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Embrace technology to take care of your shoreside business

Jul 27, 2016 09:58 AM

My dad was from Minnesota, and he began his career as a coal passer on the Great Lakes, later sailing as an able seaman and boatswain on oceangoing commercial vessels in the 1950s and 1960s. My mother was from Greece and met my dad while he was traveling through Europe. After getting married in Greece, they came over to the U.S., eventually settling in Spokane, Wash. Because my mother did not speak English well and did not understand how to take care of things such as mortgage payments and paying the bills, my dad had to rely on his sister to help take care of his “shoreside business” while he was at sea. Once, however, she forgot to send in the mortgage payments for two months, getting my dad in hot water with the bank. 

Dad’s experiences, and his frustration, were not unusual. Historically, one of the greatest challenges of working as a professional mariner has had nothing to do with knowing how to navigate, tie a bowline or change out a piston. Instead, it’s trying to find the answer to the question: “How can I take care of my shoreside business while I’m away at work?” 

When I began my career in the 1980s, I found out firsthand that even a single merchant mariner could have a hard time taking care of shoreside business. The company port captain called me at my apartment just before Thanksgiving and told me that I would be making my first trip as a second mate on an oceangoing tug the following week. He said, “I expect that it will be a 45- to 50-day trip, and you will fly from Los Angeles to meet the vessel in Lake Charles, La., next Monday.” Barely containing my excitement, I told him that I’d be ready. After the initial euphoria wore off, a wave of anxiety washed over me. “Forty-five to 50 days?” I thought. “How will I make my student loan payments? What do I need to do to cover my phone bill for two months while I’m gone? And how in the world am I going to pay my December and January rent when I’m at sea?” 

I ended up paying all my bills months in advance, cleaning out a big chunk of my savings account in the process. While it was tolerable once, as I had little choice due to time constraints before I had to leave, I decided that I did not want to spend my career having to pay all my bills months in advance before every voyage. On watch one night after leaving Lake Charles, I thought to myself, “This is the 1980s, there has to be a better way.”

For me the first breakthrough in making shoreside business easier to take care of was direct deposit. Instead of having to deposit a paycheck in person, direct deposit put money into an employee’s account automatically, saving time and hassle. For mariners that meant no more paper checks sitting unsigned in a pile of letters/bills until they got home from the vessel weeks or months later. Many companies were embracing the direct deposit of paychecks, but from my experience the maritime industry was slow to adopt it. It wasn’t until the 1990s that I worked for an outfit that offered direct deposit to the mariners on board the vessels. Direct deposit was an improvement over the traditional paper check and was great for putting money into the account with no delay, but getting money out or paying bills was still a process based in the 1950s — one that could be cumbersome and inconvenient for a mariner working away from home.

In 2001, I was the mate on watch aboard a chemical tanker running between Tampa, Fla., and Corpus Christi, Texas, filling in for the permanent mate for a month so he could be home with his young family for the holidays. During a calm night in the Gulf of Mexico, Carlos, the young able seaman on my watch, and I were discussing money and finances. I told him, “Since I got married 16 years ago, my wife takes care of all our shoreside business while I am at sea.” Carlos replied, “You’re a lucky guy to have such a great wife, Kelly, but I’m single, so what works for me is online banking.” 

Carlos told me that his bank had offered online banking for a few years before he decided to take advantage of it. Once he set it up, however, he loved using the technology. With a few clicks of his mouse, Carlos could direct his bank to send payments to different people or businesses as needed. The bank would print out the checks through its “payment processing center” and then ensure that they were mailed to the addressees specified in the amounts requested. He told me, “Online banking is so easy that I’m never going back to writing checks.”

Today there is mobile banking, which I think does online banking one better. No need for a computer terminal to work from. I can use a free smartphone app from my bank to access my account to pay bills, transfer funds and view account balances — 24/7. Setting up payments for one-time purchases or recurring bills such as cable or cellphone plans, is easy. I can even find the closest bank branch and ATM wherever I am in the world.

Thanks to modern technology, the hassles my dad had taking care of shoreside business while he was away at sea are a thing of the past. Today, aside from connectivity issues while on board, there is no reason for commercial mariners to feel isolated and separated from their business ashore. I encourage mariners from all walks of life to embrace this new reality, one where being at sea is no different than sitting behind a desk in an office somewhere — at least the banking part of it anyway… 

Till next time I wish you all smooth sailin’.

Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at captsweeney@professionalmariner.com.

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