My first deep-sea shipping job, three months out of maritime college was back in 1994 when I was hired on as an AB-watchstander. For those not in the know, when you work on a ship you carry ratings and qualifications; unlicensed and licensed. With the ink on my ship’s Third Officer license barely dry, the company who hired me took on all newbie Third Officers as Able-Bodied seamen (AB), requiring us to compete with all the other AB’s who wanted to move up to Third Officer.
I stood watch on the bridge with men who’d been AB’s for years and had no ambition to move up. And there were a few other recent academy grads, both men and women, who held licenses like me. My first watch consisted of a Third Officer, two AB’s, and an Ordinary Seaman. We were a pretty well-oiled machine, once I learned what was expected of me.
At sea, I’d rotate between a stint on the wheel, standing lookout, and roving patrol (walking all around the ship looking for fire, flooding, or anything amiss), except when we were replenishing a Navy ship while underway, in which case I rotated between being on the wheel, standing lookout, going back on the wheel, etc. While in port we manned the gangway as the gateway/ security person checking people on and off the ship and handling phone calls. Sometimes when we were tied up for several days we’d also take on things like small painting projects.
Before working on large ships I’d spent time in the world of small boats, mostly dealing with tourists, working seasonally between Maine and Florida. I worked several years for the same company in Maine, starting as a deckhand on a tour boat, moving to deckhand on tourist fishing boats, and becoming captain of a tourist fishing boat when I got my first license. My employer in Maine required us to take care of our boat from before the season opening to closing it down for winter. In the spring we cleaned, painted, stocked, and prepared the boat. Running it from the end of May into early October, we did every job onboard except sell tickets.
Then I drove to Florida doing much the same from November to the end of April for other companies. I took jobs on tourist fishing boats as a cook and then as a deckhand, and the trips were as short as half-days and as long as six days. The work was fun most of the time – we worked hard and partied hard – but very low pay and no benefits began to get old, which is why I eventually found my way to a maritime college.
Small boating is a hands-on job where people wear many hats. And I was lucky to work for a few different captains who taught me things like how to run and dock the boat, how to take care of the customers, and how to paint and varnish. I learned how to make the boat look good! And I learned how to cook in rolling seas and learned how to fish, which is ironic because I really don’t like to eat fish. But I love a good fight on the other end of the line!
Back to ships. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about painting on ships, it’s that most of the watchstanding AB’s I worked with had no clue how to paint properly, or how to handle brushes and store paint when the job was done. There was a guy in charge of the paint locker who handed out supplies and received them back at the end of the day. He took care of the equipment.
One of the things I had to get used to, working on a ship versus a small boat, is there are all sorts of job positions, like the paint locker guy, the carpenter, and an entire engine and steward department. I had to switch my mindset from doing it all to having fewer responsibilities, and learning who did what job so I didn’t step on toes. It took a bit of adjusting because the last job I had just prior to my first shipping job had me in charge of a small fuel boat. Technically, I was the licensed captain of a fuel tanker, responsible for everything.
Most of the people I met on my first ship were very decent people. We had a mix of civilian mariners to US Navy personnel (90% to 10%), mostly men and a few women. Most of the women were Navy, and because their jobs were quite separate from mine I didn’t really hang out with them. I was probably one of about two civilian women on board.
Learning how to stay in my narrow lane of watchstander after having to do everything on a boat, I eventually found my groove with the kindness of a few shipmates. The men I stood watch with were nice people, but I got the cold shoulder from one guy. He rarely spoke to me and seemed to be angry with me for no reason quite often. I didn’t get it.
I wondered if he didn’t like it when I went off to get something and took quite a while because I was still learning who to see and how to get things. He never offered me guidance. Or maybe it was the inport watch when we were painting and varnishing lights and I actually cared about doing it property; doing a good job. Not just slopping paint all over the varnished wood handles, but sanding and varnishing them with several coats, and not painting over the screw threads and wingnuts, not painting the lights shut so they couldn’t be opened. Maybe he resented that I wasn’t nonchalant.
At sea, we on the bridge did the same work day in, day out, and once you got the hang of it there wasn’t much to it. I was a natural at the wheel, having been on boats every summer since I was about five. And picking out objects to report as lookout came easily. In fact, the biggest obstacle to the job, when we weren’t transiting in or out of port, and when we weren’t replenishing a Navy ship at sea, was boredom. I was good at my job and was as professional as anyone else, so I was confused by my watch partner’s behavior towards me.
When we pulled into port and my watch partners and I took turns manning the gangway, sitting in our little shack, I noticed the confusing shipmate kept bringing one book to the gangway shack to read when things were slow, port after port. I figured he must really like the book, so as an avid reader myself, one day as I relieved him I asked him what the book was about. He told me all about how the human race began in Africa and went into why blacks were and are superior to whites in every way. The title of the book was Africa.
His cold and confusing behavior toward me suddenly all made sense. He didn’t like me because I was white. But it didn’t stop there. He didn’t like me because I was a woman (doing a man’s job, getting a man’s pay), I was young (just turned thirty but because it was known I was a recent academy grad, people assumed I was in my early twenties), I was smart and good at my job. Being on the water was second nature to me, having grown up boating and then working on boats for seven years prior to this first deep-sea shipping job, including four years as a small boat captain.
I was a threat to this man in so many ways. And it was all in his head. He didn’t know me.
The next time my watch partner treated me badly for no reason I went to my watch officer. Upset, I explained what I’d recently gleaned and asked that he do something about it. He gathered the two of us up and explained that on his watch people were not judged by the color of their skin but by the color of their heart.
I honestly don’t know if anything changed within my watch partner, but he watched his behavior toward me after that.
I’m lucky. It took until I was thirty years old to experience overt racism. I can’t imagine what it’s like to grow up experiencing racism over and over again, over a lifetime, and to have it so ingrained into a society that it’s systemic.