“Now his wife and his kids are caught in the midst of all of this pain
You know it comes that way
At least that’s what they say when you play the game
God forbid, you ever had to wake up to hear the news
‘Cause then you really might know what it’s like to have to lose
Then you really might know what it’s like
Then you really might know what it’s like
Then you really might know what it’s like to have to lose”
-What It’s Like, By Everlast
What I don’t think I’ve ever accurately conveyed, in any one post, are the truly negative aspects of the life of a sailor. You see for the sailor at sea, and especially the family at home, this life isn’t all beautiful sunsets and joyous homecomings. Even when working an even time schedule which has the mariner home for nearly six months of the year, (remember, you aren’t home on those days you are traveling) it can still be a daunting task to get all the projects around the house done, have time with friends family and then just by yourselves. Add in a spouse that is also working, and the time together decreases even more in quality and quantity.
I would love to be able to write more about what makes it hard for the spouses and families, to tell their side of the story. However I cant in good faith even attempt to do that. It would be demeaning to them in my opinion to try and explain an experience that I have and probably never will have. I don’t know their struggles first hand, and on the other side of the coin the family of the mariner probably has very little knowledge of what they go through.
There in lies the problem, at the end of the day both people go through difficulties, and neither person often really can understand what the other is dealing with. So this post isn’t for other mariners, in fact most of you should just call me a whiney bitch right now and then go back to online shopping, this post is for the people at home.
Most of us sailors are hard to understand, I’d have to say half the people I work with are out here for a reason that doesn’t involve a love the ocean or boats. Generally that reason is both the money and time off, or they are the type of person that just can’t function in the “normal world”. Another word for that second type of person is an asshole. Anti-social pain the ass works as well. For many people they are simply referred to as an ex-husband. I wont try and explain what’s difficult for them, because they will generally just say it’s my lying ex wife if you ask them.
That first group of mariners, the ones out here for the money and the time off, generally like those things as they relate to their families. For a person with out a college degree there aren’t many jobs where you can with a few years be making 80-100k+ a year, and that year only being six to eight months of work. That leaves a lot of time to make up for being away, and it gives them the ability to support their children in a way they otherwise would not. It’s simply the best means to an end they have at their disposal. For a lot of mariners it’s hard to see life beyond that black and white. I’ve met more than one guy out here that grew up dirt poor, hand to mouth and was lucky to have a meal every night. So to be able to give their kids a nice house, clean clothes and the access to an education they couldn’t get is all that really matters to them. It’s not to say that people wear this sacrifice with out it weighing them down like a cross. Regardless of how good a life you are providing for those whom you love, it is impossible to not wonder if everything you are missing out on is worth it. The regret, or fear of regret, and the self-doubt they breed can make a bad day out here worse. The feeling of helplessness when things are wrong at the house, the crushing sensation of it all can be like drowning.
Now for others this job, being a sailor, is a life long calling. It can even come to define a large portion part of who you are. Everyone always says that if you love what you do for a living you’ll never work a day in your life. Its true, being on the water and doing things that the majority of the world doesn’t know happen or exist is pretty rewarding. A friend in the tugboat industry likes to say, “I get paid to orchestrate controlled collisions on a regular basis” and lets face it; that sounds like a lot of fun! So it can help with the loneliness, with the general misery that comes with some many aspects of this job.
I’ve mentioned loneliness several times now, and lets talk about that. Part of what makes it hard for me and many other mariners to understand what their family is going through are the different types of loneliness we go through. For the mariner it is just missing their family, and to a certain extent friends. Not in my opinion true, I haven’t interacted with anyone who isn’t a cashier or bagger or the kids way that a lot of family members go through. In fact this job isn’t always all at lonely. When you get a good crew on a boat it feels like family, in the same sense that I hear many friends in the armed forces talk about the brotherhood of soldiery. Everyone shares the load together and as much as most men don’t want to admit it, that load includes the emotional baggage of everyone. That’s a big part of the job many people love, whether they say it or not.
Of course there is that flip side of the good crew coin, which is the people that make you start to imagine you toothbrush is a shotgun every time you get up for watch. These crews exist, and often any crew has one or two people that make your skin crawl. Its part of why I prefer vessels with smaller crews, there may be more work, but the chance of having too many assholes to deal with. Whether they are the type that doesn’t clean up after themselves, shoves their political views down your throat, or are chronically late for watch (my favorite), these people will suck the life out of a crew.
That kind of misery isn’t the worse for the mariners who love to sail. A bad crew can be changed, or you can concentrate on the positive aspects of the job. The worst misery that this job has in store is when you have the realization that you’ve gone from loving it, and sometimes being indifferent to it. To hating it, to despising it, and wishing you did anything else in the world. When you love your family, and you love this job it’s a fight in your head and your heart everyday. The guilt from seeing your wife upset when you leave, or not being able to be there when she is sick. Missing kids birthdays, their graduations. It all adds up. It can make you feel selfish, selfish for being happy at all at work. That leads to resentment, to hating something you once loved. That feeling will make you miserable and it’s hard to not let that feeling bleed over into the interactions you have with your loved ones while you are at work. So after a watch, or when you know you are missing something at home it can get really hard to want to interact with people. I don’t think I am alone in saying that some days when you get off watch all you want to do is take a shower and go to sleep. Regardless of how much you miss your family, subconsciously you know as soon as the “how was your day?” question comes up, the misery will come spilling out. It isn’t healthy but it’s a hell of a lot easier to just not say anything. To push it back out of sight and count the days on the calendar until crew change.
All these feelings, everything I’ve talked about here is why the single thing that is guaranteed to make any mariner or their family angry is when other people even attempt to act like they understand the hardships of the lifestyle. As much as the therapist fiancé and I might not fully understand what each other go through, 99% of the people who we interact with at home have zero to fuck all of a clue. Going back to the beginning of this post, it’s the notion that you know what someone is going through in a situation you haven’t lived or experienced that is bound to cause problems. That problem being your mariner brother, or son, or friend, and their spouse will start resenting you for every single condescending “Well that’s just the life I guess” statement you make.
So before you get frustrated with the bonehead mariner in your life, just remember we have feelings too, most of us just wont admit it. Before making the “he loves you and will find a job at home before you know it”, blanket comforting statement to the significant other of the mariner in your life. Just remember acting like you know what they are going through is demeaning far from validation. Whether you are the mariner, the mariner’s family, or the friends and extended family of both. Use the kids gloves when things aren’t good, because until you’ve walked a while in the other persons shoes, you don’t know what its like.
On that note, it’s crew change day! In a few short hours I will be headed home to see my bride to be and our furry child. So today, all is right in the world.