The merchant navy (merchant marine) isn’t exactly a very common or popular profession. There are many people around the world who are either not aware of this unique industry or have several misbeliefs about the same.
However, owing to a larger than life depiction in popular culture, it intrigues a vast majority of people who’ve never worked as, or known, a seafarer. This curiosity results in questions that seafarers are, quite understandably, repeatedly answering to every such person who has no to negligible information of the field of merchant navy.
We have heard several myths, fallacies and utter nonsense spoken by people who have no clue about the industry at all.
So we at Marine Insight have decided to bust all those myths once for all; so that the next time someone asks a clichéd question, you can just point them to this article!
Here are some of the most popular myths associated with the merchant navy:
1. Seafarers Earn Loads of Money: Probably the most common aspect of a conversation with a misinformed individual, everybody seems to think that we’re cash cows that get paid a huge amount of money. Agreed, the pay is good. However, it is similar to the pay that individuals get after getting themselves a decent MBA/Masters and landing a respectable job (Of course, after certain years down the line in their careers). It is correct that the initial pay is far better than what one would get at shore, but the gap closes up as time goes by. Moreover, people at shore ought not forget the pains a seafarer has to go through to bring in that sort of money- time away from family, living at the mercy of nature, tough labour onboard etc. In our favor though, we don’t have to pay taxes, and rightfully so (Rules on taxes may vary across different countries) !
2. Seafarers Consume Alcohol All The Time: The world over seems to think that sailors have an infinite capacity for alcohol. Couple that with their idea that alcohol onboard is subsidized to the point that it’s free! This notion gives people the credibility to think that sailors drink alcohol like its going out of fashion. What seems to be ignored is that there are random alcohol tests onboard, and that now there is a ‘Company Policy’ against drinking and all of that. Also forgotten is the fact that drinking deters sharp judgment; and that mistakes at sea can threaten the lives of all onboard. In our favor, alcohol is indeed very cheap onboard (but that doesn’t give us the liberty to drink it freely though). Moreover, considering increasing stringent regulations, most of the ships are now becoming “no-alcohol” zones.
3. Seafarers Have Wife/Girl Friend At Every Port: The sole reason why sailors are interpreted to be inherently unfaithful! There was a time when a sailor was greeted at ports with a string of women to choose from. But then that was decades back! However, over time, with the advent of safety regulations, ISPS Code and other security measures, this has become a thing of the past. Combine that with the possibility of ruining one’s health and life back home, we have a purely fictional idea of a sailor’s entertainment at port. It is undeniable that if looked for, services can be found anywhere in the world, but that’s for any human being and not restricted to a sailor. A new country, a new port offers a plethora of sights and experiences. Also, none understands the value of a relationship (and the loyalty that goes with it) more than a sailor. Time away from loved ones doesn’t weaken bonds but strengthens them instead. Unlike others, seafarers knows the true meaning of – someone special is waiting back at home.
4. Seafarers Are Always Seasick: “Don’t you get seasick?!” One of the most common questions when a sailor proclaims proudly that he works on a ship. Seasickness is a condition that affects few. Is it not mandatory for every seafarer to feel seasick! Much like motion sickness, seasickness is subjective and affects people on a case-to-case basis. And no, it is not a big deal. People get it and then get over it gradually. Every seafarers might get homesick at some point in their careers, but there is no surety that everyone will get seasick.
5. Seafarers Have To Deal With Pirates Everyday: Yes, we know you’ve watched Captain Phillips and Pirates of the Caribbean. And yes, the former as close as it’ll get to a true depiction of an encounter such as that. We also know you are aware and also worried of the rising number of pirates around Somalia. But all the seas the world over are not sprinkled with heaps of pirates! Piracy is concentrated in certain parts of the world. Also, it is not compulsory that a pirate attack is guaranteed in those parts of the world. If safety and security measures are not executed to a full length and there are lapses in judgment, it is only then that pirates have the ability to get ship borne. Gradually though, with the advent of armed guards, things are getting much tougher and dangerous for the pirates. However, as a standalone security measure, sailors still have to make do with water hoses and barbed wires! But that doesn’t mean seafarers have to deal with pirates everyday and everywhere.
