Remembering ‘John’s rules’ when sharing a room at sea

After a series of fortuitous occurrences, and a frenzied trip from San Francisco to Long Beach, Calif., the cab pulled up at Pier 48 at 1800 on the dot — the exact time I was supposed to join the vessel. It was my first job as a merchant mariner, hired as an ordinary seaman on a towing/landing craft, running military ro-ro cargo between San Nicholas Island and Port Hueneme. 

I grabbed my seabag and hopped aboard, then went to the wheelhouse to report to the captain. An old timer who’d been going to sea for decades, he told me, “You’re on my 6-12 watch. Go down to your room, change into your work gear, grab some supper and then get back up here to the wheelhouse.” After the mate told me where my room was, I lugged my seabag down and opened the door, looking forward to a few minutes by myself to clean up and regroup after the crazy travel day. Unexpectedly, a tall guy in coveralls was sitting on one of the two beds in the room, lacing up his boots. He reached out his hand in greeting. “I’m John, the AB. We’re roommates.” Then, pointing to the bare mattress next to the interior bulkhead on the opposite side of the stateroom, he said, “And that’s your rack over there.”

Many mariners at the beginning of their career do not think about the possibility of sharing a room onboard the vessel. I certainly didn’t. In school, all the books I’d read told me that having your own stateroom is just part of a mariner’s life at sea. What I don’t recall those books ever mentioning is that usually only officers get their own staterooms. Unlicensed crewmembers can legally be stuffed four or more to a room. When I was a cadet, I did my senior training cruises on two different container ships. Being a third officer-in-training, I was given a huge stateroom with my own head. So, a mere few months later after graduating, the idea of having to share a room on the tug/landing craft was not something I anticipated.

My roommate John, the AB, taught me about “shared room etiquette.” That included such things as keeping my gear stowed in my room locker and not strewn all over, avoiding turning on lights when he was sleeping, keeping the noise level down when I came back from watch, making sure I didn’t wake him when I was off-watch, and doing my part to keep the stateroom and attached head clean. I learned a lot about “shared room etiquette” on that trip. I think that it made the job go much more smoothly, by enabling me to avoid “roommate issues” with John. In fact, we’re still friends.

After sailing on over 40 commercial vessels, I can say with certainty that nearly every merchant mariner will have to share a room sometime during his or her sea-going career. I’ve shared a room on tugs, large oil spill response vessels, and fish factory ships, and can say from experience that having a roommate, or roommates, is not always easy. In fact, some of the biggest conflicts I’ve seen onboard started as a problem between two mariners sharing a room. 

Once, while working as a mate on an oceanographic ship taking coring samples off the Florida coast, Bill the able seaman on my 8-12 watch shared a room with the 12-4 AB Eddie. He constantly complained about his roommate. “He slams the door when he comes down after watch and wakes me up, never cleans our head, and leaves pubic hairs on the soap. He’s gross.” One morning, after being awakened once again, Bill got up and went after his roommate — shoving him into a bulkhead and threatening to “kick him in the seat of his pants from stem to stern.” 

Word of their scuffle travelled around the ship, and before long the chief mate wisely split them up, rooming Eddie with another seaman. The “bad blood” between the two continued for weeks afterward, however, and didn’t make for a pleasant trip for anyone onboard. 

Even the authorities recognize the importance of getting along with other crewmembers. During my first STCW (International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping for Seafarers) Basic Training class, we were essentially taught the same information John told me on my first trip. In the Personal Safety and Social Responsibilities Module, we were instructed to be sensitive and courteous to roommates in shared rooms.

Minimizing shared room problems onboard commercial vessels requires effort by the roommates themselves and the senior officers onboard as well. The captain or chief mate should ensure that any crewmembers in a shared room are on a watch schedule that doesn’t interfere with the others in the room; that all have taken the Personal and Social Responsibilities module of the STCW Basic Training course; and that those sharing a room fully understand how to treat each other professionally, thoughtfully and respectfully at all times.

Living together in close quarters is an inherent part of being a merchant mariner. While these aforementioned “room rules” are not official, and carry no legal ramifications, they can help things run more smoothly while on board. With ship crews having been cut to bare-bones levels, and 12-hour days the standard, there is no time for confrontations onboard. Until the U.S. Coast Guard and ship designers ensure all crewmembers are provided unshared personal space on all merchant vessels, we’ll just have to deal with the situation ourselves.

Til 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