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A life at sea.

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Friday 4 October 2002

Mick Ruse, merchant seaman

A Life at Sea  


In the past when ships had crews of 40-50, seafarer’s travelled the world and spent weeks in port. Today seafarers, like myself, spend very little time in port due to technological advances, faster turn-around times and reduced manning.  


Australian manning is often below OECD and world standards. 


I’m currently onboard an Australian flagged and manned gas tanker. We pick up the cargo from Karratha, approximately 1500km North of Perth. We load and discharge the LNG in about 15 hours, which leaves little time for going ashore.  


We sail to Japan via Timor, Indonesia and the Philippines. A round trip takes about 3 weeks. The scenery doesn’t change much, but we see an abundance of sea life and small fishing vessels. Whales and dolphins are the most often sighted marine life. Occasionally, foreign flagged ships radio asking for directions to get back on course. 


Depending on the hemisphere, it’s either typhoon or cyclone season and sometimes we can’t get out of their path. If it gets too rough, we sleep on the floor, so we don’t get flung out of our bunk. 


The best part about being at sea is the peacefulness of the ocean when it’s calm, and awe of its power when it gets rough.  


Our project has 8 ships and recently secured the contract to supply LNG to China for 25 years. Unfortunately the Federal Government secured no new Australian seafaring jobs as part of the deal. Foreign ships will carry Australia’s gas. In a recent court case the Government intervened to support foreign crews replacing us on domestic trade. 


I always wonder why when Australian CEOs get paid millions, we are told they are underpaid compared to CEOs in America, Germany and Japan. 


But our wages are compared to seafarers from 3rd world countries. 


Our work includes: chipping and painting, carrying out maintenance on deck machinery and life saving equipment, as well as engine-room maintenance, mooring and unmooring procedures and steering the vessel into and out of port. 


We work an 8-hour day. Either normal day shift, or on watch, which is a continuous cycle of 4hrs on 8hrs off. When entering or leaving the port we are regularly required to work up to 16hrs straight. We work 7 days, no weekends or public holidays. 


When not on shift, people read, watch videos, some study. For instance, I’m halfway through an engineering degree. There’s a basic gym or we walk on deck.  


A typical night would be: catch up with the crowd over dinner and then do our own thing. Sometimes we organise a games night, darts, table-tennis, cards that type of stuff. No distinction is made for what day it is; it’s Groundhog Day.  


I’m away for 9 weeks. We keep in touch with home by mail, which we receive every 3 weeks. Although we have email, most ships don’t, they still rely on letters.  


In the 13 years I’ve been going to sea, communication has changed very little. It used to cost me about $9 a minute to ring home and the Captain would sit in the room with a stopwatch to record the time you spent on the satellite.  


Now it only costs $2.20 a minute and we have privacy.  


As for news and current affairs, we listen to Radio Australia, and read 3-week-old newspapers. 


Over the years Government Ministers have complained about our leave system. I work roughly 9 weeks on, 9 weeks off. In reality we get 0.953 of a day leave for every day onboard.  


When compared to the general workforce who enjoy nights at home, weekends, public holidays, annual leave, sick leave, overtime, and RDOs we only get about 2 extra weeks at home.  


This allows us to enjoy quality time with our families taken for granted by the wider community. The major difference is we work in blocks of time not a weekly cycle. We get no special allowances for being on call 24 hours a day while at sea.  


We live on the world’s largest island and we’re dependent on shipping to supply the imports we take for granted.  


I just hope we’re not the last generation of proud Australian seafarers.  


Guests on this program:


Mick Ruse  

Merchant Seaman