The job requirements for a workboat cook are usually pretty basic. Can you make biscuits? Can you cook chicken?Unlike other jobs that require training and certification, the cook's position comes with no standards for employment. Yet as most boat crews will tell you, a cook is a very important and comforting person to have onboard. A person who can provide good hearty fare contributes to a happy work environment.

But lack of training and unfamiliarity with both the workboat environment and basic sanitary methods have consequences. Workers have gotten sick from unsanitary food. Many cooks, unprepared for the challenges of a floating kitchen, have quit. And workboat operators must deal with the aftermath: unhappy crews, empty galleys and the expense of hiring new people.

Enter Ron Wahl, who saw a need and an opportunity. Last fall, he launched the Son of a Seacook Workboat Cooking School in Bayou La Batre. Ala., a shrimping and fishing town made famous by the "Forrest Gump" movie. It is part of St. Petersburg, Fla.based SeaSchool , also founded by Wahl, that offers U.S. Coast Guard approved navigation, deck, engine room and tankermen courses. "This is simple cooking," Wahl explained. "Not culinary arts."

Based on a typical workboat shift rotation, the school teaches a 28-day cycle of meals, with emphasis on basic food production, biscuit making, food safety, food management and purchasing, galley safety and sanitation, and group cooking with meat, poultry and seafood.

The goal, Wahl said, is to provide professional food training to cooks who will take jobs on either offshore service vessels or inland towboats. There were a lot of guys getting sick because cooks didn't know how to handle meats and poultry," Wahl said. "Our students are trained in safe handling techniques and in how to keep a galley clean. We tell them that they must use gloves because the guy on the boat doesn't want to see your fingers in his food."The school follows food-handling standards set by the FDA and DOT. Alot of instruction time is spent teaching about the importance of refrigerati9" and food handling, including proper cooking temperatures and defrosting methods.

All students leave the program with a health certificate for safe handling of food. Those who will work on an OSV will also have a Merchant Mariner's Document (MMD), since most vessels in the oil industry require the crew - including the cook - to carry an MMD, also known as a Z-card. At the entry level, the MMD permits employment on U.S. vessels as an ordinary vessels. "The biggest problem with cooks is that they don't understand the motion of the ocean," he said. Offshore cooks often prepare meals while the vessel is plying rough water, while inland cooks have the luxury of a steadier ride. Faced with rough seas, offshore cooks must plan ahead and prepare their meals in advance. "If someone won't like the rock and roll, I suggest they switch to a brownwater job." No matter where they work, though, cooks must have a thick skin. "The crew won't complain about the captain or the engineer, but they will about the cook," he said. "And they'll tell the cook when they don't like the food, when it doesn't measure up to mama's cooking. I just tell the cooks to turn it into a positive, to ask for mama's recipe so that they can make it" on the vessel. Students get hands-on experience as they prepare meals for boat crews that deckhand, food handler, steward and wiper. The school helps with all the procedures in obtaining an MMD, including the physical exam and drug test.

The price for the 28-day course is $3,500, which includes room and board. We can arrange drug screening, physical, Z-card, TWIC, and help with health training certificate. Wahl said that since many OSV companies need able-bodied seamen to fill Coast Guard manning requirements, a cook becomes more valuable to the boat operator if he or she can also fill the AB position. For those who allend many of the Sea School's U.S.Coast Guard-approved courses. The school offers room and board for all students, including a separate secure area for female students.

