Margret (Maggie) Collins is Engine Utilityman aboard the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer. Read the full text of her interview below.
What is your title?
I sail as an Engine Utilityman aboard the Okeanos Explorer.
Where do you work?
I live and work aboard the Okeanos Explorer. As a shipboard engineer, my work takes me 'stem to stern.' On an average day, I will begin in our propulsion motor room, move through the main engine room, into our Air Conditioning 'flat,' up to the emergency generator room, back down to the winch room, pass through the stern thruster room, make a turn-around in the steering gear room, and then head up to the bridge: All before breakfast! I also work 'outboard' (on the weather decks) doing things like maintaining our Fast Rescue Boat and workboats, greasing the 'bull gears' of our fantail deck cranes, repairing/replacing light fixtures, etc.
Do you travel often? To where?
I live and work aboard the Okeanos Explorer, so where she goes, I go! In the past three years, I've lived in/been to Bellingham, WA; Seattle, WA; Astoria, OR; San Francisco, CA; Honolulu, HI; Kona, HI; Sulawesi, Indonesia; Hagatna, Guam; Alameda, CA; San Diego, CA; Puntarenas, Costa Rica; Panama City, Panama; and I am writing this from 18 D 22M North, 81D 47M West, which is about 60 miles southwest of Grand Cayman Islands (UK) in the Caribbean. I do not maintain a residence ashore, keeping my worldly possessions (those that I can't cram into the state room that I share) in a storage unit I've had since I signed on with NOAA.
What are the educational requirements for your job?
There are more technical proficiency, legal, and health requirements for this job than educational ones. For example, a high school diploma will do just fine...if you also have a U.S. Coast Guard (USCG)-issued Merchant Mariners' Credential endorsed with Qualified Member of the Engine Department; Oiler rating (or better); a certificate of completion for a USCG-approved Basic Shipboard Fire Fighting course; certificates of completion for USCG-approved Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping (STCW) Basic Safety courses; a Transportation Workers Identification Credential card; and a valid driver’s license and you can pass a USCG physical (can't be color blind, must be able to see 20/20 with corrective lenses, can't be dependent on some forms of medication, must meet a height/weight standard, must be able to pass a standard hearing "beep" test, etc.). And finally, you cannot have any felony convictions, any alcohol related misdemeanors, and must be a U.S. citizen. An aptitude for engineering will make your job a lot more enjoyable.
What is the salary range for someone with your type of job?
With NOAA, my pay rate is federally established and publicly accessible. Since my pay "locality" is San Diego (NOAA port closest to my "home of record"), my "straight time" wage is $41,315.00 per year, $34.27 in hourly "over time," and $12.02 per hour in "penalty pay." I average - but am never guaranteed - about $20,000.00 in O/T & P/P per year in addition to my S/T wage.
How many hours do you work per week?
Underway (when the ship is not tied to the dock), I average about 70 hours per week. While we're in port, it's usually closer to 40.
Tell us about your research and the types of things you do.
As an engineering technician, vice a scientist, most of my work is either in the Engine Department below-decks work spaces or up on the 'small boats.' We've got a sign taped to the door of our engineering shop that says "If it ain't broke, fix it till it is!" We don't really do that, though. There are three distinct parts of my job: maintenance, repair, and operations. Maintenance is scheduled and includes things such as changing filters, hydrometer testing batteries, running the small boats every week, etc. Repair work is what I must do when something fails, such as remove and replace a clothes washer pump when it stops working, build a small wiring harness for an anti-fouling anode when the cannon plug is broken, water-proof a smoke detector (yep: that was as weird as it sounds), etc.
The smallest part of my job is 'operational.' For me that means serving as the small boat engineer during "man overboard" drills (we throw a lead weighted survival suit overboard, not people), "pax (passenger) transfers," or sundry other reasons and standing "steering gear" watch as my duty during our "sea and anchor" evolutions. When I'm the small boat engineer, I assist in releasing the boat from the hook it is lowered by when the boat reaches the water and sometimes 'letting go' lines that hold us to the ship. Then I'm just there in case the boat fails for some reason, which they very rarely do. Having a 'steering gear' watch is a precautionary measure: should the bridge lose ability to steer the ship from that location, there is a back-up steering station in the steering gear room. Should that situation occur, the bridge would call down to me on our sound-powered phone and give me helm commands like, "Five degrees right rudder," which I would repeat back once I had used the electrical controller to bring the rudder to that position.
