So you’re a Marine headed out on your first ship-based deployment and you’re wondering what life at sea with the Navy will be like. Your unit will likely give you a packing list, and there are sure to be a few salty dogs kicking around to give you some (hopefully) good advice from the voice of experience. There’s really no way around this: life on the boat is often boring, cramped, smelly, and just plain weird. It’s an experience like no other I’ve had, though. Like most things in life, it is what you put into it.
While I only have one deployment with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) in 2008 to draw from, I picked up some valuable lessons in that seven months aboard the USS Tarawa. I learned a few of these things the hard way so that hopefully you won’t have to. This is my very basic guide to surviving life aboard a Navy vessel.
Get some sunshine
The ship is a dark place. I mean that only in the sense that a lot of the ship is poorly lit, but things can get emotionally dark pretty quickly as well if you don’t get out and see the sun. If you’re aboard a Landing Helicopter Assault ship (LHA) like I was, there are flight operations in progress for much of the day and you can’t go anywhere near the flight deck.
That being said, the flight deck is open for PT early in the morning most days. Plus, there are different spots around the ship that have openings where the sun touches if you go at the right time. Sometimes I would volunteer to bring our trash down to the compactor just because it was on the side of the ship and had access to some open air.
If you don’t make a point to get out for some fresh air, it won’t be long before it feels like midnight around the clock and your Circadian rhythm is completely out of whack.
Go to the gym
If these first two items sound more like “how to deal with seasonal depression,” you aren’t wrong. Getting enough exercise doesn’t just make sense from a vain and/ or career-oriented perspective (even though I’m definitely both of those things). The mental health benefits can’t be overstated, either. You’ll deal with bouts of cabin fever on steroids from time to time, so PT of some kind is an important event to add to your daily routine. Hit the treadmill, run up and down the ramp to the flight deck a few times, do some pushups, Tai Chi, yoga, anything… Just get up and move. You’ll thank yourself later (when you aren’t wheezing going up a ladderwell).
While it’s true some smaller ships don’t have much more than the gym at a Motel 6, you learned at boot camp that there are plenty of ways to haze yourself with nothing but your own body and good old fashioned gravity. So, no excuses! Speaking of gravity: lifting in the weight room when the ship is in choppy seas is something you have to experience at least once. You can go from bench pressing on the moon on one rep to feeling the crushing weight of all your past failures combined on the next. It’s fun. Just bring a spotter.
Don’t skip chow
There’s no use sugar-coating it. The food on the boat generally isn’t very appetizing. Well, there was that one time that someone in the galley ordered 3,000 units of chicken cordon bleu instead of 300. That week wasn’t the worst (except now I can’t go to a wedding or a banquet without having flashbacks). No, the food isn’t going to win any awards, but it will keep you alive.
The thing is, there is just a greater chance of you getting sick while on you’re on the ship. You’re living in some pretty cramped quarters and I don’t think anyone needs a lesson right now on how viruses spread. There aren’t many things that can do more to suppress your immune system than a consistently poor diet (maybe poor sleep and exercise habits? See above). The temptation will be strong to avoid the long lines and sleep through chow only to eat your third Powerbar of the day, or hit up the vending machine later on. Dont give in! Geedunk rhymes with junk for a reason (maybe?).
Besides that, chow is a great time to interact with some people other than your normal work center. No matter how much you like the people you work with, at some point, you’ll be ready for a break from them. Chow time on the boat is kind of like in high school where you could sit with the friends you didn’t have any classes with.
Volunteer for working parties. Make some friends
Yes, I said volunteer for working parties. You’re right, season 2 of “The Office” is the best season, but there’s only so much that be gained between your fourth and fifth time re-watching it. Instead, get out of the berthing area (Navy for “barracks on a ship” to the uninitiated) and go make yourself useful.
I was part of something called combat cargo on my deployment. Essentially, combat cargo is the group of Marines that loads and unloads shipping containers, equipment and vehicles on the ship. We worked pretty much around the clock before or after most port calls, but had even less to do than most Marines on board once we were underway. So we were usually the first place higher-ups came for working parties, at-sea replenishments, and odd jobs.