Wahl said his graduates are in great demand. They are either hired directly by boat companies, or they have been sent for cook training by their employers. "I have waiting lists for the courses," which run every two weeks, he said. "I could place 30 cooks a month, but only take 12 to 16." The boat companies, he said, have enough experience on vessels to be eligible for the AB rating, Wahl said the Sea School offers time slots and instructors to train cooking students for theAB MMD. The school's kitchcn duplicates a typical workboat galley, without the rock and roll of the water. Instructors offer up recipes that focus on healthy and nutritious food. "There's no reason to fry food on a workboat," said Wahl, who has had a long career in the maritime industry. "You have an oven, so you can do oven 'fried' chicken and potatoes. You can offer more vegetables. We push salads and fruits." Wahl said that there is no typical profile of a cooking student, but he prefers those that have had some type of boating experience. He's honest with the students, telling them that the job can be boring and sometimes isolated from the rest of the crew. He also explains the differences between cooking on offshore and inland "need the cooks but don't want to get involved with training, so they are happy that someone is finally doing it." Wahl said that his facility is the only workboat cooking school in operation. Wages are good. Many cooks can expect to make $220-$250 a day, while those with an AB can command about $325. Wahl said he advertises his cooking program in boating publications and those that specialize in cooking. He also sends mailings to high schools. "I'm not having any trouble finding students," he added. "I interview all of them, and ask why they want to work on a boat. I emphasize that this is not a glamorous job, and that you're not wearing a while chef's suit and working at a fancy hotel. These are workboats with odd hours, where people get dirty in their johs and don't leave you a tip at the end of the meal."

Reprinted by permission of Workboat Magazine (the Dec 06 issue)

What’s Cookin’ On workboats, cooks play a big role in keeping the crews happy and healthy.

By Pamela Glass, Washington Correspondent

As most crews on workboats will tell you, “If the cook ain’t happy, we ain’t happy.” “If the cook ain’t happy, we ain’t happy.” And as most company managers will tell you, if the crew isn’t happy, the company isn’t happy, because productivity suffers and then profits slip. There’s little doubt that the talent level in the galley can have a big influence on onboard attitudes and performance. If the cook is unfriendly or prepares consistently bad fare, morale can hit rock bottom. Workers can become grumpy, and their attitude can turn sour. But if the cook is pleasant and a galley pro, crews look forward to their next meal, and can sleep better and improve their job performance. “It’s a generally accepted rule that the captain runs the boat, and the cooks run the lifestyle on the boat,” said Mark Knoy, president of AEP Memco Barge Line, St. Louis, which employs about 60 cooks on its inland towboats that ply the Mississippi River system. Cooks on workboats conjure up two different images. One is the crusty old salt, with a few tattoos on his biceps and a heavy hand with the saltshaker and frying pan. Another is of a petite grandmother who possesses a quick wit, an acerbic tongue and a talent for turning out biscuits, gravy, mashed potatoes or a seafood gumbo that would give fancy New Orleans restaurants a run for their money. It takes a special kind of person to be a workboat cook, and they aren’t easy to find, industry officials say. The job description is enough to scare off many landlubbers. After all, a vessel cook must often run a 24-hour-a-day restaurant. A cook also must conform to an unusual lifestyle. He or she is away from home for as long as a month at a time, and it can get lonely. There are different tastes to please, from the meat-and-potatoes appetite to the guy who has sworn off fats and butter to bring his cholesterol down. A cook must be well organized because he or she can’t just run out to the store when short on sugar. A cook also must roll with the waves and have a strong stomach, as cooking in rough waters can be dangerous and tricky. And he or she must be a nutritionist, able to prepare balanced meals and explain the effects on the body of too much caffeine or not enough whole grains or vegetables. Inland and offshore companies have different ways of hiring cooks. Some recruit directly from culinary schools, while others get applications from cooks who are looking for higher pay, more time off, and better benefits than their land-based jobs. (Most vessel companies offer full-time salaries, health benefits and pension plans.) Many cooks hear about the jobs from friends in the workboat industry, while others apply through employment agencies or listings on a company Web site. Backgrounds of the cooks vary, with some coming from the military, while others have food-service experience at restaurants, diners, school or hospital cafeterias or grocery stores. A small number attended cooking schools or worked with great chefs, such as one food service manager for an offshore company who learned his culinary skills from renowned New York chef Daniel Boulud.


