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SEAFARER STORIES: BRANDON MAEDA, MERCHANT MARINER WITH THE SEAFARERS UNION

Friday, April 10, 2020

By Luke Lorenz
Manager of Government Affairs

Navy League of the United States

Recently the Navy League legislative affairs department sat down with Brandon Maeda, a merchant mariner with the Seafarers International Union to learn more about his career has provided him with an array of opportunities, including also becoming a professionally trained chef and registered nurse. 

This is part of an ongoing series, where we look at the careers of individuals in the U.S.-flag Merchant Marine. 

I began my sailing career in 1982 at the age of 26. Initially, I thought it was just going to be a summer job, a quick way to raise some cash to pay off some bills and then I’d go back to my regular job working in the hotel/restaurant business. Well, that summer spent sailing on the ocean turned into 38 years and counting of going to sea as a merchant mariner. 

Ironically, I never really wanted to sail; there was simply nothing about it that appealed to the younger me. I disliked leaving the creature comforts of land and all my friends and family. I was also very sensitive to motion (still am) and hated the thought of confined spaces, a quasi-military work structure and shared living quarters.  Yet at the end of my maiden voyagesomething profound had changed within me and I was hooked for life.   

After all these years I’m still not able to pinpoint what it is exactly that makes me return to sailing again and again. Many seafarers are quoted mentioning the usual list of incentives for time spent working at sea: the money, the travel, visiting different cultures, etc. Personally, I would add shipboard camaraderie, a real sense of purpose (being an integral part of the nation’s security) and coming to the realization that there aren’t many people on earth that get to join one of the world’s ancient professions.  

After two years of sailing I eventually joined the Seafarers International Unionstarting from the very bottom (entry level) with the hope of eventually working my way to a top billet. It only made sense that if you are going to choose a profession that keeps you away from land and loved ones, you should secure a position that pays top dollar. This has more or less been my motto from the beginning and something I have tried to live up to. My restaurant manager background came in handy as I progressed quickly through several positions in the Steward Department including chief cook and then later chief steward, which is on the supervisory level. With 13 years of sailing under my belt I was able to attain the re-certified chief steward position. The SREC, as it is commonly referred to, is the highest achievement in the Steward Department.  

During the 90s I was truly enjoying being a merchant seaman, and the SIU had been very good to me as I was able to afford a comfortable lifestyle. I used this period to obtain my chef du cuisine certification from the American Culinary Federation of America, which would have allowed me to work at any of the top hotels and restaurants in the U.S. There was a great deal of serious study time and exam testing involved, but it was well worth the time and effort. This accomplishment caused me to think about pursuing higher goals, such as one day obtaining a college degree. 

Initially, I didn’t know what field of study I wanted to pursue; I just knew that I wanted to continue to learn and grow as a person. The best part of this experience was realizing all the opportunities that both sailing and my union had to offer. Catching a ship presented me with flexible work schedules, and the SIU provided scholarships for higher education. These two factors alone enabled me forge out a new career path for the future. 

As I sailed into the 2000s, I had decided that I was going to really challenge myself and go to college to earn a degree in nursing. With an eye on a possible second career after sailing, becoming a registered nurse had enormous appeal. Plus, I had always been interested in the medical field. So, after spending several years paying off bills and building up my savings, I began my quest by taking math and English classes at the SIU’s Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training. Around that same time frame I also sent in my application for a two-year union scholarship and was fortunate enough to receive not one, but two consecutive scholarships from the SIU, which helped me out tremendously on the financial side. In addition, I was able work on ships during the summer months, and while it took me longer than most to achieve my goal, with a lot dedication and sacrifice I was able to graduate college with a nursing degree. 

Shortly after testing for my license and becoming an RN in 2010, I was working in the emergency room of a hospital when I discovered there were several SIU-contracted companies that hired registered nurses to work as medical department representatives aboard their vessels. And so I was able to combine the best of both worlds  my health care and merchant seaman careers into one, and I have never looked back. I’m so very honored and grateful to all the people that I have met during my many years at sea, as I could not have done it without them.           

Over the decades I have been extremely fortunate to have sailed on an amazing variety of ocean craft, large and small, old and new, from cruise ship to a cable ship, tanker shipcar carrier, cargo ship, container ship and various types of military ships. Looking back, each vessel and crew remains unique and special in its own way, and every experience leaves an indelible mark on my memory. Now, as I embark on the final trips of my seafaring life, I often wonder what would have happened had I not taken that summer job all those years ago.