Thursday, December 25, 2008
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
I mention the “millche” here on account of its necessity in tempering the espresso shots it will take to keep me awake after yesterday’s cultural sortie up the Weser River. Choosing to go ashore after a full day’s work over sleep is a hard decision but this morning I’m left with no regrets. The shuteye I missed out on was well worth the hour long train ride out of the port and into Bremen, a city of 550,000 people on the Weser River. Together with my counterpart in the Engine Department and the always socially inclined cadet we made our way to the Christmas Market in the old city center.
We spotted the twin spires of a massive (Lutheran) church that had it’s origins in 800AD and followed them to the market square wherein hundreds of vendors had erected a temporary village for the month long Christmas Market. Glittering with holiday decorations and the sound of caroling street choirs the mood was pure Christmas everywhere you looked. There was a Santa Claus reading holiday fables to a dozen children in front of a North Pole back drop next to shops selling thousands of hand made wooden Christmas ornaments. Christmas trees were hoisted on top of roofs and utility poles and a huge fir had made it into the Church waiting for tomorrow night’s lighting service.
There was traditional German holiday fare being grilled, fried, roasted and brewed and happily consumed with complete abandonment by the young and old. The 14 inch Bratwursts were cooked over a huge circular grill and served with a comically small roll that wouldn’t accommodate a burger. This served as a grip for dipping the sausage in hot mustard. Potatoes were fried as regular straight cuts or mashed into a cake and eaten with different sauces. There were crepes and candied nuts and gingerbread galore. My favorite meal though was a bowel of garlic oiled and dill sauced mushrooms for only 2 euro.
To compliment the affordable food were twenty or so glühwein stands. This magical spiced red or white wine beverage was served hot in a mug which we were free to walk around the city with. The best drink was a variant of gluhwein whose unpronounceable name included the words fire and bowel. Cooked in huge copper pots, a brewer would flash a pan of white rum into blue flames and then carefully pour it into the kettle giving a boozy and sugared kick to the sweet red wine. After a few mugs of this the chill winter drizzle no longer seemed to matter as much.
There is something wonderfully satisfying in getting a grape buzz on as you gaze up at a 600 year old town hall (Now a UNESCO world heritage site) surrounded by crowds of merry Germans whose holiday merrymaking predates the Hanseatic League. Imagining the generations of Germanic peoples drinking hot wine in this square around Christmas time before Christ had even come into the picture is true pleasure. These rare moments when you’re whisked away from work and dropped off in another country and another culture have to be appreciated because it just doesn’t happen often enough.
You know you’ve reached the English Channel when all of the FM radio weather reports are tailored for sailors and goes something like this;
“Faeroe northwest 7, increasing to 8 later, poor, 3 miles in haze.”
By using only succinct marine terminology the BBC broadcasts the weather for the entire nation hourly informing mariners of the wind condition, precipitation, visibility and short term trend in short order. It reminds me how much of a seafaring nation the U.K. remains to be. Of course at the top of the hour and the end of the forecast they have to play “God Save the Queen”, the tune of which is obviously a total knock off of our ancient and most solemn patriotic hymn “America" also know as "My country, 'Tis of thee."
Our passage through the Strait of Dover was typical for rush hour on a marine highway. The only place I’ve ever sailed that was more crowded with ships than it is here is the Strait of Korea where orderly use of traffic separation schemes, or sea lanes, is not maintained and no fisherman speaks the English tongue. At least in the English Channel in between Dover and Cap Griz Nez the traffic is constantly being monitored by a Vessel Traffic Service. Utilizing land based radar stations to monitor the flow of vessels 24 hours a day the VTS acts just like Air Traffic Control does at any airport.
(Disclaimer: I'm not the one using relative trails in this ph0tograph, a practice I do not endorse)
The main difference with a VTS is that they do not assign flight patterns to ships instead relying on each vessel’s bridge team to navigate through their surveillance areas safely. If a dangerous situation emerges, perhaps when a panicky third mate does something brash without calling his captain as a Dover/Calais ferry making 24 knots cut’s across his bow, the VTS will intervene informing both vessels of their impending doom.
The Dover Strait Coast Guard, who maintains the English side of the Traffic Separation Scheme, also has a reputation for mailing fuming letters to shipping companies who’s vessels were not paying attention to the collision regulations. They nailed one former mate’s ass to the wall at my company for standing on with a crossing ferry when he should have been giving way and not replying to the distressed radio calls from the approaching vessel.
We arrived in Germany after a ten day crossing, which all hands agreed had seemed laboriously long, just after dinner and had a straight shot through the lock. We swapped out places with an outbound car carrier and moored snugly against the quay with the wind fortuitously on the offshore side. Given the immensity and shape of the ship, a wind blowing us off the dock is cause for keeping the bow thruster warm all night and little sleep for the Captain.
Once the ramp was down a mass exodus occurred in which all the day workers trounced off in a pack intent on beginning their own financial bailout plan for the bars of Bremerhaven. You wouldn’t think there was a slowdown in the E.U.’s biggest economy though after surveying the docks. Rows and rows of trucks, busses, cars, heavy machinery and all kinds of other brand new machines span from one horizon to the other. Not to mention the worlds longest (Not the largest) container quay is still piled with boxes which are hurriedly shifted from ship to stacks to ship by spindly legged carriers 24 hours a day.
Tomorrow will be Christmas Eve and the Captain has arranged for the American Seaman’s Club to open for dinner. Out of the goodness of their hearts the owners are going to make Christmas Dinner for all attending hands and the Captain is going to pick up the tab on all the drinks. I’ll be absent from the festivities instead sleeping before my mid watch and more importantly, attending to my Santa Claus duties in the early morning hours. The Captain has tasked me with putting out the dozens of welfare gifts donated by seaman’s mission all over the East Coast containing toiletries, pens, envelopes, stamps and hand knitted caps and stockings thanks to grandmothers all over the greater Baltimore metropolitan area.
Saturday, December 20, 2008
A sailor rarely boasts about how fine the weather has been for fear of
the sea's reprisal but I must say, it's been marvelous this past week.
Just as it was last month, the jet stream has again formed a large arc
over the mid North Atlantic keeping the eastern seaboard busy with
Nor'easters and the shores of Europe fraught with huge swells
originating from the waters south of Iceland. We've stayed under it all
crossing close abeam to Bermuda and then over the Azores amid a blocking
or Omega high-pressure system. This has ensured a constant flow of warm
air from the more temperate latitudes and lighter winds towards the
center of that high. And the wintry weather that blew over Ireland this
week has been pushed over Central Europe just as were arriving at the
English Channel making for a clear passage.
Today the skies opened up as I had been hoping for. We've had a cadet on
this trip who has shown a genuine interest in his on the job training.
This is a marked contrast from the last couple of midshipmen that have
spent their 90 days onboard with me. Rather than standing watch
oblivious to the outside world and immersed in sea projects this fellow
has left most of his project to his off hours and instead has been
meeting the expectations I very clearly set for him as I do with every
cadet out here the first watch we stand together on the bridge.
This morning was a success because the stars were finally out and the
horizon ripe for the shooting just as we were both coming up from
breakfast. We got enough down for a fix and more importantly the cadet
was able to see why the math works in practice which I hope will make
his next two semesters of Celestial Nav a little more interesting.
It's surprising how much work it takes to instruct a cadet through a
round of stars for the first time but I think that person-to-person
exchange is critical for any student who really wants to give sailing a
shot. The wallflowers whose presence all too often graces the bridge
make me reluctant to go out of my way, i.e. cut into my schedule, to
help them with things that they genuinely seem indifferent to. Those are
the third mate's I'd rather not see coming up the gangway.
