Sunday, July 27, 2008

Fueling the world

One perk of working at sea is you totally avoid the morning commute. My
office is a mere twenty second walk from my bedroom. There is usually no
grid lock on the way, no search for parking, and no need to gas the car
every week. The meals are free as well so forget grocery shopping. With
no errands to run, save the occasional foray ashore, I end up saving a
lot of gas when I'm out. It's always a surprise to see how much the
price of a gallon goes up each time I come home. For the last two years
as everyone knows it's seen a precipitous climb making a larger and
larger dent on our monthly budgets. Cutting six months of the year out
of that consumer cycle is a point of pride for me. Being at sea helps my
bottom line but the price of oil is definitely not helping the company I
work for.

My means of propulsion at home is a modest 4 cylinder VW Jetta. My
propulsion at sea is a behemoth 8 cylinder B&W 17,020 BHP, 12,500 kW
diesel engine. The compression ignition diesel is the most efficient
engine in human history. Our marine version burns a residual Heavy Fuel
Oil which is essentially the leftovers after the refining process. The
maritime industry is the end user of the barrel of oil burning up
everything that isn't fit for distillation into gasoline, kerosene,
diesel, etc.

This provides for a cheap fuel with sufficient BTUs that is compatible
with large slow speed diesel engines as long as it's first purified and
preheated by the engineers prior to injection. Well it once was very
affordable. Now that the barrel of oil has surpassed the 100 dollar mark
shipping companies are beginning to feel the squeeze like any American
driving the average two hour commute.

Because of the increase in HFO or 'bunker' prices "Best possible speed"
isn't being slipped into the voyage instructions as it once was. Instead
the Captain is now being told that he is using too much fuel and that he
needs to slow down. As an example for what 'stemming' the ship costs
take our current voyage from Georgia to Germany, a distance of 4,365
miles if you pass close to the Azores and Rhumb line each leg of the
trip. At full ahead sea speed, about 97 revolutions of the propeller per
minute, we average 18.8 knots. At that speed we will consume a little
over 50 metric tones of HFO in a single day. Given the current price of
bunkers this means a cost of $332,000 in HFO for a single crossing of
the Atlantic Ocean!

If we reduce our revolutions per minute from 98 to 88 we will save 44
metric tones of fuel on this crossing. That equates to about 28,000
dollars in savings, not much compared to our total fuel onboard, valued
at close to 2 million dollars, but with a fleet of 8 ships it will start
to add up quickly. Especially when you consider the estimation for
stemming the entire fleet this year will cost the company an additional
25 million dollars more than last year. That's a big hit in the pocket.

Unfortunately for big shipping HFO isn't the only oil being consumed
onboard. Besides the lubrication oils for the engines there also is the
marine diesel oil that's required to generate power. Our single main
engine turns the propeller but it is up to two generators to produce the
electricity and when we are in port to provide lighting and ventilation
in the cargo holds.

MDO is 45% more expensive than HFO on account of it's higher refinement
at current prices. Fortunately this vessel is fitted with a shaft
generator which means that as long as we are making sufficient speed we
can shut down the diesel generators and scavenge electricity solely off
the turning propeller shaft. This reduces our diesel expenses
dramatically and reduces carbon emissions.

Now that you have an idea what a voyage of fuel consumption costs for a
single ship what about all the shipping combined? According to an
article in last month's Marine Log there are 35,000 self-propelled
vessels afloat. Together they transport 95% of the world's commerce but
only account for 3% of the worldwide fuel consumption! (Marine Log, June
08 Pg. 69) It makes you wonder where all the oil is really going. I
think it has something to do with that morning commute I avoided today.

Besides the costs of fueling ships there is another cloud gathering. The
emissions of those 35,000 ships are coming under scrutiny as studies are
finding that the lower the quality of fuel the more hazardous the
emissions are to human health, notably around busy ports. This reminds
me of the Dutch river pilot I was speaking with last month that said the
air quality around Antwerp was so poor that the cases of breathing
disorders in children were depressingly skyrocketing. Antwerp is one of
the busiest ports in Europe.

