Question from an outsider about life at sea - and port


I found this forum via a Google search and this is my first post here. I live in Oakland, California and I have a great view of the ships at anchor in SF Bay. I’ve always been interested in ships - an AIS app is always on the home screen of my phone!

I’ve got some time off work coming up and I’m thinking of making a short documentary (that’s related to my day job) about the life of crews aboard the ships the come into Oakland. I don’t know anything about this world. Do crews go ashore? Do they stay onboard? Are their spouses with them? How long do they stay here? What countries are they from and how does that affect what they do? The millions of people who live here see ships every day but the people who work on them are out of sight and out of mind to the regular person. I think a story about these people - some of you guys? - could be really interesting. Well, interesting to me at least!

Would anyone one this forum be willing to speak with me - email, phone or in person - about this idea?


It’s like a factory job where you don’t get to go home at night. If you are lucky you get your own small room, with a sink. Maybe a rec room where you can sit and listen to the same old jokes and stories. Depending on the job you may not get off except to go home.

With internet and tv these days its not to bad. The blocks of time off are the best part of the job.


It’s self imposed prison, only there for money & time off.

On most modern vessels, crew members get their own rooms. Older vessels, the unlicensed (not officers) may share a cabin and there might be a common crew shower/lavatory on each deck or one shared head between two cabins. Officers will get their own cabins with head. Captain and Chief Engineer will get their own cabin and generally an office/day room to meet with shoreside personnel and for the mountains of paperwork that have become part of the job. Not entirely uncommon for officers to have their spouse onboard for some legs of the voyage. Crews go ashore, but with the extra scrutiny from Immigration these days, not so much as before. I have sailed, but it has been awhile. There ARE others here that are still working at sea.

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Hello Fergus!

I’d be happy to talk with you. You may also want to talk with the local maritime unions (Seafarer’s International Union, Masters, Mates & Pilots, and inlandboatman’s union), the San Francisco Pilot Association and the local seafarer’s missions (Seafarers ministry of the golden gate).

Hope this helps,

I was shocked to see tours of the inside of MSC and Merchant Marine ships and see that most people had their own little stateroom (as we would call it in the Navy) or cabin. That’s unheard of in the US Navy, especially on submarines. :astonished:

Well, I have only served on submarines so I can only speak to that. But on a submarine, the enlisted personnel only get “racks”, that is to say, just a bunk. On a fast attack submarine, you share your rack with two other people. One is sleeping, one is on watch, and one is doing other things on the boat, and you rotate.

Junior (E-7 and below) Berthing on fast attack submarine

On a Trident (Ohio class) or SSGN (Ohio class on which all the Trident missiles have been removed and replaced with a total of 400 Tomahawk cruise missiles with conventional warheads), the enlisted personnel sleep in bunkrooms, each of which has 9 racks inside.

Trident/SSGN bunkroom

On both types of boats, the officers get staterooms, but they are very different from surface ships. Each stateroom holds two officers. They have the two racks and about 24 inches of deck space, and then a sliding door. The bulkhead in between has a fold out desk and a chair.

LT (officer) sitting in his stateroom on a submarine (shared with another officer, racks to his right)

The only two people who have their own stateroom on a submarine are the Captain and the XO (Executive Officer, second in command, I believe Merchant Mariners call this “First Mate”?). The Captain’s stateroom is about twice the size of the XO’s stateroom. An amusing anecdote on submarines is that there is a tradition where the XO’s door is stolen and passed around to various divisions on the submarine (nuclear machinist mates, nuclear electronics technicians, a-gangers, sonar technicians (like myself), etc.). :laughing: :joy: Unlike on a surface ship, most of the doors are just normal doors. On a fast attack submarine, there is only one watertight door; on a Trident there are three (IIRC).

Senior enlisted berthing (E-7 and above) is basically the same as junior enlisted berthing, except they have a separate area.

The crew is very small. Approximately 100 enlisted personnel and approximately 20 officers, including the Captain and XO. The Captain is usually a Commander, but there are some full bird Captains. The Department Heads are usually Lieutenant Commanders, although the Navigator (head of Navigation Department) on my first boat was a very senior Lieutenant.

As far as life on a submarine…EXTREMELY stressful. ok, in theory you have 6 hours on, 12 hours off. IN THEORY. In practice, you could have training after watch, you could have a department wide evolution such as moving torpedoes around in the torpedo room if you are Weapons Department (which I was), there could be a drill, there could be an actual emergency. It was VERY TYPICAL to stay up for 24-48 hours underway on a submarine. This will happen at least once a week, usually five or six days a week. I have personally stayed up for four days doing operations. I kid you not and I speak literally. Luckily, I actually got to sleep for 10+ hours after that was over, which is very, very rare.

