Tuesday, March 27, 2012


Eight months have passed since I last sat in an aluminum tube to be propelled by gas turbines over tundra, mountains and frozen seas. Eight months without the liberating rush of escapism, sunrises in unseen cities and interactions with people who have never needed nor wanted to speak a lick of English. Eight months without standing a watch, earning a wage or having to say goodbye for another two or three or four months.

It has also been eight months since I was last inclined to write. My time over the past three quarters of a year has been filled with analyzing business cases, fumbling through excel spreadsheets, concocting power point displays and enduring an endless torrent of academic stress. This morning though, when I woke up with a throat as dry as the air of a Chinese winter, all I wanted to do was record the last 24 hours and the next ten days as my cohort makes it's way from the Great Wall of China to the Shanghai Bund.

The flight was long and uncomfortable, as they always are, unless you're working for a company that values your jet setting sacrifices or are faculty at a state university. Real sleep is never an option for me at 34,000 feet but I tend to drift off now and then. Had it not been for the sun's recent record setting coronal mass ejection it might have been an unmemorable flight but a severe jolt of lower back pain caused me to turn in my seat and subsequently look out the window.

Stretching across the arctic sky, well above Orion's up stretched bow, quivered a green band of solar wind. For half an hour I watched as the undulating strip of green expanded and shrunk and flickered like wavelets on the ocean. Unlike seeing the Aurora Borealis from sea, where the tendrils of green reach from the horizon to over your head, from this vantage it was nearly at eye level. The moon was just beginning to wane so the endless white of a frozen Siberia only enhanced the scenery. I tried to take a few photos but the plastic cover over the window caused the images to blur.

The flight track from O'hare to Beijing normally would have taken us closer to the North Pole than I had ever flown before but due to the solar flare it had been augmented. I'm not sure what they call it in the cockpit but at sea this would be referred to as a composite sailing. By combining a great circle and a rhumb line where the apex or maximum latitude (North or south depending on which hemisphere you're in) brings the vessel too close to a hazard, like a storm in the North Atlantic, the added distance is minimized by sticking to the Great Circle for as long as possible. In this case we were avoiding the worst of the radiation that percolated through the ionosphere which the pilot knew could interfere with electronic systems in the aircraft.

My first impression of China at midnight was the air; cold, dry and smoky. It stung my eyes and hurt my chest and only worsened as we got closer to the city. The Beijing airport was absolutely massive but completely empty save for our plane and a handful of sleepy immigration officers. It was built for the '08 olympic games and from all appearances was a little too large for the post olympics demand.

It was all ready past two in the morning by the time the bus dropped us at our hotel. Too wired to stay in the room a few of us walked down the street to find the only open place for food, a McDonalds. I'm pretty sure that in a younger more idealistic frame of mind I swore to never eat in a western establishment while traveling but four weeks of beans and tortillas in Guatemala showed me the value of a globalized egg McMuffin. Unlike the well lit and warm interior of McDonalds the streets outside were absolutely desolate. The lack of bright street lights and a dusty moonlit sky added to the loneliness of the scene as we we walked back to the hotel.

The following morning a stiff frigid breeze had cleared the air of smog and the city had come alive. According to our local guide the hotel our tuition was paying for was the most expensive in Beijing and the quality of the breakfast convinced me. I find the first meal of the day to be the hardest to navigate when faced with unfamiliar food so I was happy to see eggs and pancakes mixed in with fermented egg, noodles and rice congee (porridge).

As a class we boarded a bus for Tianemen square and soon found ourselves surrounded by a large scale display of patriotism somewhere besides the United States. At the center of the square a white obelisk rose above sixteen flag poles flying the Chinese flag of four yellow stars on a field of red. To the west a monolithic government building fringed with dozens of red flags and banners loomed over the perimeter mirrored by a similar looking museum to the east. To the north was the tallest flag pole of them all guarded on four sides by eight stone faced soldiers. This flag was ceremoniously raised and lowered every day according to the sun.

The annual National People's Conference had just begun nearby so security had been enhanced and it was apparent. Surveillance was also prominent as every lamp post had more cameras than lights. Despite a heavy display of security everywhere in the city I didn't see a single rifle or pistol the entire time indicating to me that firearms are not normally carried by police or soldiers.

At the northern edge of Tianemen square a portrait of Chairman Mao hung from the southernmost gate to the Forbidden Palace. Passing over the outer golden water bridge we walked through the gate into the fortress. All ready having a penchant for castles I was astounded by the massive series of moats, walls, gate houses and chambers. Each gate we passed through led to a courtyard larger than the one before and eventually to a throne of some heavenly significance. On the periphery of the largest courtyards labyrinths of smaller dwellings had housed the palace's servants, concubines, government officials and other dignitaries. Lining the interior walls huge brass pots once filled with water were evenly spaced in case of fire. We were told by our guide that during the winter the pots were heated and covered with blankets when the emperor resided here.

I could have explored the palace all day but traveling with a group meant abiding by a set timeline. After an hour we had reached the northern gate and encountered the first hawkers selling unconvincing knock off watches and boiled corn on the cob. That afternoon I split off from the class with two friends, one of whom I had attended maritime college with and was in the same program as me, to check out a Confucius temple and a traditional tea house. The Chinese tea ceremony ended up taking up most of the remaining day and was the best way we could have been introduced to Chinese culture. I only wish I had spent the night in that tea house and not downtown. My stomach would have thanked me the next day.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

OP-ED: "For Whom the Bell Tolls" | Maritime News | Maritime Executive Magazine

by Tony Munoz, editor-in-chief, The Maritime Executive Magazine and MarEx e-Newsletter.

The Administration’s ZERO Bucks Plan for Maritime

An exuberant President Obama last week unveiled a $447 billion infrastructure plan to quickly inject money into the economy and create jobs. The plan included $50 billion to jumpstart surface transportation projects, but the strategy once again emphasized rail, air and highways. That’s right: “ZERO” bucks for maritime again.

OP-ED: "For Whom the Bell Tolls" | Maritime News | Maritime Executive Magazine

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.