Sulfur in residual fuels is a chief culprit of particulate matter in
exhaust. The International Maritime Organization is addressing this by
requiring a reduction from 4.5% total sulfur content in ship's fuel to
0.5% sulfur for all ships by 2020. Additionally Emission Control Areas
are going to be implemented in near coastal areas worldwide. The Baltic
Sea and the Coast of California out to 50 miles are early examples of
this. In those areas by 2015 ships will pretty much be committed to
burning only clean distillate diesel oil instead of the heavy fuel oil.

For my company this won't be much of a shocker as they are actually
leading the charge in this realm. We only purchase bunkers with the
lowest sulfur contents available, much lower than what is currently
allowed by the IMO. This fuel is more expensive but that cost eventually
gets passed on to the customer in the way of freight rates raising the
price of shipping goods. Here is one more fun fact I found to share
since I'm full of them today; according to the Hellenic Shipping News
"At today's oil prices, every 10 percent increase in trip distance
translates into a 4.5 percent increase in transport costs. While
shipping a standard 40-foot container from Shanghai to the east coast of
the US cost US$3,000 when oil was at US$20 per barrel, it now costs
US$8,000. If oil goes up to US$200, the cost would rise to US$15,000."

This has so many implications I won't go into here besides quickly
mentioning two. First, the pressure on a Captain to keep to a fixed
schedule and minimize voyage distances may relegate more authority to
weather routers and the home office reducing the master's ability to
make decisions based on how things look out the window of his bridge.

Secondly, as oil reserves diminish, prices rise for everything and at
some point buying grapes from Chile or automobiles from South Korea may
not be worth the price of transporting that 15,000-dollar container.
This will put the hurting on the shipping industry and the globalization
it enables. Something I like to keep in mind each time I gas up the
Jetta or the Car Carrier to go import some more foreign goods whether at
my local Hannaford Brothers or at the Autokaje in Bremerhaven.

(If you haven't read The Long Emergency I recommend it, there's still

Island Clouds

Everywhere you look today it's the same. Serenity in aqua blue. The
water is millpond calm, the clouds little white islands interspersed to
the horizon at regular intervals. The mornings have all been clear, the
sky pin pointed with so many stars it appears that there is actually
more light than darkness. The air has been warm, the water just as warm,
and the pool has been full thanks to having discovered the "Pool Pump",
a vital piece of equipment paralleled with the fire main designed to
ensure an optimum amount of clean sea water is constantly being put into
the pool every second of the day. Yes the Ro/Ro life is good in the
summer. Beyond the reach of iPhones, news media, television and all the
other hassles of life on shore we stand our watches, work our over time,
eat three squares a day, and entertain ourselves.

Today we had our weekly at sea Barbecue. The stewards department pulled
out all the stops; Devilled eggs and macaroni salad, shrimp cocktails
and relishes, brauts, steaks, seasoned chicken on the grill, the works.
The pool was primed and somebody's iPod piped outside on the fixed
speakers. Of course I took my food and stuck it in the fridge to save it
for midnight as three in the afternoon is when I like to start reading
and drift into sleep.

I recently finished Nathaniel Philbrick's newest book 'Mayflower' and
have gotten about half way through Abraham Stoker's 'Dracula'. Anything
Philbrick writes, if you're into maritime or American history is gold.
Stoker has a good story but its god awfully slow and written in that
Victorian English vernacular that is tedious and overwhelmingly sappy.
I've also been watching the BBC's Planet Earth series which makes me
want to be come a field biologist and swim with manta rays.

We will be arriving in the English Channel in about three days, the
weather still looks favorable and we can expect a couple of nights in
Bremerhaven. I'm certainly looking forward to burning off some steam
with the help of In Bev's fine line of international products including
the newly acquisitioned "King of Beers". They own Becks Beer as well,
the local Brew where we are headed.

Well it's off to another mid watch. Six hours of darkness terminated by
a glorious open ocean sunrise, maybe an amplitude if I'm feeling
motivated and plenty of Radio Head on the iPod to fill the void in
between. I'll have my barbecue too which is a welcome change  from the
Kashi Cereal I keep stashed on the bridge. Here's to another highly
caffeinated morning.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

On the wheel

The amount of time spent on the coast is inversely proportional to the
amount of sleep a mariner gets. Despite always being I still get
satisfaction when getting into the routine of arriving at the sea buoy,
picking up the pilot, lining up for the channel and taking the ship in
and out of the bays, rivers, and harbors of the United States. Ports
like Brunswick Georgia are small and quiet and pretty quick for
transiting. Ports like Newark or Bayonne New Jersey are jam packed with
ships, tugs, and W.A.F.I.s (A term I use endearingly), and take a little
longer to get alongside. Baltimore though takes the prize for the
longest in port transit. Whether we take a pilot at the Virginia Capes
or Delaware Capes you're guaranteed a solid 10 hours of transit time.

