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


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