Sunday, August 28, 2011

Into the Ship Yard

Remaining anchored for an extended period of time is tedious at best. Bridge watches must still be maintained as the ship swings in concert with a hundred others to face the current. As long as no one drops their hook too close or, on account of a light draft and stiff wind, swings the opposite direction of your own ship, there is little to do. And if something does come up it's a challenge raising another ship on the VHF radio, especially the little bunker barges that scurry about passing under stems and sterns with uncomfortable intimacy.

For three weeks we waited for an open berth in the shipyard. When the Captain finally sent me forward to weigh the anchor the only available space in the shipyard was outboard of an FPSO or "double banked." In order to arrive at our congested berth we had to pass south of the island on which Singapore sprawls. Looping around Raffles Light I was witness to hundreds of hulking ships spread throughout the anchorages. Container ships, crude oil tankers, liquefied natural gas carriers and every manner of support vessel for the offshore oil and gas industry abounded. As the ship turned the corner towards Keppel shipyard the Boatswain relieved me on the bow and I went to the bridge for docking.

At the last minute the yard informed us that we'd be docking port side to when all our lines, messengers and gangway had been readied for a starboard side docking. We had our trusty shipping agent to thank for yet another inconveniencing miscommunication. I took one of the AB's down to the weather deck where we quickly raised the now inboard gangway and lowered the outboard so that the harbor pilot could disembark. The docking pilot, three radios strung around his neck, ambled up the ladder and brought us along side with a single bell and lots of tugging. Passing lines to a Floating Production, Storage and Offloading unit was a drawn out event but because the yard was so full we were lucky to even have a spot.

In the three weeks that followed I realized that ending my hitch with a shipyard was not a good move. I had a plan though and getting an extra months pay was part of it. This was my first bona fide dry docking of a large commercial ship and it was a very impressive endeavor. The only part I played in it was to give the go ahead for removing the docking plugs and ranging the anchor chains but most of that work I left for the third mate anyway. I had my hands full just showing each shop where the broken things were so they could fix them.

I sincerely hope I can find the time to relate my time in the shipyard and all that has transpired between then and now. Suffice to say I'm back on terra firma with a new set of hurdles in front of me and a future more hazy than ever before. But that's something I'm learning to be comfortable with and will try to include in this blog.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Eastern Special Purpose

It is a unique sensation to come half way around the world and feel as if you had just left the other day. My own familiarity with the Strait of Singapore, the shipping lanes in between Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, stems from four months spent on a cable repair vessel servicing breaks in fiber optic cables here. For weeks on end I stared at the same unmoving islands north of Horsburgh light when on a repair or the three towers of the Marina Bay Sands hotel in downtown Singapore when at anchor. These structures have now been completed since my time here in 2009 each erected independently and then bridged at the top by a soaring blimp like roof hosting trees, a pool, a nightclub and a photo shoot in the latest Sports Illustrated Swim Suit Edition.

The ship I work on is in the unenviable position of sitting empty and idle in the anchorage waiting for a spot in one of Singapore’s two shipyards. I say unenviable because from a financial perspective when any ship besides a cable repair vessel is in one spot for too long it means she isn’t making money for her owners. For the crew on the other hand it’s been a reprieve from the tedium of sea passages. With a daily launch to haul shore going crew anyone besides the 8 to 12 that needed a night off the ship has gotten their fill.

Like Orchard Towers at night the shipping lanes around Singapore are teeming with activity above, below and at street level. Just as taxis line up to escort hookers and their clientele to the closest hotel an endless train of ships arrive to pick up pilots at all hours. Anchored a thirty minute launch ride from the shore landing we're directly under the outbound flight path of Changi International. Every two minutes throughout the day and then again at night a jet takes off lifting above the tree lined shore ascending directly overhead. We’re also right in front of the high speed ferry terminal servicing Indonesia so a constant stream of high speed craft zip back and forth.

The day we arrived the Singaporean military was holding maneuvers near Raffles light house. A squadron of F-16s made circles around the anchorage while helicopters dropped off and retrieved frog men from the water. Naval patrols in the Strait are a daily occurrence and unlike the navies of another nation with which I’m familiar maintain a conspicuous radio silence.

The shipping traffic is just as I remembered; hundreds of ships pass daily, some swinging into Singapore’s myriad of terminals and others trucking right on past. Before we anchored in Singapore’s territorial waters we spent a week anchored off Indonesia in a no man’s land where every single ship save for us was a tanker waiting for a cargo. As far as the eyes could see Suez max tankers in ballast sat quietly, their crews spending what could be months trapped onboard. Every now and then an illegal sheen of oil would drift by but with so much current and so many ships finding the culprit would be impossible without aircraft. Something the Indonesians don’t seem too concerned about.