A 150 mile transit is tiring when you get stuck on the bridge for the
entirety of your watch with a pilot. As an "Officer in charge of a
navigational watch" my duties when piloting normally fall into the
monitoring category. The pilot takes the "Conn" but I still retain
responsibility, as does the master for the safe navigation of the ship.
This doesn't mean that the pilot is without liability as most people
think. If something were to happen he or she would also face the
consequences, as was the case with the Cosco Busan last fall.

On all of the ships I've worked aboard the steering, once switched off
the auto pilot, is done by the Able Bodied Seaman on watch. They
transition from being the dedicated lookout to the quartermaster as soon
as we need direct control of the rudder. Once the Pilot has made the
formal exchange with the Master he will begin giving rudder angles or
course orders to the helmsman. I figured that was a standard always
adhered to until I started working with my current Captain.

The way his bridge run is fundamentally different from all the other's
I've experienced. He never has the watch AB on the helm. Instead the
steering duties are shared between the autopilot, when the pilot is
willing to use it, the Captain himself and the mate on watch when in
hand steering. This is a huge shift from my normal duty of ensuring the
pilot is conning prudently, the quartermaster is following the course
and angle orders correctly, and keeping the log books and positions up
to date. I also normally make the coffee, answer the phone, show the
pilot where things are, and adjust the engine order telegraph for the
desired propeller revolutions.

When I'm tasked with steering though everything else is secondary. It's
a little daunting to be the one responsible for keeping the course
rather than the one responsible for chastising the helmsman if he's off
more than two degrees. I don't mind it though as my involvement in the
ship's trajectory is now utterly personal. I steer with my right hand,
either standing next to the center console or seated in the "Pilot
Chair" with a small toggle that can swing a rudder the size of a two
story house 70 degrees to either side of midships. The Engine Order
Telegraph is at my elbow and I can easily adjust the engine speed and
immediately feel the effect of the response on steering. I have to pay a
greater amount of attention to the swing of the ship as well as the
interaction of the channel with the hull and rudder. I'm the first one
to know if something is amiss and the first one to get hung if we bump
the bottom.

This was how I found myself in the canal that links Chesapeake Bay and
Delaware Bay the other morning in awe that I was actually steering the
ship. Rather than being removed from the process of piloting I was in
full control, at the direction of the pilot, of our success. I had
steered the C&D once before, as a cadet and I honestly think I was more
nervous as a second mate than I was as a cadet. At least then I had an
excuse if I did the unthinkable and caused a grounding, illision, or
collision. "Well he was just a cadet" they would say as the led the
captain off in bracelets. But now it was all eyes on me and I could feel
the pucker factor each time I would swing pass my mark.

Despite the intensity of steering for the first time anywhere besides
open ocean on a ship in four or five years, I was actually having a
great time. The pilot was relaxed and pretty much maxed out the surround
sound with his iPod, something that wouldn't impress the NTSB if they
heard it on the Voice Data Recorder but still, it set the mood. The
night was perfectly calm, the banks of the canal lined with thick
foliage and the moon setting over the bow making for a memorable
transit. The Captain eventually gave me a break and the pilot gradually
got comfortable with the autopilot which performs amazingly well, even
at slow ahead in a narrow channel.

The miracles of technology continue to impress me. The autopilot on
board is designed to receive inputs from the gyrocompass and a rate of
turn indicator or ROI. The ROI allows the helm to respond with
infinitely more preciseness than any helmsman could which enables the
use of what are called constant radius turns. A small toggle is used to
set the digital course input. Once a course had been toggled in the
rudder will immediately begin to turn and attains a rate of turn
necessary to change the course in an amount of time that will inscribe a
perfect circle if turning 360 degrees. The radius of the turn can be
adjusted by the same course toggle and brought down from say 2.0
nautical miles to 0.4 nm requiring a faster rate of turn for the same
course change. When you are setting the turn up a red line appears on
the radar and electronic chart screen showing the track of the ship's
pivot point and as the radius of the turn is decreased on the control
the line curves more and more showing where the ship will go.

