Working at sea.
March 9, 2006 8:55 PM   Subscribe

Working in international shipping (sea-side). How do you get into it? Where do you start?

I have been entertaining the idea of working on a container ship of some kind, which would do international shipping. Has anyone had a similar job?

What do you have to do? Do I have to go to school for this specifically, and how much schooling does it take to get a menial job? I will hold a bachelors degree shortly in a completely unrelated field.

Specifically for people who have had a job at sea, what was it like? Did it satisy your wanderlust? I ask because I'm a loner of sorts, but I have good interpersonal skills. I can take orders and hate being in one place for too long. I feel claustrophobic if I'm not moving. It has been a struggle staying at the same school long enough to finish my degree. I've never gotten sea-sick over 3 seperate weeks at sea, sometimes with harsh weather.
posted by zhivota to Work & Money (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I just read a book on this, Looking for a Ship by John McPhee. The book is about ten years old, but I can't imagine the jobs situation has gotten better since then, since it was pretty horribly dire then. Would be worth reading.
posted by smackfu at 9:05 PM on March 9, 2006 [1 favorite]

The Seafarers International Union runs a program in which, for about $1,500 (including room, board, clothing, and equipment) you are trained as an apprentice over a fairly short time (I believe it's about 1-2 months) and guaranteed a job when you get out. It will be a fairly bottom-rung job, and if you have background which might qualify you for a better one (as an engineer on-board, for example) you'd be well advised to take advantage of it, but if not, it doesn't seem to me to be too bad a deal. (I haven't been through the program and don't know anyone who has, but was interested a few years back and looked into it.)
posted by IshmaelGraves at 9:15 PM on March 9, 2006

I knew lots of guys in Houston who got jobs on ships like this with little or no training. A lot of the jobs require you to be away from home for long periods of time, and (though it may not be the case as much today) many of the people who do this job are loner types — guys without bank accounts or guys with records who couldn't get jobs elsewhere. There are also a lot of people who genuinely enjoy traveling or working with machinery.

My husband got a mechanical engineering degree from California Maritime, and worked in shipping for various oil companies for many years and loved it. He had the choice of doing a two-year degree or a four-year degree and the four-year degree has allowed him to move out of shipping into a stable desk job, which is nice because he got his fill of travel and was ready to settle down.

The good thing about going to a martime academy is that you literally live on the ship while you get your education, and it does open up more options, especially salary-wise, than an apprenticeship.

It may just be because my husband is in that business, but most of the people we know who do this work for oil companies, not for shipping companies, per se.
posted by Brittanie at 9:40 PM on March 9, 2006

I might also add that even though my husband now works a desk job, that job has allowed us to move to Korea, together, and will give us just as much oppotunity to travel the world together as he would have had alone while working on the ships.
posted by Brittanie at 9:42 PM on March 9, 2006

I've worked and lived at sea quite a bit. It can be mindblowingly boring but it can be utterly amazing too. I miss it all the time and think of going back.

Call the shipping companies or look at the websites and you should be able to get a low rung crew job with little or no training to start with. These days ships have small crews and to advance you will need first an AB (able seaman) qualification then others. Trampers will have the lowest requirements, then probably tankers, then big container ships. Be warned you might end up as the cooks assistant or something equally menial and hard. Most jobs are primarily indoors and hanging out on the deck admiring the view is generally discouraged, especially for green crew. Also most boats are run on a slightly tighter chain of command than the army and some less than rational people work on them. Taking orders is an important skill to have. As for wanderlust, if you love the sea you will be happy but not all the boats allow their crew ashore when in port so ask about this if it's important to you. The reasons for this will become clear if and when you are allowed ashore.

Don't worry about getting seasick, everyone gets seasick evantually and they make some pretty good drugs for it these days.

Bring an ipod. And War and Peace. Crime and Punishment too.
posted by fshgrl at 10:37 PM on March 9, 2006

Response by poster: fshgrl: So you worked on ships where you rarely if ever went outside, and did not get to get off at port? (If I understand correctly) What made it worthwhile?
posted by zhivota at 11:11 PM on March 9, 2006

No, I almost always got to do whatever I wanted because I was independant (not a regular crew member). There are people like that on a lot of boats most of the time: inspectors, biologists, pilots, passengers, buyers agents, med crew and the like. Some boats allow the crew full shore privileges, others treat them like virtual prisoners, others try to be fair while avoiding trouble. People do fall off the deck a lot, and do get into trouble in town so it's not unwarranted. All I'm saying is be sure you know what you're signing up for. It IS a job, not a romantic adventure.

What makes it worth it is seeing the ocean in all its variations, the Northern Lights like you can't even imagine, seeing whales form a bubble curtain to catch fish right by the boat, watching the most amazing sunsets and sunrises you will ever see, getting tons of time off with money in your pocket and being able to say "I was out this one time in 30 foot seas", arriving places by boat (the best way) being away from civilization for long stretches and meeting the weirdest people from all over. Also you get caught up on all the movies made in the entire world in the last decade or two.
posted by fshgrl at 11:40 PM on March 9, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks a lot fshgirl for the information, I was baiting you a bit there. I understand that it is a job, but I don't want to sign up to basically be in prison for 8 months straight, that's for certain.

Your personal experience is invaluable. To everyone else who has answered so far, thanks a lot as well.

smackfu, I am getting that book on interlibrary loan ASAP.

IshmaelGraves, I definitely bookmarked that program and will consider it as an option.

Brittanie did your husband work in shipping at all before he got that degree?
posted by zhivota at 1:35 AM on March 10, 2006

15 years at sea - here. I have worked in marine related industries for 30 years. I see you live in the Great lakes area. I suggest you get yourself down to the nearest commercial port and talk to some people involved in the business or ring up your local coastguard maybe to find out where your local maritime schools are. The US flagged fleet is shrinking. Other flag fleets are using crew pools from cheaper countries, i.e Phillipines, Baltic states Ukraine etc. Like everthing, if you have a skill which is relevant it would help. Professional seagoing is getting more professional, the more courses you have attended the better - First Aid, Fire Fighting, Sea Survival, Able Seamanship etc.
Another entry into the Marine world is through Marine Engineering; qualified personnel are always wanted.
It can be a tough life, your messmates will quite likely not be intellectuals! The conditions will be basic and boredom can or might be a problem after awhile. Coastal working vessels have more port calls, however these port calls are for cargo loading and discharge. The Merchant Navy is not a glorified holiday, remember that ships work 24 hours a day and somebody has to be up and about. However approaching a foreign port from the sea is an experiance never forgotten. Yes you can smell the land!.
posted by adamvasco at 9:38 AM on March 10, 2006

I don't want to sign up to basically be in prison for 8 months straight

In a lot of ways, that's what you're going to do. I'd do a couple of trips before investing in any kind of training to make sure you can handle it.
posted by fshgrl at 6:36 PM on March 10, 2006

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