Just as when I was here before ships continued to sink right in the middle of the traffic lane a few miles away. When I explained the may-day relay on the Sat-C to one of the crew I attributed it to the law of probabilities. If there are a thousand ships in the Strait today there’s bound to be a serious collision or one junker hours from springing a leak and going down.

I’ve had the chance to get off the ship twice since arriving and neither time did Singapore disappoint. Before the sunset on my first jaunt ashore I had to return to the one and only Thai massage parlor I have ever been to. While massages in Asia are synonymous with happy endings this joint, shown to me by a sailor well versed in the ways of massage, includes nothing of the sort. Instead you are given a ridiculous looking set of loose fitting green pajamas to change into after locking your valuables away in the shower room. You ascend a staircase passing by a series of photographs featuring masseuses with awkward smiles contorting the bodies of supine victims in what appear to be painful poses. I could hardly contain my excitement.

At the top of the staircase women turn left and men turn right to meet your masseuse and enter a room filled wall to wall with thin mattresses. In the late afternoon after a stressful day in Singapore’s financial sector it isn’t unlikely that the place will be jammed packed with Asian men being pushed and pulled and kneaded like dough. My masseuse was small and when she began I was sure that her muscles weren’t fit for the job of relieving two months of accumulated stress.

The tempo, as I was to be reminded, picks up over the massage’s hour long duration and by the end, right around when she was using her elbows to push into the knot of muscle that is my hips did I remember how skilled the Thai are at this. When it was over I felt as if I had suffered a caning for spray painting graffiti on cars but soon realized that I was absolutely free of tension. Elated I joined the engineers I had gone ashore with and ordered the weirdest looking seafood we could find in celebration.

There is something about going ashore with sailors that is indescribable. The pent up restlessness of being at sea, the bittersweet shortness of our time ashore and the anticipation of the unknown in foreign lands lends to a traveling experience unlike any other. That common bond helps too, something which I believe transcends ethnicity, nationality, trade, department or company.

This I attribute to the character needed in each and every mariner to live the life we do. A character I notice even in people I've worked with on the shore end of shipping but who have spent a portion of their career at sea. There are those who've been to sea and those that haven't and for those that have the way they view, communicate and treat us sailors is vastly different than interacting with their colleagues. It is a level of character lost on some in this business, not all, but some who know ships only by fact, figure and name but will never know the sea.

Thus taking in the Asian air a million miles from home in a city where your two best friends are the guys you just spent the last two months sharing three meals a day can be quite exhilarating. Throw in a few hundred venues for entertainment, a few thousands taxis to get you here and there and a few million Singaporeans to converse with and for the night you've got it made.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Tropics

Weather is everything to a sailor. Fair winds and following seas have seen thousands of voyages through to safe conclusions while typhoons and winter gales have perilously prolonged or prematurely ended countless others. Weather at sea is the difference between the calm grace of slipping over the water towards the never ending horizon or clutching handrails at the wave's crest as the trough falls out from beneath the keel.

Save for when the wind howls the sea state is usually benign in the Middle East but the heat adds another hardship, one that I would happily trade for a few days of rolling in the North Sea. I lived on a ship where the only way to take a shower after a day’s work was to wash in the bucket you filled in your head that morning. The fresh water tanks adjacent to the hull would become so hot during the day that by evening the water was scalding. I stood bridge watches on the same ship with no AC in the wheelhouse and one little window unit to cool the 90 degree Red Sea air at midnight. Dripping sweat and charts don’t mix. The heat not only makes sleeping hard and work miserable but for a New Englander fond of changing seasons the persistence of Middle Eastern weather patterns is rather depressing.

This is why, after a month in these waters rounding the tip of India wasn’t just a physical relief but a mental lift. Still covered in a layer of brown dirt we left the Arabian Gulf and turned east for one last discharge port. From Pakistan we were ordered to the Far East which meant passing South of India and Sri Lanka and then direct to the Malacca Strait. One would think that getting closer to the equator (We’re now 90 miles north of it) would mean more heat but it’s been the opposite.

Meteorologically speaking the crossing from India to Indonesia was phenomenal. I had forgotten what the tropics were like when the weather is agreeable. The air is soft and light, the humidity comfortable and the ocean a mirror image of billowing clouds and indescribable sunsets. Just seeing clouds, endless vast arrays of them, was such a pleasant change from the daytime haze and evening murk of the Arabian Gulf.