I saw this in action in the Solent with a Southampton pilot. He had
never used it before and must have been as impressed as I that the ship
steered through a 110 degree course change, in a buoyed channel with
current and beam wind along a constant radius of 0.8 nautical miles.
Rather than having to order the helm put over and increased to speed the
turn, then reduced or countered to slow the turn as he lined up for the
next set of buoys, the auto pilot maintained the proper rate of turn for
the predetermined turn radius. The system made minute adjustments to the
rudder as needed for the change in course, the change in speed as we
pushed more and more water, the set from current, the leeway from the
wind, and the side slip from our momentum. Awesome.

This technology, specifically the instituting of constant radius turns
seems to have been perfected on the Scandinavian ferries plying the
Baltic. Combining the auto pilot system with an ergonomic bridge
mirrored after the cockpits of airplanes and you have all the
advancements in ship handling that were available in 1994. Yes, that's
right, this stuff has been around for 15 years and more but this is the
first time I've ever experienced any of it, whether at sea or in a
simulator. And the ships being put out by the same designers and
companies that built this one today have another 14 years of innovation
packed onto the bridge. Just imagine.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Morning in Charleston

It's a slow sunrise on the Cooper River. The morning is quiet with no
cargo being worked. A pair of dolphins are swimming down our off shore
side lazily arcing up to the surface while birds alight on the handrails
pruning themselves in the first rays of sunshine. We shifted from our
first dock at the head of the navigable portion of the river late
yesterday to down town affording the crew our monthly Saturday night in
Charleston. For my time off I only ventured as far as the Harris Teeters
for provisions and the lobby of the Pavilion Hotel from where I bummed a
wireless signal.

The rooftop bar at the Pavilion afforded an awesome view of my home
afloat moored at the Union Street terminal with the new Route 17 Bridge
in the background. The patrons at the bar were in full Carolinian
regalia. Polo shirts and baseball caps emblazoned with palm trees and
crescent moons, plaid sports coats and bow ties, Bermuda shorts and flip
flops, and my favorite combination of all, a pink button down shirt with
yellow tie wrapped in a blue blazer. As I descended back into the hotel
the gentrification only increased until I felt a little odd watching
white haired crackers having their Saturday supper watching me type away
at my laptop in rust and grease stained shorts. I bought another beer to
prolong my stay incase the doormen figured out I was just bumming the
wireless and would and politely ask me to leave.

Tying up at Union Street is a throw back to the golden age of shipping.
There was a time when ports were integral parts of the cities in this
country, not relegated to distant landfills out of sight and far from
downtown. A time when you could step off the gangway and step into the
bar without a compulsory 25 dollar cab ride in between. A time when port
security didn't have to escort you to and from the gate and the closest
store and restaurant were actually in sight of the ship.
Today it is normal to be isolated at the ass end of ship channels in the
likes of Corpus Christi or Texas City, or hidden down dirt roads in
Penobscott Bay or the Cape Fear river, or lost in a concrete strewn
industrial Zone in Yokohama. With the focus on Homeland Security
conditions are further worsened.

My first trip at sea was in the heyday of post 9-11. I remember one
particular terminal in Perth Amboy we called on three times throughout
that summer. The first time it was permissible for me to ride a bike
through the terminal to the security gate and into town. The second time
a cab had to come down to the dock to drive me through the terminal
leaving me on foot. The third time the cab wasn't even allowed inside
the gate but that didn't matter because I was no longer allowed to walk
through the terminal anyway. This essentially made us, U.S. citizen
mariners, prisoner to our own vessel in the "Home Land" of security.

Things have improved a little for Americans since my days as a cadet (No
improvement for foreign sailors though unless they have a Visa).
Security does makes allowances for shore leave and as long as the
paperwork is correct it's still possible, at least at dry cargo
facilities, to have visitors in port. That doesn't mean we don't have
our headaches though.

Take for example what happened the other day when the Chief Mate was
moving bins we had transshipped from one side of Baltimore harbor to the
other onto the dock as a favor for the stevedores. He was asked to land
them a few feet outside of the dock gate which was the entrance to the
automobile yards where the imports are lined up for rail cars. He was
driving a 6 ton forklift plainly marked with our good ships name down
the stern ramp, wearing company coveralls, and in plain view of the
security guard. He set the bins down and was headed for the ramp when he
was interogated by the guard.

