necessities, and he will barely have any time or opportunity to shop, to see a dentist or even to call home. - source
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:05 PM on January 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

This varies wildly by ship type and country of origin. Like ThePinkSuperhero, container ship crews are often poorly paid southeast Asians who have employers that worry about them running off in the wealthier countries where they deliver their cargo (because incidents like this happened, especially after accidents at sea where crew might fear jail time). Also these big ships have small crews, only about a dozen people to man a container ship, so it's not like you'd see hundreds of men in uniform about town, even if they were visiting.

But the same isn't true of say, US Coast Guard personnel.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 7:14 PM on January 20, 2013

The life of a modern seafarer tends to involved a lot of sitting anchored just offshore staring at towns you will never see. Dock time is scheduled to the minute at busy ports and the crew is needed to load and offload and do maintenance, take on fuel and water and receive supplies while the boat is tied up. Then you go back and sit on anchor.

Even if the boat stays tied up and there is no work to do my experience the crew is typically not allowed off a commercial ship or maybe the dock, particularly if they are foreign nationals or likely to get into trouble. The ships officers keep the crews passports in a safe for the duration of the trip so no one is going anywhere without them. Even local fishermen aren't allowed off the boat half the time because they all go and get drunk and do stupid shit and then the captain has to deal with it.

Officers are far more likely to be allowed ashore and the cook and engineer may bring a couple people with them to help buy stuff or carry it. Again for a foreign flagged ship anyone who goes ashore has to do the whole customs thing, this experience varies widely from a serious guardhouse at the end of the dock you need papers to get past (commercial ports) to "go find some guy in a blue building thattaway.." (sailing ports). Even the most relaxed beach side cabana dock agent is going to get shirty if you are missing someone from the crew manifest though (the captain brings all the passports, crew stays aboard). Commercial ships usually just have stuff brought to them to avoid the hassle. And also to avoid their crews deciding to stay in a new exciting country and not returning to the boat.

Non commercial boats like Coast Guard, military boats, research boats and many fishing boats often allow the crew ashore for a short period of time, like 12-24 hours. They use this time to buy things like shampoo and contact lenses and drink themselves silly generally, not sightsee.
posted by fshgrl at 7:21 PM on January 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

I live in a port city and used to work at a hotel that, on a day to day basis, was usually filled about 70% with sailer's from various ships in port who were waiting to depart, so at least some of them must get off the boat.
posted by Cosine at 7:41 PM on January 20, 2013

I've met crews off of commercial ships ashore, but never in a US port. A few places down in the Caribbean I've seen guys who were clearly from ships in port at local bars. Granted it's a small sample size but it was in retrospect the places that had pretty relaxed attitudes towards port security. My guess is that influenced their ability to get out of the port itself; in the US there are a bunch of post-9/11 security hassles that presumably discourage crews from getting out of the secure areas.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:51 PM on January 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I worked as a longshoreman at one point and most crews (which by and large were from developing countries) stayed aboard, as I recollect. I did go drinking with a Russian crew once; it was the 1989 shipping season and the USSR was falling apart, so things may have been a little lax.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:56 PM on January 20, 2013

My office is in the Halifax Nova Scotia seaport - container ships, cruise ships for 3/4s of the year, along with grain ships from the Great Lakes- and I often see ship crew members. They use the free wifi at the coffee shop and in the farmer's market (sitting outside on the sidewalk with their laptops if it's after hours), they load up on snack food and asian food at the big supermarket nearby (and they know the secret shortcut under the train station to get there), and drink and play pool at the pubs around the port perimeter. It doesn't seem that there would need to be any sort of restriction on what they do here, apart from time, but then there's really not a whole lot to do or see in Halifax, compared with the other places they must visit on their shipping routes.
posted by Flashman at 8:13 PM on January 20, 2013

If you're interested in this sort of thing, check out Francisco Goldman's The Ordinary Seaman. Fifteen men are hired from Latin America to crew a ship docked in Brooklyn, but the ship isn't seaworthy and the men are stranded, unable to go ashore.
posted by hydrophonic at 8:36 PM on January 20, 2013

Previously On MetaFilter
posted by jason's_planet at 9:11 PM on January 20, 2013

I live in a port city and used to work at a hotel that, on a day to day basis, was usually filled about 70% with sailer's from various ships in port who were waiting to depart, so at least some of them must get off the boat.

