Life of retired seafarers: Regrets, recovery, and new dreams

A financially rewarding career but with big sacrifice.

If you go to any ordinary working-class community in the Philippines and ask people what they think is a good and profitable employment, chances are they will say “being a seaman” as one of them. 

Many Filipinos believe that working overseas is better than working locally because the pay is better. and seafaring has a certain glamor in the eyes of those who only focus on the consideration of salaries.

Maritime Fairtrade spoke to some former seafarers who, for different reasons, opted to retire or were forced to retire from the job. Their insights on their former careers reveal the truth that seafaring – while it pays well – is not at all easy and that not even the financial rewards are enough to compensate for other things that are sacrificed in pursuit of the seafaring dream.

An absent father but a good provider

Jojo Gajardo worked for over 20 years as a cook onboard a Norwegian cruise ship. A 54-year-old man with a quick smile and graying hair, his hands have calluses from the many burns and cuts he sustained on the job. 

His eldest daughter was barely three when he left for his first contract, and when he returned, she was turning four and had some difficulty being comfortable with him.

“There were no cellphones then, no WiFi. We relied on handwritten letters that took forever to reach the Philippines, or we recorded on cassettes what stories we had to tell our families. There were many perks to working on a cruise ship – getting to visit other countries, earning a good salary; but being away for months and even years at a time can sometimes make you question all the benefits,” he said.

The father of two said that he sincerely regrets being away for most of the childhood of his daughters. He confided that the relationship he has with his daughters is a little too formal.

“I barely saw them growing up. Eight to 10 months a year I was away, and I missed all their birthdays, and the important occasions that were milestones in their lives. I was not even there when they graduated from high school or college,” he said wistfully.

Thankfully, because he decided to retire when he turned 47, he is trying to make up for the lost time by being a doting grandfather. He now has four grandchildren whom he said he spoils rotten.

“My wife tells me that our children do not blame me for being away for so long when they were young; that they are grateful for all the sacrifices I made to give them a comfortable life. Still, I think that if I were given a chance to start my life all over, I probably wouldn’t have worked as a seafarer. I could have worked in a local restaurant and stayed on land and stayed near my family to see my children grow up,” he said.

After retiring, Gajardo opened up a small eatery in the garage of a house of a close relative. He cooks the Filipino staple breakfast or snack fare “lugaw” (rice porridge) and “arroz caldo” (a kind of rice porridge with ginger and chicken shreds or boiled egg). Sales, he said, are brisk.

“I really should have saved up for a restaurant when I was younger,” he said.

Jojo Gajardo worked for over 20 years as a cook onboard a Norwegian cruise ship.
After retiring, Gajardo opened up a small eatery.

Unexpected tragedies derailed seafaring career

And then there are the seafarers who are forced to retire because of personal tragedies, and their regrets also run deep.

On the early morning of September 13 last year, Jess Canaleta was driving home to Marikina – a city north of the Philippine capital Manila – from a small family gathering when his car hit a 20-wheeler truck. He was with his wife who was seven months pregnant. He ended up almost losing his right leg because his foot and femur were broken.

“My wife died on the spot. I spent 17 days in the hospital,” he said.

Jess confessed that he seriously thought of committing suicide. “Every time I woke up, I wished I didn’t, but in my dreams – in my nightmares – I kept seeing the accident over and over. I just wanted everything to end,” he said.

The car he bought with the salary he saved was completely wrecked, and all the money he had left in the bank went to hospital bills and now to therapy and pain medication.

“I lost everything I worked hard for; I was an electrician for eight years and saved practically every dollar I made. My wife and I were going to buy our own house, but the accident happened. I have nothing now. My parents and my siblings are taking care of me,” he said.

As a seafarer, Jess had health insurance, but it only covered accidents or sicknesses incurred onboard. Like many Filipinos, he did not have any other form of insurance; he made the mistake of not even enrolling as a private member of the government-managed social insurance so he could have retirement benefits.

“I’m 30 years old and my wife was only 26. I was thinking of retiring when I turned 40 after we had put up a small business. Now everything is gone, and I have to start my life all over. It feels impossible on most days,” he said. “Some days, I also regret all the days I was away from my wife. We could have had children earlier, we could have had more time together.”