6. Seafarers Get To See New Countries: “Oh! You’re in the merchant navy. You must get to travel so much!” Undoubtedly one of the most common statements from people who have not been associated with the merchant navy whatsoever. Times have changed and so have trading patterns. Discharging at ports is fast and efficient, leaving little or no time for shore leave. VLCCs don’t even get to reach port at times. Bulk carriers are probably the only kind of ships that have the luxury of being at port for over a couple of days. That too, work shifts and stress makes seafarers put bed rest over going out to the city. Just because seafarers visit new ports and countries that doesn’t mean they have the luxury or opportunity to roam around according to their own wish.
7. Seafarers Live a Glamorous Life: People without a fair idea of the merchant navy seem to think that it is a glamorous life. Ships, exotic countries, smart uniforms, great technologies, enchanting sea etc. might make our life at sea seem nothing short of a Hollywood flick. Unfortunately (or fortunately!), people do not get to see the dirty boiler suits, the torn safety shoes, the condition of one’s face at a dusty port, the fatigue that engulf them at the end of the day and so on and so forth. Agreed that there is a certain level of sheen that exists in our line of work. But that luster only comes once all the dirt has been removed.
8. Seafarers Have An Easy Life With 6 Months On Land and 6 Months At Sea: There’s a universal idea that all seafarers have a ‘common 6 months on, 6 months off’ regime. So naturally, they believe that the life is easy for we work for 6 months and laze around for the other 6! Ridiculous, come to think of it. First of all, contracts differ in tenure. It can be 4 on, 2 off or a variety of other combinations depending on the rank and company. Secondly, the months that we don’t work, we’re only spending and not earning. Even with companies that pay while their seafarers are at home, it’s normally much reduced. Third, the work that we do over the few months that we are onboard, makes it necessary for us to go back home and relax; else we’d all go berserk! Couple that with handling family, relationships, exams etc. and we barely get proper time to completely switch off.
9. Seafarers Are Uneducated Fools: Gone are the days when joining the merchant navy meant getting on a ship when one came of age and sailing away. Many people think going to sea doesn’t need much of education. But the truth is today, every rank, including the crew of the ship, has to be well informed, educated and dexterous in theory as well as practice. As far as the officers are concerned, it is a different ball game! Studies pertaining to the merchant navy have become very intense. Subjects ranging from Celestial Navigation to COLREGS to Chartwork have to be registered to the brain in a permanent manner. Those who have been through 3 years of BSc in Nautical Science or 4 years of BTech in Marine Engineering will clearly know the hell they have to go through! So, assuming that sailors are complete buffoons with no knowledge of their craft is a very misplaced concept.
10. Seafarers Have to Fight Wars: People often confuse merchant navy with defense navy. Many believe everyone going to the sea goes to fight wars. The merchant navy is an auxiliary entity that might be called upon in case of dire emergency to assist the navy. However, on a daily operational basis, it has NOTHING to do with the navy or the armed forces of the country in general. The merchant navy is simply a commercial operation wherein transfer of goods/cargo takes place across the world. As in a business wherein goods are exchanged for monetary gains, the merchant navy involves the same process where goods are handed over from A to B for money. So no, please do not confuse it with the navies.
11. Seafarers Must Be Great Swimmers: Just because seafarers have to work at sea, people assume that it is mandatory for them to be great swimmers. However, the fact is seafarers do not have to be swimmers to work at sea. It’s a common misbelief among people that seafarers might need to swim to shores or other ships incase the ship meets with an accident. But no matter how great swimmer a person is, even if the situation demands, it is next to impossible to swim to shores or stay afloat in water in extreme weather conditions. Moreover, there are several personal protective equipment on board ships to ensure that seafarers can float in water during emergencies.
12. Seafarers Don’t Have Anything To Do at Sea: Life is easy for seafarers, there is nothing much to do on board ships – that’s what many people think. A myth goes around that people at sea just lazy around, fish and make merry once the ship sails. As many don’t have a clue about the working of the ship, they think seafarers have lots of time in hand which allows them to booze, travel and relax. However, the fact is seafarers are one of the most hardworking people in the world who have to face serious issues everyday on board.
At the end, however many inappropriate things seafarers might hear about their profession, the love for the sea and their job is never diminished. Sailors love talking about their job and their stories at sea. Seafarers are humans too who work very hard through the roughest weather putting their lives at risk. Therefore, it’s important that the common folk is well informed about the merchant navy and life at sea; for if it wasn’t for seafarers, the economy of the entire world would come to a halt!
Over to you…
Do you know about any other misconception people have about merchant navy?
Shilavadra Bhattacharjee is a shipbroker with a background in commercial operations after having sailed onboard as a Third Officer. His interests primarily lie in the energy sector, books and travelling.