Mike Donnelly

Only an avid commuter may notice, but while many crew members on Bay Area ferries are on board five days a week, others may only show up once or twice, never to be seen again.

As a casual deckhand, Mike Donnelly works on different ferry routes as needed between long missions on ocean carriers in his main occupation as a QMED. Photo by Joel Williams


    Published: February, 2018


Only an avid commuter may notice, but while many crew members on Bay Area ferries are on board five days a week, others may only show up once or twice, never to be seen again. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve quit—more likely, they’re just working a different ship on a different ferry in a different part of the Bay. “Casual” is the term for maritime employees who freelance their way around the Bay Area waterways. This is a preference for some, and it’s temporary for others.


For Mike Donnelly, working as a casual deckhand on the ferries is how he stays busy between being away for his main profession. He primarily works for ocean carriers Matson and APL as a QMED (Qualified Member of the Engine Department) on deep sea vessels, mostly on container ships and Ready Reserve Force military vessels. On average, these mission contracts last up to four months; his longest voyage was 215 consecutive days out at sea.


It’s a long time to be away from home, but working as a QMED for these past six years has made Donnelly a world traveler. He’s already been able to visit Japan, China, Thailand, Guam, Pakistan, Egypt, Italy, the Middle East, Africa and Nova Scotia, among others. “It’s a great thing to travel the world while getting paid to do it,” he said. “You can really dive into the culture for a day or two, and you don’t have to worry about getting a hotel or anything because you can just go back and stay on the ship.”


One thing about working in the engine room, however, is that Donnelly doesn’t get as much shore time as some of the other crew members because there’s always work to be done. And there’s always something for Donnelly to do, as his QMED certifications include electrician/refrigeration engineer, junior engineer, oiler and fireman/watertender. He’s also getting ready to sit for his pumpman/machinist certification as well.


Even though both are “maritime” jobs, there are few similarities between working as a deckhand on ferry boats and working on deep sea vessels. “They’re polar opposites,” he said. “You can’t even compare them.” Out at sea he’s working in an engine room with no daylight, here in the Bay he’s got the sun shining off the Golden Gate Bridge. One common denominator between the two, however, is the social aspect. He enjoys talking with the ferry passengers in the Bay, and out at sea he looks forward to the new crew he gets to know.


“Every time I get on a ship it could be all new faces,” he said. “Even if you don’t mesh, if you don’t like the same things, you basically live together, eat together and work together. It’s kind of like going to a family reunion. You’ll have some weird cousins, you’ll have the cool uncle, and you’ll have the other guys that you really click with.”


Crazy things can happen out at sea, as movies often tell us, so we asked Donnelly if he had any notable adventures. “I’ve been chased by pirates, twice, off the coast of Somalia,” he said. “We got away.” The first time the ship was too big for the pirates to get on board, so they gave up after a half-hour chase. The second time, Donnelly’s ship had a security team that included a retired Marine, a retired Special Air Service member, and a guy from the French Foreign Legion—all with assault rifles—so the pirates kept their distance.


When he does have some free time, Donnelly will take his Yamaha R1 out to the lake, ride one of his Harleys up the coast, work on his diesel trucks, weld a shoe rack out of horseshoes, or work on his house in his hometown of Vacaville. If you see him on the ferry, say hello! Tomorrow he could be embarking on his next high-seas adventure.