The Reality of Life as a Sailor
It’s not all Shanties and Spirits
In the second installment of Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, our host Jeromy Foberg discusses just exactly what it’s like to work as a sailor—and why this might not fit with your preconceived notions of what it means to be a maritime worker.
When it comes to the idea of a sailor, both modern and traditional images come to mind:
- The iconic Gorton’s Fisherman, wearing a yellow slicker with a giant floppy hat, an impressively proportioned beard framing his weather-beaten face as he looks out to sea.
- The modern seafood boat worker, popularized by documentary-style shows like Deadliest Catch and Wicked Tuna, with the latter filmed primarily in the town where the boat I work on goes into dry dock.
- The modern Navy service member, with the officers in their clean, pressed uniforms and the cadets in their crackerjack whites.
- And, of course, there’s also the popular image of pirates, both modern and historical.
Here we will examine my life as a nautical worker and the inconveniences that we work through to enjoy the benefits of a job away from a cash register or cubicle. I have reminded myself on multiple occasions that a bad day on the water is better than a good day in the office.
The stresses of being a passenger boat sailor are far outweighed by the positive factors. Not many people can claim that they have a job as awesome as mine. However, there are certain things that must be sacrificed to enjoy the working environment.
Let’s look at the living situation. I live in a small tourist town on the coast of Rhode Island. Luckily, the T Commuter Rail out of Massachusetts was recently extended out to my town. This means I can catch a train at almost a moment’s notice.
It takes about 90 minutes to get to Boston’s South Station from where I live currently, but when I first got the job, I was living in West Warwick, Rhode Island. The boat was offering tours in Rockport, MA, a small art and fishing community situated on the north side of Cape Anne, the northernmost cape in the state. This meant I had to catch a bus to Providence, take the T, get off and take the subway to North Station, and catch another train up to Rockport.
I take a large duffle bag full of my civvies and kit, which consists of enough supplies to last at least three days. I used to also bring my laptop and an MP3 player loaded to the gunwales with sea shanties to help me with memorization, as it becomes difficult to think of a song on the spot when you have almost a hundred of them floating around in your head.
Belowdecks (or downstairs, for you landlubbers) is the main deck hold, which has benches on either side that run most of the length of the cabin. Behind the stairs is a fold up table with a high chair. On the port side (left) as you are moving towards the aft (or the back) is a set of three steps up onto the platform that the galley sits on. Also on the port side is the door to the head, or bathroom.
Further back, a hatch like what you would see on a submarine leads into the aft cabin, a room with a large bed platform and featuring windows on both the port and starboard sides to let light in. Another hatch is positioned above the bed platform that leads up onto the quarterdeck.
Directly in front of the bed platform, there is a 4’x10’ area cleared out for all of us to change into our gear. On the starboard side is a hanger setup, much like an open closet for hanging up clothes and foul-weather clothing like rain slickers and coveralls. There is also a full-length mirror to check yourself before you step out on deck.
On the port side, a bunch of large plastic bins and their lids are stacked next to each other. Each bin has a piece of tape on it labeled with a crew member’s name.
About halfway through my first season on the boat, I went to one of the local tourist shops and bought myself a hammock. While there was already one on the boat, it belonged to the captain. Additionally, it had wooden spacers, making it rather large and difficult to set up.
The one I bought was a cocoon style with rings on either end made from the rope that gathers up the weave of the hammock. I set up some heavy gauge bowlines with carabiner clips attached to them, making it easy to simply clip onto the hammock on both ends. This made it easy to set up and take down, something that can save a lot of time when you’re getting ready for customers in the morning.
The $50 I spent on that hammock was the best investment I have ever made. I still use it to this day. The first night I slept in it on the boat was the most restful sleep I had experienced in a long time, though I did have to kick off some adventuring teenagers at sword point in the middle of the night.
The feeling of the boat gently swaying in the water as it was moored to the dock caused my hammock to rock back and forth, allowing me to fall asleep instantly. The only tricky part is getting into your sleeping bag before lying down in the hammock, but once you have the routine down it becomes second nature.
As far as hygiene and personal care, we had it easy that year. The owner of the boat was a member of the yacht club in town. It was about a five-minute walk around the harbor to get there, but that was a minor inconvenience since it meant the entire crew had permission to use the club’s shower facilities.
I brought a toothbrush, toothpaste, towel, some shower gel, soap, shaving gel, and a razor the first time I stayed over. I was able to take showers, brush my teeth, and shave while I was there. Not only was I grateful, but so was the rest of the crew.
In 2013, we moved our operations to Boston. The marina at which we were allowed to dock did not have a shower facility. The captain worked out a deal with a local gym in the North End where we could take a shower for five bucks—not as sweet a deal, but at least it was something. However, there were some days when business was not as good, and I had to go busking near Faneuil Hall to make enough money so that I did not have to choose between food or a shower.
Speaking of food, let’s look at what we do for sustenance—pirating is hard work, after all. I usually bring something non-perishable like trail mix, granola bars, or Pop-Tarts. There is no working stove on Formidable, as there’s simply no room for one [ 1 ].
While there is a microwave, it can only be used when we run an extension cord to shore for power. For the most part, we go into town and try to find cheap eats. The fruit and veg market in the Haymarket district of Boston is a favorite, with its multitudes of vendors selling farm-grown produce. Oranges keep for a long time and fight off scurvy; sitting on the deck of a tall ship using a knife to slice off chunks of apple looks pretty bad ass [ 2 ].
