Tips for a trouble-free travel day

My wife and I pulled up at the ferry terminal passenger drop off area and parked our truck. I grabbed my bags and the lunch she made me for the trip, and after a short hug and kiss, headed down to board the 0440 ferry. A few minutes later the ship got underway, and the island faded in our wake. My travel day had begun.

After the ferry trip came the shuttle ride to SeaTac airport; a cross-country flight to Boston; cab ride from Boston airport to the bus terminal; and two bus trips before I finally ended up at the Martha’s Vineyard Ferry Terminal. I got off the bus and then walked three blocks to where my vessel was docked, an oceanographic ship I had been hired to be the chief mate on for the next three months. Coming up the gangway I looked at my watch — the commute to the ship had taken 14 hours.

Travel day, otherwise known as the mariner’s commute, is the day going to or coming from the vessel. Depending upon the schedule there can be over 1500 travel days during a merchant mariner’s career, a full four years’ worth of time spent commuting to and from the job. There are as many versions of travel day as there are mariners. Sometimes it’s a short commute like the two-hour drive my friend Noah, who is master on a large ferry, makes every few days. Often it is closer to the 18-20 hour commute my old friend and classmate Davey, a deck officer on a product tanker running in the Far East, makes every time he joins the ship.

Every merchant mariner has no choice but to deal with travel day, and failure to successfully navigate the commute can have serious career impacts. Missing the vessel will, at the very least, mean losing out on the job. Depending on the employer, it can also result in getting fired. In extreme cases, mariners missing the ship can be reported for negligence per 46 CFR 11501, resulting in a monetary fine to cover the cost of sending out a replacement crew member. The good news is, from my experience, that there are some “tried and true” ways to make the commute go more smoothly and successfully.

I used to wait until the last minute to get packed, wanting to savor as much of my vacation as possible. After way too many harried trips to the store the night before heading to work, to pick up stuff I had overlooked or forgotten, my wife convinced me that to reduce both her stress and mine things needed to change. So, I began to pack for the next job right after I came home from the last one. That gave me plenty of time to buy any new work clothes or footwear, personal gear, and even the dental floss I’d always forget. It meant no more last-minute mad dashes to the store. Also, being packed and ready makes it easier to “go with the flow” whenever the company changes your travel itinerary — something that happens regularly.

Another piece of advice is to always make sure that you carry documents such as your merchant mariner credential (MMC), passport, and Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) card in a document holder on your person or in your carry-on bag. I got my first second mate job after the scheduled second mate flew from Texas to join the ship in Los Angeles the day we were supposed to leave for Japan. He made it okay, but unfortunately for him, his checked bag didn’t. Because his license and documents were packed in his checked bag he couldn’t sign aboard the ship, so the captain turned to me and said, “You’ve got your second mate license here. The job is yours.” The other guy went home unemployed.

Early in my career working for a large West Coast towing company based in Long Beach, Calif., I commuted by car, a Plymouth Champ I admittedly had not taken care of when I was in school. Crew change happened at noon, so I left my apartment at 1030 to make sure that I had plenty of time. Turning the key, the engine sputtered, shook, and then died. Numerous attempts to restart it failed. Frantically, I ran back into the apartment and called a taxi. Luckily, I had plenty of cash for the fare, as I always had a couple hundred dollars with me on travel day, just in case. I offered the driver an extra $20 if we got to the dock before noon, and made it with five minutes to spare. Whether it’s a dependable car for a local commute, airport shuttles and taxis, or rides from family and friends, transportation to get you where you need to go is essential for a trouble-free travel day. So is a backup plan in case things go awry.

Another caveat is to make sure that you have the contact info for the ship, the terminal where it is berthed, and if at a foreign port the agent, in case there is a problem at the destination airport. I got a job on a ship working in Panama once, and arrived at Panama International Airport in Balboa around 2100, along with a few other joining crew members. No one was there to meet us like they were supposed to, and none of us had the number of the agent, the vessel, or the captain. We wandered around the airport aimlessly, paid some Panamanian “entrance fee” we found out later we didn’t need to, and then sat on the sidewalk near the dark, poorly lit passenger drop off/pick up area looking like vagrants until the driver hired by the agent finally showed up. An experience I don’t wish on anyone.

Considering the amount of time mariners spend traveling between home and the vessels they work on in their career, it’s important to remember that when it comes to travel day – there is “pain” and “avoidable pain.” You can’t avoid the emotional pain of separation from loved ones, home, and friends, nor the “pain-in-the-neck” hassles generally associated with travel. However, by being proactive you can make sure that your travel day goes as smoothly as possible.

Till next time I wish you all smooth sailin.’

Capt. Kelly Sweeney holds the license of master (oceans, any gross tons) and has held a master of towing vessels (oceans) license as well. He has sailed on more than 40 commercial vessels and lives on an island near Seattle. He can be contacted by email at captsweeney@outlook.com.

Categories: A Mariner’s Notebook