Cooks who work on inland river towboats tend to be older women, age 50 or more, while offshore cooks tend to be older men. Inland river cooks are not required to be licensed mariners, so generally they are not. But the river cook does more than prepare three or four home-cooked meals a day for a small crew, and keep the pantry stocked and grocery list filled. She often badgers the captain to fix things on the boat, or reminds the crew to clean their rooms or call home. She can also be a good listener — a friend or adviser who’s there when a crewmember has a problem. “She helps the younger guys deal with some of life’s issues, and can also cut a crewmember’s hair or act as a seamstress,” added Dave Brown, vice president, marine human resources at Ingram Barge Co. The Nashville, Tenn.-based barge operator employs 140 cooks on 80 of its line-haul towboats. Offshore cooks, because they work on larger vessels that can go up to 200 miles offshore and serve up to 40 or more workers, often have their mariner documents as well as cooking experience. Being licensed (most go for their AB) is not a requirement, but offshore companies recommend that cooks seek documentation because it can improve their chances for pay raises and advancement, and it contributes to productivity on OSVs. At Montco Offshore Inc., which specializes in 145' to 245' liftboats that service the Gulf of Mexico energy industry, 25 cooks work on the Galliano, La.-based company’s six liftboats. Those with documentation are paid more. The average pay for non-documented cooks is $180 a day, while a documented cook can earn from $240-$270 a day, according to Robby Gisclair, Montco’s food services manager. “Documentation is definitely a plus in getting hired,” said Gisclair, who has a degree in culinary arts and worked in a New York City restaurant under a French chef, “because vessels mandate a certain amount of licensed personnel onboard. The more documentation they get, the more your pay will go up.” Dominic Fava, a cook for Edison Chouest Offshore, another Galliano-based offshore service vessel operator, has an AB rigger’s license and is working toward his mate’s license because it opens doors to advancement. “They let you work on deck — two weeks in the kitchen, two on deck. It shows the company that you’re willing to advance. The galley pays the least in the fleet and there’s no advancement for cooks.” Vessel cooks are not required to take food handling or sanitation courses like many in the landbased food preparation business, but companies often provide this training. At Montco, the company is working with a national restaurant association to get its cooks a certification on food sanitation, while Memco trains its cooks in proper food handling techniques. Seacor Marine LLC, Houma, La., one of the largest OSV operators in the Gulf, utilizes a combination of cooks — those who work for a catering company and crewmembers who double as cooks. On Seacor’s large anchor-handlers, cooks are also mariners with AB certificates or other merchant mariner’s credentials. “Our view is that when you’re not cooking, they can hold navigational watches or assist on deck,” said John Fontenot, Seacor’s director of safety and human resources. “We like to have all our employees be mariners. It’s really unique. We don’t have any typical cooks.”

“ We don’t have any typical cooks.”

Finding people who can cook and are also interested in becoming mariners is difficult, Fontenot said, as it requires another level of training and exams. “It is a unique individual who is both a cook and a mariner.”


Increasingly, today’s workboat cooks are also assuming a new responsibility: playing a key role in the health and well being of the crew by serving healthy food and informing them about the importance of healthy eating habits. This is driven by the many national health reports that warn of the negative effects of obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol — conditions that are being found increasingly among aging mariners. The Coast Guard has gotten into the act, taking a more aggressive role in this aspect of mariner training and job performance. With the industry’s help, it is developing the Crew Endurance Management System. CEMS identifies risk factors that contribute to a drop in physical stamina and mental alertness among mariners. One of the key recommendations is improving a mariner’s diet. This often means eating better, avoiding caffeine and drinking more water. CEMS suggests that vessel cooks modify daily menus to include more fresh vegetables, fruits, fruit drinks, whole-grain breads and low-fat meats such as turkey, fish and chicken. “How much and what crewmembers eat impacts on energy, mood, stamina and sleep,” a recent CEMS report to Congress said. Following the lead of CEMS, Memco is training its cooks on how poor nutrition relates to job fatigue. “Cooks can help with this,” said Paul Werner, who is in charge of safety and the CEMS program at Memco. However, cooks and the vessel operators they work for acknowledge that changing mariners’ eating habits is a big challenge, as most crews are accustomed to a high-calorie diet that includes fried foods, lots of butter and other fats and starches. Workers love their steak and potatoes, seafood gumbo, fried chicken, deep-fried catfish, cornbreads and cakes. Many cooks are making efforts to put out more salads, vegetables and fruits, but it’s been hard to break old habits. “Oreos, Doritos and Coke are still at the top of the shopping lists, but we do our best to provide nutritious choices,” said Seacor’s Fontenot. “Providing a balanced diet is a big concern for us,” added Montco’s Gisclair. “Three of our employees had heart attacks recently, and one died after 27 years with us. So we know we must provide healthy food.”

