Able Bodied Seaman

I only just found out about the #AtoZChallenge yesterday, so I’m going to try to catch up. Today is already the day for “F”!

I’ll make mine today for “A” and “B” with Able Bodied Seaman.

I’m a sailor, a professional mariner. I’ve pretty much spent my entire life at sea, since I was a little kid growing up on my dad’s 1910 staysail schooner. I decided after high school (on a sailing ship) that I no longer wanted to be a doctor, I wanted to be a ship captain!

The first step on that long, hard road was to become an Able Bodied Seaman (AB).

Back when I started, you could just find your way down to the docks and schmooze your way into a job. People were willing and able to give you a chance, let you learn the ropes on the job. Of course, being a female back then (and even now) made things much more difficult. “You’re a girl, girls can’t work on boats!”, “Girls can’t be captains!”. For me, it was easier to go to school and get my AB ‘ticket’ (merchant mariners document) that way.

Now, the Coast Guard has changed the rules (in order to comply with the IMO’s STCW regulations), it is no longer possible to just work your way up. You MUST go to school! You MUST spend at least one week and a few hundred dollars to get ‘trained’. And there are usually more requirements, that is just the bare minimum.

To become an AB, you’ll need to accrue a certain amount of ‘sea time’, time working aboard a vessel. You’ll need to get certified as a Rating Forming Part of a Navigational Watch (RFPNW). You’ll need to be ‘assessed’ by an ‘approved assessor’. Then you’ll be allowed to sit for a test (after paying a couple hundred bucks in fees for background checks, TWIC, etc).

You’re tested on all sorts of things: rules of the road (not at all the same as the ones you learn to drive a car!), seamanship, knots and splices, how to launch and recover a lifeboat, safety, fire fighting, cargo operations, steering a ship, helm commands, etc. All this applies to the “able” part of being a seaman. Before you are an “able” seaman, you are just an ‘ordinary’ seaman (OS).

You’ll also need to pass a USCG specific physical by an approved doctor and also a drug test. This is where the “body” part comes in. There are a few specific things they will fail you for- color blindness being a big one. There are quite a few more they will make you jump through hoops over.

The main issue I’ve had with them over the years is my weight. The physical specifies that if you are over a BMI of 40, then the doctor can ask you to show that you are ‘fit for duty’. They will make you climb the stairs, or lift weights or do certain things that are listed on the physical form they are filling out.

I have been fat since I was 13 years old. I’ve always been able to do anything I need to do physically (tho I admit, I have not needed to run any marathons!). I’ve tried pretty much everything to lose it, even having my jaws wired shut. Nothing has ever worked. I’ve pretty much accepted that I will be fat for the rest of my life. BUT, I have not and never will accept that my weight precludes me doing my job as AB (or mate, DPO or captain)!

I once saved my mates a** by spotting a discrepancy while loading tanks. Saved us from having a major oil spill. He later thanked me by telling me I “would make a great AB someday”. I asked him what he meant since I was actually sailing as AB for him at that time. He said that “AB means ‘able body’ and you are way too fat to be considered able bodied”.