PlayStation, treasure hunts and natural wonders: What life is like onboard a giant oil tanker

An oil tanker being serviced by a bunkering vessel.
Courtesy: Hafnia

If you think that life at sea is like the movie franchise “Pirates of the Caribbean,” think again.

The movies, which feature ambushes, looting and a drunken captain, are far from real life, according to shipping veteran Ralph Juhl.

“That is, of course, a lot of bollocks,” Juhl told CNBC by phone.

For starters, the consumption of alcohol is banned on many ships.

But there is one similarity with the movie, Juhl said: the code of conduct between seafarers. In the franchise, the Pirate’s Code was chronicled in a book kept by character Captain Teague, and loosely followed by some.

For those who sail for a living, there is a similar type of agreement, Juhl said.

The crew on board an oil tanker operated by Hafnia.
Courtesy: Hafnia

“Seafarers, no matter where they come from — India, Ukraine, Denmark, the Philippines — there is this conduct of how you behave on a ship … You can actually endanger both yourself and all of your colleagues if you are not playing that social game, being on board the ship. So, you take responsibility, you follow authority,” Juhl said.

Juhl, an executive vice-president at oil tanker firm Hafnia, has worked in the industry for several decades, starting as an ordinary seaman — the lowest rank of sailor — in 1983.

“When you as a seafarer [go] on board … you are a contribution to the society and you have to fit in … there is this code of the high seas,” he added.

A captain’s life

“Pirates of the Caribbean” is a seafaring stereotype familiar to Hafnia’s DSA Dixon, who has been a captain for five years. Dixon — who sails vessels known as product tankers, which transport both refined and unrefined petroleum products around the world — had to convince his parents-in-law that his role was nothing like the movie, he told CNBC by phone.

“A lot of people have a very different representation of a seafarer, looking at Pirates of the Caribbean,” he said.

Captain DSA Dixon (in black) says he invents games to keep his crew’s morale up during months at sea.
DSA Dixon | Hafnia

Dixon might be captaining a ship such as the huge Hafnia Rhine, which is about 230 meters long by 33 meters wide, with a capacity of more than 76,000 deadweight tons — a measure that includes the oil cargo, plus fuel, food, water and crew members, but not the weight of the ship itself.

Where the ship goes depends on where the demand for oil is and Dixon has sailed to every continent bar Antarctica, he said.

Dixon aims to keep to a schedule of three months at sea followed by three months at home in Mumbai, India, he said, and he started his most recent voyage on the Mississippi River in the U.S., sailing to Brazil and going on to Saudi Arabia via Gibraltar and the Suez Canal, before returning to Brazil.

The greatest part of my job is I’ve seen things that an average human being might not.
DSA Dixon
Captain, Hafnia

Compared to someone working an office job, Dixon said he spends more time with his wife and six-year-old son, as when he is at home he’s “completely” there. “I love this part of my life, because when I go back home, I’m Santa Claus,” he said. “It doesn’t get stagnated at any point – when it’s about to get stagnated, I’m back at sea.”

High days and holidays

Aside from navigation, Dixon said the most important part of his job is to keep the crew in good spirits, as they spend months at sea together.

“We have at times, 20, 25 people on board, they’re all different nationalities, different cultures, different languages … our ship is as good as the people on it,” Dixon said.

There’s no fixed daily routine, Dixon added. “There’s no one way to describe life on board. It’s challenging of course, but the challenge keeps you motivated all the time,” he said.

Along with navigation and managing the crew, Dixon might be talking to officials who come aboard when the ship is docked or coming up with ways to celebrate religious festivals.

The engine control room of an oil tanker. Hafnia Chief Engineer Dmytro Lifarenko spent around six months on board during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.
Courtesy: Hafnia

“Irrespective of nationality, or religion, people celebrate each other’s events or festivals,” Dixon said. “I even invent something like a treasure hunt on board. The ship is massive, I divide [crew] into teams … and let them find their own way,” Dixon added.

These games might sound “kiddish,” but they serve an important purpose, Dixon said. “These are grown-up men, some might be 50 years-old, and they’re doing this, but it’s the way to bond … we need to socialize and a happy ship is always an excellent vessel,” Dixon said.

Dixon makes sure the crew take Sundays off, spending it as they choose: perhaps playing PlayStation, chatting or sleeping. “I make sure there’s an excellent lunch,” Dixon added.