“Oreos, Doritos and Coke are still at the top of the shopping list.”

Caloric intake is also a challenge. On inland boats, for example, deckhands are much more active than those in the wheelhouse. “The challenge to the cook is to accommodate a guy who is burning lots of calories, and the guy who is burning far less,” said Brown of Ingram. Cooks say they are adopting more healthy cooking methods, with less frying, and more broiling, baking and steaming. But there are no set guidelines or mandates, so it’s up to individual cooks, with the encouragement of their companies, to institute gradual changes. Some companies, however, are also taking steps to improve employee nutrition, which can increase productivity and lower medical insurance costs. Many are encouraging employees to improve their diets and exercise more, both on and off the boat. At Ingram, the company is working with experts at Vanderbilt University to develop personalized diet and exercise plans for mariners. “Our employees have a physical every two-and-a-half years to coincide with the five-year license cycle. They go to Vanderbilt, see a nurse, and she helps develop a plan with them to improve their diet, exercise or stop smoking,” said Brown. “We’re doing the same wellness sessions with the cooks. A person who is in better health and in good shape will be more alert and able to deal with emergencies.” Already, Brown said, things are changing. “We’ve got treadmills on all our boats and other kinds of exercise equipment, and guys are walking around the boats. I think we’ve changed a lot of guys’ habits.”



Sue Perryman has been cooking up a storm on the inland rivers for years. But the inland towboat cook would prefer to be remembered for how she cooked after a storm. Because that’s just what she did soon after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005. Her towboat, the 7,200-hp Douglas J. Fischer, and other AEP Memco Barge Line boats were loaded up with supplies and became impromptu relief centers for small vessels less equipped for longer runs. “Within one to two days after Katrina hit, we were pulling barges back into the river, and when I got on the boat there were cases of food and water. I was impressed that this was for the hurricane victims,” Perryman said. “People on tugs would come on our boat and eat a meal and take a shower.” Onboard the 192'x52' line-haul towboat, Perryman, 64, found herself cooking for more than the boat’s normal 11-member crew. “I served 300 extra meals beyond our crew,” she said. “Many of these people had lost everything and were living on tugs.” On one of the vessels there was a baby in need of milk, which Perryman supplied from her galley. Katrina was an exceptional call to duty, she said. Most of the time, however, her days are much more mundane — and she likes it that way. She’s up at 3 a.m., and in the galley getting breakfast ready at 4 a.m. By 9:30 a.m., she’s back in the galley again to get lunch going. After the midday meal is over and the galley is cleaned up, there’s just a short break before she’s back at it again around 3:30 p.m. to whip up dinner. Like many workboat cooks, Perryman is older than the majority of her crew, and is regarded as a combination mother, grandmother and counselor figure. She feels that she’s not only responsible for the nutritional well being of her charges, but the emotional side as well. Many confide in her and talk about whatever is on their minds. She’s the only woman onboard. “We get along real well on this boat, and you get to know the guys pretty well,” said Perryman, who works a 28-on/28-off schedule. The crews are on 14/14 schedules. With a background in catering and experience in a meat department, Perryman is well organized in the galley. She’s in charge of ordering groceries and preparing meals that are well balanced and nutritious. “I always have fresh fruits and vegetables, and I try to provide choices for those watching their weight and those who are not,” she said. “If they ask me to cook special things, I do it. My job is to keep them happy with the food, and I’m very happy doing it.

“My job is to keep them happy wit the food.”

“I really believe that if the crew is happy and healthy they are more likely to stay here with us.” Perryman heard about river cooks from a friend in the industry. She said it took nearly three years before there was an opening. “Cooks hardly ever leave,” she said. The Douglas J. Fischer’s galley was renovated three years ago and offers the latest amenities. She treats it like her kitchen at home, with a well-stocked pantry and handmade curtains on the windows. “I like to make it look homey.”

— P. Glass