Recently, I went on a Saturday jog through one of Monmouth County, New Jersey’s leafy neighborhoods. This is “Leave it to Beaver” America, a pleasant suburb away from the perceived crime of the city and the ticky-tacky of exurban living. This is the America that our military defends, and the birthplace of its officer corps. Of the 18 members of my Modern American History class at the Academy, where all graduates are commissioned, 17 came from suburbs or small towns- I was the outlier. It was a Saturday, and some residents were going to synagogue. There was also a yard sale. This Saturday morning experience was coupled by the realization that the weekend could be my last for several months.
You see, a ship operates round-the-clock, seven days per week. While sailing aboard as a cadet, I needed weekends in order to complete ‘sea projects’, or correspondence courses for the Academy. Commercial ships operate on the thinnest of manning margins. As a permanent crew member, your presence is required every day: in port, you can have up to sixteen consecutive hours off the ship, and no more. On commercial ships, “you go to sea to work”. Or to say it nicely, “work prevents boredom”. If two mates were to become too ill or injured to stand a bridge watch, the remaining mate and the captain would be pulling two six-hour shifts per day, with six hours to sleep. Government ships carry a larger crew that can cover manning gaps, allowing for realistic contingencies for illness and injury, and for crewmembers to take weekend passes when the ship is in port. For mates and engineering officers, I heard that 32 hours is the length of a weekend pass; depending on their job and manpower needs, other crewmembers can clock out on Friday afternoon and come back on Monday morning.
Fortunately, by union contract or custom, many ocean-going American shipping companies have avoided designating seafaring mates and engineers as salary employees: this clarifies the weekly work schedule, and allows for overtime. While seafarers are exempt from the 40-hour workweek law, union standards helped make “time-and-a-half” an expected custom in the merchant fleet. With time-and-a-half, a 56-hour workweek effectively doubles earnings from a 40-hour workweek.
Young people like myself are inexperienced, overconfident, and irresponsible with money. Yet there are certain advantages of youth: agility, freedom from familial responsibility, having little to lose financially, and- this one is from Albert Einstein- time for compounding interest. The manifestations of the opportunities of youth change over time; they include going West in the 1800’s; searching for Yukon Gold in 1900; joining the military; trekking around the globe with just a passport in hand; and working at a Silicon Valley start-up for stock options and an air mattress in the office. While I will find new seafarers with previous life experience on the same boat as myself, I couldn’t miss out on optimal timing. After graduation, I had the opportunity to “settle down” and get an 8-to-4 office job. But it was too soon…and I had the rest of my life ahead of me. So what did I do? Go to sea.