As far as ports, it depends on what type of boat. Tridents do not go into foreign ports. They are normally on strategic deterrent missions but sometimes (rarely) do other “interesting” stuff. I got to do the interesting stuff only twice. I can neither confirm nor deny the presence of a nuclear weapon aboard any US Navy submarine at any time. US Navy submarines are powered by nuclear reactors, so we are limited only the amount of food we can carry. I personally have been submerged for 87 days straight (never coming to the surface the entire time). Our boat went to Pearl Harbor, San Diego, and Kachteikan (spell check), Alaska, while I was aboard. I served on a fast attack too but the one I was on was in drydock the whole nine months I was assigned to the crew, and then my EAOS came up and I got out of the Navy. :slight_smile: So my sea time was on the Trident.

Fast attack and SSGN submarines go all over the world. They mainly do “interesting” stuff. They also go on WESTPACs, where they visit Japan, Australia etc. They often travel with a carrier battle group.

On Tridents we have a Crew Study and a Crew Lounge. Typically, the crew will watch a move together in the Crew Lounge after watch. The study has several computers. On my boat, four of them were used for playing computer games – mainly Unreal Tournament (1999 version…I served 1999 to 2003) – and three were used for people to study for various qualifications, mainly getting Qualified in Submarines.

One of the best aspects of submarine duty is the food. We still complain about it, of course. But on a submarine, there is no room to have a separate mess (kitchen) for officers, so enlisted and officers are served the same meal. The officers do eat in a separate area – the wardroom – but the meal is exactly the same. The cooks at the White House are supplied by the Navy, and usually at least one of the MSs (cooks) has worked there. On my boat, the Culinary Specialist Senior Chief had worked at the White House AND one of the Mess Specialist First Classes had as well. We mainly ate 10,000 varieties of chicken, but also shrimp, steak, lobster, etc. :slight_smile:

Shipmate I think the OP meant to ask about US Flag ships and ships registered in other first world countries…unlikely that crews on Flags of Convenience would read this, right?

Also, average IQ is the same for all humans; the average IQ is 100. :slight_smile:

Oh happy days…


He wasn’t asking the crews of those ships, he was asking us about them. See below:

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On big container vessels the have single room crew quarters with sanitary cell. Captain/CE have more room.


He asked about Merchant ships in general and most of those seen coming and going in Oakland Ca. are foreign flag vessels. I don’t know if they see many submarines there and the living conditions on a submarine is (thanks heaven) not representative of how seafarers in general live.

Yes most of the foreign ships calling at Oakland and SF Bay would be registered under some FOC flags, but also a large number under Chinese (excl. HK) flag and some other national flags, which does not accept foreign ownership or foreign crews on their ships.

There are also a number of 1st World countries with open registers which is NOT FOCs, such as Singapore, HK, or a number of European flag states who allow foreign ownership, but demand some sort of affiliation within the country, either by the owner or operator. Foreign crews serving on their ships has to meet the same qualification standard as their nationals.

Even USA has ships under their flag that is defacto foreign owned, but the entire crew HAS to be American citizens, or Green Card holders.
PS> US flagged OSVs working in foreign waters are allowed to have foreign crews, but the Master has to be an American citizen.

Another fact that is apparently not very well understood by the general public is that many of the largest FOC registers are owned by American entities and operated from USA. A large number of the ships registered in such FOC registers are actually also owned by American companies and, in some cases, operated from their offices in USA.

As to the crews that man the world fleet, here is an article about the present number of seafarers world wide and the estimated demand, now and in the future:
PS> On this site you’ll find facts and figures about world shipping and links to just about any other major source of info you may seek.

As stated by Spoke (Post #5): [quote]Most are from China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Russia and Ukraine. As a globalized industry shipping companies employ the people with the lowest cost-competency ratio. You can employ someone with a high IQ from China or Russia who would cost 10 times or more to employ if they were from the USA.[/quote]
Since the supply of competent Officers and crews from lower cost countries are there, the number of West European, American and other 1st World country seafarers are shrinking. (Not sure if I agree about the ratio of 10/1 in actual crew cost, but on average it is definatly more expensive to hire Americans, or West Europeans than many others)

Major Shipowners are not paying more for their crews then they must to efficiently and safely operation of their vessels. They don’t particularly want to risk the safety of their vessel by hiring unqualified Masters, Officers and Crews, just to safe a few $ in daily expenses. (Their underwriters and Flag State wouldn’t let them either)

Some less serious owners and/or “asset players” don’t care, or know, much about operation of ships and engage unscrupulous ship managers to handle that part, usually under less well run registers, which give life to the popular notion of FOC ships as been “rust buckets manned by 3rd world villagers at slave pay”. That is not to say that there aren’t quality Ship Managers operating ships on behalf of serious owners. Most are.