Sprits are high onboard as we all found out that our coast schedule
includes a solid five days in Germany followed by an overnight in
Antwerp and Southampton. This amount of time for a ship in our trade to
be alongside is unheard of, and is due in part to a flexible schedule
and as the Captain put it "Low friends in high places."
Now that the crew knows we'll be alongside for a week of overnights the
draw list has been put out and a few record amounts of cash are being
taken against wages earned. I prefer not to exchange money at bars and
will just hit up the ATMs if in need of Euros but all the same, it might
be an expensive port stay. It's pretty common in cases like this for a
seaman to have next to nothing at payoff after blowing it like a rock
star in port. "You can always make another trip but can't always go back
to Rio" is the mindset for many.
Bets are already being laid as to who will end up in some sort of
trouble ashore, the known gas hounds taking the lead. So far the police
have investigated a few crew/local interactions since I've been to
Germany. The most memorable being when the 3A/E was shook down for 400
euro while his "Girlfriend" distracted him with her bare chest in the
red light district. That turned out to be an expensive date. The story
actually gets better when the Police arrived to question the offended
victim in the Captains reception area. As the third assistant reenacted
the event with boisterous animation in a thick Down East accent for the
attentive and attractive female detective, the Captain's face turned
redder and redder. Being very keen in maintaining good relations with
the local authorities the Captain later reported that he was looking for
a hole to crawl into out of embarrassment.
This time he has assured that any social misbehavior (Besides getting
robbed blind) ashore will be met with stern discipline aboard. This much
time in port for us is more of a privilege than a right. It would have
been easy enough for the company let us swing on the hook for a night or
two off Flushing.
(If you've read the front pages of the Official Log Book for Merchant
Ships lately you know that the Captain still retains the right to
restrict a sailor's rations to bread and water and may confine them to
quarters for disobeying direct and lawful commands until they can be
handed over to authorities in America)
Being in port will surely take some of the sting out of being at work
for Christmas. Just having access to cheap phone cards and a place off
the ship to talk with family will make a difference for us, especially
the crew with children at home. Until then I'll be dreaming of sugar
plum fairies in the form of the St. Pauli's girl on beer bottles and
hearty winter Sauerkraut. A large and long northerly swell born a few
days ago from some hellish storm is slowly rocking the ship and soon me
Saturday, December 13, 2008
the last vestige of civilization we'll see for the next eleven days and
it's not a moment too soon. Everyone was getting a little crispy around
the edges as we arrived and departed our last port during a nine day
coast replete with arrivals, departures, gear tests, cargo watches,
class inspections and a few walks on shore.
The highlight of the last week was seeing my younger brother for the
first time in 15 months in the Port of Baltimore. The sheer chance that
our ships would cross paths was utterly remote but just like when he was
assigned to my first Ro/Ro as an apprentice it seemed to work out. Of
course we only had an hour together at an Irish pub in Fells Point but
with our common life styles you take whatever you can get when it comes
to being with family.
Another plus was our server finally received a make over. Once again
the multiple workstations onboard are linked with the printers as well
as the security cameras, stability program, maintenance and
requisitioning system and of course email. The IT guru spent almost an
entire week tweaking at a daily rate rivaling that of our good captain
(What are the incentives of going to sea again when compensation equates
the risk of crashing a computer with that of a ship?)
Now with communications restored and the third mate's XM radio he so
selflessly leaves on the bridge I'm settling in for a lovely crossing
below the fine weather a massive high pressure system is providing us.
Of course the approach to the channel looks a little chunky, maybe very
chunky, but that's more than a week away so I'll just enjoy the
70-degree days in the strong and warm Gulf Stream.
Listening to all that XM though keeps reminding me of the financial shit
storm we are only beginning to comprehend. I'm a news junkie and can't
tune out the reports of the highest rates of unemployment in 26 years
and re-defaulting home mortgages even after defaulting borrowers
Given the interconnectivity of globalization, shipping is feeling the
pinch as hard as hedge fund managers. With the exception that shipping
is a little more vital to keeping the wheels of commerce greased than
mortgage backed securities and credit default swaps were.
As Lloyd's list reports, car carriers are of no exception. "Owners are
set to axe 25% of car carrier fleet as auto sales slump," reads the
headline of one copied and pasted email that made it across my desktop
recently. The article goes on to report that Ro/Ro tonnage, which only a
year ago was in such high demand that shipyard orders were booked
through 2012, may be reduced by 200 ships in the near future. A large
number for a very specialized and small component of the total shipping
Owners are honing in on ships built in the 70's and 80's to be sent to
the breaking yards. This will be even more necessary to meet the
shrinking demand as the world's total car carrier fleet is set to expand
by 50% in the next four years as ships ordered as far back as 2003 are
built. Hopefully these new vessels won't meet the same fate as one ship
headed for Sweden; That of being turned into a floating parking garage.
That particular vessel, most likely hired by Saab or Volvo, is destined
for Gothenburg's harbor to provide shelter from the winter for unwanted
exports sitting on the docks.
This may be necessary in Baltimore as well where I was told that there
were 13,000 Chryslers sitting on the dockside terminals with nowhere to
go. Right now it is thought that the majority of automobiles now
underway are without buyers leaving the owners of PCTC's wondering if
they'll be paid for the cars that they are contractually obligated to
Over the ocean in Germany BMW and Mercedes are shutting down their car
plants longer than usual over the Christmas holiday. Normal operations
are to shut down and retool the factories for the year's upcoming models
which lasts for a few weeks lessening loads for our vessel. But this
year the plants will be closed indefinitely until market conditions
improve. Now with the bail out bill for the 3 American car makers
failing in the Senate, not only are German autoworkers facing an
uncertain future but so are the thousands of workers in Michigan.
for the world's over inflated economies and not the beginning of the end
of globalization and all the conveniences it brings us. If managed
correctly we're just sounding the bottom of an economy that still has a
way to grow; just a little slower with more restraint focusing on
longevity, efficiency and sustainability rather than rapacious greed.
Either way it's going to be a small Christmas for a lot of people,
shipping companies included.
Saturday, December 6, 2008
Most mornings on watch Mac and myself ramble on about current events and the plight of the world since neither of us really pay much heed to professional sports. During these conversations he often reveals something new of his 50 years working on or in close proximity to the sea. I’ve worked with Mac before; he was an A.B with me in the Pacific sailing past the islands where he had spent many of his later years studying martial arts including Tai Chi and Qi Gong which he still practices on the bridge.
Mac’s story began as a first generation Irish American born in Brooklyn. His father died the day before Saint Patrick’s day when he was a boy and three years later his mother lost her fight against cancer. The rest of his childhood was spent in a Catholic orphanage being raised by French nuns. In 1955 at the age of 17, two years after his Aunt took him out of school, there were few options for a orphaned teenager. A close family member was a Boson for Standard Oil Company and Mac soon had an intent to hire letter from the oil major. “In those days all it took to get your Z-Card was your hire letter and an FBI background check to insure you weren’t a communist sympathizer. Not like today with the god damned TWIC, they’ll have more background checks on me once I get it than any one else! Balls!” With his MMD in hand he went down to the docks of Hog Island in Philadelphia and joined the Esso Allentown.
As he struggled up the gangway with his cardboard suitcase the Chief Mate spotted him and rambled over the piping to interrogate his new ordinary seaman. “What the hell do you think you’re doing here?” the Mate asked between spats of tobacco juice. “Well sir, I thought I’d like to try going to sea” was his honest answer to which Chief Mate gruffly replied, “Son, I’ll tell you one thing…this job will either make a man out of you or turn you into a fucking bum! But one way or the other, once you’re used to paying off in hundred dollar bills you’ll never work on the beach again.”
