The author, moving a ferry to the shipyard in the Oakland Estuary.

Life Changes

How I Became a Deckhand [9 minute read]

Outside the Sailor’s Union of the Pacific, the time is 7:45am. I haven’t been up this early for months, not since I joined the ranks of the unemployed. It’s a cool morning and the light breeze is humid. At Harrison and 2nd, we are on Rincon Hill, four blocks from the San Francisco Bay. Normally at this time I would be in bed, considering more sleep, a few added minutes of respite before another day of sending out resumes.

A handful of men mill about. We are all waiting for the union hall to open at 8:00 a.m. I wonder what has brought them here today. Are they all looking for work, too?

I am the lone waiting female, 80% awake after my twenty-minute bicycle ride from home. Desultory conversation floats by. I can’t tell if any of these men knew each other before this morning or if this camaraderie sprang up as they wait for the same thing.

Small snippets come to my ears:

“…got up at about 3:30, 3:45.”

“…pot of coffee.”

“I got that way drivin’ truck. Thirty years. Gotta built-in alarm clock.”

The truck driver has driven down from Ukiah. For the day. A trip of one hundred fifteen miles, one way. My twenty-minute bike ride shrinks to insignificance.

An inspection of and discussion about the nearby parking meters ensues. The meters are new and have a digital time readout rather than the tried and true printed dial meters. The new meters aren’t working. Does anyone know why? Do they have to get “turned on” to work?

They do. This is inconvenient and potentially expensive for the person who needs to start early and cannot wait around for meters to start.

The truck driver says something like “How bad can a ticket be?” to another guy who drove up and parked about the same time he did. They have been examining the meters together. The other guy informs the trucker that parking fines are $50 dollars. The truck driver is incredulous.

“Fif-ty dollars?”

The other man chuckles and replies, “This is San Francisco, man.”

They walk slowly to the loose group near the doors. There are two personal-size Playmate coolers; two red backpacks. One cell phone is extant. This is right before cell phones get big. Pagers are on the way out. As a result of joining the union, I will get my first cell phone, sooner than I expect. I will need be reachable for last minute deckhand jobs.

It nears 8:00 a.m. and the ‘stand and chat’ group edges toward the center door of the many doors arrayed across the grand building entry. A paper sign has been taped up: Use This Door.

I am a silent sitter on the cold stone steps that lead up to the doors. A fellow sitter off to my right watches the group hover near the door and mutters to himself, “…think it’s a rock concert, or somethin’.”

Some of these people are certainly here for the same reason I am — the 3–1/2 day class. To join the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific and work as a ferry or tugboat deckhand, you need to pass the class. To be in the class this morning, you would have visited the union hall in the past year or so and had your name and contact information written down on a page in a notebook. This is The List: interested potential deckhands.

I capitalize The List because of the way it is used. As in, “You have to get on The List first.” Or, “Are you on The List yet?” The List is step one in the process to work on boats. At the hall, they tell you that the union will mail out letters to notify the next 100 names on The List a month before the class. When? There is no set time for this. Letters are sent out from zero times a year to three. When jobs become difficult to fill, The List is opened. A very small percentage of the 100 ever show up at 8:00 a.m.

And here we are, on this April morning. Later I learn that some waited eight and nine months or more. I know of one person who waited a year and a half. And there are some who hardly wait at all. My wait was 6 months, much of it spent sending out resumes to companies advertising commercial interior design and/or Auto Cad drafting jobs.

8:00 a.m. The doors are unlocked. We sitters follow the standers inside. Those here for the class walk into a very large, double-height almost empty room. This is the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific hiring hall, a building completed in 1950. Our footsteps echo off the plaster walls and terrazzo floor. We take seats at beat-up round tables grouped at the far end. The end wall is filled with windows that have not been cleaned recently. They provide an uninspiring view of a dusty parking lot and downtown. The hall is lit by the grey light coming through these windows. In the near future, a large, dark apartment building will block what view there is.

We are: nine white guys — aged from 20-something to 40-something; a 20-something Asian man; a 40-something Latino; a 40-something African-American man; and one 40-something white female — me. We are joined shortly by another white female, looking to be in her 30’s.

The class moves into gear about 8:30. There are 3 late-comers: one at 9:05, a middle-aged African-American man, snarled in traffic. The second, a younger African-American man, arrives at about 9:10. He slides quietly in, saying nothing, choosing to sit in the instructor’s chair. He is informed of the fact and slides into a nearby chair. That one is also taken, though at that moment it is also empty. The meter feeders are out at the meters, which are now “on.”

I watch the silent comedy as he tries another meter-feeder’s chair, and then finally chooses one which has not been claimed. A white man pops in about 9:30, with a stage whisper to the instructor that he called ahead to say he would be late.

The late-comers get the hand-outs and the class continues.

