So you're a Marine on your first deployment on a ship 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 some salt dogs out there to give you some (hopefully) good advice from the voice of experience. There's no getting around it: life on the boat is often boring, cramped, smelly and just plain weird. However, it is an experience like no other I've had. Like most things in life, it's what you put into it.
Although I only had one tour with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) in 2008, I learned some valuable lessons in those seven months aboard the USS Tarawa. I learned some of these things the hard way, so I hope you don't have to. This is my basic guide to surviving aboard a Navy ship.
get some sun
The ship is a dark place. I only mean this in the sense that much of the ship is dimly lit, but things can also get emotionally dark very quickly if you don't go out and see the sun. If you're aboard an Assault Helicopter Landing Ship (LHA) like I was, there are flight operations going on for most of the day and you can't get anywhere near the flight deck.
That said, the flight deck is open for PT early in the morning most days. Also, there are different points around the ship that have openings where the sun touches if you go at the right time. Sometimes I would volunteer to take our garbage to the compactor just because it was on the side of the ship and had access to the open air.
If you don't make a point of going outside for some fresh air, it won't be long before it feels like midnight all the time and yourcircadian rhythmit is completely out of tune.
go to the gym
If those first two items sound more like "how to deal with seasonal depression", you're not wrong. Getting enough exercise just doesn't make sense from a vanity and/or career-oriented perspective (although I'm definitely both). The mental health benefits cannot be overstated either. You'll deal with bouts of cabin fever on steroids every now and then, so some form of PT is a major event to add to your daily routine. Get on the treadmill, go up and down the ramp to the cockpit a few times, do push-ups, Tai Chi, yoga, whatever… Just get up and move. You'll thank yourself later (when you're not panting climbing stairs).
While it's true that some smaller ships don't have much more than the gym of a Motel 6, you learned in boot camp that there are plenty of ways to mess with nothing but your own body and good ol' gravity. So, no excuses! Speaking of gravity: lifting in the weight room when the ship is in rough seas is something you should try at least once. You can go from bench press to the moon in one rep to feeling the crushing weight of all your past failures combined in the next. It's fun. Just bring a spotter.
don't skip the food
It's no use sugarcoating it. The food on the boat is generally not very appetizing. Well, there was one time someone in the kitchen ordered 3,000 chicken cordon bleu instead of 300. That week wasn't the worst (except now I can't go to a wedding or banquet without having flashbacks). No, the food won't win any prizes, but it will keep you alive.
The thing is, there's a greater chance that you'll get sick while on the ship. You're living in a pretty tight neighborhood, 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 (perhaps poor sleep and exercise habits? See above). The temptation will be strong to skip the long lines and sleep until you eat just to grab the third Powerbar of the day or hit the vending machine later. Do not give up! Geedunk rhymes with trash for a reason (maybe?).
Plus, chow is a great time to interact with people outside your normal work center. No matter how much you like the people you work with, at some point you are ready to walk away from them. Food time on the boat is like high school, where you could sit with friends you didn't have classes with.
Volunteer for workgroups. make some friends
Yes, I said volunteer in workgroups. You're Right, Season 2 of "The Office"It isthe best season, but there's a limit to what you earn between the fourth and fifth times you watch it again. Instead, get out of the docking area (Navy to "barracks on a ship" to the uninitiated) and go make yourself useful.
I was part of something called a combat load on my mission. Essentially, combat cargo is the group of Marines that loads and unloads containers, equipment, and vehicles on the ship. We worked virtually 24 hours a day, before or after most port calls, but we had even less to do than most Marines on board when we left. So we were usually the first place superiors came to for workgroups, sea resupply, and odd jobs.
I tended to gear up for small tasks like this, not because I was too enterprising, but because I needed something to occupy my time. However, it paid off sometimes. Some guys from the LCAC (Landing Craft Air Cushion) crew would periodically come to our docking area and ask us for help getting the vehicles off their decks so they could clean them up. One day, the petty officer who was the LCAC crew leader entered the docking area in search of the usual suspects.
I saw him and said, "I've got you, I'll be down in a few minutes."
"Nah man, do you want to go for a walk?"
This was probably the fastest I moved in the entire deployment. If you don't know, oneLCACit's basically a giant 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 top speed of 70 knots (about 130 kilometers per hour). Here's a video of one in action:
So the moral of the story is: make sailor friends. I'm all for a little friendlyservice rivalry, but after all the boat is theirs. Most of them know the ship inside and out. They know all the places to go if you want to hide away from everyone for a nap and can find a way to get you better food or give you a preference from the ship's shop. So rest assured!
Choose a good friend of freedom
That goes whenever you're at large, of course, but it goes double when you're in a foreign country. You think you know someone pretty well after being forced to spend so much time together, but freedom and feet on solid ground can create a Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde Effect. Try to pick someone who talks more about doing silly touristy things and seeing the sights of the guy who can't wait for a drink. I'm not saying you shouldn't have fun and have a few while you have the chance, but when is the next time you'll be in Australia? Don't you want to remember that?
About halfway through the MEU, we made a stopover at the port of Jebel Ali, near Dubai, and there were buses there to take us to the huge Dubai Mall. As you might have guessed, my two friends from Liberty decided to consume too much alcohol and I was left babysitting. As we were getting back on the bus they got into a fight over something and got the attention of a security guard. Thirteen years later? Of course, just a funny story now. But at that moment, I remembered our security briefing about how strict the police were and I was imagining life in an international prison.
This is not an after school special. Have fun in freedom. Just pick someone who lets you make the most of your time in port and be smart about it.
Don't Stress Too Much About Seasickness
If you haven't spent a lot of time on a boat, it may take a few days to get your "sea legs" back. Some unlucky ones struggle with seasickness, but after watching myself and most others, their body quickly adjusts. You get used to your balance being constantly thrown off, and you learn to stay close to reliable bulkheads while walking anywhere. The boat can definitely rock when you hit rough seas. It's true that the Tarawa was a bigger ship, so the waves didn't rough up such a boat as much, but seasickness was rarely a problem for me.