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I suppose I know, in theory, that there are cables on the bottom of the ocean. If someone said to me, “Victoria, are there cables on the ocean floor?” I would certainly answer yes. One, because I think I saw something about it in a PBS documentary, and also because how else would they film SpongeBob Squarepants without electricity near his Pineapple Under The Sea? (I think I just relinquished some of my ~maturity~ with that reference, but I’m a kid, what can I say!)
All that being said (do you know what I just said? Cuz I don’t), I know as much about ocean floor jewelry (cables, not pearls) as I know about mining and processing nuclear fuels or how to make my hair look “luscious”. Which is nothing, for the record.
Before today, I kind of assumed those cables have been down there, just chillin with the phytoplankton for decades. I certainly never knew why or how people laid those cables, maintained them, or what exactly they’re for. I’m guessing you’re on the same page? Or…in the same…..boat?!
Well, rest assured my friends! You’re about to become the captain of one big god damn knowledge ship. By the time this article is over, you will know more about the day-to-day life of a man that lays ocean floor cable for a living than any of your coworkers combined.
Shellback is the name of the young Seaman who so kindly let me snorkel on into his cranium for a firsthand look at a life vastly different from mine. (Some would say I was a fish out of water.) But don’t worry, he’s got a few life jackets for us land dwellers. So, strap on your swim cap and call me Jack Sparrow – we’re doing one hell of a deep dive.
Hey Shellback, what is your job title and how did you get there?
My current title is First Officer/Dynamic Positioning Officer on a Cable Laying Ship. I joined my current company about two years ago as a 3rd Mate. Prior to this, my first real job was driving ships for oil and gas drilling support mainly in the Gulf of Mexico.
When the price of oil fell (Thanks Obama), I was one of the first out the door. I shopped my experience to my current company who took me right away and then promoted me to 2nd Mate after about 30 days. This was in no way due to my abilities but due to the fact that I was the only licensed warm body available. I just got promoted again a few weeks ago to First Officer which means I’m management and can no longer be DGAF cool at work.
What does your day to day look like?
I’m going to pull back the curtain here. There are no days off, no weekends or holidays. You normally do a minimum 12hr day for 75 to 90 days straight before flying home for vacation.
I normally wake up at 2230 and go to the gym onboard if the sea conditions aren’t too rough. I shower and get cleaned up in order to be on the bridge of the ship by 2345 to do a turnover with the off-going 3rd Mate/2nd Mate. I’m responsible for the midnight-to-noon shift and my goals are: Don’t let anything go wrong, followed by: Don’t wake the Captain up. I normally get on the DP Conn first and spend four hours “driving.” This is where I handle the ship via a joystick to ensure the cable that we are laying lands in the proper position a few thousand feet below on the sea floor. This may sound like a video game but I assure you it’s not; the cable needs to land within a few meters of the track line. I’m trying to hold the ship on the line against wind, waves, and currents manually while also making turns.
After four hours of this I’m pretty mentally fried, so I rotate down to the Cable Highway at 0400. This is where the cable comes out of big tanks in the belly of the ship to go out the back. This is easy because I watch the cable come out while I drink coffee and talk with the unlicensed seamen working the highway. Every 50 to 80 kilometers of cable, we have to put out a repeater which acts as an in-line amplifier. Putting out a repeater is stressful because it’s a heavy object sliding out the back at about 5mph, and we can’t stop it if we wanted to because there are several thousand pounds of tension on the cable. If things go wrong, people lose limbs or get killed, the company loses a lot of money, and I get fired.
I only have to do about one a day, and after that, I go back to the bridge as the Nav Mate. I’m on the bridge for the last four hours of my day. During this time, it’s my responsibility to look out the window so we don’t hit anything and keep other ships in the area away from us since we can’t get out of their way. I use this time to complete the paperwork I have to do– things like correcting charts we navigate on, payroll for everyone, customs forms for clearing into the next port. Towards the end of this watch, the Captain comes up to check on me, ask how things have been going, and drink coffee. I get off at 1200 and normally go straight to bed after a shower.
If the ship is in port and we aren’t loading cable onboard, I wake up at 0800 and pretend to work till 1600 before going to the closest bar/strip club/brothel/place that has booze with the crew. Every third night in port, I have the duty to work and must stay sober and onboard in order to respond to any emergency. But as payment, I don’t have to work my daylight hours the day before.
How is work-life balance?
People either love it or hate it. I feel it has to do a lot with perspective. I’m on the ship for about half the year. Normally I don’t work more than 90 days straight before going home for the same amount of time off. It’s totally cool to only work half of the year. It gives me a lot of time to spend at the beach or in the mountains skiing. At the same time I miss a lot of things. I’ve missed countless weddings, funerals, holidays, birthdays. It’s really a tradeoff. When I’m at sea, there is no cell service and the only contact I have is via email or an emergency satellite phone call. This can make it tough to maintain relationships, both romantic and otherwise. You truly find out who your friends are. My friends and family have really gotten used to it. They know they won’t hear from me until I come back, and then we pick up like nothing has changed.