Most FOCs are actually among the best performing safety wise. with less detentions by the MOUs then some of the perceived “quality flags”.

Here is the 2016 Paris MOU list:
(The list itself is a pdf as shown at the bottom of the page)

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oildrop, that’s amazing! :astonished: That cabin is larger than the Captain’s stateroom on either the USS Florida SSBN-728 or USS Asheville SSN-758! :astonished:

And that is for enlisted people, right? Or what they refer to in the Merchant Marine as “unlicensed”?? Wow. :slight_smile:

Of course, on submarines, we simply don’t have room; we have to be able to take on a large amount of water so that our weight will be greater than the amount of water we displace, causing us to submerge via Archimedes law. But it is also a difference in the mission of the ship; even with a surface Naval vessel, they are trying to devote most of the space aboard to things that directly contribute to the mission. We sailors, even the officers, are expected to make sacrifices.

I definitely agree with what a Captain of one of the US Navy Military Sealift Command ships said, that MSC is good for “Navy guys who hated the Navy but loved going to sea”. That describes me, lol. :slight_smile: Looks like it is true of the Merchant Marine as well.

Here’s a question for the civilian sailors on here…do you guys have to take Navy showers underway? aka miltary showers? You see, since the submarine or ship makes potable water from the surrounding seawater and must expend energy to do so, and only has two small potable water tanks, we have to conserve the potable water. So a Navy shower is: turn the water on for 1 to 2 seconds, turn it off again, put the soap on, run the water for 1 to 2 seconds to rinse off, then turn the water off again, and you’re done. Do you have to do that on civilian ships? I remember once on a long patrol, the Captain ordered the showers secured, because we were using too much potable water; he restored access when our usage dropped below 5000 gallons a day.

Oildrop, wait one…you have your own head included with these cabins too?? :astonished: That’s awesome! :open_mouth:

Let’s see, on my first boat, you had the main junior enlisted head on missile compartment 3rd level (two showers, three toilets)…the watchstander’s head on forward compartment 2nd level (toilet only, no shower), then there was one for senior enlisted (E7 and above) in forward compartment 3rd level, the one for the officers on 2nd level and one shared by the CO and XO. So that’s five for 120 people. Or more to the point, for the 85+ junior enlisted, two heads to which you had access.

Hi neutrino78x

, I hope the admin allows me to upload 4 pics. from the navigation bridge of an 11300 TEU container vessel delivered Nov. 2009 in Okpo/ Korea to German owners… The most modern container vessels today carry about 20.000 TEU . They belong to big players like MAERSK, CMA CGM and MSC to name just three. There are more though. They are spacious in accomodation and handled by 22 crew only. They give you a safe and acceptable environment for the long months on board because as you have read from other contributors shore leave is limited by various factors. Mostly time.
If you carry a multi billion dollar cargo and earn a decent salary you must be dedicated and willing to accept hardships and your family must play along. It won’t work otherwise. We could open several other threads to discuss life at sea and the different aspects which are driving people from various countries and cultures to submit their lives to lonesomeness . One thing is for sure … somehow you must love the sea.


Depending on the type of seawater evaporator modern ships produce appr. 30.000 Ltrs. of destilled water every day. This is enough to take multiple showers and hose the deck down with fresh water. For drinking purposes you have to enhance this water with minerals. Bunkering freshwater is a thing of the past. At least for the big ships. Anyhow, ports offer facilities to take freshwater and there are various reasons ships still do.

No. The smallest evap units I’ve used made about 24 tons a day of water while underway. Flash type distillers are the most common that I’ve seen out there.

IIRC, on the ship I’m currently on we carry about 200 tons of potable for a crew of 17. The only time we’re concerned about water usage is in port as we divert grey water to a holding tank that’s much, much smaller (15 tons if I recall). We try to minimize laundry usage in port if we’re going to be at the dock longer than planned. Our normal port stays are so short that it’s rarely an issue.

Big Container ships and Submarines are miles apart as far as crew accommodations are concerned.
In the Offshore Vessel sector there are a big difference in the standard of living quarters, depending on the age, size and purpose of the vessels, as well as the nationality and area of intended operation.

