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Cabin fever, culture vulture, or just chasing the fun tokens?

We all have different reasons for running off into the sunset and choosing anything other than the 9-5. But why do we do it, are we happy with our decision? Has it changed your life for the better or do you fantasize over a return to normality?

A career away from home is something many of us desire, but of those of us who took the plunge and achieved the dream, is it still a dream, or do you find a new set of struggles in life contrary to the cabin fever or “other reason” that sent you off in the first place?

I’m personally now very much on the fence. The same career that has provided me with a home in a highly desirable part of the UK, a comfortable life for my partner and two year old daughter, a career that has taken me to all bar one of the continents on the planet, with friendships and colleagues spanning all, is also what I now often dread when those travel details come flying into my inbox from the office.

It’s not all doom and gloom! The phrase “best job in the world”, when your sat in a far flung airport with your boarding cards about to come home on leave is used extensively! The money is decent, the experiences are priceless, the skills, knowledge and professionalism my career has provided is second to very few professions, so why all the doubt?

I wanted to start this blog for like minded people of all professions who work away from home, people who love it, people who hate it, and those also on the fence. It’s often a lonely place at home if you are the only one in your circle of friends and family with this kind of career and is difficult to vent. In this brave new world of mental health awareness and tolerance, the need to vent is often as essential as a doctors appointment. I hope this community can be a force for good in reassuring each other, sharing our travelling tales, providing alternatives that people have found in their experience and helping those new to the path find their way a little smoother than we did.

My career is in the maritime sector, about 14 years in marine engineering to be specific so this blog is for all looking for advice or an outlet in that area also. I’ve always been passionate about helping people develop their careers (not only cadets) and have found myself in a place in life where I’d like to give back at a greater scale.

I’m completely new to this, and as some of you may know, ships internet can be painful, and depending on which country you find yourself in, sometimes non existent, so I will update as often as I can when I’m away.

Maritime organisations and colleges to start your seafaring career in the UK (also relevant for international students)

Photo by vasu jamwal on Pexels.com Below is a run down of how to start your career at sea in the UK, most of these organisations have availability …

Maritime organisations and colleges to start your seafaring career in the UK (also relevant for international students)

Maritime organisations and colleges to start your seafaring career in the UK (also relevant for international students)

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Below is a run down of how to start your career at sea in the UK, most of these organisations have availability for international students also.

Getting your foot in the door – First of all you will need to approach either a training organisation or shipping company that runs its own cadetship programs independently.

Training organisations include –

SSTG – Ship Safe Training Grouphttps://www.sstg.org/

Clyde Marine traininghttps://www.clydemarinetraining.com/

Chiltern Maritimehttps://www.chilternmaritime.com/maritime-cadetships/

RFA – This training is run by the Royal Navy/Royal Fleet Auxilliary and will typically be carried out on RFA vessels, however you will then have the option to continue with the RFA on completion or move to typical merchant vessels and companies with your qualifications. https://www.royalnavy.mod.uk/careers/rfa/what-could-you-do/cadetships

The above are some of the larger organisations I am familiar with and have experience with (I was an SSTG cadet) and colleagues were with the others. I am less familiar with these but they look to be offering the same –

Stream Marine Traininghttps://streammarinetraining.com/cadetship-training-programme/

V.Ships Cadet Programme UK https://vgrouplimited.com/join-our-group/v-ships-cadet-programme-uk

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Some of the companies you are able to apply directly to –

BP https://www.bp.com/en/global/corporate/careers/students-and-graduates/locations/united-kingdom/shipping-cadets.html

Shellhttps://www.shell.com/business-customers/trading-and-supply/shell-shipping-and-maritime/careers-in-shell-shipping.html

Holland America Linehttps://www.chilternmaritime.com/partner/holland-america-line/

P&O Cruises (Carnival) https://www.pocruisescareers.co.uk/careers/cadets/

These are some but not all that you can contact directly, most companies are represented by the training organisations above. In this process they will register you as a cadet, send you to one of the UK’s maritime colleges, and they will arrange your pay, transport, accommodation, training program etc then will assign you to a vessel in a company they represent during the sea phases of your training.

If you are interested only in working for a particular company/type of vessel, look them up online and see if they have a formal sponsorship/training program and if not, ask them if they are represented by a particular training organisation. Failing that, on completion of your cadetship you are usually free to apply for whatever company you want, sometimes you are obliged to remain with a company for 12-24 months as part of the contract but that usually isn’t the case as a lot of these companies only have cadets for government financial incentives so are happy to be rid of you on completion if they have no vacancies.

One final thing to mention is if you particularly want to work on a cruise ship, oil/gas tanker, offshore vessel for a few particular examples, these will usually have additional short course training or additional medical requirements and typically like people with experience in that type of vessel so keep this in mind on applying. If you haven’t worked on these in your cadetship, it may mean on completion you have to fork out for a few short courses out of your own money (that your sponsor company would have paid for if you were a cadet on that type of vessel) or may just mean you have to start at a lower rank than your were hoping. (Junior engineer instead of 4th engineer for example and equally on the navigation side).

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There are several colleges in the UK for maritime training, there are many that will specialise in a certain disciplines or specialise in safety, offshore or ratings training etc. I have listed below the largest colleges that offer both Engineering and deck officer training and have their own associated safety training centers.

Warsash Maritime Academy (Solent University) – https://maritime.solent.ac.uk/

South Shields Marine School (South Tyneside College) – https://www.stc.ac.uk/marine

City of Glasgow College – https://www.cityofglasgowcollege.ac.uk/work-with-us/nautical-training

Fleetwood Nautical Campus – https://fleetwoodnautical.blackpool.ac.uk/

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As part of the training and before being allowed to walk onboard a vessel, you will need an ENG1 seafarers medical, here is a list of MCA approved doctors for this purpose –https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/mca-approved-doctors-uk-based

On completion of your college studies and sea phases your final step will be to complete an oral exam with an MCA surveyor who will then allow you to apply for your certificate of competency, these are typically not at your college of study and will be at a number of the larger MCA (Maritime and Coastguard Agency) offices. Here is a list of the main ones – https://www.cityofglasgowcollege.ac.uk/sites/default/files/inline/Oral%20Exams%20List.pdf

Further information on the process can be found here –

https://maritime.solent.ac.uk/careers/officer-cadet-training/how-to-apply

https://www.stc.ac.uk/courses-by-interest/59

If any of this seems complicated or a lot of information to consider, do not worry, I was utterly clueless when I started, I hadn’t even heard of some of the places these colleges were at, let alone the existence of the colleges. The training provider or sponsor company will lay it all out for you and provide all the information and assistance necessary.

Due to the current covid 19 pandemic, there may be some changes to the norm of how the above organisations and companies operate such as reduced or suspended intake, no in person oral exams etc, if links are out of date, please google search the company or organisation directly.

Pollution myths surrounding the shipping industry

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A couple of years ago I read the Facebook post of a reasonably well known person in my town, he wasn’t going to influence too many minds as the town I live only has a population of around 4500 people, but he is a business owner and former landlord of one of the few pubs in town, so the message will get out to plenty of people. And if he already thinks this, a small business owner in the deepest depths of West Cornwall, how many others like him are making these comments to their respective communities and distorting reality for the masses. I can’t remember his full post, I’ve since left Facebook, but the first line read, “If most of the pollution in the sea comes from ships and beaches….” STOP! Lets look at why this is nonsense.

First of all, this is not a general pollution into the oceans topic, but if it was, rivers would be flying high at the top of the leaderboard in the greatest sources of pollution (in terms of ferrying garbage and plastics) into the oceans. Land run off, wastewater and sewage from homes, industrial discharges (often into rivers also) are some of the other significant culprits.

Now I’m not saying the shipping industry is a saint in this regard, but the shipping industry is heavily regulated in all aspects of its operations regarding pollution. There are still some bad actors like any industry or aspect of life, but in general, as a shipping company, if you want to trade globally with the vast majority of developed and developing nations (and by vast majority I mean almost all of them – As of January 2018, 156 states are parties to the convention, being flag states of 99.42% of the world’s shipping tonnage), then you have to comply with the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL). These are regulations set out and updated by the international maritime organisation (IMO) and cover six broad areas of pollution, each with their own specific sub-categories.

MARPOL ANNEX 1 – Prevention of pollution by oil.

MARPOL ANNEX 2 – Prevention of pollution by noxious liquid substances in bulk.

MARPOL ANNEX 3 – Prevention of pollution by harmful substances carried by sea in packaged form.

MARPOL ANNEX 4 – Prevention of pollution by sewage from ships.

MARPOL ANNEX 5 – Prevention of pollution by garbage from ships.

MARPOL ANNEX 6 – Prevention of air pollution from ships.

Now each of these annexes has a description under IMO that is quite generalised and doesn’t spell out the nitty gritty of the endless documents under the convention. Here I will give a seafarers layman’s terms run down of how these actually affect us on a day to day basis and what pollution does and doesn’t occur from ships. I’ll focus on the main ones, MARPOL annex 2 & 3 are largely dealt with by cargo handling practices that usually have little impact once the ship is underway.

