merchant mariner families

...a highly unusual, sometimes maddening,
but mostly comical way of life.

April 30, 2013

in their own words..."lena"

   So here she is, that's right, it's Lena (not her real name, we've changed it to protect the innocent!) of "Lena and the Tiger Cookies" fame!  She enthusiastically agreed to be interviewed, sharing a big part of her work and personal life with us, so we're very grateful.  As you may remember, Lena works on the same ship as Beady, her official title is Chief Cook, although she's registered as Chief Steward with the Seafarers International Union, and she's been shipping for quite a while. 

CM:  So give us a little background on your shipping career.

Lena:  Well, I've been shipping since January of 2002.  My first ship was the SS Green Mountain State...a military ship just sitting in Bremerton (Washington) that needed to be moved to Portland (Oregon) to a ship yard.  I actually started doing this after 10 years of working as a Medical Assistant.

CM:  Really?  That's a strange beginning, how did that come about?

Lena:  Well, my father retired from the US Marine Corps before I was born and started shipping himself with NOAA in 1978.  When I turned 15, he wanted to take me on a ship he was working at the time headed to Japan.  After jumping through all the hoops, the Coast Guard decided I was too young to be signed on as crew.  Looking back, I think if I'd been able to go, I would've taken him up on the offer to go to California Maritime Academy as well and started sailing right when I finished high school.  But I didn't, so it took me just a bit longer to get here!

CM:  How about your rotation?

Lena:  70 days on, 70 days off, but I'll always work longer if I need to.  I've spent up to 120 or so days aboard this ship and as many as 147 on another.

CM:  Do you like that?

Lena: know, the length of my rotation is fine.  I actually wish it was longer sometimes because I tend to run out of things to do at home which causes me to get bored and then cranky.  Daddy was the same way when he was shipping, so much so that sometimes he'd only be home for a month, after having been gone for 8 or 9, and he would start looking for another ship.

CM:  Tell us about your current position, what you do?

Lena:  Well first of all, I started out in our union as a "C" card, which means when I started I had no training at all and had to take the jobs that no one else wanted.  I just had the documents to be able to sail and wanted to work, which I did as an Ordinary Seaman and a General Vessel Assistant.  I spent 3 years at the union's training facility in Piney Point (Maryland) to upgrade my skills and am now an "A" book which means I can take the good jobs.  I basically worked my way up in the Steward's department from Steward's Assistant to Chief Steward.

CM:  So, do you do most of the cooking on the ship?

Lena:  Actually, I do quite a few things in the Steward's department.  There's only two of us on the ship in that particular department, so as well as cooking I have to clean the mess hall everyday, multiple times a day, stock the fridge, make a salad bar, and bake their desserts.  I really try to bake for them at least twice a day from scratch, but sometimes I either don't feel like it or I'm not able to because we're in port and I have to go ashore to grocery shop.  I get money from the captain to buy fruits because I've found, more often than not, what we get delivered isn't good enough.

CM:  And you like this?

Lena:  Oh yeah!  Especially now since the steward has let me cook some of the meals as well...I was getting bored with doing the same thing every day.  And because I've taken on extra work, we've switched some of the duties so that the work is even when I cook dinner.

CM:  What's your favorite part of this job?

Lena:  If I had to choose, it would be that I'm able to keep some of my crew mates happy with certain foods that I cook, provide.  I've gotten to the point where I can tell you what multiple members of the crew enjoy eating and sometimes that's a good thing, other times bad.

CM:  Bad?

Lena:  "I'm on a diet, why did you make 2 of my favorite desserts on the same day?"

CM:  I can see where that might be a problem!  So tempting!

Lena:  I know!  But I take my job pretty seriously, I ask them what they'd like to eat, what they'd like to see us try, maybe what their family eats, so I get to know their preferences really well.  I feel like we're all out here away from our families, homes, and soft beds, so I can at least try to give them something to eat that will make it a little better being at work.  Tiger Cookies or anything chocolate usually works! 

CM:  So I've heard...incessantly!  Is there anything about your job that you don't like?  