And so Mac began his lifelong career of sailing before the mast, a career that would span more than five decades. He would soon join the National Mariner’s Union, which in those days only required 200 days to become a full book member.
Mac remembers this organization fondly often telling me how you never had to bribe the dispatcher for a job, how everyone sailed off the board and that it was run according to the shipping rules. “It was fair back then. Now it takes eight years of sea time to get a full book”, that is to become a member of the last major deep sea unlicensed union, the Seafarer’s International Union. The old NMU was absorbed by the larger SIU.
One morning Mac told me “I was raised by seaman. They were mostly Norwegians back then that had immigrated to America. They showed me how to tuck a splice, sew canvas, stitch the hatches closed, make a pilot ladder, bell ropes, the works. There were no drugs back then, if they caught you with narcotics you were a goner, but they’d drink. I was a drinker back then too. That was fifty years ago and I’ve been doing it ever since. There’s nothing else I know.” I couldn’t help but think that this guy has pissed more seawater than I’ve ever seen.
Mac moved up to and able bodied seaman quickly and still boasts about being one of the youngest Bosons the NMU ever shipped. He remembers it well. “Mate” he says, “I got my first boson’s job with McCormack lines, stick ship, seven hatches with booms everywhere. We went to West Africa, what a time.” He would later recall working for Export lines before they went bust. Apparently in those days Export Lines was renowned for their zealous use of fish oil. Anchor frozen in the hawse pipe? Lube it up with fish oil. Winch gears grinding, fill the casing with fish oil. “We’d even swab the worse off decks with the stuff before we expected to get weather. This way when the sea hit the rust it would take some of it off.” Mac never did explain exactly how this worked but I suppose it’s just another bit of nautical wisdom lost over the fantail.
At some point Mac took a job in New York harbor with the Local 1814 as a stevedore on the quays of Brooklyn. According to him “I was the only Irish kid on a dock full of
In 1962 he was drafted for a short stint in the Army but was never sent to Vietnam. Instead he would arrive there on a Liberty ship and make multiple trips to the waters of Southeast Asia carrying war goods into combat zones. “We went up the Mekong Delta one night and as we tied up you could watch the tracer rounds arc overhead.” He fell in love with Asia and vows to retire there, maybe Thailand, probably the Philippines or Guam where he can assist one of his sensei’s at his Tai Chi studio.
Eventually he ended up working for the Military Sealift Command from whom he today collects a small pension. After rejoining the NMU years later he became an instructor at Sheep’s Head Bay for a time training kids from his hometown to become A.B.s and join the union.
Mac married his wife later in life and took on the responsibility of raising her children together, moving them from Venezuela to the states. To this day he still provides for his daughter who recently lost her job and is the mother of his grandchildren. If there is one thing I’ve learned about Mac in the few months we’ve spent crossing oceans together it’s his steadfast interest in doing his job right and providing for his family has always been a part of that job.
Like all of us out here he complains some but when his relief is ten minutes late to watch he doesn’t get huffy when they finally show up. He doesn’t play the sea lawyer when he gets the short end of the stick and never puts another crewman down. He remembers the days when the Norwegians that brought him up all took pride in their work and feels that it’s a missing sentiment in most of a sailors work today.
Just the other day I was blown away while we were in England discharging two holds of high/heavy cargo. Each piece had been lashed down with eight 7-millimeter chains and it was the crew’s responsibility to claw through the mounds the stevedores had left us, sorting the binder bars in one bin and piling chains in another. This job took the entire deck crew on overtime half the day and Mac was right there bent over with the rest of us feverishly chucking chain, most of us being less than half his age. My quads are still sore.
Not only does Mac gladly show up for the backbreaking jobs, he still keeps his seamanship skills honed and eagerly wants to learn more. Just this morning we were hemming and hawing about what we’d like to do with life and Mac is still adamant about getting under way under sail. “I need to improve my skills” he says, “You know, learn more marlinspike, learn how to sail, I’ve read about it but never learned how.” It’s a pretty strong statement from a man who at seventy is the first to climb the bulwark and throw a monkey’s fist at the tug and makes it on the first shot.
There are things that make Mac unhappy, like working on ships without two A.B.s and an ordinary to each watch, no ship does that anymore, and not being paid enough. We both know that wages for deep-sea merchant sailors are essentially what they were in 1980. This is more displeasing for someone who has seen his paycheck shrink since then as opposed to myself, a recent addition to the work force. “But what are you going to do?” Mac says, “Half a loaf is better than none.”
If you ever happen to drop into the SIU shipping hall in Fort Lauderdale you might see Mac sitting there with an over sized sea bag waiting for a ship. “I never go out schooner rigged” is his defense for over packing, something I can relate to. He’s quite recognizable; a short and barrel-chested Irishman with a New Yorker’s brogue in a leather jacket with a coal black West Coast Stetson on his head (The rust stained white one he keeps just for overtime) and a bow legged stance from years of compensating for a rolling deck. He won’t be there for long though. Mac doesn’t like to sit around waiting for the big jobs to come along on the board, he’d rather sign on and start earning.
Friday, December 5, 2008
expectations for a rewarding and successful career with logevity in
the maritime industry. I don't know how many times from my first days
as a cadet to my latest hitch I've heard my shipmates and mentors tell
me to "Find another job, your crazy to work at sea" or "Shipping isn't
what it used to be" or "I'm so glad I'm getting out of this now" . This
negativity serves no one who wants to go to sea but lately it's been
hard to tune out those echoing sentiments when the barrage of
regulations and personal liability only increases regardless of the
burden it places on the officers whose shoulders it usually falls on.
There have been a few things lately that highlight the unnerving
feeling that the rewards of working at sea are becoming fewer and
fewer with the ever changing environment we must operate in.
First the TWIC. It wasn't a big deal having to get one. I'm young and
don't have any felonies on my record. I've grown quite accustomed to
shelling out cash to keep my job; licensing fees at the coast guard,
union dues every quarter, baggage surcharges at the airport etc. (I
will say that writing a check to Lockheed Martin still doesn't sit
right with me. I don't see how corporate profit helps homeland
security). And personally I had no hassles getting the card besides
locating the center down a back alley in south Boston. What irks me is
that this increased scrutiny, this vetting of anyone involved with
vessels and ports, should not only increase security at our ports but
also make our jobs easier, not harder. Doesn't this card ensure I'm
really truly and finally not a terrorist and should be allowed to
come and go at the port without the hassles and gate guard
interrogations? Why do I still need to be on a crew list? Why are
there terminals that still won't allow citizen mariners access to a
Walgreens and haircut ashore?
(Foreign crews are really the ones being affected by the U.S.'s
overbearing security rules which is now causing reciprocal scrutiny of
Americans in other countries. Anyone who has had a retina scan in Abu
Dhabi or called on Canada lately with ANYTHING on their record can
attest to this)
This whole system is going to be yet another complete sham unless
there is coherent leadership in determining what rights a TWIC holder
is allowed to posses in all maritime facilities nationwide and if the
ports will actually allow the card holders the freedom we deserve as
lawful citizens just trying to live and work without constant
government scrutiny each time we leave the boat.
Secondly there is a new EPA ruling being imposed this month on all
vessels measuring 79 feet or longer within 3 miles of the United
States coast. This regulation is another strict and confusing
paperwork burdensome rule that heightens a vessels operator's
liability with stiff fines for noncompliance. The National Pollution
Discharge Elimination System requires a record to be maintained
on board the vessel tracking all discharges incidental to normal
operations such as; Ballast water (There is all ready is a record
keeping and reporting requirement for ballast), deck wash down, cathodic
protection, reverse osmosis brine, elevator pit effluent and gray
water just to name a few of the 28. Of course there is a permit
required which will assuredly cost whale watch outfits and shipping
companies alike a pretty penny. This new edition to the rule books
will certainly open the floodgates of more shore based, vacation eating
training with additional on board drills and log book entries just
like all other well meaning, poorly implemented obligations.