I tended to hop right up for little tasks like this, not because I was such a go-getter, but because I needed something to occupy my time. This paid off a couple of times, though. A few guys from the LCAC (Landing Craft Air Cushion) crew would come up to our berthing area periodically and ask us for help moving vehicles off their decks so they could clean them off. One day, the petty officer who was the LCAC crew leader came into the berthing area looking for the usual suspects.
I saw him and said, “I got you, be down in a few.”
“Nah man, you want to go for a ride?”
That was probably the fastest I moved the entire deployment. If you’re not familiar, an LCAC is basically a giant fan boat that hovers on a cushion of air and is used for amphibious landings. They’re big, they’re loud, and most importantly, they’re fast, with a maximum speed of 70 knots (about 80 miles per hour). Here’s a video of one in action:
So the moral of the story is: make some sailor friends. I’m all for a little friendly inter-service rivalry, but it’s their boat, after all. Most of them know the ship inside and out. They know all the spots to go if you want to hide from everyone for a nap and they might have a way to hook you up with some better chow or first dibs on something in the ship store. So be cool!
Pick a good liberty buddy
This goes for any time you’re out on liberty, of course, but goes double for when you’re in a foreign country. You think you know someone pretty well after being forced to spend that much time together, but freedom and feet on dry land can make for a Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde effect. Try to pick someone who talks more about doing dorky tourist things and seeing the sights over the guy who can’t wait to have a drink. I’m not saying you shouldn’t enjoy yourself and have a few while you have the chance, but when’s the next time you’re going to be in Australia? Don’t you want to remember it?
About halfway through the MEU, we made a port call in Jebel Ali, near Dubai, and there were busses there to shuttle us out to the massive Dubai Mall. As you may have guessed, my two liberty buddies decided to partake in way too much alcohol, and I was left babysitting. As we were on our way back to the bus, they got in a fight over something and drew the attention of a security guard. Thirteen years later? Sure, just a funny story now. But in that moment, I remembered our safety brief about how strict the police were and was imagining life in an international prison.
This isn’t an after school special. Enjoy yourself on liberty. Just pick someone that’ll allow you to get the most out of your time in port and be smart.
Don’t stress seasickness too much
If you haven’t spent much time on a boat, it can take you a few days to get your “sea legs.” An unlucky few do struggle with seasickness, but after observing myself and most others, your body adjusts fairly quickly. You get used to your equilibrium constantly being thrown off and you learn to stay close to the trusty bulkheads while you’re walking anywhere. The boat can definitely get rocking when you hit rough seas. Granted, the Tarawa was a larger ship, so the waves don’t throw a boat like that around as much, but seasickness was rarely a problem for me.
For the few that I knew that had an issue with it, it didn’t last long. If you are prone to it, there’s always Dramamine to get you through that first rough patch. For an even unluckier few, Dramamine and other motion sickness medications don’t help, but that is rare.
Keep in mind, space is limited–very limited. You’ll have a locker to store your valuables and everyday items, and then your seabag with the lesser-used things (you won’t need your woolly pully near the equator) will likely be stowed away in a closet somewhere. You’ll be sleeping in racks that are stacked three or four high on top of each other. So just like when you were five (or 25, no judgment here), call the top bunk! It’ll give you another foot or two of headroom.
I recommend packing some non-perishable foods to snack on to get you through the first month or two. Beyond that, ask your loved ones to include protein bars, trail mix, nuts, dried fruit, and anything else that will keep in their care packages.
The internet situation while afloat has improved in the 13 years since I was on the MEU, but not much. Internet is still nothing close to what you’re accustomed to at home. You won’t be binge-watching Netflix. I would suggest downloading a lot of content on your laptop, and it couldn’t hurt to get a cheap portable DVD player and raid the bargain bin at Wal-Mart. Bring backup chargers for your electronics. Everyone and their mom will be electricity-dependent, so bring your own personal power strip or your phone and laptop might be fancy paperweights before long.
Keep in mind that the ship will occasionally be in “River City,” slang for when the ship is in a state of “Reduced Communications.” Only classified channels can communicate, which means you won’t be able to send emails or check Facebook. This can last a few hours or a few weeks, depending on how long operational security is required. So bring a few books and magazines, and learn how to play spades. Those squids know all the card games.