Lena:  I wouldn't say not like, but a few things I struggle with.  The first being that I worry sometimes about whether or not I'm doing a good job out on the ship.  I've met and worked with plenty of sailors who just didn't take their job very seriously, I don't ever want to be like that.  And then there's the occasional jerk I have to put up with sometimes, who tries to make my job harder or tries to mess with me.

CM:  What do you mean?

Lena:  Well...for instance, there was this guy who used to come into the mess hall while I was cleaning up before breakfast, he'd mess things up right after I cleaned them.  Well one day he was walking over the wet floor I was actively mopping, so I picked up a chair and "tossed" it in his direction.  He now waits until the breakfast hour has started before he comes into the mess. 

CM:  Is that a common thing, I mean do the men mess with you?  Is that even an issue out there, working with men?

Lena:  No, working with about 17 men for half of the year isn't a big deal to me.  We're all out there for the same whine, complain, and gossip just the same as women do, they just act like they don't.  The only real difficulty I've had in working with men is that, since I'm usually a pretty nice person, sometimes they force me to be mean to them so they'll get the message that it's not okay to play games. 

CM:  Do you ever get to leave the ship?

Lena:  Yes, but it's usually only to do the shopping.  I don't really go out because I'm not all that interested.  I was on another ship at one point that went to Kuwait and we ended up stopping in Dubai.  I really liked it there and went shopping for myself as often as I could.

CM:  So I've heard that your sister is actually your relief on the ship, is that true, how does that work out?

Lena:  Yes.  Ah, what it means is that we see each other for a few hours at a time every 10 weeks.  

CM:  Well, that's got to be difficult?

Lena:  I don't feel like the relationship between us has really suffered much other than missing out on the activities that we'd do before she started shipping.  Whenever the ship is in port, we spend most of the day on the phone or on face time catching up and talking about the day.  There have been a couple of times that we were able to spend time together at home, like when our daddy passed away or when her son was born.  I was in the waiting room for something like 3 hours waiting to know they were alright.  We've actually worked together as well, we got the opportunity a couple of years ago, for about a month, and it was the best time I've had at work!

CM:  And what's life like at home for you?

Lena:  Well, I live with my mother, my sister, her husband, and her one year old son.  I'm not married and I'm not sure that I even want to be.  I tell people that I like being free and that I'm selfish!  I've always been independent and I want to get up and go whenever I want to, not have to answer to anyone, or even think about being missed when I'm at work. 

CM:  That sounds good to me!  So you like this life, huh?

Lena:  Definitely...and I'd definitely recommend this line of work to anyone.  If you like to travel and get paid for it, but don't want to be the property of the military, I say go for it.  I love sailing...

Note:  Lena was recently promoted to Steward, yay!  Tiger Cookies for everyone!  Congratulations, Lena!!

Copyright 2013 Callie's Mariner


April 23, 2013

the kid

  It's difficult to think back to my life as a child clearly.  I'm sure we all can attest to that, right?  Images, feelings, impressions are scattered in between very few sharp and vivid recollections.  No matter, as for me there's an overwhelming sense of satisfaction with my childhood even though my father was out to sea for months at a time throughout it.  So, I wanted to share a bit of that experience with you this week (thought it might be useful), especially for those of you with children or even contemplating it.

     By the time Big Daddy Mitchell came into the picture, I was 5 years old and extremely happy with the idea that my mother and I were living alone, that I had her all to myself.  As mentioned in previous posts, she was very independent and was naturally teaching me to be so by her example.  So it seemed a perfect fit for us that she would marry but that I wouldn't have to see him all of the time.  And so it went for a little while, until the creep started to grow on me and I actually started to concern myself with his comings and goings.  Darn feelings.
     What pulled me in initially were the tiny gifts he'd bring me from his latest travels...I was a child, sue me.  He had this over the shoulder carry on bag, navy blue with white piping edges, and Delta written on both sides.  My eyes would instantly lock onto it as he got off the plane as I just knew he'd have some trinket, some piece of a far away land tucked safely inside of that bag and I couldn't wait to see it.  I always asked to carry it and would spend the car ride home, most times, with it sitting perfectly still on my lap so careful not to jostle what could be a delicate piece of New Zealand or France.  Postcards, figurines, cloth, pens, and hats were only a few of the many wonderful items he gave to me, really precious memories, I've even kept some of the more special gifts to this day.