My conclusion is simply this. While every one is screaming about the
lack of qualified Mariner's domestically and internationally
regulatory bodies need to operate with a level of sobriety
commensurate with maintaining a functioning pool of willing merchant
mariners. TWIC cards and port security affects our personal lives. An
AB had to leave his wife and kids at the gate the other day because
they didn't have TWICs and was told to walk to the ship a good mile
down the quay, sea bags slung over his shoulders kicking off his four
month trip even though technically he should have been able to be
Environmental regulations are necessary but more paperwork and
liability for the few officers on board ship all ready over tasked with
safety, security, GMDSS, medical, fatigue management, crew tracked
training, ISO/ISM and oh yeah, cargo responsibilities, is creating an
unsustainable and unrealistic work environment.
My brother has just started out on his own seafaring career and has
every intention of hawespiping his way up. If this country values the
men and women that play a vital role in Jones Act shipping, national
defense and perpetuating our maritime heritage into the future than
the maritime industry and it's stewards must maintain an environment
in which young able hands like him can develop a professional career
without constant shortsighted obstacles. Otherwise how will I ever be
able to recommend this job to anyone else let alone my kid brother?
And aren't jobs what this economy needs right now anyways?
Thursday, December 4, 2008
Coast Guard inspectors this morning we received some good news. The
Coast Guard canceled our COI preferring to wait until the actual due
date. The port engineer had scheduled the annual inspection two months
early in order to have it coincide with the annual classification
survey to simplify planning and preparations for us on board. Now the
other rotation will have to gather all of the safety and lifesaving
equipment for inspection in another eight weeks for the actual COI. A
little practice doesn't hurt I guess.
The coast guard did make an appearance though. It was more of a field
trip out of the office for the four attending officers. They were
interested in having a look at the Fast Rescue Boat davit arrangement,
a system unique to our vessel. This same set up will be installed
on board the other ships in our fleet over the next year. After
verifying the inspectors photograph I.D.s and assigning "Escort
Required" visitor badges I led them to the elevator. Unfortunately
another crew member was intent on wrenching the elevator door open on
another deck hoping it would magically appear for him. This locked the
lift half way up stranding me with four impatient servicemen who began
suspiciously eyeing every detail of our defunct elevator and chuckling
to themselves about getting the 835 book out. Luckily the 1st
Assistant was near a phone and soon had a rescue operation mounted. A
few minutes later and we were extracted and instead used the ladder
well to ascend the 7 decks out of the holds.
Later in the day we shifted across the harbor to finish up a
noticeably brief day of cargo operations. While doing so I made note
of the presence of not one but three American ships in the harbor at
once. One was moored next to us at our fist berth, a recent addition
to the vital Maritime Security Program and like my vessel, a Pure Car
Truck Carrier. The other ship was moored at our next dock, a car
carrier long flying the stars and stripes. Currently I'm excitedly
watching the arrival of another U.S flagged vessel passing under the
Francis Scott Key bridge. I've been tracking this particular ship on www.sailwx.info
for the past few days as she's approached Cape Henry arriving from
Brazil. My younger brother has been aboard her for the past four
months as the 4x8 AB and one of the two designated jumbo crane
operators. This was his first trip as an AB having finished his
training program this past summer and he is now a crack crane operator
having participated in dozens of high stakes heavy lifts ranging up to
300 Tons and is now a shell back having crossed the line or equator
while headed to the sunny and always eye pleasing Brazil.
It looks like he'll be tying up in close proximity to Fells Point and
hopefully he's got his TWIC card. Without it you are now officially
S.O.L. In the Port of Baltimore if you plan on entering any marine
facility to return to your ship (A blog in itself).
Note-due the complete meltdown of our server on board Ive been posting
to the blog by use of my most miraculous iPhone which has become the
latest addition to the growing list of technologies I couldn't live
without. Unfortunately this inhibits my spell checking capabilities
and is quickly inducing carpel tunnel so please forgive any blatant
typographical errors. Additionally, in case Steve Jobs is one of the
four fans of this blog, might you please design the iPhone so they can
be used as a modem so I can just blog from the computer? I will say
that having the ability to zero in with google maps to bookmark the
dock my brother's heavy lift ship just tied up to after watching them
dock on the Electronic Chart System is pretty incredible. One click
and I'll have directions for the cab to cart me over there after
lunch. Very nice!
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
busy start to the week for the apprentice pilot running the pilot
cutter and orchestrating the delivery and retrieval of the pilots.
There were 27 total ships coming in or out of New York, most being
inbound after the long holiday weekend. The infamous Ambrose light
tower was absent from the approach to New York. Originally a manned
light vessel, it was reduced to a twisted pile of metal by the bow of
a wayward tanker earlier in the year and finally removed this fall.
Naturally this wasn't the first time the tower or the old light ship
had been physically visited by a passing ship. In the old days of RDF
or radio direction finding every now and then an inbound ship in fog
would zero in on the ship's radio beacon and forget that it was
originating from an actual vessel either terrifying the crew or
running smack in to it. The new pilot boarding area has been expanded
allowing for more room to maneuver for the pilot and ample time to
line up for the channel prior to the "Bailout point" or your last
chance to exit the approach before your are committed to the channel
and the depth limitations of either bank. Cargo operations were quick
and we were passing under the Verazano bridge for probably the last
time well before dinner. Due to a change in scheduling the remaining
vessels in our fleet will no longer be calling on the fair city of
Bayonne New Jersey. Today we're headed up the 150 miles of inland
waters to Baltimore for a three day port stay. Day one, tomorrow, will
be hectic with a discharge of automobiles, the annual US Coast Guard
COI and our annual classification survey by Lloyd's. Every one is
making sure that their paperwork is in order, enough signatures in all
the right places and that equipment is ready to be inspected. The
annual certificate of inspection is commonly a cause for heartburn
among Mariner's which is only natural for one of the most heavily
regulated industries in the world. Day two and we will have shifted
across the harbor to discharge our high and heavy cargoes. Day three
should be spent idle at the berth allowing the crew some time ashore
to get the Christmas cards sent out. Then we'll be headed for
Charleston South Carolina.
Sunday, November 16, 2008
Half an hour later I’m at it again, rolling around, wondering why boxers are so uncomfortable, ready to punch the wall because I know that if I don’t fall asleep now I’ll only get three hours of rest before standing on the bridge for eight and doing my overtime on top of that. It just seems ludicrous that my body would not be incapable of sleeping seven hours after a full day’s work. Then again, we have changed time zones five times in the last week, maybe that has something to do with it.
Regardless, after giving in a second time I’m back on my feet and heading down to the galley to see if there’s any ice cream left totally abandoning any hope of further sleep and any guilt I might associate with eating ice cream in the middle of the night. Fortunately for me there is a full tray of delicious pizza left out from dinner. Replete with artichoke hearts, quartered garlic cloves, onions, mushrooms and an unidentifiable meat product, I gladly partake in it. Then it’s to the reefer for Harris Teeters brand Bear Claw, equally satisfying to the restless mind. In this short period of self-indulgence I have an opportunity to take in my surroundings in the quiet of late evening. The lights are dimmed, the shades drawn and the deck under the table gently sways as the ship makes good speed across the Atlantic.
