When I was 18 years old, back in about June of 1972, I joined the Seafarer’s International Union at their “Hall” in Alpena, MI. That day changed my life forever. Of course, I didn’t realize how joining the SIU was going to shape the rest of my adult life but it certainly did. Within 3 weeks of joining the SIU I shipped out on my first “boat”. It was named the SS Harris N. Snyder and it was operated by the Great Lakes Shipping Company, Boland and Cornelius. It was a Great Lakes Self-Unloading Bulk Freighter but it was an old ship that had seen better days. BTW; My name or nick-name isn’t Marlin Spike but I knew someone who was.
In 1972 the Seafarer’s International Union wasn’t nearly as big or as “influential” in the Maritime industry of the United States as it is today. Today, it is the only Maritime Union, that represents “unlicensed” Seamen that is even worth mentioning. If I were starting over and I were to join a Maritime Union today my choice would certainly still be the SIU. I belonged to the Seafarer’s International Union for about 22 years. I guess it would be truthful to say; “I will always be in my heart a Seafarer”. All the friends I have today, who really understand what makes me “tick” are now or have been SIU Seamen.
I would never suggest to anyone that they should become a Great Lakes Seaman or a Seaman who sails anywhere. Why? If you are a Seaman you already know the answer. It is because; There are very few men or women who have the mentality to be a Merchant Seaman. Not because the job is so difficult but because the “life” is so strange, in comparison to living and working ashore.
When the members of my family would gather together, oftentimes my Dad would tell a “story” of the day I was born. He would say; “When Doug was born I looked in his eyes and then I went into the recovery room where his Mother was… And I told her; Bev, that boy ain’t right.” Was my Dad just being funny? Or, was he introducing the World to the next Seafarer? I will never know why he told that story. But my Dad was a Seafarer and of our family only he would know if he was looking into the eyes of another “Brother of the Sea”.
There are many women who go to sea too. We have Red Brothers and Sisters of the Sea, Black, Yellow and White too. There are Seafaring Brothers and Sisters of all races, creeds and genders. But, I can always tell they’re my Brothers and Sisters of the Sea by something different in their eyes and the way they walk, even the way they talk.
In my opinion, it takes just about 5 years for a green Seafarer to become recognizable by their “demeanor”. Once that happens there is nothing in this world that can change them “back” again, ever. In fact, only a small percentage of Seamen who have reached that point will ever work on shore again. But very, very few will make it the first 5 years.
Ask any Seamen who’s done it for at least 5 years and if s/he’s truthful, s/he’ll agree with what I’ve just said. In a Seaport on the Great Lakes or even on the seacoast, I can ALWAYS recognize a seaman walking down the street, Guaranteed. By the way, it doesn’t matter if you are pushing a barge on the Mississippi River or working on a Super Tanker on the Pacific Ocean… If you are living and working on a vessel that is in the business of carrying cargo on the water, you are, in my opinion, (and the opinion of the US Government), a Merchant Seaman.
My lovely wife Linda said a mouthful in one line when she said; “I’ve never met anyone like you”. She had never known a real Merchant Seaman before me. I’m going to say something that I know will offend some people. They may have been a “sailor” in the Navy or the Coast Guard. Or they may have “sailed” on a Merchant Ship once or twice. But that doesn’t mean they really are a Seafarer or for that matter, ever was one.
That doesn’t mean that a “Seafarer” KNOWS more about the Sea than someone or anyone else. There are plenty of people who live on pleasure boats that know more about the Sea than I or my friends do. It simply means that we know and understand what it’s like to live on a Ship in the business of hauling cargo on the sea for at least 180 days a year every year, year after year for many years in a row.
I know, I’m rambling here. But you wanted to know how a real Great Lakes Merchant Seaman “thinks” and “feels”, didn’t you? Are you a “Boat-Nerd”? Or maybe you have become interested in Great Lakes Ships because you’ve seen them from the Shores of one of the Great Lakes that you were visiting or live on. Whatever brought you here, thanks for reading my Blog! I hope you keep coming back. I’ll try to keep the sea-stories coming. But sometimes I might just be rambling on. Because most of the time, I wake up from my nap between my “watches” and sit down at my keyboard and just start rambling. Now THAT is “Blogging”.
Talk to you soon!