Life as a Master Mariner – 2008

Oceans of opportunity: The Master’s View by Richard Meade – Lloyds List Wednesday 16 April 2008

Richard caught up with the master of CMA CGM Puget as it unloads in the port of New Jersey “I just don’t seem to ever leave my office. The paperwork is a reality of the job these days but there is just too much of it.” “I am happy, if I wasn’t I couldn’t do this. I find this a good company to work for and this is a good ship.” “We are busy all the ti

Counting $30,000 in unused notes is surprisingly tricky, particularly when you have only slept four hours and it is 6°C in your cabin.

New $100 bills are the problem. They are sticky and unyielding, but on the plus side they are worth more than used currency when paying sweeteners in Middle East ports, especially when they are accompanied by a carton or three of Marlboro cigarettes.

Majski Anic and the 21 crew of CMA CGM Puget arrived at the Port of New Jersey at around midnight last night. It was 0230 hrs by the time Capt Anic had seen the ship’s agent and signed off the most urgent of the documentation, so he decided to catch a few hours sleep before the next parade of visitors started to demand his attention at dawn this morning.

The sticky $30,000 came with a company agent who needs him to sign off on some papers. Queuing up behind him is a class inspector and the engineer who has come with a plan to fix the broken boiler and heat up the freezing cold ship. Outside, the bunkering operation is nearly completed and there is a consignment of food and medical supplies that needs his stamp. But before he has had a chance to finish counting the cash, two humourless officers from Customs and Border jump the queue and an immediate crew inspection is called.

“It’s normally like this, although it’s not usually so bloody cold,” Capt Anic says as he signs yet another piece of paper and hands it to the waiting bosun.

Despite appearances, the pace of a port call in New Jersey is pretty relaxed. There are two CMA CGM vessels alongside at the moment and the priority has shifted away from the CMA CGM Puget, giving Capt Anic nearly 30 hours to prepare for the next leg of the voyage.

“We are busy all the time but this is easy, we have time to spare. When we do China we are looking at staying in the port between six to ten hours absolute maximum, then move on to the next. I’m like a zombie by the end of those trips.”

On a typical China route, CMA CGM Puget can expect at least five port calls in a week amid very heavy traffic often consisting of smaller, and sometimes erratic local vessels. It is a job that requires the full attention of an alert crew, not zombies.

There are, of course, rules governing working hours, but the reality of working on a containership is often very different.

When CMA CGM Puget leaves the Red Sea to pass through the Suez Canal later on this voyage, Capt Anic will face a familiar dilemma. Follow the rules or arrive on schedule.

“We drop anchor at say 2300 hrs, the pilot arrives between 0300 hrs-0500 hrs and I have to be on the bridge during the whole passage until probably 1600 hrs. After that I have two hours navigation to the port of Damietta. What else can I do, turn round and say sorry gentlemen I am very tired? It doesn’t work like that. I will finish at about midnight. That’s around 20 hours on the bridge without sleep. That is the reality”.

If the pace of life at sea is speeding up, then the crews are simultaneously getting smaller.

Just a decade ago, Capt Anic worked aboard smaller ships manned by 35 crew. Now he is in charge of 282 m of vessel with just 22 crew members, and two of them are cadets.

Given a choice he would take at least 24 for a vessel of this size and preferably include an additional ‘sparky’ for the ubiquitous and never ending torrent of paperwork that seems to flow into his office. “I just don’t seem to ever leave this room. The paperwork is a reality of the job these days but there is just too much of it.”

Given a choice to go back and start again, many of the senior crew aboard the CMA CGM Puget tell me they would seriously reconsider a life at sea. But sitting in his office, tired and cold, Capt Anic disagrees. “I’m satisfied. I could change jobs if I wanted, it’s not too late for me, I’m 44. But I enjoy it.”

“For the family, of course, it is not so nice, particularly when you have small kids.”

Capt Anic’s four-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son do not see him for four-month stretches and each time he returns it takes a while to get back into family life. With break periods in between contracts generally only running to about three months for senior officers it can often be very hard to balance family life with the job.

When he met his wife, Capt Anic had already been at sea for several years and as a naval architect herself she was well aware of the pitfalls of being married to seafarer. But understanding it is not the same as liking it. When his son was born Capt Anic was at sea and while he managed to get home for his daughter’s birth, he admits that the job can often be equally tough on those left behind. “It’s by far the worst aspect of our job,” he admits.

Despite the obvious pressures he continues to take pleasure in the work and does not see himself changing anything for several years to come.

“I am happy, if I wasn’t I couldn’t do this. I find this a good company to work for and this is a good ship,” he says.

The fact that CMA CGM Puget is a relativelynew ship also helps, in that everything works, with the current notable exception of the heating system. Working for a management team that understands how a ship needs to be run, however, is vital, says Capt Anic.

“We have a good relationship with the company, particularly with [the head office in] Marseille. It feels like we are a family.”

Despite the rapid growth at CMA CGM over the past few years, efforts have been made to keep in touch with all employees and address staff issues from the bottom up.

It is a policy that appears to have gone down well. Several of the crew and officers aboard CMA CGM Puget have been to France for one of the company’s regular staff meetings with senior management. The fact that they are encouraged to talk frankly about their jobs and what they need has won a great deal of appreciation from the crew.

“It seems that any problem can be sorted out. We will generally be able to find a solution,” says Capt Anic.

When one of the Filipino crew recently had a death in the family it was arranged for him to fly home for the funeral. “You do not get this with every company, they are very human company.”

This attitude also translates into the ship’s galley where food is taken very seriously. “Food is very important to the good running of a ship.”

Inside the galley’s fridges Capt Anic is proud to say that he can find different types of cheese andsalami that he would not even be able to afford at home. The produce they buy is varied and good quality and he is encouraged to make sure that the crew are satisfied with their menus. To him this is indicative of a company who knows how to look after its staff.

“I was working for a German company before where they were very strict on what we could buy. We were told not to buy more expensive options. We always had to look for cheaper food. I like mustard, but there were people looking at our shopping lists saying that this was too expensive. They were even moaning about the water for the table.”

But as a man with $30,000 for expenses sitting in his safe, stocking up on knock-off pots of cheap mustard is presumably the least of his worries.

The paperwork is stacking up once again in his office. The next port of call requires 24-hour advance notice of all cargo manifests and he has not yet finished dealing with the onslaught of forms from this port call. When he does finally arrive everything will need checking all over again and there will be the usual parade of around 30 visitors, officials and inspectors demanding his immediate attention, a signature or perhaps some of the $30,000.

Hopefully, before that happens, the boiler will get fixed and he can get some sleep.

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