At moments like this one I often feel a sensation elicited by the dark night and cold water being just outside the hatch and over the rail. It is a feeling of fondness mixed with awe. I appreciate the ship because it is the only barrier between my meek human existence and the overpowering vastness of the deep ocean. I feel at awe because the ship is so well suited to take care of us, her crew. Her house is watertight, except a little leak over the Captain’s computer, her hull is sound and the engine runs day and night without question.
All this is possible because of the people who attend to her every request and need, and the owners who bankroll our efforts. Additionally our predecessors took good care of the now 15 year old girl and with due diligence we intend to do the same. As I look around I can honestly say I love the functionality of not just this ship but any I've come across. It's a wonder how they are designed to keep their crew dry and warm in the midst of a November gale, how simple it is to exist day to day in the confines of her hull with enough creature comforts to live and for the most part, work happily.
Of course there are times when not everything about the ship is great. Every ship is a machine and every machine can fail. No ship in the world is invincible to waves and wind and no matter how well designed all are defenseless when it comes to human error. Nonetheless I’ve been grateful for every ship I’ve set foot on, even the rust buckets (“Good experience” I always say) and that fondness only seems to build over time. Having a sauna onboard helps too.
Email has been relegated to the stand alone designated terminal on the bridge putting a major dent in the crew’s electronic social life. The Captain hasn’t the time to forward 20 other people’s emails and then sift through the already clogged in box printing out the personal messages.
Then again, I did have one captain who did this routinely. It was the first and probably last ship I will ever work on without a server. This meant only the Captain’s computer had email capabilities and we would have been out of luck if the old man wasn’t so good natured.
Since he was willing to sacrifice extravagant amounts of time for his crews welfare, each night he’d collect all the floppy disks and flash drives from those of us who had a message to send home. He would next open each disk, cut and paste the message from MS Word to MS Outlook, put it in the outbox and send them all out with the PM replication.
When personal messages were received back from wives and sweethearts he would print each individual message and hang them on the crewman’s door. I still to this day look at the paperhanger on my door every morning I open it for a ream of paper fluttering in the passageway. Only once did I see that Captain chew out a cadet for getting too many emails, two to three a day usually, from his overzealous wife who he had just married at the ripe old age of 20. I don’t think that cadet ever wound up going to sea.
We needed some taking care of as we left Georgia and headed north in search of the Gulf Stream. The first night out was overcast and rainy but nothing too nasty. The second night we were pitching into a sea broad on the bow with such a slamming force I thought the flukes might pop off the anchors. By slowing the engine and heading less directly into the swells we moderated some of the violent pounding but it continued for two full days.
The presidential election wrapped up our second night out. I was afraid I would be the last American to know who had won since I slept through the coverage the Chief Mate was picking up on his XM radio. When I came on at midnight I tuned into the AM band on the MF/HF radio and picked up a station out of Washington D.C.. It wasn’t long before I heard on Federal Radio 1500 that Obama had won the electoral vote by a landslide.
I was relieved to hear that finally in my brief voting history the candidate I had chosen was going to get the White House keys. The reaction from the crew was mixed. A few of the engineers were already convinced their taxes were going to skyrocket, nice to know they make over 250 grand a year because I don’t, and the boson was naturally disgusted with the outcome, everything disgusts him unless it’s wearing breasts.
The Captain and I shared the sentiment that Barack is more prepared to improve the reputation we’ve earned as a nation over the last eight years of cow boy diplomacy. This would certainly be helpful to people who frequently rely on the assistance and services of folks abroad.
Sunday, November 2, 2008
bed for the first time in two months. Any sleep before traveling is
always short on quality rest. Atleast thanks to daylight squandering I
did have an additional hour to toss and turn. The routine of air
travel punctuating the beginning and end of each vacation is a little
wearing. I'd much prefer being able to join a ship at a nearby seaport
rather than having to fly down the eastern seaboard but I shouldn't be
complaining. A friend from home just spent the last three days flying
to meet his vessel in Guam! What I will complain about though is the
increasingly negative experience of traveling by plane. It seems that
every time I enter an airport there is always some new inconvienance
or surcharge waiting to raise my blood pressure. Lately it's been the
baggage fees. I do all that is in my power to pack lite, though I'm
sure some would argue otherwise. I've paid the fifty dollar overweight
charge for 55 pound bags enough now to know im better off wearing my
steeltoes onto the plane and putting my books in my carryon. This
morning I was able to convince the woman at the ticket counter, after
removing my winter coat, that a bag containing all my worldly
possesions for the next 75 days weighing in at 51.5 pounds was close
enough to not cost me fifty bucks.
Still thanks to the airline's pay as you use policy I still forked out
fifteen bucks just to check a bag. It really just keeps going down hill.
Friday, October 31, 2008
Amongst the financial news and shipping report we were given some dour news of the retirement funds taking a huge loss recently and how job's at sea were getting tighter. We were then provided some displeasing information of more schooling on the way for professional mariners in the not so distant future.
As the wheels of the International Maritime Organization have been turning over the past few years a new regimen has been proposed to modify the existing and far reaching international convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watch keeping. As any one working on a marine license knows, this international legislation, codified by the USCG with the help of congress, has had a huge impact on American mariners. In a simplified sense the STCW has standardized the training and certification requirements for mariners from each of the 168 signatory nations.
The latest manifestations from the IMO have been the medical requirements NVIC issued by the Coast Guard and talk of a Merchant Marine Credential. Both follow suit with international standards for medical and credentialing norms.
Now it looks like there is more coming from this watery arm of the United Nations in the way of increased training standards for both deck and engineering officers. Keep in mind that the following is just hearsay until passed by the IMO and adopted by the United States but it did come from a reputable source, a current member of the Merchant Marine Personnel Advisory Committee or MERPAC.
In the not so distant future engineers will be looking at a new course, engine room resource management or ERM to mirror the deck department equivalent, bridge resource management. Additionally both departments will be required to attend a management leadership course.
The Basic Safety Training we've all taken will require renewal every five years. Something you may be use to if you work for Military Sealift Command or some tanker operators which all ready require a BST renewal. In addition to personal survival, basic fire fighting, elementary first aid, and personal safety/social responsibility there will most likely be a fatigue management component. This last addition to the BST skills can be attributed to the Coast Guard's Crew Endurance Management System and their lobbying in the IMO.
This new focus on fatigue is amusingly ironic. Addressing the fatigue caused by increased responsibilities and workloads on today's mariner with another classroom course is laughable. It seems the Coast Guard is trying to bail out a sinking boat with a colander by trying to reduce fatigue related accidents with a class and consequently more paperwork for the officers. Why can't the very regulators who mandate safe manning levels for vessel operators increase the amount of crew to share the workload on board? I know that when my crew is dog tired from a week of arrivals, departures, and cargo operations what we need is a fresh man on the mooring winch or forklift, not another course telling us to avoid caffeine and the sun before going to bed! I digress.
What else? How about a new "Cargo Transfer Fire Fighting" course for DL PIC personnel on tankers. This course I can't be critical about. If there are two things I deem vital to working aboard a safe ship it is increased medical and fire fighting skills. My official fire training consisted of one course spread over several semester weekends my freshman year of college. We had one live burn and it lasted all of thirty seconds. Pretty pitiful. Another plus of this course will be that it will also be required for the shore side person in charge since they are half of the equation if the transfer ever goes awry.
Don't quote me on this next one in case it's as unlikely as it is ridiculous. Visual signaling for deckies may be reduced to recognition of a single Morse code signal. Yes, one dit-da and that would be it! Why not just abolish it all together?
Lastly, the required celestial navigation competencies for license upgrades, you know the one's we mates diligently worked out at sea with the Captain as a certified assessor right there by our side the whole time, would only require positions to be reduced from observations of the sun and stars only. No more high latitude back sights of Mars or the Moon at meridian transit. There will be a new component of celestial training as well. "Astro Navigation" or the use of satellites for position fixing will be included.
