Sitting across from the human resources guy at my first crewboat job, I was shocked to hear him say: “Deckhands are a dime a dozen. That’s a McDonald’s job. We can always find more deckhands.”
More than half a decade later, having worked with dozens of deckhands at several different companies, I’m even more certain that assessment was incorrect – plain wrong, even more than it was offensive to someone who busts his or her butt on the deck or in the engine room of a workboat.
It is true that “deckhand” is usually an entry-level position; that is, someone with no maritime experience starts his or her career as an ordinary seaman or a wiper (if a deck-engine utility).
Minimum qualifications are pretty much limited to being able to pass a physical and drug test and a willingness to do hard, often dirty, work.
A willing, green deckhand initially is a lot of work for the rest of the crew. He or she has to be shown how to do nearly everything. You worry a bit, about the new person getting hurt.
But most professional mariners see training these folks – often young people just beginning their careers – as an investment in the future that pretty quickly pays dividends in the present.
Conversely, a recalcitrant deckhand (riffing on the name of a popular local beer) is a drain on the entire boat, and may in fact endanger other crew members' lives or an officer’s license. I’ve written about that here, and here and probably a few other places.
What I haven’t written about lately – because I’m a perennial early optimist, and sometimes proven wrong and I wanted to be sure this time around – is how terrific it is to work with a cheerful and competent deckhand.
Not every deckhand I’ve worked with at my new (last) employer is pure gold, but a theme seems to be emerging.
There was the career AB (Able Seafarer, or Able-Bodied Seaman) on my first boat here; he patiently taught me to splice square plait, a skill I routinely, silently thank him for.
And then there’s the DEU on my current boat. He’s a product of Piney Point, and he is knowledgeable, both quick and careful, and a cheerful, accommodating shipmate.
In terms some of my veteran buddies might understand, I’m the green El-Tee to his seasoned NCO. Technically I'm in charge, but it pays to listen to him.
The amazing thing is he’s really an engine room guy and only moonlights (often literally) on deck. We’ll lose his services on deck at some point as he moves up to assistant engineer.
I keep asking him: “Are you sure you don’t want to pursue a deck license?”
Anyway, about five times this last hitch (and the one before, and the one before that) I thought to myself: “Dang, life sure is easier with _________ on deck.”
So I thought maybe I should write that and let good deckhands everywhere – whether you’re a career AB or climbing the hawsepipe -- know that, for this tugboat mate anyhow, you are most definitely not a dime a dozen; your skill and experience are very much appreciated; and we quite literally couldn’t do the job without you.