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MARPOL ANNEX 1 – OIL – The big one. Understandably, oil is considered one of the worst forms of pollution, a small amount of it spreads a long way, and a lot of it causes a monstrous environmental and economic impact. It causes all sorts of ecological issues to flora and fauna, devastating wildlife habitats, devastating picturesque landscapes, ruins peoples livelihoods in fishing and tourism areas and requires a huge amount of resources to clean up. And also understandably, in the earliest days of the MARPOL convention, oil pollution was put front and center as annex 1.

As a marine engineer, this is one of the regulations that apply to us almost exclusively in the day to day running of the ship, if oil is the cargo then this is obviously a vessel wide responsibility as it is the product, but on a day to day basis on everything from a fishing vessel to a cruise ship, marine engineers are responsible for the handling of fuel, lubricating oils, hydraulic oils, greases etc, from loading and discharge to transferring them around the vessel and handling and processing the waste.

The waste primarily ends up in sludge tanks or bilge tanks. Waste oils from equipment oil changes, flushing, severe leakage etc will all end up in a sludge tank/s, this is typically either burnt in an incinerator or discharged to a reception facility in port where it can be handled by companies that specialise in disposing of this kind of waste. The incinerator option is becoming increasingly less popular on ships, we have recently had ours removed altogether, this is primarily for reducing our companies carbon footprint (admittedly we are simply making it someone else’s problem but at least they can take it and make good use of it, re-purposing it or using it to generate heat or energy, we were literally throwing the exhaust gas into the atmosphere making no use of it whatsoever). It also saves us the hassle of having to process and transfer waste oil around the vessel risking leaks and losing an engineer to the task, now all waste oil goes into a tank, once it’s full enough, we’ll order its removal in the next port, one transfer system to maintain, less likelihood of problems, lovely.

The other hot topic with regards to oil pollution on ships is bilges, obviously a ship will generate a certain amount of bilge water, this can occur for many reasons, anything from cleaning, flushing waterlines, sea water cooling system leaks, fresh water cooling system leaks to the biggest issues of oil and fuel leaks all end up in a bilge tank. Where possible, if we know we have had a severe oil or fuel leak in a machinery space onboard, we will pump this directly in a sludge tank and keep it out of the bilge system altogether. Due to the amount of harmless leakage you get onboard, for example you may be cleaning a main cooler for your propulsion system, you can easily drop a tonne of sea water into the bilges, a leaking isolation valve allows several more hundred litres to tonnes to leak into the bilges as your cleaning it, then all the fresh water from pressure washing the plates ends up in the bilges also, this is a harmless combination of sea water and fresh water that could harmlessly go back into the sea, and would be a ridiculous expense to need to pump water to a road tanker every port call to dispose of it…. But, this water enters the bilge tank and mixes with the smaller quantities of lubricating oil, hydraulic oil and fuel leaks, general dirt, paint chips, mop fibers, ear plugs you name it, and suddenly we have a mixture of something you really cant put back into the sea, but mark my words, we will be getting the water out, it’s going in the sea, but don’t panic just yet….

First of all, when I refer to something “going into the bilges”, I’m referring to typically the lowest level in the room (we often call the tank top), most machinery space working levels on a ship are on raised platforms walking on grating, then about a meter below you, under pipe work and cables and framework ect is the tank top, just a flat level usually making up the top of a tank below.

The bilge system as a whole prevents a lot of the solids from getting into the tank, if you’ve left your can of WD40, gloves, hard hat where you were working on the tank top or your pen has fallen out of your pocket into the bilges etc, this will end up either getting picked up and cleaned (and dealt with as garbage if needs be) or it may be carried into what we call a bilge well by the water that has accumulated at this level. The bilge well is usually a box or cylindrical space deeper than the tank top where the water is allowed to accumulate, it can then be pumped from the bilge well through a course filter to the bilge tank. This filter prevents the majority of larger items getting into the bilge tank in the first place but some smaller items find their way through.

The bilge water is then usually left to settle in a dirty bilge tank, this is a sort of first stage settling tank where heavier solids are allowed to settle out to the bottom, oil and lighter density fluids are allowed to coalesce to the top and we should have a (mostly) clean section of water to take suction from. Once we are happy this has settled under gravity after a period of time and stable vessel movement (rough seas and vessel movement mixes up the tanks contents and means we have to wait longer for it to settle), we’ll transfer some of it, often through another filter (monitoring it all the time so we can stop transferring if we see it getting dirty) to a bilge water tank, this is where we keep our mostly clean water ready to be sent overboard (there’s more don’t worry), this tank often has a heating function to help separate any oil out further and it can often be passed through polishing filters and be dosed with a flocculant chemical to assist in the separation of any emulsions or oil droplets still suspended in the water.

Once we’re happy with the water at this stage we then send it to the business end of the system, it’s pumped from this tank, often through another filter again, to what we call an oily water separator, these can be a coalescer type which has a special material inside that encourages the last particles of oil in the bilge water to coalesce into larger particles, increasing their buoyancy and lifting them out of suspension to the top of the unit where this oilier mixture will be dumped to a sludge tank or back to the dirty bilge tank, they also incorporate heat again to assist and then they will usually go through a final stage which can be the same again or a fine polishing filter arrangement. There is also a centrifugal type separator that uses centrifugal force to separate the oil and particles from the water, these are considered more effective but usually far more expensive. After the separator in both cases, they have to go through a 15ppm (parts per million) oil content monitor, which will not allow anything above 15ppm of oil to be discharged (the industry is now moving to 5ppm to reduce it further), if it senses 15ppm or more, it will set off an alarm , divert the flow of bilge water with an automated 3-way valve back to the bilge tank and will also usually stop the pump automatically also, preventing anything from going overboard.

All of these transfers have to be meticulously logged in an oil record book, recording the bilge quantity before, bilge quantity discharged, bilge quantity remaining onboard, time of discharge, location of discharge (longitude and lattitude) and the signature of the engineering officer in charge (this is who the coastguard will be wanting to speak to if your oil record book is not tallying up or they spot problems with your bilge system). New oil content monitors being phased in now have to have a recording function where every operation is logged digitally for future inspections so a coastguard inspector could in theory ask you to prove your digital logs are corresponding with your written records, many of these systems now have the function of uploading this data directly to the head office of the company so the technical superintendent could query anything suspicious before the ship even gets to port for inspection.

As I said before, there are bad actors, “the magic pipe” was a famous illegal way of fooling an oily water separator where people would put fresh water through the oil content monitor to fool it into thinking the bilge water discharge was at 0ppm where it was actually higher, I’m sure other methods have been used. Technology alongside regulation is phasing this malpractice out, but it is a tiny percentage of seafarers willing to try this, the implications can be prison in a foreign country at the worse end and loss of employment and heavy fines for the company at the lower end, sometimes even being banned as a company altogether from operating in the country it occurred. In this environmentally conscious world we now live in, this is also a reputation that a shipping company does not want to put its clients off with either. For the above reasons, in the world of a marine engineer, the oil record book and its entries and associated practices are sacred, often designated to the engineer onboard with the neatest hand writing to fill in and the officer in charge just signs their name. A strict culture of pollution prevention has been ingrained into trainee seafarers for a long time now, and the regulating bodies offer huge cash payments for whistle blowers of malpractice (one million pound was paid to a newly qualified engineer a few years ago for blowing the whistle on malpractice with the bilge system on a cruise ship).

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MARPOL ANNEX 4 – SEWAGE – This isn’t as hot a topic as some of the others, at the end of the day, an incredibly small percentage of the world population is working on ships therefore shore side sewage outlets are a bigger issue, however the shipping industry still has strict rules on sewage discharge.

Most vessels are equipped with a sewage treatment plant, I won’t get too technical but essentially the outlets from the toilets are all led to a tank, this tank is called an aerobic digestion sewage treatment plant, where the bacteria already present in our…business, is kept alive and aerated in the tank which allows it to proliferate and feed on the sewage until in the final stage you, in theory, should be left with a relatively clear water containing no solids, this is then chlorine dosed for good measure then discharged overboard.

For anyone that has been on a cruise or ferry and seen strict rules for what you can and cant put down the toilets then the operation of these aerobic treatment plants and the associated vacuum system is why. Typically a ship will have a vacuum system instead of a gravity flush system, this requires less water, smaller pipework and therefore less materials and cost in building the sanitary system and allows for a smaller tank and therefore the treatment plant takes up a smaller footprint in the machinery space. Due to the reduced diameter of pipework and reduced water, putting anything other than toilet paper down the toilet can cause significant problems with blockages in pipework. Blockages do happen occasionally when the system is being operated correctly and biological enzyme chemicals cleaners can be used to unblock the pipework but these will only work on biological matter, definitely not on packaging, certain sanitary products, thick paper towels, cigarette butts etc, that can end up down there. There is typically a no bleach or harsh chemicals rule also, with special biological sanitary chemicals available on the market for the marine industry, this is due to bleach and other bactericidal cleaners having the potential to kill the bacteria in the treatment plant which means you’ll risk putting raw sewage overboard and cause blockages and scale build up among other problems such as creating an anaerobic bacterial process in the tank generating methane and its associated fragrances.

For vessels that don’t have a sewage treatment plant, they will only be allowed to discharge sewage if the sewage is comminuted (ground into tiny pieces by a special pump) and disinfected during discharge and the ship is more than 3 miles from the nearest land. Or if they do not have this function then they need to be over 12 miles from land and travelling at over 4knots to ensure the sewage is distributed at a rate that natural marine microbes and bacteria can process it and it does not create a concentrated area of pollution. Both these alternatives ensure no seafarers sewage is affecting beach goers or marine life and estuaries etc close to land.