Might this change the celestial licensing exam? I think the better question is: will anyone from the U.S. actually be going to sea after these new STCW requirements are enacted sometime around 2010? Probably, but I don't think the prospects of a career at sea will include the old selling line of "Good money and lots of time off."
Thursday, October 23, 2008
If you're single then you'll never have that Australian Shepard you've always wanted, much less a goldfish for a pet. If you're married you miss out on many of the small joys of family life and a few of the big celebrations. Believe me I know, my mother raised four boys in the woods while my dad was off at sea. There were many Christmas's and Birthday's when the best we got was a Single Side Band ship to shore call from Goonhilly, UK.
What I'm trying to say is that myself and anyone who knows me understands the hardship of being at sea for months at a time (Or away for weeks and weeks of training courses while on vacation). The last thing I need is for a stranger to remind me of this unfortunate aspect of my chosen occupation.
How did I get onto this rant? I was at the doctors office having the tartar noisily scraped off of my teeth when the dental hygienist began the usual latex gloves in your mouth chit chat.
D.H. "So, what do you do?"
Patient "I'm a Merchant Mariner."
D.H. "Like in the Marines?"
Patient "No, I work on ships."
D.H. "Like in the Navy?"
Patient "No, I work on commercial cargo ships carrying cargoes from ports all over the world."
D.H. "Oh, so how long does that take?"
Patient "I'm usually gone for two or three months."
D.H. "Oh my! That is a long time...it must be hard?"
Patient"Yes it can be but I like my job."
D.H. "Are you married?"
Patient "Suction please...spit...no I'm not."
D.H. "It must be hard to date."
To make matters worse, when the doctor had a look at my mouth he ran me through the same questioning. He then felt compelled to relate a story about a patient of his who also was a merchant mariner. This poor fellow was married, had several children and was left by his wife of 23 years when she finally gave up waiting for him to come home.
Doctor "He was quite devastated."
Patient "Can I have the bill now?"
To add to my distemper, once outside of the office I recognized an ex-girlfriend of a friend who also ships out. We stopped to talk and she was glad to hear that her ex had moved to West Africa, an obvious symptom of his sailing disease, where he now has a family. She also informed me that she was married (Something she did shortly after their breakup ensuing his first trip to sea) and left me with some uplifting advice:
"Get a shore job and get married. It's a lot more fun."
So it goes in the life of a merchant mariner. You've always had that twinge of doubt since the first days at the Maritime Academy when you would talk to your old high school buddies who went to colleges with a 4 to 1 student ratio in their favor or to party schools where class was a break in between keg stands. Now you're all educated and deployed in the work force and still you wonder what it would be like if you had a day job and if weekends only lasted 48 hours.
One thing I'm sure of, I wouldn't be sitting in the sun on my porch writing about it. No, I'd surely be in a cubicle somewhere at least an hour from wherever I lived.
Thursday, October 16, 2008
Alas, I actually didn't make it to see Sarah Palin speak at Dover High School, home of the mighty Green Waves, but had I gone to see her stump speech yesterday on why we should vote for her and not the Democratic ticket it would have looked a little something like this...
Now I know Merchant Mariners are a conservative bunch. We don't like big government spending on welfare programs when it can be put to better use building up the Ready Reserve Fleet. And we certainly don't like the idea of paying any more federal and state tax than we have to for programs and services we utilize half as much as other citizens of this fine nation but this year I have found myself advocating the Democratic ticket to fellow sailors for one simple reason.
The track record of John McCain and the American Merchant Marine is not a friendly one. This small industry which depends on government subsidies and cargo preference laws survives in large part because of what congress decides to budget for these programs every fiscal year. If we want to keep the American Flag flying behind our ships, whether they are needed for national defense or not, than the following quotes epitomize the importance of not electing a "maverick" friendly to shipping interests whom are more than happy to flag out a fleet and hire on foreign officers.
From Maritime Executive Magazine: Presidential Candidates
September 8, 2008
Democratic Party presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama has given a clear and unambiguous commitment to the Jones Act, the Maritime Security Program and U.S. Cargo Preference laws.
It comes in the form of a letter to Michael Sacco, President of the Seafarers International Union which has endorsed Senator Obama for President.
In his letter, Senator Obama says "America needs a strong and vibrant U.S.-Flag Merchant Marine. That is why you and your members can continue to count on me to support the Jones Act (which also includes the Passenger Vessel Services Act) and the continued exclusion of maritime services in international trade agreements ..."
"To make sure our Armed Forces have the equipment and ammunition they need at the time the materiel are required, my Administration will solidly support the continuation of the Maritime Security Program ..."
"A strong U.S.-Flag commercial fleet needs our nation's Cargo Preference laws. Whether it is carrying needed goods to those overseas in distress or moving government-generated cargo, American Mariners aboard American ships make sure the job is done."
Read on to see what the candidates have to say on some of the issues near and dear to the maritime industry:
SENATOR BARACK OBAMA
"The Jones Act is a vital part of our national defense and supports American workers. As President, I would fully enforce it. The Jones Act should be waived only under rare circumstances. I spoke out when the Bush Administration ignored the Passenger Vessel Services Act, which applies Jones Act requirements to cruise, ferry and excursion vessels, and contracted Carnival Cruise Lines, a foreign owned company, to house evacuees from hurricane Katrina. Not only did they earn a higher-than-normal profit, but they violated Federal law in doing so. As is required by law, I will only waive the Jones Act when necessitated by national security.
"Furthermore, maintaining the American merchant marine fleet is vital to our economy and national security. I would oppose any move to undermine this Act." (2008)
SENATOR JOHN McCAIN
"I would like to see the Jones Act repealed, but I don't think that's likely. I don't think I would get twenty votes if I were to bring it to the floor." (1997)
"While [we] could argue about the magnitude of the cost [of the Jones Act], there is no doubt that the Jones Act adds costs to U.S. shippers, especially in areas where water transportation is the only economical shipping option, such as Hawaii, Guam and Puerto Rico." (1998)
"It appears that the Jones Act has a negative economic impact on American consumers, but more information is needed to accurately assess the magnitude of this impact, the national security value of the Jones Act, and the effects of various reform proposals." (1998)
MARITIME SECURITY PROGRAM
SENATOR BARACK OBAMA
"The Maritime Security Program helps ensure US-flag vessels are ready to meet our needs during times of war or national emergency and I support fully funding it. I support funding the Maritime Security Program so that it serves our nation's national security needs. If the GAO [General Accountability Office] or another independent body finds that the MSP program needs to be expanded, I will support expanding it to the size necessary." (2008)
SENATOR JOHN McCAIN
"I appreciate the need for a U.S. merchant marine that we can rely on in time of national emergency. However, we have an obligation to make sure that taxpayers are not required to pay more than is necessary to meet that goal. . . . I believe we should institute a competitive procedure to determine which vessels should be included in the MSP program." (1996)
CARGO PREFERENCE/FOOD FOR PEACE
SENATOR BARACK OBAMA
"Our cargo preference laws are an important way for us to regulate and support the maritime industry. Supporting the maritime industry allows us to ensure that we have the resources we need during times of ward and national emergency and maintains standards in the industry. I will continue to support cargo preference laws where they uphold our goals in shipping." (2008)
SENATOR JOHN McCAIN
•In 1989, Senator McCain supported an effort by Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) to exempt food aid to Poland from the cargo preference laws.
•In 1990, Senator McCain supported an attempt by Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) to waive cargo preference if the U.S.-flag rate were more than 110 percent higher than the lowest foreign flag rate.
