Sunday, June 24, 2012

Why Marine Transportation

Well, there’s the money. Working on boats as a captain is a skilled trade more than a profession, but captains with high school diplomas (and often less) can make (annually) as much as many professionals with post-baccalaureate degrees.

Of course, pay follows the day rates for the boats, which operate on a pretty basic supply-and-demand system. So “down” years (for instance, when there’s a drilling moratorium) will see entry-level pay (and job opportunities) drop. When the Gulf is hopping, rates go up.

It’s important to understand, too, that most companies pay crews on a per diem basis – a certain amount of money for each day that employee is on a “hitch” or period of duty. A standard work year is 240 paid days, whether you’re working hitches of 28 days on, 14 days off, or 14 and seven.

Many licensed and unlicensed crew members sometimes work “over” or take extra time off for family commitments or schools, so actual results may vary.

Currently companies in the Gulf of Mexico (at least all the ones I’ve talked to) are starting entry-level captains (third captains or training captains) in the $250-$300 per day range. As captains move up to relief master (second captain) and master (first captain) – or move to larger boats, and sometimes larger companies – the pay goes up accordingly.

For a 100-ton license, the one I hold, I’m guessing pay probably tops out at around $400 per day right now, with the majority of first and second captains making between $300 and $400 per day (the Gulf still has not completely recovered economically from the BP spill, or the Great Recession, so many captains or still in the lower end of that range).

For mariners holding Master of Towing licenses, or 500- and 1600-ton licenses, $700 per day is probably the upper range (but it could be higher with certifications like Dynamic Positioning Operator).

Annually, that works out to a salary range of about $60,000 to just under six figures for a 100-ton captain. Break it down to an hourly wage, and it no longer sounds like a lottery windfall: a captain making $280 a day, working 12-hour watches, is working for about $23 an hour (and not getting paid for the other 12 hours he’s on the boat).

The larger companies – and even some of the smaller, family-owned operations – offer pretty good benefits, on par with many shore-based corporations.

There are other reasons to go to sea, of course: if you like being on the water, there’s plenty of the stuff out there. There’s also a certain joy in being part of a crew that works well together, and the pride that comes with a well-maintained and well-run boat.

Professionally, I suspect we all keep score on how well we can hold a boat at a platform or rig in big seas, how rarely we touch bottom in a treacherous channel and how often we can take care of a challenge without calling the office.

An old Army master sergeant once told me that “if you’re not building, teaching, growing or healing, whatever you’re working at doesn’t really matter in the long run.”

The way I see it, what I’m doing now supports all of that, one way or another. The platforms and rigs we service ultimately produce or make possible the electricity that powers the computer you are looking at right now, the fuel you burned in your vehicle today in Dallas and that powered a combine up in the Midwest.

They produce the raw materials that go into the milk jug in your refrigerator and the bandages in a New York City emergency room.

Everything from bowling balls to monofilament fishing lines to freezer bags starts right here, and none of that offshore production starts or continues without workboats.

So, if you’re of a philosophical frame of mind, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that this kind of work is important, in the grand scheme of things.

There is a downside.

The time away from home tops the list of caveats, and I’m still not sure how that’s going to work out for me. It can be really tough – especially for those of us with children, and especially for the spouses we leave behind.

Modern boats, while not exactly Spartan, are rarely as comfortable as our own homes, and entertainment and communication options may be limited.

If you are unlucky in your assignment of crew or captain, a two-week or four-week hitch can be downright miserable.

The work can be dirty, by turns freezing and sweltering, and sometimes dangerous. With increasing frequency, captains are going to jail or being heavily fined for messing-up on the job – something that doesn’t happen to your average teacher, lawyer or mechanical engineer.

If none of that scares you away, it can be a pretty good job.

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