Occasionally, when we have a corporate event, they will leave the catered food for us, which is a nice treat. On occasion, they have even left booze for us, as well, and we all know how much pirates enjoy their drink.
In fact, the thing that we all look forward to most at the end of a long shift out on the ocean is the traditional end-of-day beer. We wait for our captain to make the call and we all sit down together—often for the first time that day—crack open a beer and talk about anything but work.
If we’re moored to a dock, we pour the beer into pewter mugs. When we’re out on a mooring away from the public eye, we just drink straight from the can. Usually, a portion of the tips we make goes toward a beer fund for the crew to ensure we never run out.
Although the more common and popular image that sailors, pirates, and entertainers all share is that of someone who gets drunk or high on a regular basis, that’s not really something you can do as a re-enactor on a ship that carries passengers.
The Coast Guard takes the responsibility of taking care of passengers aboard ship very seriously and can drug test any crew member at any time. Not only that, but before you can even become a crew member you have to pass that same test [ 3 ].
When I first joined the crew of the Formidable full time, I had to take that same test… and with much studying of the material I managed to pass.
Always on Call
As far as scheduling goes, for the most part I am always on call, with the captain calling me when we have an event coming up. The first year we were in Boston, the crew was on a set schedule because we were doing business through a ticket agency. This meant that we had to be there and ready to take passengers out at a moment’s notice.
When things were slow, we would set out into the streets, actively promoting our company. We mostly encountered tourists who shouted “AARRRGH!” at us and wanted to have their pictures taken with us. Sadly, it is much more difficult to get walk-on traffic as opposed to corporate events or people who plan ahead.
The other issue that comes up is the fact that this is a seasonal job. Not many people want to go out for a historical tour in Boston Harbor during the cooler months. In the summertime, it is always 10 degrees cooler on the water—and this holds true during the winter months, as well. Our boat stays in New England instead of sailing south for the winter, as the trip is against the tides and the currents. This prevents unnecessary wear and tear on the engine. Therefore, starting in October, I have to start looking for other work.
When there is no work to do, but too far to travel home only to turn around and come up the next morning, I’ll usually stay on the boat that night and go out into the city the next day.
Sometimes I’ll string up my hammock on deck and lounge in the sun, enjoying a beer and reading a book. Other times I’ll take time out to clean the flintlock weapons, which I find very relaxing.
One day, I decided to call upon a friend that works at the Boston Tea Party Museum [ 4 ]. Since I was a fellow re-enactor, he gave me free access if I dressed in kit and played along. I was happy to oblige, though I made it a point to also buy something from the gift shop—a gull-feather quill that had been fitted with a ballpoint-pen ink cartridge.
Recently, things in my sailing career have changed a bit for the better. Since the Formidable gained her new sponsors, she’s spent quite a bit more time at the dock instead of moored.
From the perspective of the owners, that lets the crew and the ship herself drum up more interest. From the sailor’s perspective, it means we’ve got a bit more time ashore, as well as access to a place to get cleaned up while ashore.
Of course, even with that, things aren’t all sunshine and roses. The work sometimes goes until 9 at night, and morning comes at 6:30. Being ashore, I’ll pick up a burger and a beer, which my stomach sometimes makes me regret the next day.
While I do get time to go visit my wife, I don’t get to do that every night. She’s incredibly understanding, but there are days I wish I could see her and I know I can’t.
Still, overall, I’d rather be here than in a cubicle.
So that’s the life of a sailor, a pretty rewarding job with enough perks to balance out the negative aspects and make it worthwhile. Of course, there are other stories to tell of people who live year-round on passenger vessels.
I got to meet the crew of The Liberty Clipper in 2012 when we came to the Tall Ships Festival on the Fourth of July in Boston. They are given a small stipend to live on while working on the boat. They are also given a bunk and three hot meals a day. That’s just one example of what you could look forward to if you are trying to get into the marine industry. Good work, if you can get it.
Be sure to sail by next time as we compare the pirates of yesterday to the pirates of today [ 5 ]. In some ways, they couldn’t be more different; in others, they have more in common than you might think. Be sure to join us as we keep exploring!
- “The classic Gorton’s Fisherman is yet another peg in the construct of misconceptions about actual mariners and what we look like.”
Source: “Gorton’s Fisherman.” Twitter, twitter.com/PeteB973/status/1108182190410682370
- “Actual seafood boat workers, as popularized on The Deadliest Catch and the like.“
Jeromy Foberg has staffed conventions as a historian and panelist for the better part of a decade. His work in historical reenactment and experimental archaeology is voluminous, leading historical walking tours and serving as a tall ship sailor. In addition to his series, Jeromy’s worked with SFS as a model, performer, and a writer for The Living Multiverse. Having spent the past few years “living the dream”, he’s rarely settled down in one place to recount his accumulated lore … until now.
- Welcome Aboard Pirate Ship FORMIDABLE. (n.d.). The Pirate Ship Formidable (Web Archive). web.archive.org/web/20171004031433/http://pirateshipformidable.com/Welcome_Aboard.html.
- “HAYMARKET.” HAYMARKET, haymarketboston.org.
- “MARITIME CONSORTIUM INC.” www.drugfreevessel.com, drugfreevessel.com/questions-2/uncategorised/frequently-asked-questions-about-the-coast-guard-drug-testing-rule.
- Bostonteapartyship.com, 2019, bostonteapartyship.com.
- Foberg, Jeremy. Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash. Interview by Savan Gupta, 10 Sept. 2016.