The Merchant Marine or Merchant Navy is a commercial shipping industry, transporting goods, fuel and people. Depending on whom the vessel is contracted to, you could be working on a cruise ship, a ferry or a cargo vessel transporting oil, chemicals or gas for refuelling or rescue. Despite being non-military, they utilise hierarchical military ranks in their structure. One British Merchant Navy officer stationed to the ship talks about the life on-board with its unnecessary hierarchies, corruption, and abuses of power and status between higher rank officials and deck hands and reflecting on another aspect of the dark world underlying business trade.

I worked as an offshore commanding officer in the merchant navy. Every single commanding officer gets asked why the hell they are on the ship, we all have ways of getting there; some come to provide for a family, some simply come to commit suicide. It’s funny how if you are a UK citizen, you are considered to be of higher class than anyone else there. That is, if you’re sailing a British marine, a Brit will also function as a flag bearer.

The managers are people from generally more rich or powerful countries; German, Swedish, Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian, British, but they mostly want cheap labour. The main reason I was stationed was because they wanted a British officer. Despite there being people more qualified and with more experience, because I am British, I was given the job. They don’t mind paying more for me but still, the cheapest thing on board is the staff. A new bed plate for the engine would be more than an officer’s salary for the year.

It’s awkward because you go there and you see white foreign nationals giving Philippino deckhands horrible jobs to do when nothing needs doing. They work in terrible conditions
and are led by the belief that they will be promoted higher than a deckhand, but
they never do. There’s one Philippino who has been finishing his certificates for becoming a second commanding officer, but because he’s 40 years old, has been working as a deckhand for many years and because of the colour of his skin, they won’t let him. They just don’t want Philippinos to hold a higher rank. They make him resit the test with promises to promote him in future so he doesn’t get a pay rise.

A cadet on the ship, which I started out as, isn’t earning a great amount of money.
But 16,000 pound sterling annually is not too bad considering you’re only working half a year and it’s tax free. Walking around the ship you see people in complete poverty, there’s one guy who is 28 and hasn’t been home in 9 months and wasn’t able to call anybody because he had no money to pay for it. He receives 86 pounds a month. He came out of his room once bragging and saying, “Oh it’s pay-day! How much did you get?” I had to dodge the question, because I knew exploitation went on and just said, “I didn’t do too badly, how did you do?” and he showed me the piece of paper showing a sum totalling 86 pounds for the month. This is a guy who works 18 hours a day, every day in front of a furnace; it’s disgraceful. My money went up after a year and he has been there for 5 years on 86 pounds a month. He’s happy to an extent because he makes more money doing this; 86 pounds a month is a lot more than what he’d make back home and he’s the only one in his family that works and can support a family of 5 with that. He doesn’t know any better, but he still can’t call his wife or kids. I used to lend him my phone so he could call them.

Another fine example of this exploitation was when the on-board cook had a stroke. They wouldn’t do anything but put him somewhere out of the the way and wait until he was air-lifted out. I was friendly with him, we were on the ship together for 3 months and he seemed a healthy enough guy who was friendly with everyone. My Russian supervisor, who was 3rd in chain command, demanded to know why I was upset about this man having a stroke. Total asshole. I said, “Well, he seemed a nice guy, he’s here for a reason, just like us and he’s got kids. You’ve got kids, I’m sure they’d be upset if they found out you’d almost died offshore.” (It turned out he did die, but that’s beside the point.)

He said, “Yes, but he’s Philippino, I don’t care.”

I said, “Well that’s, fucking rude. I may be a British officer here, but my mother is from the Philippines.”

“Oh sorry, I didn’t know,” he said. And he never spoke to me again.

No one was medically trained on the ship. They don’t want to afford it if they don’t have to. When the cook had a stroke it was like an epileptic fit, I had to request to turn him over because he was in the care of someone who didn’t know what to do and had the man lying on his back choking on his own vomit. An officer walked over and turned his face towards the floor using his fucking boot. He didn’t kick him but he used his foot. That’s the way it is.

