Universitas Helsingiensis

The freedom and captivity of the sea

The freedom and captivity of the sea In the mid-1990s, Mira Karjalainen, then a student of comparative religion, decided that she had had enough of academia and set off to find a new life on oil tankers. The realities of life above and below deck stood in dramatically sharp relief to the romantic sailor imagery. This conflict dwelled in Mira Karjalainen’s mind and sowed the seed of her recently completed doctoral dissertation.

A salty wind tousling the weather-worn hair of an old mariner peering at the horizon to see land. The deep murmur of the main engine and the silvery waves bringing the ship slowly to the safety of the harbour. The exciting buzz of Rio beckoning sailors to the taverns in the hot night of the city, to the arms of pretty girls, to yet another wild adventure. Oh, the freedom!

This is probably close to how we all picture the life of a seafarer. Mira Karjalainen, whose doctoral dissertation deals with the everyday reality onboard merchant ships and sailors’ concepts of freedom, wants to dispel such romantic myths.

“The reality could not be more different. Usually a seaman cannot leave the ship when moored in the harbour. And the rocking. Nobody can sleep on a rough sea, carrying out duties is difficult, some are seasick. Working on a ship has hardly anything creative to it. If robots could do the work, they would already be doing it,” she says, rectifying some of the misplaced ideals. Karjalainen knows what she is talking about. She has sailed the seven seas on an oil tanker as an ordinary seaman.

Freedom or prison

Karjalainen, who interviewed nearly one hundred seamen for her research, says that the men and the few women who work on ships all have their own personal attitude towards life on the sea and towards freedom. Some like to maintain a romantic image of carefree sailors partying in every harbour. Others emphasise how detached they are from society when onboard, free from the obligations of life on land. “‘I don’t care who pays my wages or what I have to do for it, as long as I get paid’,” Karjalainen quotes, illustrating the attitude of someone who has adopted a role at the fringe of organised society.

For many sailors, freedom was the reason why they initially went to sea. Often, talking about freedom makes a seaman nostalgic. For them, freedom is always a thing of the past. For someone who has sailed for thirty years, the time of freedom was in the 1970s, while those who have been to sea for ten years, talk about the free 1990s.

Then there are some who see no freedom in life on the sea. Many compare the ship to a prison. “The only difference is that here we lock our doors ourselves,” says a chief engineer interviewed by Karjalainen.

Karjalainen admits to having felt freedom on many levels. “It was nice to be in a strange harbour getting drunk and goofing around with your mates. There was certain recklessness to it. Certainly different to saving up and booking well in advance for your two weeks in Lanzarote.”

Another sense of freedom comes when one gives oneself up completely to the service of the ship. “Then you decide absolutely nothing. You are only part of the machinery. It can be damned liberating. To give yourself up completely to the system. It tells you when to sleep, when to work, what to eat.”

Escaping academia

But what makes a young academic woman go to sea, a man’s world if ever there was one, to serve as an ordinary seaman on a filthy tanker, scraping rust from and washing petrol-fumed tanks?

“I ran away from the university. I wanted something tangible, something different.” Working as a supermarket cashier did not quite suffice for the 23-year-old student. She made a jump from the humanities to the maritime institute in Rauma, with the aim of finding out what it would be like to work on a cargo ship.

Karjalainen will not admit to having romantic notions about the sailor’s job. “Or perhaps a little, for example, I did not know how monotonous the work could be. But no, I did not expect rum in Havana. I was not disappointed.”

Yet a touch of romanticism can be detected when Mira Karjalainen describes the stolid beauty of tankers. “On a ship everything is huge. One loop in the anchor chain is the size of this,” she enthuses, spreading her hands 60 cm apart.

The second of the low

Mira Karjalainen, ordinary seaman, was among the lowest rank of the 18-strong crew on the oil tanker. The only one lower in rank was the mess-girl who cleans the facilities. Karjalainen maintains that alongside the military, a cargo ship is one of the strictest hierarchical organisations in the world.

The hierarchy has its reasons. The captain is responsible for everything that happens on a tanker. In emergency situations, the chain of command must not break. “The captain on a ship is like God in heaven,” she repeats an old saying.

A woman in a man’s world

The work onboard is a sweaty business. The oil sticks in the folds of the skin and leaves the overalls covered in stains. Could there be a job more manly?

According to Karjalainen, the world onboard is unavoidably macho. There is no end to the stories about boozing and ladies. Feelings are not an issue to be discussed.

Karjalainen relates a moving story about a shipmate whose home house had burnt down during one voyage. The whole crew knew that this man had lost everything he owned, but nobody said a word of consolation.

The few women that work on ships-cannot but adjust to the masculine world onboard. Karjalainen mentions a woman who worked at sea for 30 years, slept badly for years, when night after night, members of the crew tried the lock of her cabin. “I asked her why she didn’t complain to the captain. She said to me, quite condescendingly, ‘Look Mira, you don’t go complaining about these things. That’s just life.’”

Karjalainen came to notice that she, too, got used to the constant sexual harassment, innuendo and flirting. “You just accept that you have entered a male territory – that you are only visiting and that you can take it.”

The odd seawomen

Finnish women started to go to sea in greater numbers in the 1950s, but a female sailor is still a rarity.

As late as in the 1970s, women who wanted to work on ships had to go to exceptional trouble to land their dream jobs. For women, going to sea is clearly a conscious choice. “Some were just drawn to it.

Some simply had this strong feeling that they had to go to sea. Some wanted to see the world. Some had wagered on it,” Karjalainen says, explaining the career choices of sailor women.

Men, more often than women, felt that they had no choice. They had to make a living somehow, or they followed the family tradition.

Old-generation sailors, men and women alike, repeatedly talk about ships of the bygone days as exotic Shangri-las. Sailors returning home always had money, booze and tobacco. In the early 20th century seafarers could astound landlubbers and appeared to be very much men-of-the-world with their tales of the wonders of the South and saying a few words in a foreign language. For ordinary Finns, faraway places overseas were unreachable.

Things have changed. So passes the glory of an old mariner.

Mira Karjalainen: In the Shadow of Freedom – Life on board the oil tanker. Commentationes Scientarum Socialium. Tiedekirja. http://ethesis.helsinki.fi/

Anu Vallinkoski