    What finally sucked me in and won me over to his side was the endless well of stories.  Each trip brought another tale from Spain, Japan, Australia, Mexico, you get the picture, right?  Hearing him talk about a man he met from Cairo, or walking the streets in Singapore lit a fire in me, filling me with a perpetual curiosity that wasn't fully satisfied until I grew older and started traveling myself.  I completely credit Big Daddy Mitchell for infecting me with the travel bug.

       Yes, he missed many of my
birthdays, dance recitals, 
school plays, holidays, he even missed my high school graduation, but he was there for a lot of really important things, too.  Things like taking me to the dentist then buying me a bag of Skittles to soften the misery of a teeth cleaning.  Or making pizzas from scratch for a ridiculous amount of teenage girls at my very first sleepover.  Seeing me off for my very first prom and telling me I looked just like a model.  Cheering me on as I won runner up in the local free throw contest at the age of 10.  And flying down to San Antonio with my mother to watch me graduate from basic training.  Honestly, I only remember the events he was there for, not the ones he missed and that's what I really hope you take away from this.
      Up until a few months ago, I've always been puzzled as to why there weren't more tears or more whining about his absences.  Then Lindsey (Staying Afloat) posted a comment on this site that kind of slapped me in the face, really woke me up as to the reasons my childhood wasn't affected by Big Daddy Mitchell's unconventional work schedule.  She was responding to a comment from another mariner spouse, someone who's struggling a bit to balance out life for herself and her children while he's gone, and even when he comes home.  Lindsey wrote a really well-articulated post along with some wonderful advice for the fairly new mariner wife, then she remarked on her own daughter's attitude towards this whole way of life, "...if I'm sad or frustrated, she will be, too."


      I realized then just how many cues I had taken from my mother about Merchant Mariner Land.  Though I'm sure she had her private meltdowns occasionally, I never saw them.  I have no memory of my mother complaining, weeping, screaming, depressed, whatever about his being away, so I assumed there was nothing wrong with it as well.  This was just the way our life was, this was our normal, and "our normal" meant any number of positive things.  Having our own life, following our own interests, having and keeping a schedule that had nothing to do with him so the transitions were 100% easier, and relying on ourselves to get things done; she demonstrated daily there wasn't anything I couldn't do, what a valuable lesson that has served me well into my adulthood and well into marriage with a merchant mariner.
      I would never presume to tell any of you how to raise your children in this life (especially since I don't have any of my own yet), I just wanted to offer up some proof that kids can be extremely flexible and manage really well in this life with a little bit of guidance.  I've known so many merchant mariner kids who were not adversely affected by the job their mom or dad did and I believe it's due to a prevailing theme running throughout the families living in Merchant Mariner Land...'this is our life...the end.'

      And it certainly was with us.  I'm not saying it wasn't difficult at times, of course it was, but knowing that both of my parents were onboard and okay with it made it so much easier for me to adjust to his absences and to really appreciate the time that he could be with us.  It certainly made me see and understand life in a different that is short, but filled with so many sweet moments, like Skittles after a visit to the dentist.

Copyright 2013 Callie's Mariner

April 16, 2013


Truth time...

   My name isn't Callie.  I know, you're thinking, what else has she lied to me about?   Is she even a merchant mariner's wife?  Does she even know Big Daddy Mitchell?  Does she really sleep next to a huge pile of clean clothes when her mariner's gone?

Absolutely nothing.  
Most definitely, that's my favorite part of his leaving next to not having to shave the gams.