There are hierarchies in many ways, not just in the military sense. For example, nothing would need to be done, but the deckhands are still worked to the bone. The commanding officers would have them sort metal by length and size for no reason besides keeping them working. I remember they gave one of them the wrong sized spanner to tighten the bed-nuts on a generator, knowing there wouldn’t enough leverage for him to do it correctly anyway and it would take him all day. It’s not something anyone bothers correcting because to them, it’s cheap entertainment. You can either watch some boring VHS from the library which hasn’t been updated in years or play tricks on people and laugh at their ignorance. There is a maintenance management system on ships, which is a computer program for the job and work order— it tells them what is needed a job, how it’s done, when should be done by, and so on. All the information is there and no one is too illiterate not to understand it and give bogus instructions without intending to do so.

You’re untouchable if you’re fair-skinned on a ship. They would sooner fire a Philipino than a Scottish lad who was severely misconducting. I have Nigerian friends who worked on board telling me about the conditions they worked in. They go for 3-9 months and return totally blistered. The cook I mentioned before had been onboard for 2 years without getting off. He cooks 3 meals a day for 16 persons, ordering, doing prep, operating the crane to get goods in; he doesn’t have a short day. No one cares whether he sees his family or not and he doesn’t get bonuses. I’m able to walk around in America, Australia, around Europe, so I bring back phone cards and chocolate for them because they don’t get any of that. I connected to them not only because I am half Philippino, but these guys were a bit more fun to be around. I’m partial to a bit of a drink on the ship just as they are. The officers, on the other hand, are a bit cliquey.

Drug smuggling is a big deal and people don’t tend to get away with it. Scuba teams will come out and check everything, even things you wouldn’t expect. They have UV devices to go over your light switches to check for drugs traces. They log your movements on and off the ship. If they have suspicions, you will be detained for several months. I remember being stuck at port with customs because one bottle of beer in our stash was miscounted. Pirates used to stick packages underneath the hull, some people would put them in the waste plant and they’d always be found. One dramatic instance was when one of the sinks was out of use for months as we had no utilities guy on board. We wondered why the sink was blocked, you couldn’t get water down there, it was packed tight, so we thought we’d get it out before the customs check. Turned out someone packed a kilo and half of cocaine in the U-bend in a panic.

Men can get very lonely at sea after a couple of months, there is loads of sodomy, mainly on cruises. The chief engineer would have a “wife” or butt-fuck buddy who he would work with 2 weeks on and off. One thing customs turn a blind eye to therefore, is porn. I was watching DVDs once and as a joke, someone slipped a pirated DVD-R to me telling me it was really good. I played it and it was called “Child Abuse III” or something. The films I was aware of are all American or British-made films, they’d all be in English and are all white children. I didn’t get past the title before I walked out to tell him I am not down with this shit, so he tried to peddle me a different one that may be more to my taste. It’s creepy but it commonly happens. I brought it up with my senior and he advised me to ignore it if I can.

Another thing you can’t do anything about is pirates. If they board your ship, you can’t throw them off. It’s not sanctioned. They couldn’t kill us all in order to keep moving, but they could easily commandeer a ship with just a pistol. We’re not allowed to have self-defence weapons on board.

Depending on which waters you’re sailing, the only thing you’re allowed to have on a merchant vessel is water cannon to try to stop them but most pirates have better boats than anybody else. They usually come from Somalia, Nigeria, China and all over Panama. A couple of my friends’ ships have been invaded by pirates and were prevented from going anywhere for 2 months. He says the pirates were quite nice, had families and are quite sympathetic. A lot will just commandeer the ship, demand a sum of money and leave.

No one pays any attention to the Marine Pollution convention. Merchant vessels of release their dump valve into the sea. They’d get a little fine probably but it’s still worth dumping your waste in the sea so you can hold extra cargo. They hold their selfish business interests above all else.

It can be quite fun, you can go to nightclubs and parties when you reach land, Finnish ships have saunas as a basic requirement and we can go fishing. But on the whole, the ships are twisted. Sailors are foul-mouthed ludicrous people with no morals at all. They don’t respect people so the turnover is so high. I wouldn’t go back. I’ve had enough of that shit.

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