Jess Canaleta is forced to retire because of personal tragedies.
Jess lost his seven-month pregnant wife in a horrific car accident.

Retirement with savings wiped out

Another retired seafarer, Enrico Salvador, 40, said that managing his savings is very hard and making sure to invest it wisely is even harder. He and his wife made an agreement that their priority is to build a house of their own, but because of the social uncertainties created by the Covid-19 pandemic and the worsening economic crisis, the money they have saved seems to be decreasing in actual value.

Enrico shared that his wife found a house south of Manila for P2.7 million (US$52, 496). The developer asked for a 20 percent down payment which amounted to P540,000 (US$10,500).

“My wife and I had so far paid P632,000 (US$12,287), but up to now the developer still haven’t laid down a single hollow block for our house. He keeps asking for more money because he said that rates have increased because of the pandemic. I don’t know what to believe, and we can’t pull out the money and cancel the contract,” he said.

Unfortunately, Enrico also has other expenses after they bought a car on loan installment and had their 12-year-old daughter enrolled in an expensive private school that offered homeschooling. They also have hospital bills because his parents contracted Covid-19 in 2020 and he shouldered all the expenses.

Because of their financial difficulties, Enrico said that he was already considering going back to seafaring. He was an engineer on an oil tanker.

“I’ve been working since I was 23 years old and I thought I’d be able to retire comfortably. Now it looks like I will have to go back to sea when the situation improves and my family is more secure. I want to retire, but it looks that I cannot afford to do it now,” he said.

Preparing for retirement takes planning

Retirement is a genuine concern for Filipino seafarers because they have no job security and they work from contract to contract, never having job and welfare benefits beyond what their contracts provide them. Many also fail to plan on how to better manage their salaries.

According to the Integrated Seafarers of the Philippines (ISP), a non-profit organization, while the country’s seafaring industry provides its workers with one of the highest pay levels, the majority of Filipino seafarers do not live in comfort, and many end up being broke by the time they reach retirement age because they did not have career or financial planning.   

This is precisely the reason why many seafarers continue to work even when they are already due for retirement.

The ISP’s president Capt. Gaudencio Morales said that their group believes that seafarers should retire by the time they reach 55 or 60 years old. Many, however, would much rather continue working, given that ship owners still hire them. The real reason, however, is that they are not prepared for retirement because they were not able to save.

Gaudencio also said that many seafarers live like “one-day millionaires” but at the same time they also have many extra expenses because they feel obligated to give financial support to relatives outside of their own immediate families.

“Shipmasters make US$8,000 a month and this is equivalent to P5 million a year. Despite this, some don’t even have their own houses,” he said.

There are no actual statistics regarding the number of retiring seafarers and what they do after retirement, but Gaudencio said that a seafarer should consider himself prepared for retirement if he already has a house and lot to his name, his children have already graduated from university, and when he already has a small business that he can manage. He pointed out that under this standard of preparedness, more than 50 percent of seafarers do not have comfortable lives after retiring.

“What we need is to implement a campaign to inform and educate junior officers on the need to develop back-up plans, something like a retirement plan. They need to organize their own reintegration in society and normal life as early as possible so they can retire and enjoy what they worked very hard for,” he said. 

“We tell this to all our junior officers. Career planning is very important. They should determine the trajectory of their careers so they can become chief mates, masters, or chief engineers and they can retire when it’s time or even as soon as they are financially prepared and secure.”

The ISP has already given a proposal to the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) on the creation of a program supported by the seafarers’ welfare fund. This program included the establishment of a training center or institution wherein seafarers can take special courses on ship owning or ship management. Seafarers, Morales said, can also learn how to build and manage fishing, real estate, and agricultural businesses, among others.

Based on various posts in different Facebook groups of seafarers and their families, some seafarers opted for early retirement to run their own businesses. Some engaged in business franchising – running food stands in malls – because banks offer loans for such. Others entered the real estate industry and become property agents. Others left seafaring so they could pursue higher education in business administration and ended up working in banks or shipping companies.