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MARPOL ANNEX 5 – GARBAGE – Returning to the top of the post, I believe my facebook friend was referring to garbage when he used the word pollution, I can assure you garbage discharge is not a significant problem in the shipping industry. Like the other areas above, garbage is strictly regulated in its handling onboard but in a nutshell it is very similar to what happens on land.

Onboard we have various bins all over the place for sorting garbage by general waste, paper, plastic, metal, organic, hazardous, sharps, batteries, ink cartridges etc. Once these bins are full they are moved to large containers or salt sacks outside and sorted into more general categories like general, hazardous, oily and recycling. Once we are nearing capacity we arrange for it to be taken away at the next port call, we come alongside, some large skips (rubbish cart) are brought alongside the ship and we lower our garbage into them by crane, then, during the port call, the skip will be left there and all our waste during that port call will be thrown into there rather than stored onboard so we can go to sea empty again.

I work for quite a large company so I appreciate smaller companies may not have the resources we have onboard like extensive garbage segregation, we also have a garbage compactor to crush our waste into smaller volume, all cans can be crushed into blocks etc, but the bones of it will be the same, maybe they will only have general waste, mixed recycling and hazardous and oily waste to keep it simpler, but it will still be landed ashore and taken to the same places your waste will.

Some vessels incinerate waste, we used to when we had an incinerator but we actually stopped due to fire risk and again, the company is looking to reduce its carbon footprint so turning all our waste into Co2 whilst getting nothing from it like heating or electricity, doesn’t align with that philosophy. Better for it all to be processed on land where it can be utilised better.

There is very little necessity for vessels to put garbage in the sea, and for the little necessity there might be, it is strictly illegal. For regulatory purposes, the deck (navigation) department typically look after garbage on ships and like the oil record book, they have a garbage record book ensuring they keep a record of our handling of the ships garbage waste, this can then be audited as necessary. There are a few items that are allowed to go overboard, mainly comminuted (ground) food waste and certain household detergents and soaps that are used in the galley or peoples showers, these are still subject to being certain distances from land however.

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MARPOL ANNEX 6 – AIR – Air pollution is obviously another hot topic at present, and the shipping industry gets a bad rap on this I feel also. When you are studying to be a marine engineer or returning for your senior studies these days, although oil pollution is “the big one”, Marpol annex 6 is the flavour of the month. It was when I was a cadet back in 2008 and still was when I was returning for my 2nd and chief engineer studies in 2015 and 2018.

Air pollution on ships is exclusively a marine engineers domain, from engines, boilers and incinerators to refrigerant gasses, they are all emitted from and contained in machinery we maintain and operate. For the purpose of this blog, Nox and Sox emissions are the primary topics, but MARPOL annex 6 was driven by these two pollutants so I’m not omitting anything too crucial.

Nox emissions are one of the main contributors to the formation of visual smog in cities around the world and a healthcare cost of trillions globally due to the respiratory illnesses linked to it. Nitrogen pollution in water ways and coastal areas encourages excessive growth of marine plants and algal blooms, blocking sunlight, causing entire populations of marine life to leave an area as it reduces their ability to find food and can also increase levels of toxins in the water undesirable to the marine life, it can result in thick sludge forming on the surface of the water from algae and effectively form dead zones for marine life which in turn cripples local fishing industries, recreation businesses and property value. Excess nitrogen can increase acidity of soil, affecting it’s ability to support plant growth, excess nitrogen can also cause biodiversity loss due to nitrogen loving plants thriving and out competing other plants in the area. Nitrogen oxide is also a greenhouse gas and is an ozone depleting substance.

Although much of the above is caused by land run off from agricultural fertilizers for one example, the airborne nitrogen in the form of Nox is very relevant to us. There is much complexity in the technologies that have been implemented to combat Nox emissions from combustion but essentially Nox is formed during very high temperatures in combustion and therefore its consideration is relevant in all forms of combustion machinery.

Ships engine manufacturers have to comply with regulations regarding Nox production in the design and operation of the engines, i.e building the engine so that under normal operating conditions, combustion temperature is low enough to ensure minimal Nox production, the simplest requirement of us as onboard marine engineers is to maintain these engines in a satisfactory condition as per manufacturers recommendations, using only original equipment manufacturers spare parts and then, in theory, the engine should remain in a condition as per design expectations.

There are lots of technologies being employed to reduce combustion temperatures, such as water injection into the combustion space and fuel homogenization, both of these processes utilizing the heat absorption properties of water to reduce combustion temperature. There is a balance that has to be struck however, as low combustion temperatures can have detrimental effects to both engine efficiency and pollution, as well as in the long term potentially leading to severe engine damage, which then becomes a safety of navigation issue.

Finally there is Nox scrubber technologies which deal with the Nox after it has been produced in the combustion space and neutralises it before it escapes the funnel.

The other big polluter is Sox, oxides of sulphur are released into the air and once they cool and come into contact with water it becomes sulfuric acid. (This is another reason you don’t want your combustion temperature and air temperature to get too low in your engine combustion chamber as sulfuric acid can form in your combustion chamber carrying out an aggressive attack on your cylinder liner referred to as “cold corrosion”) The oxides of sulphur in the atmosphere also contribute to general particulate matter pollution which is harmful to health and a contributor to climate change, the formation of sulfuric acid in the atmosphere also provides the source for acid rain.

Sox emissions are effectively directly proportional to the suplhur content of your fuel, in recent years the shipping industry has been phasing out high sulphur fuels, gradually dropping the allowed percentage of sulphur in fuel, and tightening the rules in coastal and “special areas”. Up until now, for various circumstances such as long periods in port, “special areas”, national requirements etc, low sulphur fuel is required to be used, low sulphur being less than 0.1%, then in all other areas a sulphur content as high as 3.5% was allowed. As of 2020 the IMO brought in a cap of 0.5% sulphur content in fuel globally, whilst maintaining the same low sulphur rules in special areas. Unfortunately not all countries have agreed to this yet as it is quite a big change with cost and availability of low sulphur fuel being the problem, this is however a normal political process, a large amount of countries have and it will be phased in soon.

Other than reducing the amount of sulphur in fuel, Sox emissions can also be reduced by installing scrubber systems in the exhaust, reducing the Sox emissions to the legal requirement before they leave the funnel, this is another way the countries that have not agreed to the IMO 2020 reduction have got around using the higher sulphur fuel. Another method shipping companies are turning to is turning to liquified natural gas as the engine fuel, eliminating the problem altogether.

Particulate matter is another concern produced by exhaust gas, this is also reduced by employing the above processes of efficient engine operation, correct fuel and exhaust scrubbers.

Air emissions from refrigerant gasses have been phased out after global agreements such as the Montreal protocol and Kyoto agreement to reduce ozone depleting substances and substances with “global warming potential” from industry. The shipping industry, in terms of sourcing refrigerants for air conditioning and refrigeration systems is in alignment with these rules like shore side industries.

All these regulations typically come with a caveat of stricter rules in “special areas”, such as the low sulphur fuel, some areas will not allow you to use the oily water separator at all, garbage and sewage discharge will be stricter in certain areas – all are listed here –

https://www.imo.org/en/OurWork/Environment/Pages/Special-Areas-Marpol.aspx

The regulations pertaining to these conventions are like bibles, they have endless details and cover far more nuanced scenarios and problems than even the seafarers operating within the industry can absorb, so I have just covered the likely obvious curiosities that someone outside the industry looking in may wonder. If you are really keen please see the link below for more information –

https://www.imo.org/en/About/Conventions/Pages/International-Convention-for-the-Prevention-of-Pollution-from-Ships-(MARPOL).aspx

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Seafarers – being in the union, is it worth it?

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In January 2008, in the first week of my cadetship, a meeting with a union representative was organised for us giving a presentation and Q&A on the benefits and importance of being a member. The presentation gave the usual benefits in the area of pay and conditions negotiations, the perks that union membership gave and, more of a selling point, the legal protections they provide with employer disputes and more importantly to protect your certification (and freedom to some extent). If complications arise working with the responsibilities of a seafarer in the international shipping industry, then the above we were told are essential. We were offered a “bargain” cadets rate of £5 a month for the 3 years of our cadetship and I’ve been a member ever since. Good decision…?

The general consensus among the seafarers I have worked with, myself included, is that the membership fee is worth it to protect our certification and provide legal representation in the worst case scenario situation that an incident may occur where loss of life, pollution, collision or running aground occurs resulting in significant damage to the vessel and whatever you come into contact with, which may also be an essential part of a countries infrastructure (a bridge or blockage of a waterway for example) or a case of a countries laws being inadvertently broken etc. We all hear about incidents like the Costa Concordia cruise ship disaster, the Ever Given blocking the Suez Canal, the MSC Napoli breaking its back in the English channel providing beach goers with anything from a life supply of shampoo to BMW motorcycles… All of these incidents have large scale implications, aerial helicopter camera footage on the news, talk of pollution, the billions a day it is causing to world trade and most importantly the tragic loss of life.