Romantic relationships are different. I’m very up front early about what it’s like to date me when meeting someone. Some people are very into it because who wouldn’t want their spouse to leave them alone for three months? At the same time, you have to really trust your partner because it’s very easy for them to cheat on you when you’re out at sea for months at a time. Ultimately, I’ve discovered a lot of advice from coworkers. They recommend finding a very independent, trustworthy partner, and if you can’t find that, just go to the Philippines and expat.
Do you feel “fulfilled” in your job?
As much as I wanted to be a smart ass while answering this, I am very happy and fulfilled in my job. I enjoy the challenges that I’m presented with daily. There is always something new to problem solve and I love doing that in steel toes with dirty hands as opposed to being stuck in a cubicle all day.
What do you fucking hate about your job?
Do you have a coworker you hate? Maybe Bertha in accounting? Mark in HR? Imagine living with them. Yeah, work 12 hours with them and then go to your room and find out they live next door. You are going to see them at breakfast, in the gym, at the lounge, and at work. How much do you hate them now? So basically I hate the people. Not everyone, but a crew is a family; you spend a lot of time with these people, and if you get someone who doesn’t “fit,” it can make everyone miserable. If you’re in the middle of the ocean, you can’t fire them. You are stuck dealing with them until you get to port.
Is the money good?
Yes… It’s a huge motivator for people to go to sea. My parents aren’t wealthy and couldn’t afford to send all the kids to college. I was the oldest and had an interest in doing this because of the money and ROI. My father was a USCG CDR at the time and helped me purse it. I applied and went to the US Merchant Marine Academy for College. It’s a federal service academy like West Point or the Naval Academy. It was free to go there, so I graduated with pretty much no debt, a commission in the Naval Reserve, and a 3rd Mates License. In my industry, it’s pretty common to make 90k to low 6 figures coming out of school. So I was in a really, really great situation.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years professionally?
Honestly, I’d love to be a Chesapeake Bay Pilot. That’s been a dream of mine for a long time. They get on the ships at the mouth of the bay and bring them up to the docks, helping the visiting crew navigate with their local knowledge. It’s a high-stress job that involves a lot of ship handling, which is my favorite challenge in what I do now. A few months ago, I passed my USCG license test in order to obtain my Chief Mate/Master Mariner License, so I’m now qualified and will start to apply for an MD Pilot’s position. It takes two years to apply and then five years as an apprentice before you are allowed in. It’s a job everyone wants because you are close to home, still work half the year, and make great money.
Have you ever dipped your pen in the company ink?
Nope, never even considered it. I have very strict rules with myself about this. I never even dipped my pen in school ink while at college. It’s a small industry, and relationships can be messy. I prefer to remain professional at all times. Besides there are plenty of other fish in the sea.
What do you get to wear to work?
Most days an untucked golf polo and Carhartt work pants with steel toes. Then some Costa Del Mar sunglasses as my safety glasses, hard hat, and work gloves. If I’m doing dirty work, like going in a tank or welding, I’ll put on a boiler suit like what a mechanic wears.
If someone came up to you on the street and told you they wanted to get into your industry, what are 3 tips you would give them?
1. No you don’t
2. Oh, you’re sure? You must really like the ocean then. Go to an Academy for free if you can.
3. Be prepared to never have a successful romantic relationship.
Do you now know more about the life of a Dynamic Positioning Officer than you ever wanted to?
OBVIOUSLY NOT because whoa, what a crazy, fascinating job. I forgot to ask Shellback if he can fish off the back of the boat for some dank deep sea tuna, but I’m just going to assume yes.
Now, considering I am a lawless, schedule-averse extrovert, I’m mildly confident this isn’t the job for me. I also get hella sea sick. But I’d imagine three months generally cut off from civilization is many an introverted post grad’s dream. It is the world’s most excellent excuse! “No sorry, I can’t go to that baby shower that I really didn’t want to go to because, well, I’m literally going to be in the middle of the ocean.” I bet Shellback hasn’t been to a single gender reveal party, that bastard.
As for his relationship status – DO NOT GIVE UP FAITH GOOD SIR! Take it from a girl who non-ironically wrote an article about wanting a 2.5 boyfriend. The independent lady who wants her man to please let her do her thing for three months at a time is out there!
My advice? Tell her to call you “Captain.”
Anyway, thanks for the cables, Shellback. Us internet-obsessed, data-hungry content people salute you..