Traveling across oceans means getting to experience some of the world’s natural spectacles, with Dixon seeing the light phenomenon aurora borealis — also known as the northern lights — while sailing near Norway.

An aurora borealis light display in the southern part of Norway, one of the natural spectacles seen by oil tanker captain DSA Dixon during his seafaring life.
Heiko Junge | Afp | Getty Images

“The only regret I have is what I see I’m not able to share it, I want my family to see [things] at that very point, at that very moment, a photograph won’t capture it,” Dixon said. How did he feel seeing the lights? “You feel complete, I will say. You feel abundant,” he said.

“The greatest part of my job is I’ve seen things that an average human being might not,” he added.

Rough waters

Alongside enjoying scenes of wonder, life as a seafarer can be tough.

Hafnia Chief Engineer Dmytro Lifarenko is from Ukraine and was at home when Russia invaded the country in February 2022, fleeing with his wife and children across Europe to Valencia in Spain.

“I don’t know how I would handle … knowing that the bombs were there and I’m on board,” he told CNBC by phone, speculating about how he would have felt if he had been at sea when war broke out.

While his most recent voyage was five months long — sailing from Singapore to France and then Australia — he has recently taken extended leave to settle his family in their new home.

Chief Engineer Dmytro Lifarenko is from Ukraine and was at home when Russia invaded the country in February 2022. He has since moved with his family to Spain.
Dmytro Lifarenko | Hafnia

“I miss my family a lot during the voyage,” Lifarenko said — he and his wife have three children: a daughter of six months, six-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter.

“Being two parents for three kids, this is fine. Being [effectively] a single mom for our kids, that’s very difficult … to be honest, this is the worst part of the job.”

This is something Juhl is sympathetic to: “That’s a big ‘uncomfort’ for many seafarers, that they are now so involved in their family [while at sea], even though they can’t do anything about it,” he said.

The boiler suit dressed man with a big spanner — it’s not the sailor that we’ll need in the future.
Ralph Juhl
Executive vice president, Hafnia

During the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, Lifarenko spent about six months onboard, which is longer than his usual voyage. He said guided meditations sent to him by Hafnia were useful to deal with an uncertain situation.

“You keep thinking about the things that you actually cannot change, and that’s quite close to depression, but this [was] like a helpful hand,” he said.

But, despite some downsides, Lifarenko said he loves his job because of its variety. “You cannot say what is your routine, because the routine part is quite small. Most of the time, you are solving some situation, which requires you to use your brain, and you’re thinking, how to fix this … or how can we maintain this in a better way,” he said.

He has also enjoyed seeing the natural world while onboard, including spotting whales and sailing close to the volcanic Canary Islands.

Future sailors

Juhl spent more than a decade as a seafarer, starting at age 16 and sailing to places such as Honduras and South Korea, and becoming a navigator on chemical carrier ships before captaining ferries. He came onshore in 1997 and is now responsible for Hafnia’s technical operations. He described those onboard as “working their butts off.”

“They never go ashore anymore, there are terminals far away from cities and so on. So, this romantic life and impression of seafarers, it is pretty much gone. It’s hard work,” he said.

Oil tanker crew prepare mooring ropes to secure a bunker barge to their vessel for refueling.
Courtesy: Hafnia

This means attracting the next generation of crew is potentially tougher. “It’s a lonely life from time to time. And today you cannot offer young people loneliness,” he said.

Juhl wants to encourage more women to become seafarers and Hafnia is working on a pilot program to operate two ships where half the crew are female, to understand how the culture onboard might change, both positively and negatively, and how to solve that.

However, issues remain: Authorities in countries where women are discriminated against might not deal with female captains, for example, so Hafnia has had to temporarily assign a male captain for port stays in such places, Juhl said.

There has been internet access on board tankers for just a couple of years, Juhl added, and he wants to get creative about what might be possible as technology involves. 

He’s especially keen for sailors to be able to communicate with their families at home, he said.

“Hopefully we can soon make holograms where the captain can go to his cabin with his supper, and then he can open his hologram and he can sit and eat with his wife … we have to think that way,” Juhl said. And new technology will mean seafarers need different skills. ”The boiler suit dressed man with a big spanner — it’s not the sailor that we’ll need in the future,” he said.