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Only in incidents like the Costa Concordia is a crew member named and shamed publicly, and in this case the captain rightfully had the book thrown at him, but what you don’t hear is the story and roles of the entire crew onboard, sometimes sharing more responsibility than the high profile positions of captain and chief engineer that usually get the lions share of the blame. Often these incidents are caused by years of poor maintenance, lack of support from the owner company, employment of incompetent personnel, genuine mistakes, genuine negligence and “acts of god” etc. When you are in the industry you hear about far more shipping incidents that don’t make the news, plenty with fatalities, but several people unnecessarily dying in a ballast tank from asphyxiation leaving families missing loved ones doesn’t seem to get peoples attention on the BBC news like a beach full of seagulls covered in oil.

The common denominator in all these cases is that an investigation takes place, and everything from your sleep pattern, sobriety and years of experience to whether or not you crossed the T’s and dotted the I’s on your permit to work and risk assessments that day will be scrutinised. The theory with regards to the union is they will support your legal defense if needed in these situations, I believe this is the case but fortunately (and I do mean fortunately) cannot give any personal anecdotal examples.

An anecdotal example I can give is a dispute some colleagues had with our employer in the early days of the covid-19 pandemic, a routine crew change was taking place but in this case they had a 48 hour hotel quarantine period followed by PCR test then joining the ship the next day following their negative test. They arrived at the hotel on the Friday and the 48 hour quarantine period was not starting officially until the Saturday, at this point bars were open or had reopened in Holland and several of the sailors did what sailors do on the Friday night and made the most of it… The next day one of them was keeping the dream alive at lunch time and making a nuisance of himself, a lot of conversation about the night before was taking place and a member of the crew who had been behaving himself (and possibly looking to ruthlessly further his career) decided to pass the information on to the office. All involved were interviewed and sent home and underwent several months of dispute and uncertainty until the company finally let the situation drop. A colleague of mine among them praises the union in their support during this time and provided him with moral support as well as critical information on employment law and his rights etc.

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The “bread and butter” of the unions role is pay and conditions negotiations, this is where I have mixed opinions. Whether it is down to their inefficacy or whether they simply are not influential enough to get results, they’ve been very hit and miss in my experience. My first couple of years in the company I received significant pay increases, I think around 7% in my first year and around 4.5% in the second, I think this however was down to market conditions at the time, these tailed off to more modest numbers and then the downturn in the oil price occurred in 2016 and we were pressured into a 10% pay cut, loss of several conditions and haven’t had a pay increase since. Like I say, this may be down to them not being influential enough to get results or maybe the market conditions have been that bad since the downturn that it was out of their hands, but never the less, I’ve been paying my membership every month but they haven’t secured a pay increase for me or my colleagues in years.

There are some small perks that come with the union, sometimes it can be anything from vouchers to cinema and restaurants, sometimes free financial advice or free will writing services, they’ve just given us access to a personal health care app focused mainly on the mental and mindfulness side of things and several other items that wont change your life but worth having.

In the grand scheme of things, I think it’s worth it, they do have work to do to try and gain more influence and negotiate better with employers but the overall service you get, worst case scenarios taken into account seems reasonable for £20-30 odd a month (that is for nautilus the UK seafarers union). Strength in numbers make these unions more influential, if you are in an industry with a specialised union, the more people that are part of it makes the workforce more unified and provides the union with more resources to afford better negotiators, training and legal teams etc. I appreciate frustrations people have with them though, and it is absolutely a personal decision for you to make at the end of the day, and equally you should have the right to remain free of it, regardless of pushy union reps that want your membership number before they know your name.

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A seafarers opinion on career change, happiness and when to stop chasing that “dream”.

2012 was an interesting year for me, I’d been a fully qualified marine engineer for about a year but I was about to make a change of employer that would set me free on international travels much further afield. Previously I had been working and training in companies that operated in UK or European waters and I hadn’t been on a ship further than North Sea sectors belonging to a few of our European neighbours.

My decision to move to a different company was a decision I made for a combination of reasons, I had been working on smaller vessels that didn’t give me the best experience I could get as an engineer, I wasn’t seeing much of the world and the pay and conditions of my employment at the time were below average. An opportunity arose, I bit their hand off and after my final UK waters trip of 2012 where I joined in Lowestoft and departed in Swansea docks, I was about to experience the USA, Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America before the years end.

Fort de France, Martinique

For any current and aspiring seafarers out there (and this would apply to careers abroad in general) I would say this, I don’t recommend throwing caution to the wind and jumping around companies frequently throughout your career, stability is essential in maximising your salary, achieving promotion, getting more money into a pension pot etc. However, it’s clear to us all that a career abroad in particular needs to have some inherent takeaways such as life experiences, a worth while salary, a work environment that isn’t going to drive you insane or depressed etc. My situation was all of the above, I was young, seeing little of the world, earning mediocre wages and really didn’t enjoy working for that particular employer in general. I had no commitments (children, mortgage etc) so I did take a risk and change company, my salary greatly improved, I got to see much more of the world and the work environment was, although more technically challenging, much better. If you’re in a similar position to how I was, I’d highly recommend getting it sorted as early as possible, then look for stability, there are far more unicorns in the world than a perfect employer.

Mobile, Alabama

Throughout the last, lets say decade to keep it simple, I’ve had the lows of losing both my parents (one of which passed away while I was in the middle of the south Atlantic with no way of getting home), I’ve had some overindulgence problems…. I’ll leave that there, but also the highs of having a daughter, progressing at a reasonable rate professionally and I met the beautiful mother of my child who has the patience of a saint. All of this and the associated aftermath has influenced in some way how I feel towards my employer, yet all of it was out of their hands and none of it was their fault. Funnily enough, it’s still not these bigger items that seem to rile up the often petulant wrath of the seafarer. Commercial pressures, shift work, often terrible/boring food, forced to be head to toe in uncomfortable personal protective equipment in sometimes 45 degrees C ambient conditions, an arguably dated hierarchical structure in a modern world all seem to be what do the trick. Yet we know these are universal faults with all or most companies, as well awkward colleagues, time away from home etc, but despite this obvious fact, there’s a painful amount of seafarers that let these nagging doubts drive them into the hands of another company and the cycle starts all over again.

I’ve met many people that have fallen into this trap in a severe way, typically agency staff, it seems once these guys pop, they can’t stop. Most of us will do a cadetship with a single sponsoring company, some people will get a job with their sponsoring company, some people will apply to a particular company they are interested in, and others will sign up to one or many of the recruitment agencies out there. Others will fall into the hands of these recruitment agencies after redundancy or other reasons. Personally it’s never been my cup of tea, often these guys will be onboard a vessel for a trip, a month, two months maybe more, then they will be home for a week and be called somewhere else and feel obliged to go at the fear of not being offered work again. This, in my opinion, is no life to live if you value any kind of work life balance.

Even if you like to occasionally change companies the traditional way every few years these scenarios have a lot of negatives in my opinion. First of all you are always “the new guy”, bottom of the list for promotion, regularly shafted with Christmas away, first on the chopping block for redundancy, it’s not great for experience as your never vessel familiar so you go from ship to ship being given menial jobs as no one trusts you, the only appeal it seems is a higher day rate. This however is generally accompanied with no employee benefits such as sick pay, leave days, courses and medicals being paid for in expenses etc, this is what justifies the higher day rate. Your also not regularly paying into a pension, not able to get periods of study for career progression paid for by your employer and sometimes not able to claim basic travel expenses. It can even cause problems when applying for a mortgage as you don’t have an employment contract or proof of a prolonged period of work at one place of employment.

Aside from the more extreme example above, there are plenty of seafarers placed in perfectly stable, well payed permanent contracts of employment, working their way up pay scales, getting recognised by their employer for a potential future promotion slot who are itching to throw it all away because of pathetic reasons like their mate told them they don’t have to wear a hard hat in the engine room, or they can get drunk off shift, or they think the next company will be better simply because their mate works there….

Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro

The only exception to the rule I can sort of justify is the people that go to luxury yachts for the experience, visiting the nicest parts of the world rather than industrial ports, more of a fun lifestyle onboard, money is typically very good etc. However, going from commercial vessels to yachts has plenty of downsides, first of all being experience, especially for an engineer. At the end of the day these are little hotels of light design with the bare minimum machinery onboard to maximise passenger space for a complement of typically a handful to a few dozen people, if you go to these vessels as a young inexperienced engineer and want to come back to the commercial world a few years later, you are going to have a reality shock as your experience will count for little and you will likely need to take a pay cut coming back to the commercial industry. There are a lot of yacht personnel going around the world with prestigious ranks such as chief of second engineers who wouldn’t get a look in edge ways as 4th engineer in the commercial sector, and if you did, you’d have to take a monstrous pay cut that would understandably put anyone off. On top of this, permanent contracts are uncommon, trips can be long, often there’s no pension scheme or study funding etc. Rotational trips are becoming more common, but are snapped up by those in the know. A friend of mine on yachts I’ve not seen for years as he’s only home for a few weeks a couple of times a year which has never coincided with my leave, out of the question if you have a family I think you’d agree.

