Piracy Cargo Ship Life
Bebeto Matthews  /  AP
Mark Rivers, a member of the Seafearer's International Union, says the life of a merchant mariner can be hard work.
updated 4/9/2009 8:37:31 PM ET 2009-04-10T00:37:31

Merchant mariners have always endured hard labor, monotony and the threat of pirates for the adventure of life at sea, but the vocation has grown more dangerous with the times.

Crew members on cargo ships describe living in close quarters for months at a time with few technological amenities and the frequent threat of storms and fires.

And the piracy threat continues to grow, with heavily armed bandits chasing down ships and taking hostages. The U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama was the latest target this week off the coast of Somalia.

"It's hard, but it's our profession" former Alabama crew member Goducel Pascua said in a phone interview from his home in Elmhurst, N.Y.

Greater automation has allowed even the biggest vessels to have smaller crews, so fewer jobs exist in the industry, but the intense work and tedium at sea are largely unchanged.

Commercial vessels typically have 20 to 30 crew members, including two or three cooks and stewards in the kitchen and four engineers to run the power plant. Most crew members are classified as "able seamen," performing deck, wheelhouse and other duties.

"It can be hard work, but that depends on the type of ship and how automated it is," says Mark Rivers, 40, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native who has been at sea since 1991, sailing waters from the Great Lakes to the Indian Ocean, often as a helmsman.

Salaries have not changed much in the past quarter century. On the largest cargo ships, pay can range from about $150,000 annually for the captain, down to $50,000 or so for a seaman, according to Doug Wray, a former merchant mariner who is now marketing director for the company that operates the Port of Tampa.

As for amenities, Rivers said food aboard ship is usually good, but liquor is not allowed, and satellite television is dependable only within 100 to 150 miles from shore. Sending an e-mail costs 50 cents per message.

Work, eat sleep
Zoya Quinn, whose husband, Ken, was second mate aboard the Alabama when it was attacked early Wednesday, said the life is cold, gray and isolated. He goes to sea for four months at a time, during which he can e-mail once a day and is rarely allowed to use a telephone.

Other crewmen who worked on the Alabama in recent years describe a cycle of frequent job changes and monthslong stints on different ships from around the world. Life on board consists of little more than working, eating and sleeping.

Pascua, who worked on the Alabama in 2007, recalls crew members standing near-constant watch for pirates along the dangerous African coast.

"There's a lot of sighting boats," Pascua said. "You don't know if it's pirates or not."

Back when Wray was sailing around the world on cargo ships in the early 1980s, the best defense against pirates was a fire hose. Blasting the marauders' small boats with a high-pressure hose usually discouraged the attack before they could board.

"That worked back then," said the 52-year-old Wray. "These were people who didn't have semiautomatic guns and rocket-propelled grenades."

Arming cargo ships has been discussed, but the International Maritime Organization strongly discourages it. The IMO, which is part of the United Nations, instead advises precautions such as extra watches in pirate waters, securing hatches to the bridge and engine room, and keeping crew members behind closed doors so they do not become hostages.

Donna Nincic, chairwoman of the maritime policy and management department at the California Maritime Academy, said some countries avoid arming their ships to prevent mutinies. Other nations prohibit foreign ships from having firearms onboard.

"If the pirates know the ships are armed, they could simply go out and get bigger weapons," Nincic said. "There are estimates of between $50 million and $150 million of ransom money floating around Somalia right now. In a country like that, it buys an awful lot. If pirates really want to arm themselves, African countries are awash in weapons."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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