    Here's the thing, I figured it's time now.  We've developed this highly stimulating and incredibly intellectual relationship, why not let you all the way into the very short history of this project I call Callie's Mariner?  
     First of all, and most importantly, Callie is actually Beady's grandmother.  A woman still very much amongst the living, 86 years of age, and dwelling in the house her husband built so many years ago on a beautiful piece of land in Northern Maine.  Yes, this is the person whose name I borrowed/hijacked/acquired to begin this journey and for a very simple reason...but I'll get to that later as I thought you might like to know a little bit more about her.  
     Some family members describe her as independent, tough, and loyal whereas I would refer you to Webster's Dictionary for such words as cantankerous, stubborn, brazen, mischievous, determined, and sometimes guarded.  I'd also like to use the word strong, but it's so generic, so ubiquitous, and she is anything but.  So indulge me and imagine if you will the word 'strong' but as reflective in the highest sense of its meaning, nothing plain about it, okay?  And here's a little example of why.  
    She's beat back lymphoma, yes, beat it back.  She's survived a heart attack, undergone quadruple bypass surgery and the many hospital stays that come along with such an "adventure."  She manages A-Fib off and on and has withstood the death of her husband after nearly forty years of marriage.  She has three rotten children ( I sure hope they're reading this!), seven grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren with one more on the way, and many, many more if you count extended family little ones.  
  Labs are Callie's dog of choice, don't argue with her about it.  Cutty Sark is what she drinks.  The End.  Bowling is what she does as often as possible and mowing the lawn for five hours at a time when Satan himself would deem it hot is just one of her many quirks.      

     The two of us have had a somewhat "interesting" relationship over these last ten years.  To be more specific, a relationship in which one throws and receives snarky comments, not so subtle insults, and veiled threats of a slightly violent nature depending on your perspective.  Why?  I'm not sure, but I think it has something to do with just how much alike we are despite our monumental difference in height.
This is the pic I gave her to commemorate the day.

     No matter, I think of her often and was not surprised to be doing so on this last trip to San Francisco as it was a place she ventured to at a very young age, early on in her marriage.  The reason she kept popping into my head was that I knew San Francisco hadn't been a place she'd been head over heels with.  Having followed her husband in his military career out to his latest permanent duty station she was admittedly homesick.  Far away from Maine, they were finding it extremely difficult to make ends meet, just very little money, and up to that point hadn't been able to get pregnant.   
    As Beady and I drove across the Golden Gate Bridge, the epitome of SF, I thought about the first time she told me this storyWe were alone in her home, everyone else had gone to the movies, and I took the opportunity to learn a little bit more about her life.  She was extremely forthcoming ( we always play nicely without an audience) and it was one of the rare occasions that I got a tiny glimpse into what made this woman tick.  As she related some of the events and the feelings that went along with it, I saw her as someone not unlike me, a woman very much in love with her husband and very grounded in her family roots.  
     She eventually made it through this difficult time and, as mentioned before, went on to raise a gigantic family full of spit and vinegar.  But after that night with her, I knew where she had come from, the difficulty she had faced, and that life hadn't been so sparkly and fresh for her as one (me) might have earlier thought.  It was an eye-opening moment for me and one that has stuck, no matter the ups and downs she and I have gone through since.  
     Now as to the name of this site, it's simple.  Not long into my relationship with Beady, I had the opportunity to visit with Callie at her house.  Upon entering, this map is the first thing I saw, actually it's the first thing anyone would see as they arrived.  

Callie's Map

    Callie took me closer to it, she made a point of doing it first actually, and detailed all of the places Beady had been from the time of his graduation at Maine Maritime Academy right up until I'd walked through that door only moments ago.  She'd followed his sea career faithfully, had cheered in his triumphs, had worried about him, had loved him endlessly as others came and went, and would continue to love him endlessly regardless of if I came or went!  That memory, more than anything else about her, has always stayed with me and I realized loving a mariner isn't exclusive to spouses or significant others.  Many friends, and in this case, family, are affected by the comings and goings of a mariner, why would their feelings be any less?  
    Consequently, her name serves as a constant reminder to me that this project isn't just about wives or girlfriends.  It's for everyone...children, sisters, husbands, aunts, grandparents, uncles, cousins, boyfriends, best friends, just anyone who has a merchant mariner in their life.  It's even for merchant mariners, too!     
    So I hope you can forgive me this little white lie as it's for a greater goodI wouldn't have done it if it hadn't been really, really important.  Promise I won't lie again, except about my weight.  