They might have been crew changes flying in and out (which is awesome as you get to stay a hotel and do stuff in town). Or skilled crew, who are treated quite differently than regular crew: officers, sonar folks for a seismic boat or riggers on a drill ship. Or all the same nationality as the country you are in. Having said that they are still seldom in a hotel for fun, I have friends who are officers and specialty folks that rarely go ashore except to crew change.

Also things seem to be fairly different in ports where most of the crew can legally be, like in US Gulf ports with US crews on oil industry ships, the EU where a lot of crew are merchant marine and hold EU passports or Canadian/ US cargo routes where defection is not an issue. But most crews on the Pacific cargo trampers and container ships don't get off the boat in my experience.

I have met Russian crews from small cargo ships out and about several times. They are enormously fun.
posted by fshgrl at 9:32 PM on January 20, 2013

I forgot about tugs. Tugs get to do whatever they want to usually because they are kind of rockstars. Plus they spend a lot of time in port and on call and a big company will often have multiple boats and crews available at a location so they might actually be able to go take a weekend in a hotel and chill. Most crew are working all the time though.
posted by fshgrl at 9:38 PM on January 20, 2013

Cargo ship crews from countries like India, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and others pretty much all need a visitor's visa to disembark in the US or Canada, so they stay on the ship.
posted by thewalrus at 10:08 PM on January 20, 2013

I worked at a large movie theatre way out of town (if you build it, they will come etc). It was next to a huge Toyota shipping port. About once a month a massive cargo ship would dock late in the evening and our theatre lobby would be full of 8 to 20 mostly SE Asian men buying our expensive fast food and snacks but mostly spending hours on the payphones. There was not much else in the area and around 1 when we closed the men would leave and by morning the acres of parking lots around us would be filled with new cars and the ship would be gone.

The men were always polite, spoke little English and until this post I never considered that they might need a visa or customs clearance but the dock must have had some facility for this.
posted by saradarlin at 11:54 PM on January 20, 2013

I used to live near Portsmouth, UK - the home of the British Navy. Whenever an American aircraft carrier visited, it always used to make me smile how the local paper would report the city pubs, clubs, restaurants (and surely police too) 'gearing up' for an influx of 5 or 6,000 young people (with pay checks to spend).

Then, in true British style, once they'd gone we'd wonder if we'd shown them a good enough time.
posted by atlantica at 5:11 AM on January 21, 2013 [4 favorites]

There was a fairly lengthy and very vivid description of this in the recent Keith Gessen piece in the New Yorker, about the first northern crossing over Russian to China. (Mmm, ice melting.) You should look it up.

The basic gist was: for the cargo ship crew, it was often onerous to deal with international security and some of them didn't bother to leave the ship at all. This seems to vary much country by country. (They were docking in China, which we can safely assume falls on the more onerous side of things.)

That being said there was also lots of talk about the "purchasing of girls" in different countries, which was pretty gross, but also struck me as, I guess, "time-honored."
posted by RJ Reynolds at 6:05 AM on January 21, 2013

I was going to mention the New Yorker article as well. He mentioned how most ship's crews were not allowed off in the US any longer for security concerns. He also mentioned how boring it was at sea.

The country of the hiring of girls was in Thailand. He noted that many ships were not allowed even to dock until they had made arrangements for the girls, a floating bar, etc to pull up to their ship. He said that the crew looked forward to calls in Thailand, and that you could hire a girl for company and in the morning she would even iron your shirt, all for about $30 a day. That said, it wasn't clear that the sailors were actually leaving the ship and going into Thailand proper.

