Days, Weeks and Months Blurring Together. Inside the Bizarre, Globe-Spanning World of a Merchant Marine.

by Owen James Burke

Screen Shot 2015-01-31 at 9.48.35 AM

Screenshot from Machado’s “Six Months at Sea in the Merchant Marine.”

So what the hell is a Merchant Marine? They’re nothing like they used to be, and the work is a far cry from that which was demanded on the Pequod or Old Ironsides.

The United States Merchant Marine is a fleet of civilian-owned merchant ships transporting cargo and passengers, during peacetime. In time of war, the Merchant Marine can become an auxiliary to the Navy, and although a Merchant Marine is still required to fulfill the duty of protecting one’s ship (most commonly from pirates), they are not called to combat but to deliver military personnel and cargo.

Screen Shot 2015-01-31 at 10.36.40 AM

Screenshot from Machado’s “Six Months at Sea in the Merchant Marine.”

“We sat watches on the stern at night, staring out into the darkness, chain-smoking and hoping that the pirates would leave us alone.”

There are two ways to join the ranks of the Merchant Marine: one is by putting in time and gathering experience to receive an “Able-Bodied Seaman” certification, while the other is to attend maritime school (which more often than not lands you much closer to the wheelhouse.) Filmmaker, artist and Merchant Marine Martin Machado put in 10 years time to earn his Able-Bodied Seamen credentials, and on his very first voyage between New York and Singapore, created a short documentary (see below) about what it was like to live aboard a 900-foot merchant ship for six months, working day in, day out on two watches: 12:00am-4:00am and 12:00pm-4:00pm.

Screen Shot 2015-01-31 at 10.36.24 AM

Screenshot from Machado’s “Six Months at Sea in the Merchant Marine.”

“…and we were suddenly in the Red Sea. We then began preparations to pass continuously through the pirated waters in the Gulf of Aden. Our deckgang rigged firehoses and large metal hooks on the stern, designed so that if a grappling hook was thrown it would catch and drop the apparatus on the unsuspecting pirate.”

The crew members, filmmaker Martin Machado finds on his maiden voyage, are not necessarily the violent and conniving brutes that Jack London served among and later wrote about. These days, your average crewman on a merchant ship is rather a worldly, educated and curious adventurer. The captains, as opposed to the Wolf Larsens and Captain Ahabs of yore, tend to be far more civilized (though you can be sure to find exceptions). Things have changed in the last century. The United States’ Merchant Marine fleet has been reduced from some thousands of ships to perhaps just two-hundred, and civil rights have protected sailors and improved their living and working conditions to some degree, but the work can still be just as grueling.

Screen Shot 2015-01-31 at 9.58.41 AM

Perhaps in some sense there are certain traditions which remain. Standard watch is about the same as it always was, Machado gathers, with the exception of a few navigational electronics and an iPod for entertainment, but for most merchant ships, excluding the few that still operate under sail, other duties often come down to troubleshooting mechanical matters and cleaning oil spills in the engine room as opposed to the mending of sails and rigging.

Of the few hours a sailor might find themselves in port, Machado recalled, “some guys went straight to bars or brothels, some guys took time to be tourists and see sights…but whatever you did, you had to be back on your ship quickly because it did not wait for anybody. And that was the way it was; run after run, days, weeks and months blurring together.”

Watch Machado’s documentary, Six Months at Sea in the Merchant Marine, below — OJB

Facebook Comments