My alarm goes off at 7 a.m.
My alarm goes off at seven in the morning followed by a brief moment of nothingness — a void. For a couple of seconds, I don’t remember where, what, or who I am. I am just lying in bed inside a pitch-black room under the bed sheet. This brief moment of pure bliss lasts for a few seconds, allowing me to enjoy the silence of my being without any demands from life. Then the moment is over. Almost instantly, I can feel the all too familiar sound of vibrating metal and the ice-cold air conditioning. “You need to wake up,” I hear myself whisper.
Judging by the sound of it, I know we are having strong winds today. Probably a force 6 in the Beaufort scale. I don’t sense any swell or movement, which is a good thing. I can work much easier when the ship is steady. “You need to work,” I hear myself whisper again. Willing my body out of bed gets harder every day. Most days I don’t even know how I manage to do it.
Taking a quick glance at my reflection in the mirror, I see myself already tired from the day’s work that has yet to start. “For eight months you have been doing this,” I quickly remind myself. “Doing one more day can’t be that hard.” These are words I constantly utter as part of my morning routine. I consider it like a self-affirmation of some sort. Bottling all the strength I can muster, I head out my cabin door to eat breakfast. I can’t let whatever I’m feeling affect my work today.
Alleyway greetings are always the same. The standard “good morning” and “good appetite” are common words uttered in the mess rooms. With that being said, I have observed that conversations are becoming more arid lately. What can I expect? We’ve never been off the ship since the pandemic began so there is not much to talk about except the humdrum details of work. Shore leaves, one of the main ways of blowing off steam for seafarers, have been restricted. Port authorities around the world are not allowing seamen to wander about in their cities. Even during emergencies, we are still subjected to the strictest port regulations, making such situations even more horrifying to think about. Most times they won’t even allow their terminal workers to board our vessel. “It’s better to be safe than sorry,” they tell us. I won’t argue with that.
I finish eating breakfast and make my way up the bridge where I will spend the next eight hours of the day navigating.
Probably my crewmates are feeling the same way I do — anxious. Most of us are on extended contracts already. With the extensions forced on us by this coronavirus situation and with no clear end in sight, our stay feels twice as long. Like robots, we get our jobs done every day. No room for error, no time for weakness, and no excuses. As a crew member, we all have specific responsibilities onboard and no one will do that job for anyone else. There’s just no space for the weakest link. This is the fundamental, if not harsh, reality of the nature of my work—a seafarer.
I am now on the bridge, the only place onboard manned by humans 24/7. I relieve the other officer with a warm smile and the very common “balita third” phrase we usually start our conversations with. Marked on his face is the familiar look of relief for having completed another watch safely. For the next couple of hours, the responsibility of navigation will be mine. The ship will require all of my senses and my undivided attention. Millions of dollars’ worth of property and the priceless 23 other souls down below relying on you are constant reminders of how heavy the responsibility is, and I don’t intend on letting anybody down today.
But, no matter how hard I focus, I can’t help my mind from wandering. I constantly think of my family back home. Most of us in my family are nurses; I worry about them working in the frontlines, and with all the things that have been going on with the way our government has handled the pandemic, it makes me even more worried. Sometimes, my thoughts can be so overpowering that the only thing I can do is to close my eyes and pretend these thousands of miles that separate us don’t exist, because if I don’t, they overwhelm me completely.
I also think about my colleagues who are stuck at home and can’t find their way back to ships. After several months of restrictions, surely whatever savings they have would have been depleted by now. The sad news is, Filipino seafarers are being replaced with other nationalities slowly because of their countries’ availability for crew changes. Our country earns a lot from being one of the biggest suppliers of seafarers in the world, and we should do something to keep it. The benefit we get from this goes beyond any monetary value. We also take a lot of pride in it. Eighty percent of the world’s goods are moved by seafarers, and the Philippines is the biggest human resource in this profession.
I find no solace reading in the news about how OFWs, particularly seafarers, are being treated once we get lucky enough to go home. As if our sacrifices aren’t enough, we now have to endure the hostility of our countrymen. Based on statistics, we only contribute a very small percentage to the total infected population across the globe, but still, we are treated like we are the epicenter of the virus. We are not. We adhere to the strictest health protocols wherever we may be. Just like all of you, we just want a little compassion and the chance to return to our loved ones whom we dearly miss.
After eight hours of work on the bridge and another two hours for maintenance work, the day is about to come to an end. And yet again, most countries still have no clear signs of international flights opening, which means there is no way for most of us to get back home. So for now, we are all trying our best to work in this pandemic situation. With extended contracts, with a stressful work environment, and with a dreadful feeling of being forgotten — we move forward. As a team, we continuously transport cargo to keep the world moving and to keep humanity’s fighting chance against this pandemic alive. It’s sad to say, but most of us feel like we are begging for a way home. It feels like our welfare is getting in the way of the government’s pandemic response.
We are considered modern-day heroes. We read a lot about how the world appreciates our contributions, but in reality, is this reflected in the way society responds to our plight?
“Rest,” I tell myself, because tomorrow is another fighting day. And as I am about to lay in bed, I set my alarm to go off at seven in the morning once again.
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Zayne D. Manlongat, 23, is from Mandaue City, Cebu. He is currently working onboard a parcel chemical tanker vessel.
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