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“My home is a ship”

Getting from home to land typically involves a lengthy boat trip for Joseph Felice.

Getting from home to land typically involves a lengthy boat trip for Joseph Felice.

When your home is based on a dredging vessel, getting used to your living space takes on a whole new meaning. Joseph Felice tells Ramona Depares about life on board without getting bored.

Most of us are used to joining colleagues in a land-based office, sharing coffees and banter everyday, strolling out casually for lunch. Most of us are also used to leaving the office after a certain (hopefully not excessive) amount of hours at work, spending the evenings with our family or friends, enjoying our leisure hours as we please.

Not so Joseph Felice. His profession as site manager on board a sea-dredging vessel makes his one of the strangest – and most challenging – living environs. At the time of the interview, he has been in Malta on leave for about two months, and is now getting ready to pack his bags once again to leave for another destination, India.

“I got into this job by chance. I was already working with the same company as project manager at an office-based job in Malta. When they offered me the chance to work aboard a vessel for three-month stretches, I accepted immediately. It was time for a change in routine in my life, I wanted to do something new,” Joseph explains.

One aspect of office life that many would find weird is the lack of women on board

He got in at the deep end, leaving Malta for Myanmar and finding himself living 24 on seven on board a ship that was not exactly spacious, at 50 metres by 18. He admits that the first few weeks were a massive shock, and that at first glance life on board was not what he expected. His new office turned out to be his actual room on the ship – definitely on the smaller side and claustrophobic until you get used to it.

“Having said that, it’s not like I was in this buzzing office back in Malta. I shared my room with one colleague who worked shorter hours, so at least I was used to the lack of company,” he explains.

But living on a ship semi-permanently brings other collateral effects. Starting with the country itself where the ship was based. Still struggling to achieve democracy, the situation in Myanmar sometimes gets volatile. Curfews remain in place and civil strife is not rare.

“I’m one of the lucky ones, as my job involves me visiting land very regularly. But even so, I really have to be careful and make sure I make it in time for curfew. The upside is that the people are extremely friendly; they live a simple life and, despite their poverty, make us feel welcome.”

Joseph’s life follows a routine. He wakes up at 6.30, has breakfast on board, checks his e-mails and deals with the myriad issues that tend to crop up overnight on a ship. The ship’s crew is made up of various nationalities, from Poles to Russians, Brazilians to Ukranians.

One aspect of life that many would find weird is the lack of women on board. For practical reasons, the crew is men only – which means that Joseph goes for anything up to three months without female contact. How does this affect him? He laughs abashedly at the question.

“I admit it. I do miss the female presence, of course! Three months in a men-only environment is not what you’d call natural.”

He adds that two months is considered to be the maximum that workers can cope with the constraints that this working life brings with it, without going “a bit bonkers”, as he puts it.

“Typically we end up staying for three months. Then we get a three-month break and return to work for another three months. I found the last month incredibly difficult. I guess I needed the break.”

Another point to consider is that this is a totally alcohol-free zone. So kicking back with a glass of wine, or three, after a tough working day is not an option.

“Alcohol is completely banned on board. We can only drink when we are on land. Although it can be a pain, I can see the reasoning behind it. Having alcohol on board would be too potentially disruptive. Drunk people on a working ship are dangerous. Being found drunk on board is, in fact, a punishable offence – I’ve witnessed a showdown between the captain and a drunk officer; it wasn’t nice.”

Just one more thing to add to the list of strange things that come with home-life on board a ship. The flora and the fauna on board can also be unusual. Spiders as large as his hand are not uncommon – athough mercifully, they are not poisonous. There was also the one time when a crew member climbed the ‘monkey island’ (the tallest mast) and found a viper snake. Luckily for him, though not for the snake, the sun had pretty much fried the poor thing, rendering it harmless.

“Despite all the challenges, despite the lack of luxuries, despite the shock of finding myself living in a small cabin on a ship – I have to say that at times I miss the country itself,” Joseph says.

So much so, in fact, that after his break, Joseph soon left for a stint in Russia.

Never a dull moment, as the saying goes.

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