Anyway, I’ve been with this new employer ever since my change in 2012, and currently have no intention of changing that. In terms of lifestyle, I’d much rather be at home in all honesty, so why throw instability into the mix. I’ve been through the roller coaster of being disgruntled with my current employment but now I have a small family, mortgage, a more significant financial responsibility in general, it’s put things in perspective. I think as human beings we’re just simply never happy, we want the next best thing, more money, new experiences, bigger house, up to date gadget, yada yada. I’m now at the point where I know I’m likely in the top third of salaries in my industry, my rotation onboard isn’t too bad, I like who I work with and the company takes our security and well being seriously in our travels. Many of my colleagues share this state of affairs but still rant and complain wanting change. The saying, “the grass isn’t always greener on the other side” can be a bit of a cop out to taking risks, but when the grass your already on is pretty green, then it’s highly likely to be the case. It’s famously common for seafarers to be a whinging bunch, I just wish more would put things in perspective, save the relentless game of musical companies and subsequently working until they drop dead.

Taking ownership of your health under the tight schedule of a travelling professional

I wont go into the obvious healthy behaviours here required to keep you in check for the majority of your life, I’ll list them below but I think these are things we all know deep down and the greater issue is having the discipline to actually implement them regularly. These are things such as –

  • Healthy eating
  • Exercise
  • Reducing alcohol consumption
  • Quitting smoking
  • Keeping hydrated
  • Reducing caffeine consumption
  • Reducing salt intake

Etc….

Below I will talk about healthy habits I have implemented in my travels and life as a whole as well as ways you can check up your health at home when that doctors appointment availability is oh so far away and not suitable for your schedule.

Sleep, glorious sleep

I’ll be honest with you and let you know I’m still struggling slightly with this one, but the improvements I have made have significantly improved my physical and mental health. I quit drinking and smoking altogether back in January of this year and it had an almost immediate and long term change to my quality of sleep, this isn’t the long and short of it but it has certainly made me, first of all, able to get to sleep a lot quicker at night and my quality of sleep has improved greatly benefitting my general energy levels and any anxiety/depression endured the following day. Also worth noting is that, to this day, the single most noticeable experience I have had from giving up drinking is an improvement in sleep. Anyway… It’s an obvious, yet under appreciated fact that being well rested is going to help you tackle arduous journeys around the world and improve your performance whilst at work, but we often struggle to take it as seriously as we should. The long term effects of sleep deprivation range from depression, anxiety and obesity, memory loss, decreased fertility, all the way to hypertension, heart attack, strokes and psychiatric disorders. As the old saying goes, “it is what it is”, but it’s never too late to make a change. I don’t expect everyone to take the radical step of quitting drinking altogether overnight but here are a few aids I found to improve my sleep over the years aside from that you can try also –

  • A blue tooth audio eye mask. Personally noise has little effect on me during sleep, I’ve worked on ships for years and they can provide all kinds of racket, including a permanent drone of running generators, ventilation fans, 24 hour activity on deck, I’ve even slept through fire alarms…. But light, I cannot tolerate. Up until I had my eye mask I had a psychotic ritual at work of putting towels and various items of clothing over cracks in the door, window, LED’s on electrical equipment etc. The eye mask has done away with all that, and I can listen to some relaxing audio wirelessly through it also. I can’t explain how beneficial this has been and I would recommend it to anyone with similar problems.
  • ASMR. Some might not know what this is, some may think it’s insane, but for me it works. I’ve spent years experimenting with relaxing sounds at night to help me sleep, nature sounds, spa music, even sleep hypnosis, none of which really did anything for me until I stumbled across ASMR. (Autonomous sensory meridian response if anyone’s wondering). I wont try and describe it, basically it ranges from gentle whispering, various scratching, scrunching, rubbing noises, even mukbang and hair dresser or doctor medical exam roleplay and much, much more. A simple search for ASMR on youtube will provide you with endless varieties to find your niche, with most of the major content creators bringing in millions of views and subscribers (so it’s not as uncommon as you think). I wouldn’t say its for everyone but some ASMR playing through my blue tooth eye mask gets me away in no time.
  • Get stricter with your bed and wake up times, get your body clock tuned into a routine and this will help you get tired around your planned bedtime and will do all the magical things like produce melatonin at the right time and keeping your insulin levels in check.
  • If you are in a hotel room with AC (or have temperature regulation wherever you are), set the temperature a little lower than usual, the bodies typical behaviour is to naturally drop in temperature at night. Research has found that poor body temperature regulation plays a part in chronic insomnia sufferers and lower room temperature has assisted in improving this.
  • Don’t consume caffeine late in the day, a few years ago I made it a habit to have my last coffee no later than mid to late afternoon and it has certainly helped.
  • Increase your bright light exposure during the day, for those of us that do unsocial shift patterns or spend a lot of time in hotel rooms, get those curtains open wide during your work hours, get outside more. Studies have found it is optimal to make sure you get at least 30-45 minutes of direct bright light between 8am and noon with no sunglasses for best results.
  • Reduce your screen time exposure to blue light late at night, an old fashioned pre bed book ritual I’d recommend. This is due to blue light suppressing the bodies release of melatonin. Avoiding blue light exposure for 2-3 hours before bed is recommended.
  • Avoid or reduce napping during the day, particularly irregular naps. Studies have found that irregular napping can increase risk of depression as well as contributing to insomnia.
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Supplements

The airport, hotel, work, repeat lifestyle whilst travelling can often mean your missing some key nutrients or even overindulging in others that aren’t doing much for you. Supplementing is a useful way to make sure we’re getting what we need, see the key areas (in my opinion) below –

  • Following on from above, sleep. In addition to the above recommendations, there are now many supplements on the market to help you relax and wind down to a restful night sleep. I’ve tried many however and not found a smoking gun of a supplement yet but its certainly worth trying. Working in the USA I’ve found melatonin supplements are definitely effective, however these are not available over the counter in the UK. There are many alternatives however containing supplements such as valerian root, magnesium, lavender, passion flower etc. Personally I use a “deep sleep” multivitamin from numan in the UK, which has a combination of sleep improving supplements in one tablet. As usual, do a little research and experimentation and see what’s right for you.
  • Immune system. Particularly in the age of covid, strong immune systems is a hot topic. There are many supplements out there, often categorised by age and gender and in various forms from soluble powders and tablets to liquid tonics. For those of us stuck quarantining in hotel rooms, or for myself often spending a 12 hour shift bathed in artificial light below the windowless waterline of a ship, vitamin D is critical given our lack of exposure to sun light. Particularly for the men out there, vitamin D deficiency has been associated with low testosterone and sperm count so it’s a good all rounder. There are many other critical supplements out there for immune system health such as vitamin C, D, zinc, Iron, magnesium, folic acid, all of which you can now find grouped together in multivitamin tablets that wont take much space in your luggage.
  • General health. There are many other supplements you can find on a case by case basis to suit your individual needs, maybe you want a probiotic for improved gut health, skin hair and nails, maybe an all round osteocare or joint care supplement (I’d recommend a supplement that includes glucosamine as well as the usual cod liver oil for joint care, its a universally encouraged supplement amongst me and my colleagues who also spend much of their day up and down ladders and stairs on a vibrating ship, so we are all too familiar with aching joints), maybe you want a supplement for focus if you are a little lethargic from your travels or prolonged shift work, think about what would benefit you, google search if there’s a supplement available and get them in your luggage to help you keep on top form while your away.

Many companies now will tailor make supplements to your needs, they will ask you the areas of health you want to improve and will provide you with a one size fits all multivitamin, useful for limited luggage space. Again, I use numan myself for this purpose but I’m sure there are plenty of other options out there.

Home self test kits

This is something I’ve discovered relatively recently, there is some dispute as to the efficacy of some of these kits, particularly the one size fits all intolerance kits that claim to be able to tell you if you are allergic to specific food groups. Having said that, there are blood test kits that you can send away to a lab to give you an indication of all sorts of health indicators from hormone levels, cholesterol, vitamin deficiency, kidney and thyroid function all the way to stomach ulcers and diabetes.

There are some intolerance kits I have a little more faith in that will target a specific intolerance like lactose intolerance or a celiac test kit, I think these are more realistic and seems to be the case from my own research. Personally I can’t see how a finger prick of blood in a vial can pluck out specific intolerances (and they are claiming to find intolerances, not full blown allergies) from over 100 food groups, and from my research on this matter, the medical industry also seems to agree that they are likely unreliable.

I’m no medical professional but this is a road I’ve gone down to try and pre-empt any problems I may have or generally give myself some reassurance while I struggle to fit in a doctors appointment over something potentially trivial.

Employers health insurance, if you’ve got it, use it.

If you have private health care through your employer, use it, especially during these times where national health services are still dealing with covid and the backlog it has created. I’ve had some sinus issues for a long time now and they had come to a head recently, but not so much I felt I wanted to bother my GP with and end up on an obscene NHS waiting list. For the first time in 9 years with my current employer, I contacted my private health insurance and arranged a phone appointment with a doctor. After about 6 years of tolerating this problem, I was booked in to see an ENT specialist within weeks, given an endoscopy, told what the issue was, prescribed medication and advised what to do to follow it up, done. I know this isn’t possible for everyone, and I’m incredibly appreciative it was an option to me, but if you’ve got it, use it, especially if its a non emergency, chronic issue like I had that you just want to get out of the way.