But most delicious of all was the rain. Sweet water deluges that in two hours took care of the sand problem it would have taken the day men a week of constant pressure washing to rinse off. Every square inch of the ship was cleansed making for great painting conditions. I was thrilled not only to have saved the man hours but to see a cloudy day with no sun, cool winds and visibility inhibiting squalls. Changes in weather are so welcomed at sea where the monotony of a high pressure system, or worse, a rollicking low makes the body, eyes and mind grow weary.

The ship is in ballast which means there isn’t a single metric ton of cargo onboard and the salt water ballast tanks are full. This also means that the cargo holds, vast parking garage like chasms, are completely emptied which is the perfect state for one of my favorite pass times, organizing. Doing so in the cargo holds involves corralling the lashings, stowing them by type in metal bins and stacking those bins in strategic locations depending on what kind of cargo goes where.

Roro cargo is a beautifully efficient stowage system when it comes to anything that can be loaded onto a trailer, towed or driven onboard. Containers surely take the prize for speed of handling but there are certain things like out of gauge / over height vehicles and equipment, automobiles or very long pieces that do not fit well or weigh too much for the typically rigid limitations of a TEU; such as rail cars, yachts or heavy mining equipment.

When it comes to flexibility the roro is hard to beat but the variety of commodities mean different lashing equipment for each kind and it’s my responsibility to ensure it is inventoried, inspected and ready for use. While it’s not rocket science, nothing about sailing ever was, it is a feat in organization to have these lashings properly sorted and arranged.

There are thousands of lashing chains and binders or tensioning bars. These must be neatly stowed in lashing bins and cannot be mixed unless one wants to infuriate the longshoremen. There are web lashings, short and long, for vehicles and light cargoes including break bulk which we load quite a bit of. There are corner protectors or softeners to keep the web lashing from chaffing, web slings and chocks, both large for trailers and tractors and small ones for cars.

I have hundreds of twist locks for when we do load containers which are placed on trailers, pushed onboard by a tug, and then removed by specially designed low height forklifts to be placed on top of their designated lashing points. The twist locks secure each corner of the container to the deck or to one another as they are stacked. There are car lashings for automobiles which have their own decks higher in the ship. There's also piles and piles of rubber matting, wood dunnage, trailer jacks, trailer horses and traffic cones. Lashing bars need to be collected from the holds and stashed away for the next port, trash picked up, the holds swept and vacuumed.

My guys spent three days busting ass in the holds picking up lashings and sorting the bins. Tomorrow I'll let them know how much I appreciated their hard work by sending them back down to sweep and swab the areas our deck sweeping machine couldn't reach. And there are still light bulbs to change, bulkheads to sougee, hydraulic control stations to clean and trash to bag. It’s a ton of work but worth the effort when you have the rare chance to clean all the holds at once.

After crossing the Bay of Bengal we rounded the northern tip of Sumatra encountering the strong charted tidal rips. The Malacca Strait, a very narrow and shallow body of water, links the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea. Because of this it acts as a conduit for any tidal variations between these two large oceans and therefore strong currents surge back and forth mounding up in certain areas underwater sand waves that can reach 45 feet in height. Unlike the rips these are not charted.

Another anomoly, this one less interesting, was the amount of garbage my lookout and I saw as we entered the strait. Still out of sight of land in every direction we looked was floatsom and it's ugly relation, jetsom. Palm fronds, trunks and entire trees were plentiful but not nearly as plentiful as the plastic garbage. I truly believe plastics are the scourge of not just the ocean but the developing world. It appeared that all of this debris was yesterday's water bottle or lunch tray and no thought was given for the fact that once it was tossed into a culvert in Malaysia or off the porch in Indonesia it would spend the rest of it's days slowly deteriorating in the ocean's eco system.

There was oil too, testament that despite the international communities best efforts ship's continue to illegally pump bilges, slops and tank washings overboard. An easy thing to get away with in waters traveresed by thousands of ships each week with little to none in the way of coast guard patrols. As much as the industry has cleaned up it's act there will always be a pollution stream from shipping but I don't think it even holds a candle to what cities and run off are doing to the oceans.
The crew is excited for our next port where everyone is hoping for some much deserved time ashore, a rare occurence for our normal run. Asia is a wonderful place to be a sailor and we happen to be pulling into one of my favorite towns so there is that added sense of familiarity, something I don’t mind half way around the world with limited time to explore as I all ready know where the cheapest beer and best food can be had.