Seacrets: Life As A Seafarer

I have spent a considerable portion of my life with the ocean; whether that is staring at it, smelling it, swimming in it or sailing on it I have gone through life surrounded one way or another by a large body of water. When I was younger I would make sandcastles for hours, a fixed fascination on the soft curves I could mould with my bare hands, all the different shapes I could create from using varied ratios of wet to dry. I would sprint on good days and trudge on bad days through the earthy tones of the shingle, my feet leaving dips and dents that the salty waves would later fill, erasing any evidence of my having been there.
I have sat, transfixed on the fluid motion of the swell through many stages of life and have sought solace and stability from its permanence. I have closed my eyes and listened, the numbing haze of every day stress dispersing as I matched my breathing to the rhythm of its break, as I filled my palms with its stones. I would wait in anticipation, a little mound of ammunition on my lap as my dad would drive various bits of driftwood and other washed up scrap that could be used for targets deep into the ground. And we’d sit, side by side launching our weapons at sticks and rusty drink cans until everything was knocked flat and we’d cease fire to re-assemble, me sat there waiting with the evil temptation to pelt this man who I adored so much.
I’d never given it a thought, being at sea, working at sea for a living. I had always known about it as my dad had been in the Navy when I was little and has gone on to work in Merchant Shipping but as an aspiring writer I had never considered it an option for myself. But if you think about it, it’s sort of inevitable that I would find myself staring out of a porthole at the inky horizon in front of me, just as my dad has done. It makes perfect sense that as I have inherited the overpowering (sometimes annoyingly so) desire to travel and explore why would I not be unknowingly ushered in the direction of the career that enables us both to do so? As much as I have struggled in my quest to find work at sea that I don’t despise I have finally come across something that weirdly makes sense to me. I have found a people that weirdly make sense to me.
The only other people in the world that can know and can possibly understand what it’s like to be at sea are fellow seafarers. Various different types of sailors have described this bond to me and never mind what language they use the meaning is always the same, this strange existence we all share can only be truly accepted and appreciated by people who have experienced it. People back home think it’s exotic, it’s exciting and adventurous and of course it can be but it is often overlooked that seafaring is one of the loneliest professions there is and it takes a lot of mental strength to be able to deal and adapt to such a unique way of living. Each time I go away to join a ship I drop my current life instantly, I pack up what few possessions I have and if I have time I visit my family members to say goodbye but if not I have to make do with a few phone calls. Any plans I have for the coming weeks are erased, anything I may have had on my mind becomes irrelevant as I essentially put down one life and pick up another.
To seek comfort for private matters from your colleagues is a very strange concept to many people with regular land-based jobs. Normally if something happens whilst you’re at work it’s only ever a few hours until you can close the door on the day and tend to your issues in private, however when you are at sea there is no going home. If the communication systems are down you are forced to face your problems powerlessly and except the fact that it is impossible for you to just nip back to your real life and sort things out. As humans it is natural for us to need to communicate our pain in order to lighten the burden, so inevitably you are going to turn to the people who you spend every single day of your working life with for some sort of consolation. From the moment you wake up until the moment you go to sleep you are with these people. These people who come from all corners of the world and who have different backgrounds, cultures, religions, personalities, desires but who all share one key connection and that is that at some point we all made the decision to be here. We all have one similarity and that is that for whatever reason we have all chosen this life, we have willingly postponed our ‘real lives’ in order to drift across oceans on a giant tin can with a small selection of people who we hope will ease the hardship of total isolation from the rest of the world.
Life doesn’t stop just because you’re away. Family members die at sea, friends marry without you, people have babies and birthdays, all the while you watch from a distance at a life you can’t touch. You get ill at sea (and pass it on to everyone else), you learn new skills, you laugh, you cry and you share things with these strangers that you may never share with anyone on land. For me as a female it is very important that I develop a trust for my co-workers as I am essentially relying on them to help me if anything goes wrong. Often we are in dodgy places and although I can take care of myself it’s a relief to know that I am protected and that I have people around me who I can trust, who have a responsibility, as I do, and as everybody else on board does to ensure that as a crew we are all safe and happy. You develop an unspoken, forces-like camaraderie that I personally find very comforting and usually being the youngest on board, deem it a necessity for my mental wellbeing and my ability to cope with the stresses of sea life.
But perhaps the weirdest part is that these people that you are in such close quarters with, that you spend so much of your time with aren’t really part of your life at all. You may spend more time with the people at work than you do with your own families and partners, yet when the final day comes and you all pack up, you walk away and leave them behind with ship. Everyone disappears back to their homes, back to their families and their normal routines and everything that mattered on board, everything that was shared and experienced is boxed up and stored in the back of your mind like a dream, a cloudy thought that at the time was your whole existence but is now just a distant memory.
These people who know everything about you but perhaps nothing at all, would they even be recognisable in their ‘normal’ lives? Would you actually be friends with them if it wasn’t for the ship? Are you actually connected or are you connected because you are forced to be? I have stayed in touch with people I’ve worked with and still have fond memories of them, so I like to think that there is something to be taken away from the closeness that develops at sea. But there’s a certain feeling, the feeling of waking up the next morning after coming off, staring at the ceiling with the notion that it has all felt like the longest, heaviest sleep of your life. Like you blinked and missed something you can’t quite place, like weeks of your life have gone missing and you’re not quite sure where to look for them.
Very few people can imagine what going to sea is like and even fewer can understand the peculiarity of living what is essentially a double life. I haven’t quite gotten my head around it myself yet and as pay off day rapidly arises I begin to prepare myself for the sudden detachment I know will linger in my mind for a few days, followed by a fondness for people and a time that was so hugely important and influential, yet simultaneously meant nothing at all.
C.J.R xox

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