“At the core of the Filipino maritime labor migration, lies an admirable ability and willingness to endure hardship or make sacrifices in the name of the family” – Dr. Gunnar Lamvik, Dept. of Social Anthropology – Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
Seafarers run 90% of the global economy. Fuel, food, manufactured goods, and raw materials are delivered by sea. More than 1.5 million seafarers are serving in international trading merchant ships. More than a quarter of that and the largest supplier of seafarers and officers has come from the Philippines since 1987.
Filipino seafarers are often named the happiest crew on deck and the most wanted ones by ship owners because of their fluency in English, adaptability, dedication, and overall positive character. However, this portrait of Filipino seafarers is often trampled by discrimination, racial representations, and physical and mental predicaments on board. Romy became aware of this when he stepped on board.
Romeo “Romy” Tubera, 60 years old, is a retired seafarer from 1993 to 2019. He spent 41 years seafaring, dreaming of providing for his family and relatives. But being a seafarer also meant that he had to leave his family. His voyage contracts often last 6-9 months (depending on the ship’s situation), and he can go home when the company doesn’t call him.
“Most challenging in my sea life is on how can I cope with loneliness and missing my family, especially if someone in my loved ones is in trouble or sick.”
To counter the homesickness and boredom, he has to rely on what he can do onboard. He plays with his friends, does crafts or various projects, and spends most of his time watching One Piece.
The other dream that made him decide to be a seafarer is to travel the world for free. Romy boarded many ships and carried different cargo – from food and fancy cars to toxic gas oil/jet fuel and tanker ships.
So while he did travel the world, he also faced many challenges and dangers on board. For Romy, life at sea is a game of luck.
“Not all ship is a happy ship, not all captains are good captains, not all crewmates are good to get with. Sometimes if you’re lucky and join a happy ship, you don’t even want to go home.”
The challenges he faced came not only from the ravaging waves but also from the people around him.
“Discrimination is still prevalent on board.”
According to him, not sharing food and tables with foreigners is one of the basic ones. But he also experienced worse than this. During the 80s, he even saw how chasing people with knives often happens on board.
Romy’s position in the ship is a pumpman. He’s the captain’s right-hand man and the only engineer on deck that does all the repairs and maintenance on mechanical machines, including the pump room, and traces up all the pipeline and their functions.
On one of his voyages, he was pushed around by other nationalities and made fun of for being Filipino.
“Sa pinalitan ko na pumpman, inuutusan nila bumaba ng pump room ng ilang beses tapos pinagtatawanan nila. Kaya umuwi yung pumpman na ‘yon. Noong ako na ‘yung pumalit, ganoon pa rin trato nila sa akin at lagi nakabantay na akala mo gugulangan ka.”
Despite this bullying, he stood up for his other crew members and wrote a grievance to their company regarding the situation. The two bullying him and the other crew were sent home immediately after that.
After that, a new British captain returned and reprimanded him for protecting himself and his crewmates. The captain continually called him out after the incident, saying he was causing too much trouble on board. He was also made to do the chipping and painting job for the ship, which is far from his job requirement. Before something worse came, he was pulled off to board another boat for promotion. But before leaving, he decided to speak up and raise his concern regarding the mistreatment they’re getting on board to save the already set and more than enough money for the shipment.
“Sometimes you just have to stand up for yourself para din ka ma bully. And if you know what you’re doing, you are untouchable.”
But being untouchable is a stretch when he tells his next story. In our talk, he often recalled his time onboard as like being in a gang.
“Parang gang or sometimes sa barko kasi, parang bilibid may mga tribute tribute.”
He encountered a man feared by the whole crew because of his tall stature, making him look like a true villain in a film. Romy said there was a time when the man flew into a rage while they were in the middle of the sea. He was holding a knife and raging on the deck. Everyone hid except Romy.
“Tinutukan nya ako ng kutsilyo sa leeg, ‘yung palaslas ba. but I told him, you are a coward and you don’t have the guts to kill.”
The man let go of his knife but disagreed with Romy during their sail. Later, they became friends, and the man respected Romy above anyone on the ship.
For Romy, being a seafarer is like having one foot on the deck and the other already in the sea. The danger comes without knowing, whether through the ship’s unpredictable waves and mechanical problems or through the crewmates he has to spend his days with.
Regardless of these trials and risks, he has an unwavering heart and resolve to stand up for himself, just like his parents taught him to achieve his dreams for his family.
“Sabi ng nanay ko sa akin nung bata pa ako, tama raw na ipaglaban ko sarili ko kung alam kong tama. Sabi naman ni tatay, madaling pumasok sa away pero mahirap lumabas.”
Today, Romy is living in San Mateo, Rizal where he successfully bought two houses for his family. His oldest son recently graduated college and is now working. He could also support other relatives when he was on board during hard times. He considered this his biggest achievement among all he had experienced and the awards he was given.
Romy’s message for new seafarers:
“Life at sea is difficult danger is always there. You must be prepared in dealing with every situation on board and situation with your loved ones. That’s all I can say and advice to the new seafarers. Keep safe always. Have a safe sailing! Bon Voyage!” – Romeo “Romy” Tubera