Life As a Ship’s Cook

Life As a Ship’s Cook

By Rebecca Marshall

Rebecca Marshall is a grateful recipient of the BCHF Kristopher Bihis scholarship, which allowed her to complete her Red Seal as a Professional Cook in 2021.

It’s 4:50 in the morning when my first alarm goes off, but I take my time waking up. I turn my light on and rest snugly in my bunk, being gently rocked by the motion of the waves until my real alarm goes off at 5:30. Then I’m up and at ‘em: I do my morning routine and then I’m into my chef uniform, steel-toe Blundstones on and hair plaited into a bun. I step out of my cozy cabin and head down a flight of stairs, through the mess room and my commute is done. I’m in the galley ready to start prepping breakfast service for 7am while I sip my coffee and steal glances out the porthole to watch the sun light up the sea.

For 28 days in a row, this is how I begin each day as a Ship’s Cook.

Now, 28 days at sea sounds daunting, so I should mention that I am employed by a company that operates on a ‘lay-day’ system, meaning that after my 28 days of work at sea I get 28 days off and still receive my paycheque very two weeks. It’s been a huge lifestyle adjustment but one that has resulted in a happier, healthier version of myself who has the energy to develop my various passions and pursuits outside of work on that sweet, sweet month off – not to mention having the time to travel!

Crew change day starts early as I arrive on the vessel to relieve my colleague from their duties. Once they’ve given me a run-down of the past month at sea, they head for home and my work begins. They have set out breakfast and prepared lunch for me to reheat for my crew so I have a bit of time to prepare to receive my order at 1pm. And what an order it is! Five pallets of food to last the next two weeks until we re-up on fruit, veg and dairy at the
half-way point in our journey. Upon its arrival, the crew helps me get everything to where it needs to go, but it’s my responsibility to organize it over the following days. If you’re good at Tetris you’ll enjoy this part! Soon I have tidily squirreled it away and am taking note of what I’ll need for our re-supply.

The view from the galley porthole is ever changing as we make our way up and down the coast of British Columbia. I enjoy the view from my station, watching the weather change, sea otters snack on urchins, and humpbacks glide lazily by. When not cooking, I can be found in the gym trying to work off all of the cookies I’ve baked and eaten, or on deck enjoying a good book in the sun while my crewmates fish for salmon and halibut on their downtime.

I am the sole cook responsible for feeding my crew of around 15 to 25 people on an emergency tow vessel. Catering experience comes in handy, as do top-notch time management skills and the ability to organize a prep list while planning meals for the days ahead. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, as well as baked goods, desserts, and grab-and-go items – it’s a lot. With a few years of experience in a variety of jobs in the culinary industry, it’s manageable, and frankly, lots of fun. To be in complete control of my own department and how I plan and execute my days is truly awesome. Feeding my crew is like cooking for a big family gathering with folks with varied preferences and dietary needs. Some people like to keep it plain and simple, others are more adventurous. I’ve learned that if I’m going to offer something I haven’t made before, I’d better serve some chicken strips as an alternative for those who aren’t so quick to trust a new flavour profile. I have tried various approaches as I’ve settled in to the job – it can be tough to stay motivated and inspired! I like to bring a few different cookbooks each trip out to learn new dishes to add to my repertoire. On top of the adjustment that came with figuring out the ins-and-outs of my actual work as Ship’s Cook, one of the biggest learning curves came in the form of finding how I fit in with the crew.

Many of my crewmates have been sailing together for years, and it took me a while to learn how to be a good teammate and keep up my own morale. My crew is predominantly male – it was important to me to set and maintain boundaries early on around how I expect to be interacted with. I am happy to say that the folks I work with treat me respectfully and professionally. I have a well-developed peer support network of other tradeswomen to reach out to when needed which is key for me as a woman in a male dominated industry. I also see a counsellor regularly in order to keep in good mental health, as working away for long periods can feel isolating. Another challenge that comes with this career is the time spent away from loved ones at home. Missing birthdays, holidays and even just the quality time with friends and family is not something to be taken lightly. It’s a difficult sacrifice to be sure, but one that is made worth it by the wage, health benefits, and only working for six months of the year!

If you’re interested in learning more about this career path, contact Transport Canada or checkout their website for details. To become a Transport Canada endorsed Ship’s Cook, one must have completed a culinary course; the Marine Emergency Duties Basic Safety STCW; the Marine Advanced First Aid; and have passed their marine medical examination by a Transport Canada approved doctor, after which one is qualified to write the Ship’s Cook written exam. It sounds pretty straightforward, but the switch from the Food and Beverage Industry to Maritime can be really confusing! For instance, I accidentally got my Marine Basic First Aid, which cost a pretty penny before I found the correct information stating that I in fact needed Marine Advanced First Aid. After that experience, I knew I wanted to make it easier for my fellow cooks to navigate the switch so I have compiled a “Ship’s Cook Resource” with a list of necessary certifications, potential employers, as well as scholarships and bursaries to help along the way. Check it out! Is the life of a Ship’s Cook for you?