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  June 12th, 2024 | Written by

A Closer Look at Life on a Cargo Ship: 7 Realities

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The water transportation industry rarely gets the spotlight. That said, delivering freight from country to country is hard work that deserves more recognition. 

Read also: Innovative Strategy Reduces Cargo Ship Emissions by 17.3%

A great number of people contribute to a package’s journey and destination. Here’s a closer look at what to do to get and stay on board a cargo ship.

Applying to Become a Cargo Worker

There are many jobs in the sector, with seaman and material handler as the entry-level roles. It can take some time to climb the ranks and become a senior member of the crew or ship captain. However, some are content with taking on more niche roles such as ship cook or rigger.

Cargo ship jobs usually have fewer educational requirements, with some accepting high school graduates. However, maritime training and certification is key. U.S. companies and sole proprietors must obtain a license from the Federal Maritime Commission to qualify for ocean freight transportation.

Sending in an application does not guarantee landing a role. Logistic jobs may be in demand with the growth of e-commerce and globalization, but most enterprises look for people with experience handling inventory and shipping.

It’s also important to check on one’s health before pushing through with becoming a cargo worker. Unlike shipping roles on land, a crew member will have to face the sights and motions of the sea throughout their career.

Checking Compensation for the Crew

Compensation can vary from role to role. Experience and rank can also play a big part in the salary. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, water transportation workers had a median pay of $31.22 per hour or $64,930 annually in May 2023. Some shipping businesses offer a premium for overtime work.

Some people receive their pay weekly or monthly, depending on management. However, some crew members need compensation due to unfair employers and rogue manning agents. The International Transport Workers’ Federation recovered over $35 million in wages owed.

Cargo ship workers must be wary of their employers and any payment problems that may arise. Check the agency’s legitimacy by checking its registration and whether it is under an ITF agreement. A claim against brands that have breached those conditions will be easier to process and resolve.

Crew members can connect with the rest of their shipmates to address delays and collect their salaries. However, being wary of acquaintances who will take advantage of the situation and extort money is also essential.

Experiencing the Working Conditions

The sun and the sea are both unpredictable natural elements. Docking at the port and moving the freight onto the boat can already be a taxing experience. Depending on the size of the vessel and the number of crew members working together, the movement can take a while.

Some people may experience muscle soreness with a delayed onset afterward. These aches show up 24 to 72 hours after strenuous activities. However, staff can’t get rest right away, especially when the ship finally sails.

Material handlers need to recheck inventory to ensure nothing is missing. Engineers need to monitor and maintain the motor to keep the ship afloat. The captain and officers must navigate the waters and steer the freight to their destination.

As bigger ships need hands on deck 24/7, someone will always be working. The shift assigned to a worker will typically state their exact hours and when they can rest in their personal quarters.

Living on a Water Vessel

A cargo ship is quite far from a cruise ship, as it is more optimized for transporting different packages. Being in the middle of the ocean makes Wi-Fi connection quite difficult to come across. Even when an email does get out, the captain is in charge of reviewing correspondence.

While it lacks the amenities and entertainment required, most cargo ship workers can find plenty of solace in the endless sky and sea. Taking in the sights in between monitoring the mechanisms and freights can be relaxing.

Most cargo ship organizations provide meals for the crew at specific times of day. Vessels with longer journeys have a limited food supply, so each person gets only one portion. Fresh food is hard to come by after a few months since it will have gone bad already.

For sleeping accommodation, ship crewmates of a higher rank may get their own room and bed. Deckmates and other roles share a cabin and bunk bed with others on the boat. Toilets and a shower room are also for communal use.

Maintaining Gear and Equipment

Cargo ship workers are responsible for a lot of gear and equipment, which isn’t always smooth sailing. For instance, marine freshwater tanks store water for drinking and cooking. These portable liquids should be clean and free of infection. Unfortunately, they are still subject to contamination, which can cause Legionnaires’ disease among the crew.

There’s also the struggle of inclement weather when on board. Whether rain or shine, the boat needs to continue moving forward. The crew must be prepared to move items and evacuate the area if any damage occurs to the hull due to turbulent sailing conditions.

Foul weather gear is recommended since it has a water-repellent finish to protect the material. However, it diminishes after every 20 to 30 uses. Wearing it every day during the rainy season can affect its quality before the ship even gets to its destination.

In those cases, workers have to rewax the area to achieve the waterproof effect again. If the layers are separating from the interior fabric, report to a manager to get a new suit.

Navigating the Work Culture

There is still a stigma that the maritime industry is only for men due to traditional gender roles. However, many female seafarers have created a mark on the industry. For example, Caroline Mayhew became a captain in 1846 after her husband and crew members fell victim to the smallpox epidemic. She was able to steer the vessel to safety.

Numerous modern-day heroines are still pursuing careers on cargo ships. While some crew members are less than respectful towards women and the work culture still needs improvement, the space is slowly changing to become more inclusive. Look for employers focusing on each person’s safety and mental well-being while on the clock.

Managing Personal Time

One key reality about working on a cargo ship is how hard a work-life balance is to achieve. A rating can take around nine months or so. In that time, a crew member can miss a holiday, a loved one’s birthday and other important events.

It’s challenging to manage personal relationships. However, some people do maintain friendships and families while sailing worldwide. Just communicate and set expectations with loved ones before the next venture.

The Truth of Cargo Ship Life

Staying afloat during a cargo ship’s trials and tribulations is challenging and rewarding. Acknowledge the realities and appreciate the people within the field. Those with a newfound respect or admiration for the trade are more than welcome to join.