A common thread in my sea stories is how the crew
can make or break a ship. Each voyage, on American ships, we were required to pay-off the crew. The crew and the captain make
a contract, called Shipping Articles, before each voyage. In the contract (Articles) are specified the duration and itinerary
of the voyage. Usually in the space for itinerary you put all continents and the catch phrase "and anywhere else in the
world the master may direct". For the duration of the articles, we usually put one year, but in foreign shuttle services
you can put 18 months. In the "schedule of provisions" are listed the food that is required to be given each person,
such as "2 lbs. lard, 1 lb. sugar" etc. per day. The crew promise to "conduct themselves in a faithful, sober,
and obedient manner." The captain in turn promises to pay them in cash at the stipulated daily wage at the termination
of the voyage. The voyage is automatically terminated when the vessel returns to the United States in the "final port
of discharge". So in effect, every crew member is hired and terminated each voyage. That applies whether the voyage lasts
a couple of weeks or a year. The contract is enforced by the United States Coast Guard in our own country, or by U.S. Consular
officers abroad. For the past 100 years the industry has been unionized, so that it is not common for the Coast Guard or Consular
officers to mediate disputes between the captain and crew. It is usually handled by "union delegates" aboard ship,
a crew member elected by his fellow seamen to represent them in disputes. If a solution to the problem can't be found aboard
ship, then it is referred to union and company officials ashore. If they can't agree on a solution, it goes to binding arbitration.
In my early years at sea we had a shortage of labor, and
we had to accept some crew members who were less productive than we would like. I remember one ordinary seaman who was in
his 60's and badly overweight. Although he consumed alcohol, he seldom did so to excess where he was not able to stand his
watch. However, he was never able to accomplish very much when it came to working, either. Once when discharging military
cargo we had on board an Army supply sergeant. The sergeant was about as stout as the ordinary seaman. The ordinary was from
Honduras, and spoke English with an accent. I had to laugh when he told the sergeant "En Honduras, sir, you would be
a General". In Honduras anyone so well fed would have to be of high rank! He had been on the ship for over a year, and
a number of voyages when he finally got too drunk to stand his watch, and had to be fired. I hated to do that, even though
he was unproductive, since at that time the adage "The devil you know is better than the devil you don't know" applied.
We were going through a Coast Guard inspection the day after payoff, when we had just fired the ordinary. I was really busy
with the inspectors when the ordinary's replacement reported aboard. He was at first sight, for me, an improvement. He was
middle aged and medium build. He wore the uniform of the "hippie" movement, including a broad brimmed hat with tassels
hanging from the brim. He wore a shawl and carried a black book in his arms that I thought was a Bible. He also wore a black
power fist necklace around his neck. He came to me in the wheelhouse, where I was demonstrating equipment to the Inspector.
The new ordinary presented his "shipping slip" from the union hiring hall, and his Coast Guard Seaman's Document.
On the document his name was listed as Roger "V.D" Sexton. His friends called him Roger Sex. He was what they called
"a blue-eyed soul brother" because of his mixed race. What was funny was the reaction of the Coast Guard officer
with me on the bridge. After I sent Roger to meet the Boatswain, the officer said "Who was that?" I said it was
a new ordinary seaman. He said "Now I can see why you guys have such a hard time keeping the ship going". I told
him that it was his organization that gave him his document, and we had to accept what the Union sent. In my opinion, Billy's
appearance made the inspection go a little easier. I had some sympathy from the inspector.
Since Roger was a loud talker, he was soon elected as a union delegate, and I lived
to regret firing his predecessor. He knew how to avoid work and how to stir up hard feelings. I can understand someone not
doing their job well, but when you devote your energy to keeping others from doing theirs, it really gets me mad. I always
liked to settle labor disputes on the ship, and not bother shore side management over things we could settle ourselves. When
you can't reason and compromise we have to settle things at the end of the voyage with representatives from union and management.
Needless to say, it makes the stressful day of paying off from the voyage even worse. We seemed to get someone like Roger
every few trips, and those trips weren't much fun.