Remember, it’s worth it
I’ve done a lot of griping about life on the ship, but I wouldn’t trade that seven months for anything. I took two college classes. I went through Corporals Course. I earned a Humanitarian Service Medal for the aid we gave to Bangladesh after a cyclone hit in November of 2007. I went to a zoo in Singapore. I almost got arrested in Dubai. I got to see the coast of Kenya. I walked next to domesticated kangaroos in Perth, Australia. I was welcomed into a private party and drank with the locals in Tasmania. I was in Pearl Harbor on Memorial Day and walked on Waikiki Beach.
Again, life on the boat is what you make it. Try to remember that everyone else on the ship is going through the same things you are, maybe more. People will be nasty and rude. Try to be the person that breaks the tension instead of adds to it. Make sure for every moment where you’re saying to yourself, “This sucks,” that you’re also taking a moment to look around you and ask, “When am I ever going to see something this cool again?” The opportunities are there if you look for them.
Sherriff global seneter keith Wayne richard says
Tonya stole from me since she was 2 years old
Cpl John McCarver says
Served 2 years aboard USS Yorktown CVS-10 with MarDet 65-68 and did it all from Officers Forward Gangplank duty to
Weapons Sentry to Brig and manning the 5” gun, from PVT-CPL MOS-0331. What an adventure On Yankee Station in SE Asia, South China Sea,Thailand, Philippines, Japan, Hong Kong, Great ship, fantastic crew, and enjoyed the comraderi of my fellow Marines & shipmates. I was and still am proud to have served on “THE FIGHTING LADY” a legendary aircraft carrier. I have a painting of her on my office wall so I can remember those years. I am 78 years old now but but still remember like it was yesterday. Thank you USMC & NAVY for that experience. Semper Fi.
Dan Boston says
Spent 22 months sea-time aboard the USS Ranger. My unit VMA(AW) 121 Green Knights, A-6E, we did aerial refueling and bombing/recon. I did 2 West Pacs and a bunch out of NAS North Island.
As a Marine aboard a ship, it has it’s pros and cons. We were augmented to the U.S. Navy but were Marines…sort of like a red headed step-child neither branch wanted…lol. Our commies were always stolen in ship’s laundry, fill out paperwork and eventually you will get a replacement set.
Made some great friendships on those West Pacs; both Marines and Sailors. Learned how everything you can want short of a woman, you can have…but there is a price. A lot of wheeling and dealing takes place.
It’s really important to get in the sun and occupying your mind cannot be stating enough. You will see things aboard a ship that you will never see anywhere else. There are some nasty people out there….mentally and physically….lots of dark humor to pass the time.
Saw people loose lots of money and make lots of money. Servicemen at sea will bet on anything under the sun. We use to do coach roach races. Draw a 3 foot circle on the floor. Roaches in cup being shaking….countdown 3,2,1, slam cup onto ground in the middle. First roach out of the circle wins.
I will never step foot back aboard a ship, I hated it. However, I learned so many life lessons from. Semper Fi and keep the wind in your face.
Making friends with the sailors is great advice. Whether you’re on well deck watch, kp or wandering around asking questions about the ship just to break the monotony, being cool with the crew will definitely help with cabin fever.
Richard Ashton says
Never on a ship with deployed marines. Enjoyed the article though. Spent three and a half years on ww2 destroyer, our only contact with marines was either forward spotters for our gunfire support or gate guards giving us grief. Then got commission and spent 15 years with “green side” , FMF . As a squid with the marines there is NO ONE I would choose to go to war with but USMC… Semper Fi !
Was your trip on Disney cruises? Should a been with me on LST 980 commissioned for the Normandy invasion. 4-5 high in the crew quarters,cant remember the food because the whole crew was a sea sick because of typhoon Nancy. The navy decided it was too dangerous to go through the washing machine aka Taiwan straits in a storm so we did get 2 fun filled days and nights in Kaoshuing before we ran right into the storm. Not interested in getting on any ship again.
daniel v williams says
Always will remember th Marines aboard my med trip on the USS FORT MANDAN LSD 21. RECON guys and chopper crews.
Tough group of Marines. I liked it
Most of them could take a punch and give one back. Coming back from a drunken liberty a marine in back of us was giving my short buddy trouble/ i turned and swing really hard hitting my buddy Square on the nose .marine and I both carried him back to the LCVP. MEMORIES
1- make pals with with the same ranks in the navy…did that all the time and helped pass time
2- do the work party thing, not so fun to start but pays off later
3- mid-rats !!