Making up for lost time at sea

Even the more experienced seafarers also have to face job uncertainty at the end of every contract. Shipping companies and the local manning agencies they work with in the Philippines do not always rehire the same seafarers they worked with under earlier contracts.

The lengthy waiting time between contracts and the regular periods of uncertainty are also reasons why seafarers find it hard to retire even when they want to. They feel that it is a massive achievement to secure a contract when so many others failed to do so and they do not want to waste it.

The case is different for younger seafarers. Instead of working for decades to achieve their financial ambition, the younger generation of seafarers is more willing to retire early.

At 27 years old, Dan Harvey Ador said that he is already done with being with a seafarer after working for four years.

“Now I think about it, while I am grateful that those years were productive, I earned a good salary and I was able to go to countries I never would have been able to visit otherwise, I still feel that it was still all not worth being away from my family for so long. I felt that I was losing so much time not being with them or my friends,” he said.

Ador was a maritime scholar, but it was never his ambition to be a seafarer. “The company that hired me as soon as I graduated was the same that gave me a scholarship. I originally wanted to work in the IT industry, but when the scholarship was offered, I thought it was a big help to my parents that they wouldn’t have to shell out anything for my education. I gave it a go and I became a marine engineer,” he said.

The work itself – fixing engines, making sure they were operating smoothly – was not very hard for Ador because he was trained for it. What he was not prepared for were the long hours of boredom after work ended.

“We only had internet access for two hours a day, and every time I saw pictures of my friends and relatives back home, I felt that I was missing out on so many things. It was also a struggle to deal with boredom because there was not much to do on the ship when we were done for the day,” he said.

Ador’s last contract ended in January 2020, but instead of preparing his application for a new engagement, he opted to look for different work.

“The pandemic also helped the decision easier to make,” he said. He told his family that he did not want to leave anymore and that he had found work as a financial advisor for an insurance company. The pay, he was aware, would be significantly lesser than what he used to get as a seafarer, but it was good enough.

Does he have any regrets about leaving his former career?

“No, not really. But I think that hearing the stories of my colleagues also influenced my decision. They were much older than me, some were in their 50s, many in their late 40s, and whenever we got to talking about our lives, many of them would always say that they wished they spent more time with their families, or that they worked closer to home instead of being away at sea all the time,” he said.

“I didn’t want to have those kinds of regrets.”

Dan Harvey Ador worked for four years as a marine engineer.
After leaving seafaring, Dan now spends more time with his family.

Dare to follow other dreams 

Finally, there is the category of retired seafarers who wanted to maximize their job experiences and find other work and fulfill other dreams.

Isagani Roxas Marquina Jr. left seafaring in 2017 to embark on starting a business.  He had graduated with honors as class valedictorian from the Maritime Academy of Asia and the Pacific with a degree in marine transportation.

“I really did not know much about running a business. All I knew was that the other seafarers who went into business and managed it well can retire comfortably and for me, that was enough. I was not 100 percent sure, I was afraid of the risks, and I was not confident. I was rejected by the first people I approached and I had my doubts, but against all these, I persisted. I’m glad that I did not give up,” he said.

Marquina even has his own website wherein he introduces himself as a business owner teaching and giving advice to seafarers on financial management and investing wisely. 

He said: “A lot of people asked me if I regret leaving my old job. They told me that it’s too bad that I left behind a big salary, and that I’m too young to have left the job. I told them that it’s the time that’s been wasted that I feel bad about. 

“I am not getting any younger and I have to start planning for the future instead of continuing my previous work that I cannot even pass on to my kids. I chose a family business that my children can inherit later on. I gave up something good for something better.” 

Marquina said that when he was a seafarer, every day was like Monday and each working day amounted to 12 to 14 hours. 

“Being on a ship was actually like working non-stop. Now, I have more time with my family, with my friends. I have more time for myself so I can discover what else I am capable of and what I can achieve with my other skills.”

After many months of working hard at sea and always straining to see the horizon, all seafarers should always be ready to return to shore and enjoy the sunset of their retirement. 

Isagani Roxas Marquina Jr.
Isagani left seafaring to start his own business.

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