I had the same impression as RJR above - I would have shared the article more widely with my colleagues but for this rather unsavoury coda, which didn't have a lot to do with the main and very interesting story about coming from Russia to Asia "over the top" through the ice.
posted by sagwalla at 7:06 AM on January 21, 2013

We live in a small town with a big port but never see the crews from the boats in town. We are both curious as to why.
I have worked frequently in the last 20 years in one particular Commercial Port and have visited many others.
The answer to your question is mainly economics.
Most crew persons of commercial cargo vessels are from much poorer second / third world countries. The ethos of jolly jack ashore has definitely changed over the years but if you are around when a warship comes in you will notice action especially as the hookers get inter city flights to be there!
As mentioned above, immigration laws may restrict the issuing of shore passes.
Your country is expensive to most crews who are on low wages by your standards but reasonable pay by theirs. Crews tend to head not so much to bars these days as to the mall or internet cafe.
Many commercial ports are now outside the downtown city areas. Public transport is normally not so good and Taxis eat into smaller paychecks. Hands don´t get paid in cash any longer so the ready money for bars and good low living isn´t so easy, though Captain´s do sub the crews on request having received local currency from the Ship´s agent.
Work on ship doen´t stop when they get into port, in fact it may increase due to receiving of spares, cargo operations, and specialist technichians on board among other things.
Port Calls / turn rounds are also faster. As a ship owner a vessel makes you money when it is at sea and costs you money when it is in Port.
Tankers Gas, Oil and Chemical hardly touch shore these days but load and discharge at offshore terminals. Container ships and RoRo vessels work round the clock and are in / out in 24 hrs. General cargo is a bit slower but 24 hr cargo working is not uncommon.
posted by adamvasco at 8:03 AM on January 21, 2013

Back in the old days, the early 1980s, I met cityboy on a neighboring barstool in my port city. He was a radio officer on a smallish British-owned Panamanian flagged Eastern-European-crewed cargo ship, with a route between my East Coast city and Finland. He returned every 6 weeks or so for a few months and always had about 5 days in port so we could actually, you know, get to know each other. Years of separation followed, but we eventually ended up in the same city and married.

With the shell game of ship-owners and cargo-wranglers he once spent 4 months off the coast of Argentina while the suits found suitable cargo for his refrigerated cargo freighter, and he went on shore as frequently as he wished. He had a grand time, and often lots of time, depending on the cargo-wranglers - in many, many ports, including Cuba, Borneo, and Yokahama.

Alas, the days of long port stays - or any port stays - are gone, along with his previous profession. No cargo ships require radio officers any longer. GPS has rendered them as obsolete as sextant-using captains, and Morse code has been abandoned. It's now entirely automated and crews are much smaller on container vessels. I do love to hear him recount the story of the time he sent SOS after SOS during a terrifying storm in the North Sea - his captain had misjudged the storm's speed - only to hear the Coast Guard in Halifax tell them the storm was so fierce there was nothing they could do, but they would listen for silence and notify the shipping line of their loss at sea. Fortunately, they made it out alive, though the cargo took on water and was ruined. Several crew members abandoned their contracts after that, necessitating more time in port while replacement crewmembers were flown in.

His friends who took to the sea have mostly left, as the prospect of 9 or 10 months at sea without once going ashore is less and less attractive. Crews now are far more often from less affluent developing countries.
posted by citygirl at 9:21 AM on January 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

My brother was a mess-boy 30 years ago, when the current reality was beginning to happen, while there were still a lot of the old.
They were aloud to go ashore within the 24 time-frame someone mentioned above (sometimes a little more, but not often), but it was discouraged for several layers of safety-reasons. Obviously, their personal safety. But also the risk of alerting pirates to their cargo, and risks related to political unrest - including hostage-taking.
Lets just say, he did't choose a sailing career
posted by mumimor at 10:46 AM on January 21, 2013

« Older Sports metaphors for the unsporty   |   help me flirt in a professional setting Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.