NOAA ship John McDonnell (not me, but don't tell the crew)
How are freighters operated? Who does what aboard ship? In fact, what is a freighter? Few people I have met outside the Maritime Industry seem to have a very good answer to these questions. All commercial ships are operated in what is called the Merchant Marine or Merchant Navy, as opposed to ships of war which are operated by the governments of nations as their Navy. Freighters are no more controlled by the Navy or the Government that United Airlines is controlled by the Air Force. Merchant ships are privately owned and operated. However, they do come under a great deal of regulation by governments where they operate. Most nations have found that having their own Merchant fleet gives them economic and political advantages, with the exception of the U.S.

As the global economy becomes more of a reality, we are ever more dependent on imports and exports. A walk through any department store at your local mall will reveal that most of the things found there come from other countries, and most of those goods traveled here by a merchant ship. It is surprising to me that so little is known about our Merchant Marine. Today the United States does not have a very large merchant fleet. We depend on the merchant fleets of Liberia and Panama and a few other nations to keep our global economy going. That does not mean that the likes of Sergeant Doe and Manuel Noreiga control our means to import and export. These nations have few regulations and the most liberal tax advantages to ship owners to register their vessels there. Owners go where labor costs are lower, and regulations are easier to live with. Most of the industrialized nations of the world have only a token fleet of their own merchant ships; Germany is an exception.

When I started sailing, a ship's officer had to navigate by the stars and sun. Celestial navigation was an art as well as a science. Most ship's officers had to go to school for years to learn how to operate a ship. Today we have GPS, the global positioning system (you can buy one at Wallmart for under $100) that has replaced the sextant and other electronics. It tells you where you are within a few feet, anywhere in the world, and tells you how fast you are traveling and in what direction. It takes little training to operate. We have radars that plot all "targets" in the vicinity, and tell you how to avoid a collision with other ships, even when there is dense fog. For that reason ship owners and insurers are more comfortable with a third world labor pool. You don't need to be a rocket scientist to operate a ship.

That said, there is a great deal of work to do aboard ship, often under trying circumstances. Storms at sea can cause extensive damage to ships and their cargo, and care must be taken to properly secure the ship for sea, and to maintain it in a sea-worthy condition at all times. Although weather maps and warnings come by fax, weather prediction is still an inexact science and there is always danger from "mother nature".

Stowaways and Piracy still exist in many parts of the world. Voyages must be planned so that you have sufficient fuel and supplies to reach your destination. You can't run out to the store once you leave port. You must carry enough spare parts to keep everything running. If you can't fix the evaporator you will run out of fresh water. If the propeller is damaged you will need a tow into port. If you run out of fresh vegetables you will just have to live on beans and rice. The crew must know what they are doing.

U.S. Merchant ships (freighters) are organized into three departments. The deck department is in charge of the navigation of the vessel, the maintenance of the cargo and living spaces and hull, and for the proper stowage and securing of the cargo. The engine department is in charge of the operation and maintenance of the machinery for propulsion and for the "hotel services" the electricity, water, and sewage removal that we need for comfort. The steward department is in charge of "victualing" or storing enough food to keep everyone fed and the cleanliness of the quarters. Foreign vessels don't make this division of labor; duties are defined by job, i.e.., electrician, outside machinist, etc. While docking, all crew members have specific duties in the engine room or handling lines, fore and aft. The cook will not be seen outside of the mess area. The steward handles all inside cleaning chores and cabin maintain.

When I started sailing a ship was about 500 ft. long and about 8,000 gross tons. We had a crew of 50 men. Today a ship is typically about 700 ft. long and has a crew of about 20 men. However, the work, even with modern machinery to make the crew more productive, has greatly increased. It used to be a seaman worked only about 56 hrs. per week. Now the work load has increased to about 80 hrs. per week or more, but on many ships the owners limit the amount of overtime to keep costs in line.

More space per crew member has meant that "glory holes" and shared cabins are a thing of the past. Now days everyone has their own room, usually much larger than a cabin on a passenger ship. Years ago the Scandinavian countries provided a supply of deck officers, the Scots were Engineers. Now with open ship registries it is more common to find Chinese, Filipino, Kiribati and Eastern European crews. They offer good quality at a low price for ship operators. German officers are found on most passenger carrying freighters; many of these freighters are of German registry/ownership and are on charter to shipping lines all over the world.

I am nostalgic for the "good old days", but carrying the most cargo, at the lowest cost, is the name of the game these days.