Copyright 2013 Callie's Mariner   

April 09, 2013

staying afloat

     Ok, so I was going to write something amazing this week, but then I read something even better and just had to post it as soon as possible!  Lindsey, an incredibly articulate woman who just happens to be a mariner spouse, has graciously agreed to be the first of many, I hope, to share her wit and wisdom in a series I'll be calling 'In The Wheelhouse.'  It's your chance, and mine, to hear a different voice from Mariner Land, and in this particular case, one a little less snarky and a lot more sentimental!  Thank you so much, Lindsey for agreeing to be the first and I can't wait to meet you...


lindsey & matt

There is something romantic about being in a relationship with someone that goes out to sea.  In the beginning, you can easily picture the two of you running down the docks in perfect harmony with some climax building soundtrack to receive that long awaited embrace after months of being apart.  A famous, professional photographer could just happen to be hanging around and manage to capture the two of you in this passionate moment that will surely become an iconic image for all mariner spouses to come. When your sailor leaves again, you ascend to your widow’s walk atop your spectacular 19th century North American coastal home as the wind floats through your hair, just like the cover of a newly released, steamy romance novel.  (I was always 15 pounds thinner and 10 times hotter in my versions of this scenario.)  But, while the fictional rendition of the comings and goings of the mariner lifestyle might be enticing, deciding whether or not you’re cut out for the in-between parts can be daunting.  And though I hesitate to offer advice as our relationships are likely as different as our mariner’s schedules, what I can extend is experience from my own numerous mistakes and accidental successes.  So, what experience would I lend a fledgling mariner relationship?
     Independence is important, being comfortable alone and having an identity outside of your relationship will only aid in your ability to manage long stretches of time apart.  If you need physical and emotional validation from your partner on a daily basis, it might be a rough go of it, however, I do believe independence can grow and evolve over time.  I was closing out my 20s when we became an “us” and in the beginning, more terrifying than the thought of being alone was thought of being alone…with me.  The last six years gave me a lot to really get to myself and the true extents of my limits.  I even learned how to jumpstart a car from a YouTube video.  Self-five!  Things will happen, Beady’s Law demands it.  There will be trials and tribulations and there may be no one there to help you.  The only way to beat it is to be prepared and be confident in your abilities to independently solve problems or at least your ability to find someone that can.  You might just be amazed at what you can do when you have no other choice.
      Make their schedule a part of your life, but not your whole life.  I have always disliked the term “work widow” as it implies that I have lost something or am being deprived in some way.  I feel quite the opposite.  I choose to see our time apart as an opportunity to just be me and not be somebody’s other half for a while.  You have the choice to spend your time apart waiting or you could spend your time living.  I live each day apart with high hopes that I can come up with a home story to rival one of his sea stories.  I have yet to succeed, but I always have a good laugh trying.  I also love to read, it's my favorite activity and coincidentally, one that requires time alone.  Seize the opportunity to indulge in all those hobbies/activities your other half might not enjoy as much as you. For me, you can embarrassingly insert a Gossip Girl/Vampire Diaries marathon on Netflix and many, many more equally guilty pleasures here.  Don’t judge, you know you've got some embarrassing music hiding on that iPod!
     Embrace the butterflies and euphoric feelings of new love you'll experience over and over, every time your mariner comes home.  Never having the chance to take your love for granted is a unique opportunity. Take it!  The arrivals and departures might not always be scenes from the next Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan movie, but look forward to those moments instead of hanging on to the sad parts. I still get just as giddy and nervous about picking out just the right outfit for Matt’s return as I did when I packed for our first weekend together.  Nine times out of ten, he arrives after I go to bed but the process remains the same.  I never tire of being on a perpetual first date; the flirty text messages that start the minute his tug enters U.S. waters from Canada, the anticipation of yet another first kiss, and the illusion that I magically get slimmer since he’s missed every sweaty hour I spent on our treadmill in his absence.
