On the Waterfront: During the Holidays
24/7/365 – the industry never stops. The general public might not know it, but those tasked with logistics decisions, cargo and the day-to-day operations of a marine operator, certainly do.
I had the good fortune this year to be off and with my family on all the major holidays. In fact, it’s been a while since I had to work one, but over time, I’ve worked plenty, in a myriad of different roles. As I look back, this is also probably a pretty good time to pay tribute to those still doing double duty during the holidays. I look back on my service pragmatically. It kept the lights on, it was important work and I typically did it without complaint. That didn’t make it any easier.
Starting out right after graduating from Mass. Maritime, I signed onto a Military Sealift Command vessel for a stint that lasted more than six months, eventually stretching through Thanksgiving and Christmas. In later years, I spent a few more holidays at sea. To be honest, it wasn’t all that bad and as long as you looked at it as just another day on the boat with one less to go until a 75 day vacation, days like Christmas and Thanksgiving flew by like any other. To be fair, I didn’t have kids back then and during my time at sea, I wasn’t married. Many of my shipmates had families and young children and I think it was especially hard on them.
For me, the worst part about a holiday like Christmas at sea was the effort to observe the day at any cost by others. Typically, this entailed the steward’s department erecting the obligatory plastic Christmas tree in the officer’s saloon and the preparation of a holiday meal that went above and beyond what they might otherwise dish out on any other day. But, the harder they tried to make it a big deal only increased the sense of what I was probably missing ashore. I was always glad when it was over and the tacky tree was finally dismantled and shoved back into a closet in the galley for another 364 days. This year – as with every other year – tens of thousands of ships, workboats and tugs are out there toiling on Christmas, New Year’s Day and every other major holiday. The maritime professionals who make that possible also make a lot of sacrifices when they do.
Following my tenure at sea – cut short as they scrapped my ship out from under me – I embarked upon a career as a cargo surveyor, ship expeditor and vetter. I soon discovered that this work schedule had much in common with going to sea, with much less in the way of certainty in terms of when you’d need to be somewhere to provide service. At least on the ship, you could plan reasonably well for a scheduled vacation period. In the world of marine consulting, it was not uncommon to get the unwelcome telephone call from your boss on December 23, which brought with it news of the ship assignment at Cayo Arcas, Mexico. Oh, and by the way, the plane leaves tomorrow at 6 AM – you’ll be back on January 2. Maybe.
One particular year, I spent about 10 days over Christmas and New Year’s in Venezuela attending crude oil liftings for an oil trader. Beyond the usual cargo measurement, safety checks and 24 hour, round-the-clock attendance, the client also wanted us to witness the laboratory analysis ashore. As it happens, that was exactly what I was doing at the stroke of midnight on December 31. Unbeknownst to me at the time, it is apparently some sort of local tradition that everyone you are with has to be hugged and kissed at the magic moment. This went on for about ten minutes. It’s a fine tradition, I suppose, but everyone (including me) smelled of crude oil. I was again glad when it was over.
Marine consulting encompasses many things – draft surveys, cargo measurement, vetting, expediting, port captain duties, terminal surveys, inventory control, damage surveys and a thousand other things that can’t wait until the day after the holiday. In those days, we had a few anchor clients who paid most of the bills, and many more who gave us lesser amounts of work. Typically, these traders had their own in-house personnel and only subbed out a particular assignment if they ran out of their own manpower. They also had the nasty habit of making sure the in-house folks had every holiday off and if a ship came in during that time frame, they naturally called us. And, in the service industry, you had to field the call and respond to the requirement.
I spent almost ten years in the field. During that time, I worked more than my fair share of holidays. During one two-year span, I probably spent at least 10 days per month traveling back and forth from Puerto Rico; attending tanker discharge and loading operations. In later years, when I stepped into the office-based manager’s role, part of my duties entailed dispatching our representatives to field assignments. Hence, my calls to the folks who now reported to me weren’t always well received. In the days before “caller ID” became widely available, the discovery by the employee’s wife that it was me on the other end of the line would elicit a predictable response. For my part, I made sure that I never asked anyone to do anything that I hadn’t done myself – many times over. I also charged a premium holiday rate to those clients who took advantage of us on short notice during the holidays.
Working the holidays isn’t relegated to those working in the field or on board the boats. There are dozens of back office roles that also need to be accomplished. Just ask any operations specialist working at any trading house or oil major. My own wife, in no way associated with marine transportation, for many years worked New Year’s Day in an accounting role at a large bank. A CPA by trade, the books had to balance and she always got after it bright and early on the 1. For the first 20 years of our marriage, I can’t remember once going out to a party on New Year’s Eve. In retrospect, that’s probably a good thing.
On the waterfront – and beyond to the back office – you can be sure that every day and night during this special season, someone in our industry is toiling to make sure that the intermodal engine that makes this country run, is also chugging along smoothly. It’s part of what makes the maritime industry a little bit different, certainly more challenging than any number of other professions. Hat’s off to the mariners and maritime professionals who got the job done, as usual, this year. – MarPro.
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Joseph Keefe is the lead commentator of MaritimeProfessional.com. Additionally, he is Editor of both Maritime Professional and MarineNews print magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at Keefe@marinelink.com. MaritimeProfessional.com is the largest business networking site devoted to the marine industry. Each day thousands of industry professionals around the world log on to network, connect, and communicate.