Mariner’s notebook—Reality check

Sep 22, 2008 12:00 AM

We can all empathize with Captain Kelly Sweeney about his bureaucratic TWIC experience. Anyone dealing with a large organization can tell tales of similar frustration. As a Canadian, I take umbrage with his statement about foreign sailors being held to a lower standard of scrutiny. As a former senior officer on cruise ships working out of Tampa, Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and Seattle, I can tell your readers what foreign sailors experience.

We all have been fingerprinted in our home countries and by the US Department of Homeland Security on arrival, had criminal record checks, security screening and police documentation from our home countries. These are conditions of employment.

With ID pass displayed, each time we wish to go ashore we stand in line waiting for arbitrary _ hour periods. Each time up and down the crew gangway, we have our personal possessions, bags and shoes x-rayed. The manner in which we are treated is disrespectful and abusive. DHS officials swear and holler threats at crew about sending them home for any minor infraction. The officials in Ft. Lauderdale and Miami are the worst. No US citizen would tolerate their behaviour nor should a guest be required to. Visiting any crew companionway on a Saturday or Sunday would show your readers what goes on. Crew racial and/or religious profiling and restrictions are a common occurrence.

On the cruise ships, Royal Caribbean and Princess, our security officers were all former career Royal Marine Commando, Gurkhas, or other similar special forces service personnel. Seldom did the DHS officials ask of their experience.

Once another senior officer, Scandinavian, and I were to take a fire command course in Ft. Lauderdale at the end of a three-month contract. We were required to surrender our passports as a security condition in case we attempted to become illegal aliens. On the evening we finished our course we were summoned to Miami to get our passports back.  Both our flights went out early the next day so we drove to the DHS office and waited a prolonged period before we were met. The uniformed official barked out my shipmate’s last name from his office. I overheard the exchange. The official wanted to be sure that my colleague was going to catch his flight home the next day and not look for work.  Johann responded by saying that he came from a country with a much higher standard of living than the US and nothing could compel him to stay.  

My turn followed with an identical summons. After queries as to my homeward intentions, I too was returned my passport. At this point I informed the DHS official that if my passport had not been returned I would simply have driven my rental car home. Upon leaving the official’s office we noted a DHS poster that described their service as “professional and courteous.”  My colleague wondered aloud when they would start behaving accordingly to guest mariners.

We were in fact “lucky” in our treatment. Most often ships’ crews are held in a detention centre till their flights home on the day they sign off. This can last for many hours in what amounts to a close arrest.

In this world after September 11 we are all aware of the risks. Homeland security personnel do little to foster international co-operation. I no longer work in the cruise industry out of US ports and probably never will again. However, I do hope that Captain Sweeney and the US Homeland Security personnel will come to appreciate that there has long been a tradition of respect and mutual support among mariners that should be maintained in the interest of world trade and harmony.

Don Newell
Master, Near Coastal
Chief Mate, Foreign Going

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