     Accept that you won’t always be accepting.  Like any other relationship, you will likely do or say the wrong thing at some point.  I have regrettably picked a fight and given the silent treatment the day/night before Matt has left for a month long trip.  Thanks to limited shipboard communications and a little stubbornness, I couldn’t apologize for days.  The agony of waiting and all of the sleepless nights were punishment enough for us both.  A month to cool off, a little forgiveness, and we moved on, but I’d be lying if I said I never did it again.  (I did eventually learn my lesson and now I only pick fights when he arrives home.  Kidding!)  And there will be resentment.  I've cancelled and rescheduled a vacation three times, it never happened, although I have high hopes we’ll still make it there someday.  I have uttered the words “If you weren’t gone all the time I could...finish school faster, get a haircut, go on vacation”.  In the end I was able to do all of those things.  Matt being home wasn’t the solution; I just had to find another way.
    Never ask them to choose between you and their job, you will likely be severely disappointed with the outcome.  It seems like a no-brainer since ultimatums are probably never a good idea in any relationship, but I’ve watched it happen so many times.  I get it.  Who wants to come second to the sea and an inanimate object made of steel?  But I absolutely believe there is nothing sexier than seeing the person I love completely in his element.  Matt spent his whole life working to get where he is today because he loves everything about boats and being on the ocean.  He is the amazing man he is because he goes to sea, not in spite of going to sea.  I’m awesome, too, but not THAT awesome.  (I watch Hoarders to make myself feel better about my messy house, so clearly, there is room for improvement in all this awesomeness.)  For me, this is really a choice between a life with this amazing person or a life with a miserable man and his perpetually untucked sheets...I’m not picking the sheets.  If anything, his marriage to his work has inspired me to fulfill my own passions and find that same level of contentment.
     Don’t let others dictate what your relationship should look like.  Many will feel obligated to remind you of how different or odd your life is, how they could never imagine being apart from their spouses that long, and they’ll do it right to your face.  Sometimes it will be a lack of understanding, sometimes jealousy, and sometimes it will just be because they don’t know what else to say.  Never forget that you are the stars of your own relationship reality show, everyone else is just the supporting cast.  I emphasize the word support because that is exactly what those closest to you should be.  But should you feel vengeful, even if just in your head, remind them how refreshed you feel after you've just slept alone in a King size bed…for a month…diagonally.
     Most importantly, just because they aren't there doesn't mean they can't be a part of every day. You don’t have to become Martha Stewart every time they leave, or create your version of everything you’ve pinned on Pinterest, but keep them in your daily routine even if only in conversation.  Take a photograph the moment you thought about them and if you’re like me, you’ll fill a photo album in less than a week.  Write down a realistic date idea each day you wish you could be going out but can’t.  When they return, choose one and you have an instant wish come true.  Find creative ways to count down days for yourself or your kids, if you have them. Although not for everyone, counting down to a return home can be just as fun as counting down to holidays...more so if they are actually gone during holidays.  Have your kids draw a picture in a pocket size spiral notebook every day your mariner is gone, the possibilities are endless, admittedly, I haven’t done all of these things yet as it's an ongoing process and I can’t give away all of my secrets as my recipient is probably reading this post!  The takeaway here is that actively making them a positive part of your day takes just as much time as brooding over their absence and is ultimately more constructive.
    Remember, the only one that can tell you if you’re cut out for the mariner lifestyle is you.  I do believe that many people can survive it, if they have even just the courage to try.  If you do decide to hop onboard, be sure to fill the times between arrivals and departures with all the things that make you happiest.  Laugh about mistakes and hold hands across the rough parts.  Allow yourself to feel and be open about those feelings with your partner.  And it’s okay to be lonesome but you're never really alone, mariner families are spread far and wide across the globe so don’t be afraid to reach out to those in similar situations.  No matter how much it looks like someone has this life all figured out, we’re all still trying to keep our own boats afloat. 
                                                                                                             Lindsey Wright

Please feel free to add your thoughts to this below, we'd love to hear them!

Copyright 2013 Callie's Mariner