Sunday, June 22, 2014

Why Being a Sea Captain is not a Realistic Career Today

Howard Pyle's "Walking the Plank" 1887 -- Harper's
from the wikipedia
Very few people will tell you that they mourn the passing of privateering. But sometimes when you ask a small child what he wants to be when he grows up, he will say "a pirate", and then all the grownups in the room laugh, and they suggest alternate careers, like being a lawyer or an accountant or a college professor.

But did you know that the privateering meme is so deeply ingrained into the American consciousness that when people who did grow up to teach in college and are now feeling the chains of wage slavery joke about alternative career choices, the specter of privateering immediately rears up its head?

“But I would have chosen what, actually—a sea captain?” Gregory wondered with a laugh. “Everyone is struggling.” 

This is a quote from a long article about the plight of adjunct lecturers. If you want to read the whole article, here is the link:

So the question is: if you don't go for one of those middle class bastions of respectability in your career choice, if studying comparative literature or French language is not an option, what is left? And right off the bat this woman asks whether she should have trained to be a sea captain.

It may sound like a facetious response, but think about it: if you did want to be a sea captain, where could you go to make that dream come true? Join the Navy or the Coast Guard and become a government employee? Or work for a cruise line or an oil company? None of those positions offers the scope and personal satisfaction that being an independent sea captain used to bring. Why? Because the freedom that this line of work used to offer is gone. No more prize money. No more payment for shipments in silver and gold.  People do not own their businesses. By and large, they work for others, and they do it within the structure of collective entities, not sole proprietorships. And they get paid salaries, not a share of the loot.

 How many independent sea captains do you know? It's not just that privateering or cargo shipping are not as respectable as being a college professor. It's that none of us have any idea how one would go about it. If any child wanted to sign up as cabin boy (or girl), where would they go?  It's a career opportunity that is no longer open to anyone.

In Theodosia and the Pirates: The War Against Spain  we don't just witness the end of privateering. We see the beginning of the end for many other lines of work that used to involve sole proprietorships, from spinning and weaving to cabinet making. How many spinsters do you know -- and I am not talking about the term for an unmarried woman. How many weavers? Even among lawyers, those who work for others are outnumbered by those who have thriving independent practices.

The way salaries are paid has also undergone a massive change. While the common unskilled laborer in 1817 might have earned a dollar a day for his time, most were not paid for their time at all. On Jean Laffite's vessels, the share of each crew member in the prize money earned is spelled out in terms of a percentage of the take. Jean Laffite considered this an "egalitarian" arrangement, because everybody had an opportunity to earn more when the tour was more successful. But the down side was that they got nothing if there were no profits.

Back in the days of independent sea captains, people identified with the ventures they worked on, because they understood that if the ventures failed, they would not get paid at all. Today, people expect to be paid for their time. And when that happens, it turns out that the time of adjunct professors is worth less than the time of cashiers at McDonalds.

And yet.... It's really not all about money. People do seek a line of work in which they can have personal satisfaction, which is why the adjunct professors may complain, but they stay at those low paying jobs. They don't want to work at McDonalds, and they are willing to lose out on better pay to keep doing what they do.

But what if they could be sea captains, instead? I think then all bets would be off! When your teenaged child is looking for work this summer,  suggest looking into the cabin boy posts. Because that is where the money and the personal satisfaction can go hand in hand! After all, that's what Aaron Burr would have done if it were not for his Uncle Timothy who insisted he go to college to study Latin, Greek and Hebrew.


  1. It is too bad there are not more opportunities to be in business for yourself. There are parts of the world where people can be a bit more independent, such as if they want to go live on a South Pacific island without much population. I know some people who live on Pacific islands with low population density that need more people, but this also means being able to grow your own vegetables, raise animals, and do without modern conveniences like grocery stores. It is not as ideal as being a privateer for some, but perhaps a bit more autonomous for those who crave a life where you would have to know how to sail a ship, or help out on one, especially since that is the only way to get to and from many of those isolated islands in the Pacific.

    1. Hi, Julia, that is interesting information. Are there positions for young people just starting out on the ships that visit these isolated Pacific Islands? Are you speaking specifically about Pitcairn, or did you have some other place in mind? If a teenager wanted to sign up for a summer job on one of those ships, where would be the place to search for those types of positions online?

    2. I am thinking of Pitcairn, but there are other Pacific Islands as well. I think in order to live in a place like Pitcairn you do have to get immigration approval, but I know from reading different blogs they want and need more people who know about how to sail, and who also can contribute to the island. Perhaps people who can make things. There are also other isolated islands that do not have large populations that need the same. The best way to find a position would probably be to do an online search for people who are chartering private yachts to islands in that part of the world, which often need people to run these. Probably young people should get in touch with people living on Pitcairn or other isolated islands to get the best info.

    3. Thanks for adding this information. I find it quite intriguing. While I am not in a position to do anything like that, I would enjoy learning more about how today's youth might still have adventurous employment opportunities available that may in time lead to independent careers. I have another blog which is called Jets & Boats for Sale, but I have not been writing there much. As the economy is so very bad right now, maybe I could start posting employment opportunities on ships and jets for young people, and that will be of much more interest to more people than the boats and jets that most of us cannot afford.

    4. If I see anything pertinent to your site, I will share it so you can write about it.