4- enjoy the sunlight , sunrise and sunsets.
5- when in ports , double up, split the costs, and go see the sights.
Brian Ehret says
Served with the 22MEU on the LHA Saipan. Great experience. Mediterranean float. Saw Italy, Spain, and France. I took many rec tours that were offered. Was able to ski in the French Alps, hike to the top of mount Vesuvius, tour Pompeii, see Rome. Partied in Naples when their team won a world cup qualifier (insane). Made love to a beautiful young french woman in Toulan. Saw an amazing dinner show, and Gambled at a Bond’esqe casino in Cannes. It was unforgettable.
We spent the last three months sitting off the coast of war-torn Liberia Africa helping with the humanitarian mission there.
What a ride. It was the highlight of my Marine Corps experience.
3 WesPac/IO, golden shellbacked jarhead from the early 80s here … always make friends with the “lowly” holesnipes aboard your … they can show you all the hidey-holes and inner workings of your boat … and to the author, did my last float on the Tarawa, aka the Chicken of the Sea … you aint sailed until you pull a few months on an LST … LHA1 was like a luxury hotel!
Wow! I don’t know how I came across this, but I was on that same deployment! I was a “blue shirt” in the hanger bay, and I’m pretty sure it was a Combat Cargo officer that coordinated a hook up ride on an LCAC for me as well. Such a small world 🌎 😊!
John Robitzsch says
By being on four different SHIPS DURING YOUR 20 years of Naval Service and you are still calling the SHIPS, BOATS, then you haven’t learned very much! I was in the Navy for 3 years 4 months as a “KIDDIE CRUISER” AND I LEARNED THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WHAT A SHIP IS AND WHAT A BOAT IS!
I just watched a program about the V-22 Osprey, and two of the Marine officers telling their part of the story, called an aircraft carrier a boat. Is this a Marine air thing?
20 year, retired Navy vet with 4 cruises. Everybody I knew called it a boat including me. Once in a while someone would mess up and call it a ship.
I had 4 years of sea duty and I’ll have to say I never went hungry on board ship. The chow might not be gourmet but it’s better than most chain restaurant crap. The OP is right amount picking the right liberty buds.
This writer sounds a little like a softie to me. I have 22 years and 11 ships to my credit. Three of them were gators where we carried Marines. I met some super great jarhead and remember them with fondness in general. We valued our Marines. They make great dance partners as long as the Navy guys lead. Seriously, a tour at sea can be a wonderful experience for Marines. The food is actually good but not like momma used to make. I never went hungry. To future Marines, learn. Join in activity and hang with sailors.And please, keep your socks out of the toilets! We know why you put them there. LOL
Justin Nelson says
Very true. Real Marines do NOT moan and groan. Improvise! Make friends? Party? This is why, if reports are factual, Marines lost to UK in war games. Over all, those of THIS generation, weak. Many a Marine now days, have that Hollywood mind set view. The total misfit, Gomer Pyle, a Marine now believes goofy will reform hard core values. Marines now days, no longer have grit, even boot camp is soft. Once fighting force now giving way to weak.
Joe Grossman says
Soft I don’t know of any Marines that said this was simple, every Marine goes through the conditions there trained for. I spent 45 days in Okinawa and it rained the whole time everyone bitched but everyone has got busy stuck to the mission and got it done rain, mud, and just plain miserable so 1950 or 2021 a Marine is a marine please don’t call them soft.. thank you
Michael R Ziomek says
I was on board the USS Paul F. Foster DD964 as a Plankowner. We worked hard and played hard. I went through the Panama Canal 3 times. I also drank beer in Subic Bay Philippines when San Miguel beer was 30 cents (whimper) and in Bisbane Australia. I’m sorry I didn’t stay 20 yrs.
Jeff McWilliams says
I spent time on 4 ships throughout my naval career, spanning 20 years. I served from 1987-2007. Back when most of you were young teenagers. I have the utmost respect for my brothers and sisters in uniform. I have great memories and friends that I will always miss.. Enjoy your adventures at sea and take it from me, it is an adventure.