Insert Obligatory Joke About Seamen
April 20, 2013 7:32 AM   Subscribe

In older times, ships used to have sailors. These sailors had actual job functions, like adjusting the sails, checking on the rigging, etc. Later on, when ships were steam-powered, there were jobs like "putting coal in the engine" or "maintaining the boiler." However, in modern times, with all the technology in a cargo vessel, it seems to me that sailing it is something that could be done by a single person. So what do all the other sailors do? To put it another way, what are the actual "job functions" and titles of sailors about a modern cargo ship?
posted by wolfdreams01 to Grab Bag (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Merchant Marine job listings
posted by jon1270 at 7:38 AM on April 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

This wikipedia article is informative: United States Merchant Marine.
posted by TheGoodBlood at 7:42 AM on April 20, 2013

Older, but worth reading: Looking for a Ship by John McPhee.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:50 AM on April 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

There is an awful lot of maintenance to be done on a metal vessel floating in a horrifically corrosive miasma of sea and spray, plus moving mechanical parts that barely control a continuous series of explosions...

For better or worse, people from third world countries continue to be better (cheaper) than robots.
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 7:55 AM on April 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Mechanical systems still need maintenance, repair and monitoring. The engineering department will handle servicing the engine plus HVAC, Sewer and water, lights and electricity (some of which is used to power reefers) and all the other ships systems.

You'll need someone to cook for all the other workers (and any passengers, some container vessels rent out cabin space).
posted by Mitheral at 7:58 AM on April 20, 2013

Jeff Greenwald, in his book ""The Size of the World", describes crossing the Pacific as a passenger on a container ship. The captain gives him a tour of the ship, including a visit to the engine room. Yeah, there are a lot of machines that need a lot of maintenance.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 9:36 AM on April 20, 2013

My friend was a merchant marine. Depending on level of experience, a lot of work was cleaning the engine room, re-painting portions of the vessel, etc. A lot of maintenance. Take all of your daily chores or car maintenance and put it into the most rust-producing environment possible, and you get what happens.

The really dangerous stuff, and there's lots, involve docking the vessel. Tying up lines to the dock, or to another craft for towing is actually really dangerous when you factor in the weight of the lines and moving water.

To give you a picture of the level of danger, he was taught how to treat an eye which had come out of its socket, and refused for the rest of his career a promotion which would have made him liable for any deaths at sea (i.e. "management" level positions on a ship).
posted by efalk at 10:28 AM on April 20, 2013

Also, if you're really interested, my friend was with a company that operated essentially as a union, and he gave me the impression that most larger merchant marine companies operated this way. You would get a call for a job assignment, and travel to the port may or may not be covered by the company. You could turn a posting down, but it might reflect badly the next time an opening came up. At the height of his career he worked at sea about 6 months out of the year and made the equivalent of $100/hour ($50/hour, but paid for two days for each day worked). His specialty was working on tugs that dealt with (modern) shipwrecks.
posted by efalk at 10:38 AM on April 20, 2013

Given their size, crews are pretty small. If you compared it to the facilities maintenance staff of a large building, I suspect the numbers would not be as far apart as you might think, especially when you figure in that a ship operates in an extremely hostile environment.

From a historical perspective, you may also be surprised by the small size of the crews of wind powered merchant ships -- they just weren't that large; the large crews were on naval ships, merchant ships got by with the barest minimum. When small steam donkey engines were developed for the really heavy work that had formerly needed strong backs at the capstan (weighing anchor, raising yards and so on) crews shrank further.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 10:56 AM on April 20, 2013

It's a little different because there are so many jobs unrelated to the ship itself involved, but this documentary about life on an aircraft carrier from PBS is available in full on their website. They still show you a lot of what is involved in the day-to-day work of running the ship. And it's just a fascinating documentary.
posted by theuninvitedguest at 11:47 AM on April 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

First of all, the crews work in shifts, so there have to be two or three times as many men as are needed at any instant to operate the ship. Second of all, some of the extra men are there for emergencies. Ships routinely carry more crew than absolutely necessary so as to have extra capacity when things go sour.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:13 PM on April 20, 2013

Don't forget standing watch. Smaller vessels and wooden ships don't show up well on radar, so you need eyes scanning the horizon all the time. Falling asleep or getting drunk or otherwise failing to stand your watch is a big, big deal.

Also, the pragmatic answer to your question is, often there aren't a lot of people on the ship. Especially in the merchant marine, there's a tendency to understaff ships. I had a conversation with an able seaman recently who told me stories of piloting his ship for thirty hours straight because there was no relief available.
posted by d. z. wang at 3:20 PM on April 20, 2013

Oh, also, not all the ships sailing around today are manufactured to modern standards and with all the modern automation. You can keep a ship going for decades, especially if you flag it at some shady place that doesn't take its safety inspections too seriously. (Or, if you only sail it in fresh water: the oldest cargo ship on the Great Lakes was launched in 1912.) This able seaman I was talking to had just come off a coal-fired steamship. I didn't even know such things still sailed.
posted by d. z. wang at 4:37 PM on April 20, 2013

Another Wikipedia page: Seafarer's professions and ranks.

I'm not sure whether you're interested in day-to-day life on ship, but I'll throw in this random link I found, a free e-book: A Guide to Professional and Personal Well-Being of Seafarers on Ships.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:42 PM on April 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

One other thing to keep in mind is that ships don't generally get sent to a workshop somewhere to get their engines etc serviced [unless there's a major malfunction]. All of the routine servicing is done without taking the ship out of service - i.e. either while running or while in port.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 8:44 PM on April 22, 2013

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