•In 1990, Senator McCain supported an attempt by Senator Steve Symms (R-Idaho) to allow the Secretary of Agriculture to waive cargo preference whenever the Secretary of Agriculture determines that cargo preference will result in a lost sale of agricultural commodities.
•In 1991, Senator McCain opposed legislation that would apply cargo preference to certain cash aid transactions.
•In 1993, Senator McCain supported a sense of the Senate resolution linking cargo preference and price gouging by U.S.-flag vessel operators.
•In 1993, Senator McCain supported an effort by Senator Hank Brown (R-Colorado) to place a cap on the rates charged under the cargo preference program.
•In 1996, Senator McCain supported an attempt by Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) to link the rates charged by U.S.-flag vessels under cargo preference to foreign flag rates.
Thursday, October 9, 2008
This past weekend I initiated, with the help of a friend, my own fall foliage tour of New England. I've never considered myself to be a leaf peeper but having spent the last five days in between Boston Massachusetts and Millinocket Maine I've gained an appreciation for the variety of the sights and smells of a proper fall.
Included in our itinerary was igniting a huge pile of brush wood into an all night conflagration consuming micro brews until there were only coals left, journeying to the great north woods to be told by a park ranger that all the summit trails to the top of Mount Katahdin had been closed due to weather, and spending a perfectly placid blue day on the waters of Damariscotta lake content to do little else than gawk at the foliage and take one last dip in the cold but very clear water.
Baxter State Park, about 250 miles from home, was the best part of the tour. Despite being refused our ascent of the highest point in Maine we made due and roasted corn, potatoes, and onions on the fire. T-Bone steaks and a flask of red breast led to the best out door sleep I've had all year. The next morning we set off on the 20 miles of dirt road to arrive at the other side of the park to hike Coe, South Brother, and North Brother peaks. The trails were in poor shape in spots but a hand full of hikers had made it up despite the increasing clouds. I was amazed to find the peaks of Katahdin shrouded in snow, the reason for the trails being closed. Our own ascent up North Brother, a mere four thousand footer was met with freezing temperatures, ice and snow, portents of the months to come.
First, at the top of the certificate where it says, for example, the "Government of the United States of America certifies No. 1234567 & 123456 have been issued to ...enter name..., who has been found duly qualified in accordance with the provisions of regulation(s) II/4, II/1, V/1, VI/2, VI/4, IV/2 & II/3 of the above convention" means that your license (First number) and your Z-Card or MMD (Second number) are endorsed specifically to those chapters of the STCW code. And since I don't particularly enjoy reading the Sanskrit of the STCW code the Coast Guard has conveniently interpreted it for me under the capacity and limitations fields.
I also learned that the license and MMD numbers on the STCW certificate must match the identification numbers on your current license and MMD. This is what port state control first checks if they are vetting the crew's credentials. Therefore it is imperative that when, for example, your license is up for renewal you have the MMD renewed at the same time. Even if your STCW is less than five years old having either an expired Z-Card or license negates the validity of your STCW. According to Boston REC this has put many a sailor out of work.
The Boston REC told me that in the past they would renew both at the same time even if the other document wasn't within a year of expiring. Not doing so would mean having to make another trip to the REC to submit another application . If instead both documents were renewed simultaneously than the STCW would be valid for the full five years. No headaches.
What if you have an endorsement added onto the STCW? Even though the issue date at the bottom of the certificate, just above your mug shot, says it was issued more recently than your MMD or license it still expires when either the MMD or license expire, whichever is first. Now that the REC's have been centralized you can actually mail the application for endorsements to the REC which will then be forwarded to the National Maritime Center, processed, and mailed home. Boston said that right now they expected my endorsement for VSO to take about ten days.
Where is all of this going? For starters I was told that the TWIC, once implemented will replace the need for redundant fingerprinting (Fingerprints aren't required for endorsements). Also the MMD, License, and STCW are supposed to be replaced by the Merchant Mariner's Credential but this will not replace the TWIC. Also, the MMC is supposed to be created in the theme of what international mariner's carry with them to work, a small book with a page for your license, a page for STCW and pages for endorsements which will be applied with stickers to the pages. A big change from the pieces of 81/2" X 11" paper we carry in three ring binders.
Of course this is all just hearsay, if you need real help from one of the forerunners in reforming RECs check out Andy Hammond's site or on the West Coast check out Maritime Licensing.
So it was with apprehension when I paid a visit to the Boston REC last week to seek out an endorsement on my STCW certificate for Vessel Security Officer. You never know how long the line is going to be nor are proof positive that you brought the right combination of driver's license, passport, birth certificate or family bible with inscribed birth records for identification purposes. There are so many unknowns when dealing with the USCG, an arm of the government that is charged with more missions than is realistic but include regulating the documentation of American seafarers.
Fortunately over the years Boston REC has invoked a few innovative approaches to handling our licensing cases such as closing on Fridays to devote the staff to processing paperwork earning the reputation for the fastest turn around in the country. They also endeared us New Englanders by not taking appointments and instead procession customer's as they arrive decreasing wait time and how much we have to pay for parking in Bean Town.
For these reasons and the level of expertise in the evaluators I've felt lucky to know the men and women working the Boston branch are on my side. How many times have we heard stories where mariners were given the run around by an REC, or had paperwork delayed for months while some decision on a special case was being made. The slow processing of merchant mariners documents can put someone out of a job. Interpretations can differ from REC to REC or even evaluator to evaluator within the same office. But at Boston the answers I've sought are always determined quickly and are concise.
I was eternally indebted by their service when I was deprived of all my professional documents when they were smashed and grabbed out of my car. I was parked in South Florida, still getting used to having solid ground under my feet, naively standing out of sight and 100 feet away from the fragile car windows. Along with my sea bag was every document attesting to my professional abilities as a mariner but in no more than thirty days I had obtained a new birth certificate, new passport, and then had all my paper reprocessed by Boston and mailed to me at home. They handled my case as if it was their own problem and I didn't miss a day of work because of it.
Those days are coming to a close though. In September the Boston REC began forwarding files to the centralized National Maritime Center in West Virginia. The office is still staffed as it was but come December I was informed that half the crew will be cut. No longer will issues be worked out locally at the REC but instead as a "Storefront" the REC will relegate all decision making to the NMC. This concerns a lot of us in the business. One consequence will be the loss of local expertise in the documenting the many Captains that make their summertime livelihoods plying the waters of Penobscot Bay on the windjammer fleet. For years they have trusted the Boston office to understand their peculiar needs to be licensed on motor less auxiliary sail vessels with small crews and uncommon tonnages in coastal waters carrying passengers during the short summer season in Maine.
Hopefully the NMC will have the resources and dedicated personal needed to navigate the maze of policy in a constantly changing world of international and domestic regulation. As for my endorsement, I'll just tell you that if your file was in Boston go before December 08, they're doing whatever they can to take care of us before everything is centralized.
Thursday, October 2, 2008
I was so pleased to finally hear a report this week on National Public Radio (My preferred source for news) concerning piracy and the hijacking of the MV Faina. It brought to light the growing boldness the pirates are showing in attacking defenseless ships. This topic has been ignored for some time by the American media because what happens to a Monrovia flagged tanker crewed by Filipinos has little effect on the United States.
Now that a ship carrying munitions has fallen into the hands of Somali pirates in close proximity to the Islamic fueled rebellion there is greater concern from Russia and the U.S.. Unfortunately shipping companies are still paying out millions of dollars in ransom for hijacked ships enabling the pirates like drunks at a wine tasting.