In addition to the above, like every other crew member, I have a job to do during our weekly (while underway) fire drills. As a member of the Damage Control Team, I assist the lead Damage Controller by doing things like replenishing air bottles our fire fighters have used up, carrying rolls of fire hose to fire teams to add to what they've got, and bring high-powered fans to spaces that have been 'smoked out' by our safety officer with a smoke machine to simulate a real fire during a drill. We also have weekly "Abandon Ship" drills but all I do is carry my life jacket and survival suit up to the 01 deck, don the life jacket, test the whistle and strobe light, and take it off again. However, this week was the first of the month and we took new passengers aboard so we all had to put on our survival suits - also known as "Gumby Suits" - which can be a little comical. They're like a giant, neoprene 'onesy' for grown-ups. Getting into and out of them is usually, for the uninitiated, awkward/comedic.
What is the most fascinating thing you have ever seen or done?
That's really difficult! The most fascinating thing I've seen or done? What first comes to mind is a time when I was sailing commercially (vice for NOAA/federal government) in the South China Sea during an electrical storm. I was awakened from a dead sleep by what sounded like a bomb going off nearby and a flash of light so bright it was like a paparazzi camera right in my face! What had happened was that the large container ship I was on had been struck by lightning. The flash was the light of the lightning through my porthole curtain. Although the ship was struck, since ships are grounded through the water, nothing was damaged.
What are the personal rewards of your work?
In my job I feel rewarded twofold: I help maintain the ship for safe and efficient operations and I get to indirectly help America explore Earth's oceans for our benefit and that of others. Last year, through the work of the Okeanos Explorer, about 52 new species were discovered on volcanic seamounts near Indonesia. The results of this season's work are yet to be revealed, but I'm confident it'll be exciting and worthwhile, too.
How does your work benefit the public?
How my work benefits the public is through science. The Okeanos Explorer is "America's ship for Exploration." We serve the interests of all Americans by exploring the largely unknown and mysterious great depths (up to 6,000 meters/19,685 feet) of our planet. What we find may help us better understand what goes on in our ocean, especially the things we've never seen before. I've heard scientists aboard speak about medical, environmental, geological, and other potential applications of our work.
What else could someone with your background do?
Given my professional background, someone like me is probably best suited for the specific maritime career I'm embarked on. I could possibly also get work in a shoreside power plant or work with generators in some other application. However, I am considering going ashore to study maritime management since I do have a Bachelor’s degree. Going to sea is wonderful – I came back to it because I missed it so much. It is very difficult to maintain a life ashore, though, when you're out to sea 280 days a year, which is our average.
What sparked your initial interest in ocean sciences?
To be honest, my work is, while in close proximity to the scientific and technical work conducted on the vessel, virtually unrelated to the conduct/content of the 'missions.' The 'ships' compliment' (merchant mariner crew) exist in symbiosis with our visiting scientists and technicians; without them, there is no reason to operate the ship and without us, there is no ship with which to explore.
Who influenced you or encouraged you the most?
Looking back, was there anything you would have done differently in your education or career journey?
I don't spend a lot of time thinking "what if..." However, although I've had lots of amazing adventures around the world, I am not a well-established person. If I had it all to do over again, I might start with one career path and just stick with it so that, after all of these years, I might be farther along it. I think I might have a more conventional life ashore now had I done that. By the same token, knowing myself, if I had I'd probably find myself often staring out windows wondering what it would be like to be out traveling the world. Bottom line: no regrets.
What obstacles did you encounter along the way?
Becoming a merchant mariner is no easy feat (please see 'educational requirements for my job')! When I first started out in this industry, a person had to have a maritime job to be able to apply for what was known then as a "Z-card," now known as a Merchant Mariners' Credential. Yep: that's a catch 22. How can you get the work if you don't have the document to get it, which you can't get until you have the work? Luckily, merchant mariners aren't regulated in that way anymore. At the time, though, I overcame that obstacle by attending a merchant mariner training program through Job Corps. Now, to be able to afford all of the training necessary to obtain the required certifications/documents to sail, you pretty much need an employer to pay for those or be independently wealthy. Again, Job Corps got me started on that path. It was also through them that I got my first job as an Able Seaman out in Kwajalein, Republic of the Marshall Islands in 1997. I've mostly had employer-paid training since then.
