When looking for work, consider the roads less traveled

Jun 18, 2012 12:07 PM

At a local coffee shop I recently met with Capt. Bill Tinker, a colleague from the Northwest who holds a 1600-ton master's ticket and has many years on commercial vessels. He asked if I wanted to see some pictures from his last job. Imagine my surprise when the first one he showed me had him posing with the famous Hollywood actor Kevin Bacon.

"What's up with this, Bill?" I asked. He replied, "I used to run a 185-foot yacht on charters in Alaska. I knew the boat inside and out, so when they decided to use the yacht in the X-Men movie, they called me." While he was showing me the photos I thought to myself, "Pretty cool gig captain to the stars."

For mariners who are looking for temporary or seasonal employment, or a full-time position but not with a huge impersonal company, there may be a niche job that fits their needs. Bill's working for Hollywood is what I call a temporary maritime niche job, one that can best be described as a one-shot deal. Most temporary niche jobs are not quite as glamorous as being a captain to the stars, but nonetheless can provide excellent opportunities for interested professionals.

I sailed with Eric, an able seaman from the Seattle area who loved adventure — and found it at work. He told me that one of the high points of his maritime career came when he got a temporary niche job as part of the crew on a ship being sold for scrap. This was a one-shot deal; a trip from the United States to India that lasted 43 days. With a big smile on his face, he recalled the sound and the feel of the ship going aground at the breaking yard. Eric related how, within minutes of running up in the shallows, seemingly hundreds of Indian workers swarmed aboard and began tearing down the ship — even before the crew had time to get paid off, grab their gear, and leave.

Some niche work offers regular seasonal employment that can keep you busy for months as well. Several years ago I was at the Odyssey Maritime Discovery Center, a museum in Seattle, for a book signing and struck up a conversation with a young mariner and his wife who had recently arrived in the Northwest from Utah. I assumed that he had traveled out west to find a job with one of the large maritime companies, but the young man replied, "No, we're just on vacation. I sail on my 100-ton master's license as captain of a 65-foot dinner cruise boat that works on the Great Salt Lake during the summer." Until that day, I had never thought of Utah's Great Salt Lake as a place where a commercial mariner could find work.

Another time I met the captain of a boat that also runs just during the summer, shuttling visitors on Diablo Lake during a tour of a Seattle City Light hydroelectric dam in the Cascade Mountains. He was retired from tugs, but wanted to make a few extra dollars. He told me, "This is a great job for a retired guy like me. The mountains are beautiful, the weather is much better than the Gulf of Alaska and I enjoy talking to people."

Of course, not all niche work is temporary or seasonal — some of it offers the prospect of full-time employment. Having morning coffee with my wife on the porch of the vacation rental we leased at a resort on Lake Chelan in northern Washington, we watched as the 65-foot, 150-passenger, high-speed catamaran Lady Express went by. Making a 110-mile round-trip each day, the boat is operated by licensed masters (certified by the U.S. Coast Guard and/or the state of Washington) and plies the waters carrying passengers and freight on Lake Chelan year-round. Watching it go by, I thought about how working full-time on the lake and living in that beautiful mountain/desert setting could be a dream job for many commercial mariners.

Out here in Puget Sound, Marty, my old schoolmate from the California Maritime Academy has raised his family working what I might consider the perfect full-time niche job. After graduation over 20 years ago, like many of us, Marty went the standard route, getting hired by a big West Coast towing company. Wanting to spend more time with his family, he found a job as master of an 81-foot landing craft that operates throughout the San Juan Islands and Puget Sound. With the capacity for around 90 tons of cargo, Henry Island delivers building supplies, fuel and whatever the boat can carry to homeowners and businesses. The last time I spoke with Marty, he was bringing a truckload of cement to a job site on Lopez Island. He told me how much he enjoys working as a commercial mariner every day — and yet gets home every night to his wife and kids.

In these tough economic times, don't assume that you have to go the standard route when looking for a job — it doesn't pay to overlook any potential opportunity. Over the years I have been amazed at how many specialized jobs there are in the maritime industry. Whatever your circumstances, it is important to keep an open mind. To paraphrase the famous poet Robert Frost, don't be afraid to take the path less traveled — there might be a niche job out there that is just right for you.

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.

Add your comment:
Edit Module