I'm sure that neither the U.S. or Russia will allow the 33 T-72M1 and T72-M1K battle tanks, six anti-aircraft defense systems, 150 RPG-7 launchers, six missile launchers and 14,000 rounds of 125 mm ammunition to fall into the hands of Muslim extremists but what about the crew lying at anchor close to the Somali coast.? What about the Captain who has just died, his conditions surely exacerbated by the stress of seeing his multi-ethnic crew of 21 being confined at gunpoint?
Isn't their kidnapping by a thousand man strong criminal organisation enough justification? The French didn't put up with it when Le Ponant was hijacked. Their Marine Commandos intervened, liberated the crew and apprehended the pirates who are now standing trial.
Instead we are in negotiations with a the pirate spokesman giving more legitimacy to their crimes. It took ten years for the United States to authorize six frigates to combat the Barbary Pirates and cease paying tribute. How long will it take us now? Maybe were just waiting for the Russians to show up and take care of their own mess. But what of the other 14 or so ships currently being ransomed? I suppose it will require the hijacking of an American ship to pull some SEALs out of the dessert and away from the real "War on Terror".
Having transited the Gulf of Aden numerous times I pay close attention to these events mainly because I'm the one who plots the course line through these attacks. Information about recent locations or attacks, the methods employed and the deterrents used by the ships is very useful to mariners. Seeing the increase in media coverage and discussions of piracy online is a positive change. Hopefully the coalition navy will sooner than later institute an anti piracy policy that goes beyond surveillance and five minute VHF interrogations.
Still beyond people who directly deal with piracy and it's effects there remains a lack of awareness about the threats to innocent passage of commercial vessels around Africa. A month ago during my VSO course an FBI Agent working in maritime security informed the class that the real piracy hot spot was still the Strait of Malacca. Perhaps he should check out this satellite imagery from UNOSAT. (Click on Somalia)
Sunday, September 28, 2008
I received an email from the elder of my three younger brothers this week. He's been sailing as an AB on a heavy lift ship for the last two months and is returning from his second trip to Brazil. I couldn't be more pleased to know that he's employed and as he reports working with a good crew. Unfortunately his samba skills didn't stand up with the local guys and along with the cadet any attempts at dancing with las chicas were shot down. At least he had four to six hours a day in a crane cab to contemplate the previous nights social failures while lifting 300 ton locomotives above a deck teeming with stevedores.
It appears that my younger brother, who my mother used to pry half eaten chocolate easter bunnies out of his hands, has been appointed crane operator for the duration of his hitch. This means that he is involved in every heavy lift made on the ship. This honor gets him time and a half while he's on the controls but also bestows nightmares of accidentally compressing people beneath a train engine. According to him;
"Heavy lift ships are the most bad ass things ever to float on water. Just the operation it takes to load and discharge one of these girls is so terrifying I literally have nightmares about some balloon head stevedore getting in the wrong spot and me squishing him like a palmetto bug, Or screwing up and pulling a train into the crane's cab and squishing me. Or total equipment failure and squishing everybody. Mostly just squishing people is what bothers me. Theres just way too many people running around down there for someone not to get squished one day. Any way I'm gonna take a nap."
You can hear his enthusiasm. Unfortunately work related dreams are a common occurrence for people. I had a professor in college who told me he decided to swallow the anchor/give up sailing after repeatedly dreaming of running his ship aground on his watch. Personally I've had that dream numerous times while at work, it goes something like this; you're on watch, it's night and you are staring at the chart. You know the shoals are close but the radar image is confusing. The ship is going fast, too fast, and you want to slow down, anything to avoid the impending disaster, but instantly it's too late and blammo! The ship runs aground just as you wake up regretting that you didn't order the rudder hard over any sooner. Sound familiar?
Usually these dreams stay at work but just the other night I had a dream that my ship went aground in a channel and ruptured a bunker tank. The funny part was the kayaker in the water yelling up at me as I starred horrified from on deck at all the oil gushing into the water. Oddly I spent the prior week in a kayak.
This reminds me of one other dream episode I encountered working with a brand new third mate. I had been on the ship for a hitch all ready but it was this guys first trip. It was a rickety old chemical tanker with a young crew, very indicative about the operating company, and this guy could not go a night without breaking out in a cold sweat and waking up repeatedly from cargo related nightmares. I felt sorry for him knowing how much good sleep meant to our mutual success. The job was stressful though and I'm honest when I say that lashing rock crushers with chain is far preferable to topping up fifteen or twenty tanks of paraxylene as far as the dreams are concerned.
Thursday, September 18, 2008
Lets be realistic about this. Anyone who works in the maritime industry knows that the average mariner is not a specimen of health. We spend great lengths of time in an isolated environment with high stress working conditions, wanting of sleep, fed poor quality food, encouraged and sometimes expected to work long hours with hardly any outlet for relieving the tension, loneliness, and fatigue experienced at sea. We do not get weekends off, nights at home with family, conjugal visits or even a beer after work. This environment can and often does lead to less than healthy lifestyles. Overeating and smoking is typical. Lack of exercise and replacing quality sleep with caffeine is commonplace. Who wants to spend time in the gym after a twelve or fourteen hour day when you can instead crash out until all hands is called in the middle of you're rest period?
We are not treated like jet pilots or compensated like them. But now we must have a waiver for anything less than optimum health. And who knows how long it will take the medical evaluators to grant those waivers each time we must have a piece of paper approved by the Coast Guard?
I do agree with some of the provisions of the new standards. Though flawed, the body mass index will provide encouragement for sailors to monitor their weight. My body mass index for being a modest 5'6" and weighing 160 pounds is 26, a number that comically puts me in the "overweight" category but well under a BMI of 40. I would have to pack 86 pounds on to qualify as "Extremely Obese". Not likely but on my last trip I worked with four people who were nearly at or slightly above a BMI of 40. Certainly that is cause for concern when you're at sea and relying on that person to don fire fighting gear and follow you into a smoky compartment. How people this close to being handicapped by body weight can be qualified as fit for duty over and over again is concerning.
In this way these new regulations may have a positive affect as long as the industry as a whole takes it upon themselves to provide a healthier environment for their employees and promote better living while at work and at home. What I'm talking about is preventative health care. Rather than the companies dealing with the outcomes of ill health like discharging crew for medical issues over seas or fighting lawsuits for back injuries the new physical standards can be used as a target. Having healthier employees would lessen injuries and sickness both of which are capital intensive but if the industry thinks they'll just wash out the overweight and sick think again, there won't be anyone left to hire.
Instead an approach of improving the health of the existing labor force might work. Perhaps the quality of provisions and the methods of preparing it should be addressed. Less frying in trans-saturated fat for starters. Maybe shedding pounds or investing time in exercise might be rewarded by the companies. A back injury is much less likely for some one who can carry their own weight up and down ladders and move loads without the aid of back braces.
I know it's a long shot given the nature of shipping companies. My captain for instance practically had to beg the company to purchase a single used elliptical machine for the ship, the only piece of cardiovascular equipment now on board. Besides, for those of us who do routinely work out at sea, aren't we sometimes looked at with disdain by other crew as we walk back to our rooms breathing hard and sweating as if we've just been sunning ourselves on overtime? (I always tell them to add up the time they take smoke breaks while actually on overtime and compare it to my forty five minutes in the gym).
Maybe we can take a cue from the Swedes. A company I am familiar with actually has an Activity Challenge where crew members record hours spent exercising, submitting them to a director ashore and then receive points for rewards and lottery drawings. Not a bad idea, perhaps a start at getting the dwindling pool of certified labor to meet the increasing physical requirements for a trade that does not promote low blood pressure.
It's either that or my employer needs to start hiring less experienced younger, healthier employees and start paying them like commercial aviators to staff the ships and offshore installations.