Great Land

A Seaman's Life
An ocean-going freighter is one of the cheapest and most popular means of transporting freight around this planet. It is because of ships, that Americans are able to enjoy imported goods at reasonable prices, and to export goods competitively. From automobiles, to oil, to groceries, it is all moved across our oceans, between countries and - in the case of TOTE - between our United States.

TOTE runs three ships between Seattle, Washington and Anchorage, Alaska, delivering groceries, household goods, cars, trucks and even heavy equipment to our 49th state each week. Today's Alaskan (at least in the larger cities) enjoys similar retail resources as do people in the "lower 48" and can shop from major department stores and supermarkets. But this would not be possible without ships, and Alaskans would have a much harder life.

This trip, called a "run", is fairly routine as ship runs go, lasting only 7 days, round trip. Some crewmen live in Washington state and get to spend a few hours each week with their families. Most live in other parts of the U.S. and enjoy the rotation of equal time on land and at sea (10 weeks, to 4 months or longer.) Some are from other countries, and they work for a year or so and spend a year off with their families. Most of the crew is union, so they work on different ships through the years.

The three TOTE ships run on steam, which is created from water, by burning a very low grade of fuel unacceptable for most other uses. The company is designing two larger ships, which will run on electric motors powered by diesel engines. These will take four years to build, and TOTE is taking a great risk, hoping that the need for tomatoes, toys and trucks stays strong up there.

Though TOTE has plenty of female employees, no women work on the vessels - I understand there are a few woman officers in the industry. The crews seemed to be fairly young, and I was told that, during the past few decades many of the older seamen have retired. The official title of the captains I met, is "Master" though I never had the weird pleasure of hearing a crewman refer to them as such. It is the ranking they have achieved with the U.S. Coast Guard.

After a healthy shakedown in the past few decades, life at sea has become more professional, according to this crew. As in most industries, TOTE ships now have policies on smoking, drinking, drugs and harassment. It is still a hard life, though; living in a house that pitches and yaws like a carnival ride, being around steel all day and night, and missing your family for weeks on end. Technology has helped a little; VCRs provide some entertainment, and cell phones can give you a few hours of conversation on the way to and from ports.

Merchant mariners sometimes get "institutionalized" while at sea, because they have very little to think or worry about, other than their jobs. Things like house and car payments and maintenance are a distant concern. There is no commute to work each day, no family crisis to address in the evenings, and you can spend your time off as you please. Your linens are laundered for you, your meals are prepared, a weight room is available to you for free, and for meditation, there is miles and miles of ocean to stare at. This might be why Chief Mate Kirk Piper refers to seamen as "escape artists."

The way they eat on these ships, you'd think you were on a pleasure cruise. The crew gets "three hots and a cot" but I could have had enough food in one day, to last me a week on the road. It is true that ship morale starts in the galley, and a bad steward can make life at sea a real Hell, because you can't just order out for pizza.

I was very fortunate to work with TOTE. They have a good reputation in the industry, and their employees, both on the ships and in the offices, enjoy working there. It was a great pleasure riding with both crews, and I appreciate their assistance with True America.

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