Class is stricter now. Late-comers are kicked out immediately. For a job where your “office” sails off on schedule, lateness is not tolerated. It will get you fired.

But on this Monday, we total fifteen students and three instructors. Two of the people I had thought were students are actually instructors. The older of the three runs things in a relaxed yet ship-shape style. This is Chuck. He has done this more than once. I learn later that he designed the class after more and more people without maritime experience began to join the union.

Chuck’s best tip of the week: a good crew makes your day a joy; an **shole on the crew makes the day a torture. Don’t be that **shole. Some years later, when I bid on a crew where Chuck is the lead deckhand, I learn that for me, Chuck makes a good crew mate. But not everybody would agree. A crew is like a bunch of chemicals: sometimes the strife on a crew is terrible. But a day on the water is always better than a day chained to a desk.

We begin with pages of vessel terminology. Throughout the week, we will spend a lot of time on fire classification, fire safety, fire prevention and fire extinguishment; learn to tie three basic knots; and generally get introduced to the life of the sailor through stories and examples.

Now and then, the other two instructors pipe up with comments or get up to do their own scenes. The echoey hiring hall makes it a challenge to hear. This union hall, at 450 Harrison, is home to several unions. People in between deep-sea jobs come here to hang out with their friends and wait for deep-sea jobs to be posted. They resent being asked to pipe down.

We watch the 10:15 job call. The “casual” IBU members, those without steady jobs, come in to “bid” for the jobs called in by the companies around the bay that hire union crews. A casual deckhand substitutes for the regular crew member, who is out for one of various reasons. Sick, on vacation or out on injury are the most common.

You start in the union as a D Card, an apprentice at the bottom of the shipping list. Above you are the A, B and C shipping cards. The hours you work build up into “deck time.”

With seven hundred and twenty hours of deck time, you join the union as a full book member and get your C Card. As you build up your deck time, you move up the shipping list. High shipping cards can work fairly steady through the winter months when jobs are scarcer.

The author finally gets her “A” Card.

After lunch break, the class goes down to the docks. We prowl around boats that are not in service. We study vessel layout, draw locations of fire safety equipment and rescue gear. We work with the m.o.b. (man overboard) equipment and practice tying up the lines. We go below to explore the engine room: two engines — just one of them is as big as my first car; two generators; steering gear; various valves, pumps, batteries and electrical panels.

We get further introduction to the sea life and hear more sailor stories. I am entranced by all of it.

Deck-handing is not for everyone. On Tuesday our group is 11. People have begun to self-deselect. The class moves to the library, a smaller room. It is much easier to hear. On Wednesday only 8 show.

Thursday, the last day, is the half day. We students are now seven: two white females, and five males: one Asian, one African-American, two whites and one Latino. We take the written test, prove we can tie our knots. Everybody passes.

We join the line at the 9 am registration session. We pay our first dues and get our D Cards. Each card is numbered. A date stamp shows when dues were paid. We can now bid for jobs at the daily job call.

Spring is a good time to join the union. ‘The Season’ is just starting. The Season runs roughly May through October. Ferry runs are added to handle the summer tourists coming to the Bay Area, and boats are chartered for summer parties.

After registration, there is one more class section. Labor union history. Mostly this is a video. The people deeply involved with unions speak of the importance of unions for working people. These rights are slowly being eroded, but just remember: unions brought us the eight-hour work day, two-day weekends, sick pay, holiday pay and more. (*see link below)

As I started this new life, I thought, if work is slow or I don’t like it, I can always go back to drafting and design work. But I never did. No fresh air, sitting all day at a computer, I couldn’t face it anymore. Working outside, rain or shine, suits me fine.

And every day, the San Francisco Bay is beautiful. On a day when my lead deckhand hates me and is making life miserable, I only have to stand outside on the deck and look around. The petty humors of humans recede in the sweep of time and beauty that is the bay.

That first year I made $13,000 and went through my savings. Unless I am on a job, I go to the 1015 job call five days a week. In the first six months, I work enough to get my C Card. Only a few members have done it faster. I am inordinately proud of this. And my new cell phone? Always on, waiting for last-minute calls to work.

On my very first job, my lead deckhand, who worked in a bank previous to decking, told me something his uncle, also a deckhand, had said: Sooner or later, all the crazies show up down at the wharf.

“Fabulous,” I thought, as I wiped off handrails and benches wet with dew. “Finally, someplace to fit in.”

*Working rights that unions fought for and won for everybody: https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2012/5/15/1092027/-Thanks-a-Union-36-Ways-Unions-Have-Improved-Your-Life

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Lou grew up in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains. In addition to writing, Lou works as a deckhand on the ferries of S.F. Bay. https://www.loucook.com/

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Lou Cook

Lou Cook

Lou grew up in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains. In addition to writing, Lou works as a deckhand on the ferries of S.F. Bay. https://www.loucook.com/

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