Self help

Maybe you know all of the above or don’t, maybe you do and are struggling to implement it, maybe your physically healthy but your mental health is leading you down a path you want to avoid. In the world of information we now live in, the answers are all out there staring you in the face. If you spend a lot of time travelling, on a ship, hotel room, whatever it may be, make time for improving yourself and incorporate some self help into that journey. I try and take a combination of at least three books with me when I’m away, typically one self help, one of interest and one of professional development. Make time for yourself, put the iphone down and learn something new the old fashioned way free from all that evil blue light.

Basic investments and future stability to consider with a career working away from home

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Careers working abroad can often be financially rewarding as well as a life and personality enhancing experience. The nature of working abroad however can mean very specialized careers that don’t easily transition to a return home, often resulting in a pay cut and/or change to lifestyle whenever we make the decision. It’s essential we get our grown up heads on as early as possible and make sure we’re making the right decisions to invest in our futures and make the most of the sacrifices we’ve made spending so much time away from our loved ones, missing our children grow up, missing weddings, funerals, birthdays and Christmas’ etc.

Lets start with the boring stuff, pensions.

I wish I’d had this drilled into me sooner, I’ve probably missed out on about 10 years of pensions contributions in my professional career before getting my a*** in gear. The power of compound interest and simply having skin in the game longer means the longer we are paying into a pension, the bigger our pot will be and the more comfortable our lives will be in retirement. It’s simple but essential. If your employer offers a pension scheme, especially if they pay some in also, this is essentially free money, and you are beginning the path to financial stability in retirement. Get signed up to it ASAP! If you are in a less structured career where employer pensions are not an option, look into a private pension, in the UK, you can look into a SIPP for example (Self-Invested Personal Pension), but most countries will have a combination of employer and personal pension options. Even if you don’t think this is high in your priorities now, just get one set up and pay the minimum amount into it. A few years down the line, grey hairs, a soul crushing maturity and children will start appearing and you’ll be glad you’ve at least got a small pot to build on, an account already set up and then it’s just a case of increasing your contributions as you see fit.

Slightly less boring, Mortgage.

There’s a lot of talk of “getting in the housing market” or “on the property ladder” etc thrown around these days, before you get ahead of yourself, your going to simply need a fixed abode at some point, keep that hair dry. Buying a home is undoubtedly preferable to the endless money pit of renting, so getting yourself a property as soon as possible makes a lot of sense. Like a pension, the sooner and longer you spend paying it the better, except in this case, it means you get rid of a financial liability sooner and have your self a decent sized asset for financial gain (climbing that property ladder eh) or simply to weather a financial emergency later in life. All going well you can use it to downsize in retirement and add a lump sum to your pension or have a lump sum to pay off your remaining debt before retirement, or even a giant deposit if you’d like to up size to your dream home. It’s also a large outgoing removed if you do need to come home to a lower paying career.

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Investing in that infamous stock market…

For a lot of us, this is a daunting prospect. What is the stock market? Am I just giving my money to a bunch of Leonardo DiCaprio’s spraying it over the feds off the side of a yacht? Investing in individual stocks and shares is a risky business, however, with some careful research you can potentially make yourself a decent return, you can also make yourself a decent loss, maybe all of your money, the possibilities are endless. I would only recommend individual stocks and share trading if this is something you are prepared to thoroughly research, find a keen interest in and ultimately, have a high risk tolerance to see through. This can be a roller coaster of watching your money gain and lose value over years until you make enough you are happy with, take a loss or come out with most of your initial investment with your tail between your legs. There is plenty of advice to be found on youtube and the internet in general on the topic, and it does have potential of high returns. You can also invest ethically in small businesses that interest you, or maybe companies involved in climate action or the ever increasingly discussed “green industrial revolution”.

I personally have recently invested in a small mining company looking to restart tin and copper mining in Cornwall. I know how much the industry means to the heart of the Cornish community, the local area will benefit greatly from the job creation, a home grown conflict and corruption free source of copper and tin to the UK economy will be of great benefit with the coming electrification of industry, and the existing infrastructure, local talent and mining heritage in the local area, coupled with today’s tin and copper prices makes it financially viable from a business perspective. Hopefully my investment contributes to it becoming a reality, and once it does I can sleep at night benefiting from the companies profits. This, anyway, is a small example of my researched dabble into stocks and shares, you don’t need to throw your money at Tesla or Amazon. Although I have learnt the hard way and have some complete garbage in my small portfolio…

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A safer option to get in the stock market are through funds, index funds, ETF’s etc, there’s a lot of jargon I wont pretend to be an expert on but in a nut shell you choose a fund, maybe its through a large brokerage like Hargreaves Lansdown, Vanguard, Blackrock, maybe even your bank (for UK readers) offers a stocks and shares ISA or sometimes called an investment ISA. In this case you can choose an amount, maybe £50 or £100 a month to begin with, and they will invest it into a fund which splits your money across an entire “index” of assets such as the FTSE 100 or S&P 500. This in turn spreads out your risk as, in theory, if your invested in the whole market your losses on Rolls Royce for example shouldn’t affect Tesco’s growth and in the US market a struggling Ford motor company shouldn’t affect Amazon and therefore your investment tracks a slither of each company in the market as a whole. The theory then is the stock market has historically grown over time and if you leave your money there for a long enough period, lets say 10-15 years+ your money should grow and outperform any typical savings account. This obviously comes with risk as market crashes can cause your money to temporarily plummet in value, or if a pandemic comes along for example… If this happens to be the point you need to take your money out, you wont be happy. Having said that, if you look at trends for the stock market in 2020, yes there was a large dip in early summer when the lock downs were implemented but this has largely rebounded across the board and continued to grow beyond pre-lockdown value, with a lot of companies still to add value once the pandemic restrictions are lifted globally. All that aside, the fund option of investing is a less volatile way of accessing the stock market and having a larger return on a long term savings account compared to your typical banks savings account with a painful 0.4% interest rate for example.

Precious metals

I won’t pretend to be a particularly learned person on this matter, but the reason I invest,(dabble I should probably say) in silver, is to hopefully have an “asset to my portfolio” that will grow with inflation and maybe help me out in an apocalyptic situation… but hopefully just something I can sell in 20 years at a higher price in a nut shell. Something that isn’t tied to private companies and internet connections that I can hold in my hand. I personally have chosen silver as I can collect a larger amount for a smaller investment, its a consumable commodity in that a lot is used in industrial processes and a lot ends up in land fill and it will be needed more in future with population growth and industrial developments. So my theory is it will hopefully grow in value and increase with any inflationary pressure, I could however be very wrong, all investments hold risk. Gold is an option many go for, it has stood the test of time as a valuable commodity, it also has many industrial applications today, however, I’m not particularly keen on spending an absolute fortune for something I can store in a match box. There is also an option to buy silver and gold and have it held for you by the bullion dealer themselves, this way you can opt to sell when the price has increased, no physical material needs to be sent or assessed just a transaction in your account, it does provide convenience and actually a slightly lower price typically, but it’s not what I’m looking for from my investment in metals.

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Cryptocurrency

The big, “who the hell knows”. Probably the most volatile of investments is cryptocurrency, most of us simply don’t understand what it is, why it holds value and why it seems to keep rebounding up in the long term. I’ve personally made a very small dabble into a certain crypto, one thing I will say is its simple to buy in small quantities as and when you can afford, so it’s easy for someone who wants to take very little risk and buy only £20 worth on pay day for example. I cant explain much more about it, I think it’s value is held in confidence of the public that own it, this is much like gold except crypto has zero industrial applications, cant be made into jewellery or cast into bars and stored in a vault for that matter. Like the stock market, this is one I think you need to research hard, follow the news, and make a decision based on your risk tolerance how much you want to invest in it. I would then recommend researching a trustworthy exchange, and make sure you are able to withdraw funds first before putting too much in.

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Others

There are various other investments you could look into such as bonds, collectibles, invest in a business of your own, maybe go straight into a property portfolio, this is a personal decision based on your interests, financial situation and risk tolerance.

In closing I want to stress that your money, if not invested somehow is inevitably going to be eaten into, it will sit there in a pathetically low interest account, tantalisingly offering to provide you with a perpetual supply of the next updated shiny new car, TV, ipad, clothing etc and do nothing for your future. Skimming a percentage off the top now to invest while you are still healthy and ambitious is going to quite literally “pay dividends” to your future self. If you are someone who wants out of the world of working abroad, or are forced into it through ill health or family emergency etc, it may also provide you with a ticket to do so in future.

Some useful links to content creators providing honest, realistic financial advice –

https://www.youtube.com/c/MamaFurFur

https://www.youtube.com/c/AussieWealthCreation

https://www.youtube.com/c/PatrickBoyleOnFinance

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCA8P3Rgfjn0IFZL4bmrKbrg

https://www.youtube.com/c/HeresyFinancial

The ideal travel grab bag, the bare necessities

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This might seem like an obvious topic, but many seasoned travelers will no doubt have the experience of forgetting any number of items in their less experienced days of travelling, from the dead batteries of the various electronics we carry to then find our travel adapter isn’t suitable, the dreaded lack of a pen when the cabin crew remind you 45 minutes before landing you have a customs declaration form to fill in, down to the simple comforts of a decent pair of head phones for your in flight experience, lets have a look at how we can prevent all of the above and more and take a little stress out of our often arduous journeys.

First of all lets get the basics cleared up, how big can my bag be and how many can I take?

