On a modern oil tanker life may be earnest and it is certainly real, but it is also extraordinarily pleasant.
If conditions on merchant vessels were ever as bad as popular opinion believes, today they have changed for the better. Today not only have working hours been reduced to normal levels, but a ship is considered a man's home and is designed accordingly.
On the Den Haag, for example, every member of the crew, from able-bodied seaman to captain, has his own cabin and every two crew men have their own shower. Each cabin is furnished with a desk, an easy chair, a reading lamp, a commodious clothes locker and a wide, soft berth. With books on the desks and family photographs on the wall, some of the cabins could be mistaken for a room in a college dormitory—except that they are bigger.
Then there is recreation. Once upon a time, they say, sailors who had time off used to splice lines, whittle and play chanties on harmonicas and concertinas. Today they can go to the movies, play table tennis, develop and print photographs in the ship's darkroom, have a swim in the swimming pool, sun bathe in a deck chair, play cards in the chintz-curtained lounge or curl up with a good book and a cold beer from their own "Café Old City."
No sailor, of course, is ever entirely satisfied with the food he gets and those on the Den Haag are no exception, but her crew will grudgingly admit that there is a good variety and that the cook does have a way with home-made bread, gravy and an occasional Italian specialty.
In providing for the welfare of the officers and crew the designers of the Den Haag have forgotten very little. There is a three-bed sick bay, or hospital. There are three refrigerated lockers for various kinds of food. There are rubber tile floorings to eliminate the strain of standing and walking on steel decks. There is a news bulletin composed of items from Radio Holland that is mimeographed and distributed every day.
There are even moments on the Den Haag when it is hard to remember that you are aboard a ship. Daily, at precisely 12:20 by the ship's clock the off-duty deck officers and the engine room officers make their way aft for a mid-day meeting over a convivial glass of beer or a thimble of Dutch "jenever" (gin). The curtains are drawn and a string of dim, colored lights over the bar are turned on and except on Sunday, each officer takes his turn buying and serving the refreshments. Sunday is the Captain's day.
This custom has grown out of a company policy of trying to ease the almost traditional frictions between deck officers and engine room officers, and it works. Each day for a half hour or more the Captain and the Chief Engineer, the First Officer and the Second Engineer and all the others sit, talk, drink and argue and then have lunch together. In such an atmosphere the ancient rivalries almost inevitably give way to a spirit of cooperation and friendship that is a trademark of the oil tanker.