Alex Kintz has lived and slept at sea since he was three-days-old, though these days sleep doesn’t come quite so often. A merchant mariner, Alex is tasked with the operation of civilian vessels — whether they be cargo ships, passenger vessels or pleasure craft.
It’s no easy job. The hours are long, conditions are often brutal and sailors might go for days without meaningful rest. Then there’s the ever-looming possibility that a merchant vessel will be commissioned to aid the Navy in wartime — as if there weren’t already enough for mariners to lose sleep over.
“I’ve gotten very good at napping anywhere, anytime,” Alex told Van Winkle’s. “You have to snatch whatever sleep you can, as it’s never certain when you’ll get your next rest.”
In his own words, here’s how he manages an exhausting — and occasionally terrifying — life at sea.
My day job is with Cross Sound Ferry, which runs from New London, Connecticut to Orient Point, Long Island. I spend a bit more than half of the year there: Four days per week on average, for 15- to 17-hour days. I also crew for a tugboat company that services ships entering and leaving the harbor, and I move around the east coast. As I write this, I'm sitting in the watch berth of a tugboat, towing a barge loaded with a piece of a submarine.
On top of everything else, I occasionally work as a delivery captain for private yachts. When a boat owner wants to move their boat long distance — but lacks the time, experience or motivation to do it themselves —they hire me.
On the tugboats and delivery trips we stand four-hour watches. This means that I will be on watch (steering, navigating, checking equipment or just generally responsible for the vessel) for four hours, and then off watch for four hours. During the off watches, we will cook and clean and try to shoehorn in as much sleep as we can before the next watch. And then, just when you get into the rhythm, it's all hands on deck for a docking, cargo transfer, sail change or harbor arrival.
My sleep pattern varies wildly from job to job, as the hours of operation are always different. For the days I'm on the ferry, I typically get four to five hours in the night, plus a nap or two in my off watches during the day.
The coast guard mandates that on commercial vessels, you can't stand more than 12 hours of watch in a 24-hour period, but there are tons of other things — cooking, cleaning, housekeeping — that constantly need to be done.
Once I was delivering a boat from Connecticut down to somewhere in Delaware Bay — a big tub of a sailboat with tons of room inside, but it wallowed like a toy duck in a bathtub. We got caught in a overnight squall off Jersey City, and I wound up alternating between lashing myself to the wheel pedestal for my watches — I literally tied myself in place — and down below, wedged between the mast post and the settee, a space of maybe 14-inch width. This was all to stop myself from caroming around the boat like a bouncy ball. That was probably the worst place I've ever slept.
The best sleep on a boat I've ever had was after an extremely rough crossing from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Cape Cod, Massachusetts — during which I very nearly got swept off the boat. I think I got a total of five hours sleep in the 56-plus hour trip, due to constant rough seas and ever-changing wind conditions. Once we got into port and put the boat to bed, I racked out for a solid 18 hours in a gently rocking bed.
One of my favorite places to nap is in on one of our tug boats. It's inside the hauser locker, where all the extra towing line is coiled, stacked and kept. This room is butted right up against the exhaust stack, so even in winter it’s toasty. The piles of line really dampen the noise and vibration of the engines — and make quite a comfy bed, to boot. Just don't tell my captain.
When I sleep on any boat, it’s almost like being a parent with a newborn. I’m sleeping, but any small change in the sounds of the water, the motion of the boat or the wind will cause me to wake up. These usually mean the crew has to get up and do something to accommodate the changing conditions, so you quickly learn to keep an ear out.
Reading is my biggest pastime. I usually read two to three books in a week; a Kindle and a couple paperbacks are always in my sea bag. On my off days at home or in a new port, I try to spend as much time as possible out in nature: hiking, sailing, biking, climbing or just exploring.
It takes a slightly different mindset to live your life on the sea. We all seem a bit touched in the head at times. Just last week, our chief engineer sat down at the galley table after pulling a 16-hour shift repairing one of our generators. He sat down with his cup of coffee, poured a bowl of cereal and, instead of grabbing the milk, poured his coffee into the cereal. After two bites he commented, “this cereal tastes like coffee,” and continued eating with nary a pause.