The rough dimensions for an acceptable carry on bag range from around 22cm x 35cm x 56cm (9″ x 14″ x 22″ for you imperial lot) to 25cm x 45cm x 56cm (10″ x 18″ x 22″). The best bet is to check with the airline, some are stricter than others on policing these dimensions. I’ve only experienced it being enforced a couple of times in my travelling experience, this was with smaller airlines i.e flybe (god rest their souls) from Newquay, Cornwall to London Gatwick for example, in this case I just checked it through to London and picked it up, the larger onward carrier was fine with me taking it as carry on. I’ve also had an issue of one airline having a strict 5kg limit meaning I had to decant the less essential/expensive items in my hand luggage into my hold luggage, I’ve only experienced this once and the typical weight allowance now is as high as 23kg (50.7lbs) with most large carriers. My hand luggage these days is usually around 10-15kg (22-33lbs) and I’ve had no weight issues for nearly a decade of travelling.

Liquids.

The general rules around liquids are as follows –

  • One, resealable, see through bag (one quart in volume). For us on my side of the pond that is just under a litre, to keep it simple, most places including your local supermarket will sell bags specifically for this purpose stating that they are suitable for this purpose.
  • The individual bottles of liquids should be a maximum of 100ml (3.4oz) and be resealable themselves. These include liquids, aerosols, gels, creams, pastes etc.
  • You can take a reusable drinks bottle with you provided its empty at the security process, you can then refill on the departures side at your leisure.
  • There are exceptions for things like medication, breast milk and formula etc, these need to be removed from the bag and shown to the security staff. All medication should be accompanied by a prescription to save any hassle.

Found the carry on bag of your dreams, good, now keep it that way.

Once you have a suitable bag you are happy with, stick with it, make this your hand luggage bag and use it for nothing else, this way you can leave it semi packed forever and save yourself a lot of hassle if you are needing to leave home in a hurry.

Here is a list of items I would highly recommend you make permanent lodgers in your carry on bag –

  • A good quality portable power bank, this day and age our mobile phones are more than just phones, they are our access to emergency funds, contacts, travel documents, entertainment and much more. Make a permanent home for one in your bag and only let it escape for a full charge a few days before departure.
  • Travel adapters, a multi country travel adapter should be a full time resident but I would also recommend having a slack couple of adapters specifically for the regions you visit most, this is not only good for convenience to charge more than one piece of equipment at once but I’ve come across the scenario of a multi country plug not being suitable (slightly too thick for example to fit the outlet). In short, keep a core set of adapters, for example, 1x multi country, 1x European and 1x USA, then do a quick bit of research on any countries outside of these you are going to a few days before travel.
  • A pen or two, you never know when a countries rules change or you haven’t fully researched entry requirements and a landing card gets handed out just before arrival when you have a tight connection. It’s an unnecessary flap at the end of your flight trying to nag your way to one of the flight attendants few pens when another 100 people have the same idea. Why complimentary use of pens aren’t part of this situation I have no idea but so far, I’ve not seen it.
  • Charging cables, these need to be another permanent resident, the last thing you need the night before departure is an argument with the other half about who’s cable is who’s before you disappear with it to another continent. Charging cables these days are often notoriously poor quality, so at least a couple (one long one, short for example) for good measure is recommended.
  • Basic, compact, inexpensive hygiene items that can be designated solely for your carry on, this would include nail clippers, travel toothbrush and case, tooth pics and floss, tweezers, razor, a pack of plasters, flannel, cotton wool buds etc. Don’t go overboard, if you want to add a couple of extras like hair brush and dry shampoo etc, be my guest, but be mindful of the space this is going to take, you don’t want your bag crammed shut like a puzzle if you need to keep getting out travel documents, liquids, laptop etc for immigration and security reasons.
  • A set of clothes to tie you over if you are delayed a night or two or lose your hold luggage and need to get to a shop. Personally, I constantly have two sets of underwear, two t-shirts and a pair of shorts in my hand luggage ready for emergency use.
  • Laptop and charger etc, now this can’t always be left in your luggage but I’ve personally made my carry on bag my default home for my laptop whenever I finish using it so its always where I want it, if you travel with certain documents on a hard drive or USB stick, I’d highly recommend a high capacity USB stick, make a copy on there and leave that in your carry on permanently also.
  • Travel/work documentation, again, this cannot always be left permanently in your luggage but like my laptop above, I’ve made my carry on bag my default home for this stuff once I’ve finished using it so it’s always where I need it in a rush to get away. If you travel with a lot of this stuff like I do, I’d also recommend investing in a portfolio organizer to sort and minimize the space this stuff takes up in your bag and to keep it organized and protected through all the abuse its going to take on your many travels.
  • Card reader, if your bank requires you to use a card reader for new or large online transactions then I would highly recommend asking for an extra one and making this a permanent home in your carry on, if you spend over half your life away from home like I do, then inevitably there are going to come times when you need to make large online payments or set up standing orders etc. You don’t want to find yourself in a time sensitive situation abroad with no phone signal needing it.

Less essential/convenient items

  • If you like to use ear plugs and eye mask on your flights, these are two relatively small, compressible items you can have living in your carry on permanently to ensure comfort on your travel.
  • Head phones, if like me you prefer a set of noise cancelling head phones over ear plugs (these double up as a pair of high quality head phones for listening to music and in flight movies etc also) then make your carry on bag your home for these, I actually rarely use them at all at home so they’re something else I’ve designated permanently to the carry on grab bag, just a full charge a couple of days before travelling and ready they are.
  • Hand, surface, face wipes etc. These are something that are increasingly popular in the age of covid, but a very useful hygiene item none the less, a couple of travel sized packs can be conveniently slipped into the bottom of your bag somewhere ready for use and forgotten about until needed.
  • Some light entertainment like a book or magazine, even study material or your phone or laptop stocked up with your favourite TV series or movies wont go a miss.
  • I generally don’t bother but if your a fussy eater and want to take your own snacks, get these in before departure also, these could be picked up last minute at the airport however.

Medication

Medication is not something you can typically have lying around for a rainy day, but if you are an asthmatic and have a spare inhaler handy, someone with frequent allergies needing regular use of over the counter antihistamines, nasal sprays or even simply someone who gets heartburn/indigestion regularly, then these are some items that could be left in your carry on to be ready when needed. (Don’t forget to occasionally check the use by date to refresh these periodically).

Prohibited items

I wont go through the extensive list of prohibited items in hand luggage, a quick google search and a couple of episodes of banged up abroad and border security Australia will see you right. Don’t take anything that is typically illegal, can be construed as a weapon, over sized electronics (laptops, ipads, phone, power bank, noise cancelling head phones, Nintendo switch etc are all approved items) or live plants, seeds, loose food etc.

The main point I’m trying to make here is if you are a regular traveler, or soon to be, then having the majority of this stuff in a designated bag in your spare bedroom, study, under the stairs etc ready to grab and only need to tweak 10% of the contents before you leave is a life saver and saves a lot of the stress associated with travelling at short notice.

And of course, don’t forget your mask… Happy travels.

My second trip to Brazil, how Andrea and sports world nearly ruined everything

A hotel view of Christ the redeemer, Rio de Janeiro during a later visit in 2019

Back in my much greener days in 2013 I went on my second trip to Brazil, I had my visa, I’d already been to Rio de Janeiro a few months earlier, this time I was heading to Vitoria, what could possibly go wrong.

My journey started as many often did then, with a hire car to Newquay, Cornwall airport and a flight to London Gatwick, this would be followed by a coach trip to London Heathrow then two further flights to Vitoria via Sao Paolo airport.

On arrival to Newquay I immediately found out there was a delay to my flight to London Gatwick, I had a long connection in London so I thought “what harm could an hour or so do”, I was a smoker at the time, I lingered around the small cafe at Newquay which is a stones throw from just about everything in the airport and had an extra couple of coffees and cigarettes before going through security. I went through about 45 minutes later than typical and found myself in a rolling update situation with the flight delay until eventually, three hours later to be exact, I was on my way to Gatwick.

Fortunately I still had plenty of time to make my connection, so got the national express bus as usual from Gatwick to Heathrow without a hitch, this however wasn’t going to be a trend for this journey.

For some reason on this occasion, I had made the insane decision to put all my belongings into one hold bag with the intention of sending it all on with no hassle of a bag to drag around, or so I thought, still to this day I cannot fathom why I made this decision, I have to carry original copies of certification for my job, I had “expensive” belongings in there (laptop, other electronics etc), lots of things I couldn’t afford to lose.

When I eventually got to check in, fortunately, the sensible lady at the check in desk politely told me how much of an idiot I was and that Brazil was no place to be sending important/expensive belongings in my hold luggage, she highly recommended I leave the check in line, go and buy a bag in the airport to put my important items in then return to check in. As a person who likes to be ridiculously early to most things and the time dwindling, I begrudgingly took her advice. I can see clearly it was a very worthwhile purchase these days, but back then I was only too recently familiar with my skint, working class upbringing and found myself not at all impressed having to pay £85 for the cheapest hand luggage option I could find in Heathrow airport. I quickly shoved my important items in there and went back to check in, got my boarding cards and away I went to Sao Paolo with my shiny new bag.

