THE LONGEST PART OF THE VOYAGE, THE LAST HUNDRED YARDS TO THE TERMINAL GATEPhoto: USN
Seafarers today are travelers and not just by ship. Few sign on for year long, or longer voyages any more. Typically ship board tours of duty run one, three, to six months before crews are rotated. There is no assurance that the relief of the crew will take place in the port of original embarkation . Crews often travel by air to start a tour of duty getting on at one port, and finish up at a quite different port. This often means quite a bit of not only international travel to and from ports of embarkation and debarkation it means wildly varying port security rules for access and egress to the waterfront facility where one's ship and a crew waiting to go home await. Sometime these days the hardest portion of a crew change journey is the last one hundred yards from the facility gate to the gangway of your awaiting ship.
The problem isn't restricted to the international mariner. Here in the United States where we have extensive shipping between and among the states including a great deal of river traffic, mariners don't need passports between ports. None the less the last 100 yards have become very problematic. In the U.S. an individual in need of unaccompanied access to waterfront facilities be he or she a delivery truck driver, longshoreman, or ship's crewman is required to have a Transportation Industry Workers Identification Card (TWIC). These TWICs are very difficult and expensive to come by with fees in excess of $100, documentation requirements to obtain and organize and at least two personal trips to a regional TWIC issuing center which may well be hundreds of miles from the mariner's home. While birth certificates may be required as part of the TWIC vetting process the cards are issued to permanent residents as well as citizens. Consequently the cards are not accepted as proof of citizenship. This has presented some reentry problems for American seamen who embarked in an American Port and were discharged in a foreign port. But it has also occasionally been a problem for Jones Act (Domestic trade American Port to American Port) mariners. Many a TWIC card holder has found that airlines, even for domestic flights won't recognize the TWIC for required "picture ID". American Mariners have been finding themselves locked behind facility gates when they had permission to go ashore, and locked out of facilities despite having the TWIC when trying to board their vessels. Some facilities simply do not allow crew changes to occur across their docks.
Generally among American union member and contracted mariners access and egress go smoother. Crew change and "liberty" access and egress can be part of contract negotiations. The ship owners as customers of the waterfront facilities usually have enough stroke with facility owners to make an equitable arrangement for their crews. However the vast majority of the Jones Act mariners in America are not unionized and their plight, as their workplace degenerates into a virtual prison is ignored by the Coast Guard, Congress, or anyone else who could provide some relief.
We have observed that America is not the only nation among the seafaring states to have tightened waterfront facility access and egress restrictions or even seafarer national entry and exit restrictions. The UK Chamber of Shipping recently announced that they have received revised guidance from the Home Office on immigration procedures for professional mariners entering the UK to join ships. The UK Chamber of shipping called for new guidance to the border control forces after a series of incidents mostly involving professional mariners from the Philippines. Mariners were denied entry when border control officials mistakenly interpreted the rules to bar entry to certain mariners joining non scheduled cargo services ("tramp" vice "liner" services ) or ships undergoing refit in the UK when departure dates were unknown. The result is a new set of rules for the spot market sector that will facilitate timely crew changes, at least so far as getting the incoming crew into the UK and the relieved crew out. But just like the U.S. the last hundred yards is still sometimes the most difficult leg of the relief journey.
We have observed that around the world an all too typical reaction to government imposed tightened security regulations is for the facility owner to go the government one better and simply disallow unaccompanied access and egress to and between vessels at their facilities. This assures the owner that they won't face compliance actions by the government and it does enhance security. Unfortunately it makes the lives of professional mariners miserable. Ship turnaround times in port are every short today. Mariners are lucky to get just a few hours ashore to sightsee and shop in foreign ports . Some turnarounds are measured in hours and the crew can not be accorded any "liberty" at all. The technology that makes port calls shorter increases the profitability of the ship but diminishes the attractions of a seafaring life. There is a worldwide shortage of professional mariners. Improving the quick access and egress to , from, and between vessels by crewmen could go a long way towards restoring some of the intangible attractions of a seafaring career. One joins a merchant marine in part to see some of the famous port cities of the world. However, a container dock, tanker terminal, or grain elevator looks pretty gritty and pretty much the same in Singapore or New Orleans. When facility access and egress issues keep mariners aboard or seriously limit their time ashore workplace (on board) tensions rise. When a mariner's relief jumps through all of the regulatory hoops in good time to arrive at the gate and then is held there for hours while the mariner is trying to effect an organized change of watch and catch a flight home thoughts do cross the mariner's mind of a career change.
Mariners are people with a difficult job. Unlike other tough industrial jobs this one involves long periods of confinement in rather spartan surroundings with a rather limited group of companions. Recreational time ashore a few times during the course of a lengthy voyage is vital to mariner sanity. But we only see attention being paid by chambers, government agencies, and unions. America's 126,000 domestic service seamen don't seem to have anyone working for them to improve matters. The facilities must find a way to insure security while facilitating, vice thwarting the legitimate movements of mariners. Facilities will only do this in response to customer demand, the customer being the ship and tow boat owners. Its the ship and towboat owners who complain the loudest about the mariner shortage. A little attention to crew comfort and convenience could go a long way towards improving the situation.