Thursday, June 24, 2010

Seafaring in Silicon Valley

There's lots to be said for working on an oil tanker. You get to see more of the world than most people, for a start. For maritime work the pay's really good and there's the opportunity for nice annual bonuses. The stability (both figuratively and literally) is a big plus no doubt, and the work's predictable too: you wake up each morning and for the most part know what you're going to be doing that day.

In fact when you think about it, the predictability of work on an oil tanker is there at a macro level as well. You probably have a pretty good sense for what you'll be doing in six months' time, for instance. After that it'll probably depend on whether you get that promotion to senior oil-tankerer. Beyond that, who knows? Possibly if the VP of oil-tankering kicks off that reorg then a Director spot will open up. It's good to always have a sense of what's next, and you pretty much know that your tanker's going to be around for a good while to come.

And moreover, oil tankers are uniquely huge and impressive pieces of machinery; the pinnacle of modern seafaring art at scale. You could spend many happy years working on an oil tanker—getting to know every nook and cranny, learning every detail of its immense operation. Developing a deep expertise in something can be very fulfilling, and working on an oil tanker can provide just that opportunity.

From what I hear, there's plenty of general flexibility in the work. The vacation allowance is great, the benefits generous, and you know what? Recent oily events notwithstanding, it's actually pretty difficult to mess up big-time and lose it all. After all, an oil tanker is such an unimaginably expensive concern that there's an array of battle-tested procedures, best practices and safety technology to practically eliminate the chances of human error causing catastrophe.

What's not to love?

On an ocean-faring yacht, by comparison, the salary isn't as good and the perks aren't quite so lavish. You also feel the choppy waters, and on occasion sea-sickness can strike quite severely. Storms which would barely be noticeable on a tanker are life-threatening on a smaller vessel. Passion and guts are required in no small measure, and the danger is real: more than a few yachts have been lost at sea entirely.

The work's nowhere near as predictable, either. It really requires a fluid state of mind where you wake up each morning prepared to keep the vessel afloat, come what may. On a good day you'll get to pay attention to the trim of the sails or how best the whole crew can work together. On a bad one it'll be all you can do to keep the ship above water and, you hope, heading in the right direction.

You've got to be pretty careful working on a yacht, too. The guardrails aren't always where you'd hope they might be and it's all too easy to switch that bilge pump into reverse by accident. Stay alert! Procedural lore is yet to be established, and in its absence there's a lot of trust placed in individuals to figure out the right thing to do (and establish said lore along the way). If you doubt your ability to improvise well, don't join the yachting crew.

And don't even start about the "career path" on a yacht. Senior yachtsperson? Director of yachting? Is there a Yacht General Manager about to appoint a chief of staff? Not so much. Fancy titles, job levels and promotion cycles are something which will come once the next storm has passed and this thing has stopped taking on water.

But you, yes you, can help with that—and it's exciting. There's an exhilaration and a vitality which you just can't get elsewhere. Every day is different, and the sense of adventure is absolutely unbeatable. It's raw and exhausting, but hearty and uniquely gratifying too. The decisions you make each day will affect the course of the journey taken by the crew as a whole, and that brings its own sense of reward. What's more, on a yacht there's a chance of discovering new lands to which an oil tanker could never get close.

No doubt there are an infinity of unknowns when exploring on a yacht. Where will you be in six months? Will your supplies last? Should you be concerned about those clouds? Is the boat really supposed to lean like that? If these thoughts make you long for terra firma then perhaps the life's not for you.

On the other hand if you can roll with it, set sail, and choose your own adventure then you're in for a great ride. Certainly you'll get drenched on the way, but the wind and the sun will dry you off and you'll feel great.