My flight was ok but it was about 11.5 hours to Sao Paolo, sandwiched between two people in a middle seat all the way, I cant sleep on flights at the best of times but this time it definitely wasn’t happening.

When I got there I was greeted by the longest and slowest moving queue at immigration I’d ever seen in my life, and this time I had a tight connection for my onward flight to Vitoria. When I eventually got to the end of the queue with about 25 minutes until my connecting flight, there was a problem with my visa or a stamp on my previous visit, either way, I couldn’t speak Portuguese and they couldn’t speak English so I had to wait for another member of staff that was seemingly in high demand. When he finally got to me he asked me a few basic questions, dismissed the issue with my passport, stamped me up and sent me on. I grabbed my bag in the next room which had been waiting there quite a while by this point and took it to the check in desk, having only a faint glimmer of hope that I’d make my next flight as I had about 11 minutes until take off and still had security to get through.

When I got to the check in desk to try and make the next flight, my hold luggage was scanned and I immediately realised something else was afoot and my hope of making the next flight vanished. For the next few minutes I was interrogated thoroughly on whether this was my bag or not, obviously it was (as far as I was concerned), why are they going on about this??? They then asked me to open it to confirm they were my belongings in the bag and sure enough, they were not…. Whoever this bag belonged to had obviously very recently been to sports world with the exact same idea as me.

I then spent the next 30-40 minutes getting asked questions from the make sure he’s not a terrorist play book before they understood what must have happened and tried to get me booked onto the next available flight. They got me booked onto the next flight which typically was 9 hours later, then started working on the whereabouts of my bag. They kept telling me to come back in 30 minutes for an an update and for a few hours I did this until there was a shift change and I was then told the honest answer by a member of staff that they couldn’t help me and I’d have to go to lost and found which was at the opposite side of the airport. Fortunately I had time to burn so headed on my not so merry way to lost and found.

When I got there it was a tiny little old fashioned office with a moderately helpful older gentleman on the other side of the desk. Initially it transpired that my luggage tag was untraceable, not linked to any luggage whatsoever. Initially he was also more concerned with finding the owner of the luggage I was dragging around, this happened to be a lady called Andrea, which, thank the lord had also gone to Vitoria. Once that was cleared up I pressed him on finding my bag, he asked for my boarding cards and passport and the mix up was then clear, when I was sent away at the check in desk in London Heathrow the person at the check in desk had effectively checked in my luggage twice and the first bar code was void. He found the second one on my other boarding card and it then linked to a bag. He still couldn’t really tell me where it was, but he contacted lost and found in Vitoria and they had confirmed Andrea had been to see them asking about her bag, and that she would be in the airport to swap bags in the morning if it showed up. This was no use to me as I was going to be getting on a helicopter at 6am the next day and would not be back to the airport. I lost any hope in getting my bag and agreed to take Andreas bag to Vitoria. I spent another mind numbing 5-6 hours waiting for my flight and away I went.

When I got to Vitoria, I took Andreas bag to lost and found, they told me I had to keep hold of it until making the swap for some reason, I knew I couldn’t make it but thought I could give it to the shipping agent to do for me so just went along with it and told them I would. I also had about 2% battery left on my phone, my colleagues had told me we were staying at the Bristol Alameda hotel so I hoped that the agent was waiting for me to take me there. I had a some assistance from lost and found who were as helpful as they could be and offered to contact the agent for me as it was a local number and by this point, my phone was dead. The number I had been provided turned out to be useless so now I was hoping the agent was waiting for me at the airport entrance or I was on my own and would have to trust a taxi driver to take me there, which is often a dangerous situation for a lone foreigner to find themselves in around these parts. When I got out of the airport, sure enough, the agent wasn’t there, I waited for a little while as he might have gone to the toilet or for a cigarette etc but no one showed, I accepted I needed to go with the taxi plan and as I was making an exit, the chap from lost and found came running out shouting at me, “excuse me sir, excuse me sir, Andrea is here!”.

Well. I. Never.

I walked towards them, and a very suspicious looking Andrea was staring at me, clutching tightly to my bag before turning back and walking into lost and found with who I assumed was her husband. Once inside I passed her the bag, she checked everything was there and then with relief and a barrage of apologies and thank yous, she gave me back my bag and offered if there was anything they could do for me…. Well, now you mention it…

I told them I needed to get to the Bristol Alameda hotel, to which they replied, which one, there’s two or three in Vitoria… Here we go. I had no battery left on my phone to ask my colleagues so just took a punt and asked them to take me to the one nearest to the sea, a very pleasant conversation and about 25 minutes later, they pulled up to a hotel where I immediately spotted a colleague stood outside. Finally, a good result.

I thanked them and went to bed for the grand total of about 4 hours before my early morning pick up to the heliport followed by a 12 hour shift when I got to the ship, a sailors life for me eh….

The moral of the story is… Make sure you clearly mark your bag before your travels.

I cant help but forgive Andrea and her husband for the ordeal they put me through, I hope they still feel guilty.

The authoritarian powers of a cotton wool bud wielding covid tester

Covid test waiting area at Trondheim airport

***Disclaimer*** I have the utmost respect for the medical professionals willing to risk their own health venturing so close to my hooter, this is a topic for general and comical experiences regarding the relentless covid testing involved when travelling these days.

My first covid test experience was during my first ever quarantine in Aberdeen, UK. It was on the penultimate day of my quarantine, this was when it was the full procedure of tonsil stroking, followed by a full double nostril penetration where I discovered I had cavities back there I never knew I had. I also discovered I have a very powerful gag reflex, and am thankful its gone back to nostril only in most places. ( I appreciate most of the at home test kits still involve the throat aspect but I much prefer risking throwing up over a mirror than a human being).

My testing experiences since then have been relatively ok, I don’t mind the sinus intrusion so it’s been ok for myself, most of my testing in the US has been ok, but then the Netherlands had some terrifying cotton wool bud wielders….

I wont go into the full story of how it happened but I returned to the ship on one occasion this year, to Rotterdam again actually, the ship was in maintenance period this time, not dry docking. Due to a lack of, or break down in covid measures, a positive case managed to find its way onboard. Likely due to indecisiveness by management, where they waited an excessive amount of time to actually test anyone despite complaints of symptoms. (To give them some defence, this was the first outbreak on this ship they had experienced so were apprehensive in calling an all stop to the work, especially with the schedule driven cut throat world offshore) Lax following of procedures in the mixing of ships staff and shore based staff also played a part, this all led to an outbreak developing where nearly 70 people ended up positive, several in hospital, one on a ventilator for 40 plus days. It was taken seriously from then on. As part of the core crew, I am in a position that legally needs to be onboard due to minimum manning regulations, when I returned to the ship, all “non-essential” personnel had been removed from the ship, covid or not. The place was like a scene from Chernobyl, a huge amount of work ongoing from the yard and over 100 people living onboard. Clearly they had just stopped what they were doing there and then due to a call down a radio and/or PA announcement etc, dropped their tools and equipment where they stood and left. The place was chaos, but also like a ghost ship.

Anyway, that was a little perspective into why we then ended up having two covid tests a week for the remainder of the time there, masks were now mandatory everywhere, only two people at opposite ends of a table in the mess room, everyone was issued their own pocket bottle of hand sanitizer, interaction with the yard staff had to be by phone wherever possible, white bibs worn by untested people etc etc. This is when we found out the Dutch were very thorough with their covid testing, a lot of complaints made by ship staff, a lot of complaints made by the medical team testing us all due to the abuse they had received from the gentler sinused seafarers, (I appreciate sinused isn’t a word but it works well in this case), and a few people literally brought to tears from the experience. I have to admit, even for someone who doesn’t mind the nose poking, it definitely made the eyes water at times.

Norway was another interesting and contrasting experience in terms of covid test experiences. After arrivals in Trondheim airport, just before you leave you get taken to a temporary booth made near the entrance, stick your head through a hole and they give you a rather gentle nostril tickle before you go and sit in a big tent outside waiting for a text to tell you if your a liability or not. (You need to register through a government website and see a nurse to confirm your details in the airport before the test). You then show your text to the chap sitting by the entrance looking like he wants a hole in the floor to swallow him up, he gives you the cursory nod and your on your way. Delightful, I think we’d all agree. Well, after the quarantine period was up (we were now in Orkanger) we were then taken to a medical/travel facility that did the testing, funnily enough we all marched aimlessly through the building up to the top floor to find some kind of reception desk only to be told the test facility is a small mobile trailer/van outside and we shouldn’t have been allowed inside… We did sanitise… Outside we waited by the trailer and a nurse popped out in full hazmat attire, we went in one by one and, well, this was nothing like the airport, this was hands down the most intrusive covid test of my life. Admittedly, it was still just a covid test, but this was a full test of gag reflex, plus an 8 second nasal penetration, she counted to 3, which I thought was the end of it but that was just her counting her way in, then there was a further 5 seconds of alternating clockwise and anti clockwise rotations after that… The funniest part however was one colleague present was particularly “not keen” on covid tests at the best of times. I’ve never before and likely never will again hear the noise of a chair slamming into the side of a van as a middle aged mans convulsing body tries to escape the inevitable onslaught of a tiny nurse trying to put a cotton wool bud up his nose. For me, these travel stories trump standing next to Christ the redeemer any day….

Do you know any covid testers worse than the infamous Orkanger nurse???

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