Typically, accommodations on European vessels has a higher standard than those built for use in Asia, Middle East and off West Africa primarily.
Here is the mess room on a typical AHTS built for Asian operation:

Mess room on a European MPSV built for worldwide operation:

Typical two men cabin for workers on the same MPSV:

The marine crew all have single cabins with toilet/shower in-situ.

Common Recreation room, this one for non-smokers:

For those who are more interested in the bridge, here is the aft coning position:

Captain’s Chair at aft position, with all functions built in to the armrests:

This is a vessel built in 2008, this style of chair is no longer in fashion. (Now simplified)

For those members and guests who are not familiar with what an MPSV look like, here is the vessel the above pictures where taken on board in Singapore in 2010. She is now the " Sapurakencana Constructor":

Living conditions on US build OSVs have improved somewhat, but is still nowhere near the European standard, in most cases.
It is a while since I inspected any newer US built vessels, so I don’t have pictures available.

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Yep. Well, I realized that I loved it when I was in the USN. :slight_smile: I just didn’t love the military, necessarily. I liked some aspects of it, but most of it I did not. Of course, to serve your country and protect your fellow Americans is an honor and a privilege. The adventure of going out to sea is great, though. But I’m preaching to the choir on that one. If you guys didn’t like it, you probably wouldn’t still be doing it as a job. :smile:

btw that bridge has to be double, almost three times the size of Control on a submarine. :slight_smile: Technically we only have a bridge when on the surface (which is rare when you’re underway), here’s a pic of the bridge…this happens to be my first boat…it’s cool that wiki commons has many pics of it…this pic was taken after my time and after they converted it from SSBN to SSGN…this is a great ride btw, if you are one of the enlisted lookouts who is up on the bridge with the OOD while running on the surface, quite exhilarating, you’re less than 50 feet above the surface going up to…ahem…a maximum of “greater than 10 knots” is all we are allowed to say, the guy in this pic is the OOD (the handheld radios are for B2B etc, on the very rare case that he talks to a civilian ship on B2B, you would be talking to the OOD):

Bridge of USS Florida SSGN-728

so, while submerged, Control is basically the bridge.

Control, USS Florida

In this pic, the OOD is in the background, on the raised platform with the periscopes (he’s the one in the blue uniform, we call them “poopy suits”, behind the periscopes, reaching for something above his head, possibly the mic for the 7MC or 1MC). The closer officer, Commander Ott, is the Captain. From where this pic was taken to where CDR Ott is standing is about 10 feet. There are two sticks because one is normally course and one is depth. Or more precisely, it controls the angle of the boat; the depth is controlled through a combination of that and the amount of ballast (seawater in the tanks), maintained by the Diving Officer of the Watch, who is addressed as “Dive”, he is the senior enlisted man sitting behind the helm, and the senior enlisted man sitting to our right of him is the Chief of the Watch, who controls how much water is in each tank in coordination with Dive. :smile:

ombugge, here’s the mess deck on a fast attack submarine…I couldn’t find a good one from a Trident but it’s basically the same, slightly bigger on a Trident. IIRC the camera is pointed aft. The red triangles are there so you can locate the Emergency Air Breather connections if the compartment is filled with smoke. You can see the small metal ports on the overhead. :slight_smile:

Fast Attack Submarine Mess Deck

The officers eat in a different area, the wardroom (but it is the same meal…like I said, we don’t have room for different galleys for officer and enlisted, so both are getting the same “high quality” (…) meal):

Submarine wardoom; Captain meeting with some Army personnel.

Yes I know about cramped quarters on Naval vessel, I served my National Service as Coxswain on MTBs of the Nasty type. (USN also had some in Vietnam in the 1960/70’s, incl. the one’s that was involved in the Tonkin Incident)

The PO quarters consisted of a single room with two bunks, the top one folding down to form a sofa during the day, and a table for having our meals. This was occupied by the two Senior PO, while myself and squadron Catering “manager”, as the two junior Petty Officers on NS duty had our bunks in a passageway cum store room on the opposite side of the Galley. Since this was also the direct access to open deck, the hatch was frequently left open when in port, with the watch keepers stamping in and out during the night.

We spent an entire winter in the north of Norway, north of the Arctic Circle, in frigid conditions.
I woke up one morning to find that my sleeping bag had frozen to the frames and the zipper had frozen and was immovable due to condense and freezing temperature in our “luxurious accommodations”.
No pictures of the accommodations, but here is the boat, KNM Tjeld, which was first in class:

PS> We also had open bridge and a service speed of 36 kts, which made for a cold experience when the temperature fell to 15-20 degr. C below zero.

Those were the days,. May they NEVER come back.

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