Do you have an inspirational message or quote?
Hobbies: I really enjoy exploring the ports we visit! Because of the various ports we've visited, I've had opportunities to go skydiving, kayaking, rock climbing, stand-up paddle boarding, hiking through jungles, zip-lining, snorkeling, four-wheeling, eating at amazing restaurants, seeing a variety of live bands from everywhere, visiting historical sites, and on and on. When aboard the ship, I like to read and watch DVDs of television shows and movies.
Interests in Elementary School:
I thought that the Foss tug boats that brought our supply barges to Ketchikan, Alaska, when I was a kid were fantastic! I desperately wanted to go to sea with them.
Beginning of Interest in Marine Sciences:
I never seriously considered following that path untilI found myself at a professional cross roads in my mid-20s and decided to obtain professional training/certification to that end.
First Marine Science Class:
I first arrived at Tongue Point Job Corps Center in Astoria, Oregon, in October 1995. I thus embarked on an 18-month program in Seamanship and Marine Engineering courses that resulted in my first "Z-card" endorsed as an Able Seaman-Limited and Qualified Member of the Engine Department - Oiler, Junior Engineer.
I graduated The Evergreen State College with a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Arts, 1994.
First Career-related Job:
My first career-related job was a godsend! I was offered an opportunity to apply to Raytheon-Range Systems Engineering to be an Able Seaman aboard a T-AGOS class ship called the Worthy at Kwajalein Island, The Republic of the Marshall Islands, just before I graduated from Tongue Point in 1997.
Employment Journey/Career Transitions:
My employment journey has been... hmmm... nonlinear.
Work before, during, and immediately after high school had no particular focus (assembled cloisonné pins in packaging, babysat, and worked as a temporary librarian in the State of Alaska, Bureau of Mines library for a summer).
I held down insignificant, part-time jobs in college like cold-calling university alumni requesting school donations.
After I graduated I had a pleasant, but barely livable, job working for a coffee shop in Olympia, Washington. That's when I decided to obtain the necessary training to become a merchant mariner.
Merchant Mariner training technically paid a pittance but the value of the program wasn't in the wages. The free training, food, clothing, and lodging for 18 months that also resulted in professional certification that was otherwise difficult to obtain was worth it!
I arrived in Kwajalein, Marshall Islands, in September of 1997 ready to work as an Able Seaman aboard the M/V Worthy.
I did that for two years. Then I was eligible to test for a U.S. Coast Guard regulated professional advancement to 200 Gross Ton Mate (upon Near Coastal Waters) License.
I returned to Kwajalein and then sailed as the Mate aboard the tug Mystic. We sailed within the Kwajalein Atoll (largest lagoon in the world) on regular barge delivery runs. I wasn't aboard a Foss tug in South East Alaska, where I'd grown up; this was even better! After three years on a three-mile long island 4,500 miles from North America, though, it was time to go.
I went back to Washington State for more formal training, this time to refresh my marine engineering skills I'd lost while sailing only as an Able Seaman.
During this time, the U.S. was attacked by terrorists flying airplanes into the World Trade Center towers. After that I felt I had to do something to defend my country, so I joined the Marine Corps.
I served five years of active duty as a helicopter engine mechanic (MOS 6123) stationed in or deployed to Okinawa, Japan; San Diego, CA; and Al Asad, Iraq.
After leaving the service, I took some science and math courses at a local community college, biding my time for professional inspiration.
I then went to work manufacturing equipment installed in aircraft specifically configured to carry medical patients.
That's when I felt the need to go to sea again. I applied to NOAA for a GVA (General Vessel Assistant - entry level) position.
I was eventually hired and met the Okeanos Explorer in Bellingham, Washington, March of 2008. About each year since then I've advanced a rung up the Engineering Department ladder going from GVA to Oiler and now to Engine Utility.
Employment Journey/Career Transitions:
I was chosen by the SIU (Seafarers’ International Union) to go to the Paul Hall Center in Piney Point, Maryland, for a week to help negotiate the present union Agreement between the SIU and NOAA. The new Agreement went into effect May of this year.
I'm proud of my service as a United States Marine, which began March 2002 and ended March 2007.