Even though he had not been required to show ID when entering the car
terminal, a secure areas just like the dock, when coming back to the
ship he was expected to show it.
All the crew get a ship specific ID issued when we sign on which we're
supposed to wear in port. The Chief Mate had forgotten his and despite
his Brooklyn accent, company dress, and the ship's machinery he was
driving he was completely unidentifiable and subject to arrest like any
other suspected terrorist. Even after the port captain's and my own
insistence that he was who he said to be she was still determined to
call the port police. Apparently my being the Ship Security Officer held
no sway. The cadet was sent running to the house for the mate's drivers
license while we tried to convince the guard that arresting him would be
a highly unnecessary and embarrassing episode for everyone involved.

Fortunately for today life in Charleston is a little more reasonable.
ID's aren't required to drive a forklift on the dock and a valid MMD
will suffice to get you in and out of the gate without any hassle and
headed into the historic side of town, with an up scale grocery store
literally at the terminal gate and just beyond that all the bars,
restaurants, hotels, and tourist traps a small city can offer. Being in
close proximity to every diversion a sailor could hope for means less
time spent in transit and more time spent forgetting about the ship you
have to get back on. Time ashore has been so minimized by strict
schedules, increased cargo handling efficiency, and port security
measures that the lure of sailing for the sake of traveling is almost
nonexistent. Just one more reason fewer and fewer people are choosing
careers at sea. If it wasn't for quiet mornings like this one I might
even have second thoughts.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Manhattan Skyline

Here's a view of Manhattan from the docks in Bayonne New Jersey. I have some fond memories of riding a ship's bike through some ugly neighborhoods as a cadet in these parts. We came up Ambrose Channel this morning in some unsettled weather. Huge heavy clouds rolled over us from the west as we approached the Verazano narrows and unleashed a lovely fresh water wash down, always good for the paint. Below is a picture of the 9-11 memorial donated by Russia. Apparently the city of New York didn't want the "Snatch"(As the local mariners refer to it, don't ask me why) erected in their town so it was accepted by New Jersey. Interestingly, the mural on the warehouse behind the split obelisk with entrained silver tear drop features the selfless portraits of the two leaders in the "Struggle against world terrorism" painted with a noticeable restraint of ego. Right.
Well, besides the state sponsored patriotism on a dock in Bayonne New Jersey the New York skyline is magnificent. I was fortunate enough to have seen it in July of 2001 as a midshipmen on my first training cruise. The view from the water is unmatchable, it is a fun place to come into, snatches and all. I've been getting wireless at the dock this afternoon so I'm a happy guy getting my internet injection.

I've got to include a shout out to our heavenly creator for keeping one of my kin on the earth for a little while longer, we had a close call at home which I only became privy to on arrival in the states. A true downside of working in remote places. And I'll give one more shout out to a special person who has recently become privy to her own little miracle! Hope you feel better soon, I hear the first few weeks have been a bitch. All my love, congratulations!!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Fish Counting

It's three thirty in the morning and I'm running up on a fisherman's
gear. He's set it at the eastern edge to Georges Bank, a gradient that
in a few miles slopes down from a relatively shallow 60 meters to over a
thousand. His pots are about a mile apart but by the dozens they look
much closer on the radar screen. It's pitch black out; the growing moon
having set by now, and there isn't a single strobe on any of the high
flyers. I had been printing out all the T&P notices for our charts in
the back of the bridge and hadn't noticed the gear's appearance on the
radar until right before we were on them. The lookout obviously hadn't
seen them either in the darkness and hadn't been checking the radar,
something I encourage, especially if I'm immersed in paperwork as too
often is the case in open ocean.

I don't like to run over fishing gear, especially when it's set offshore
and on our side of the pond. If it's been strung across a traffic
scheme, or in the entrance to a channel or breakwater it's another
matter. But if I can I'll take whatever precautions to avoid stringing
hundreds of dollars worth of line, pots, radar reflectors, and strobes
across the bulbous if I can help it. Fortunately I have the advantage of
a xenon spot light the former owners had nicknamed the "Icebreaker".
After switching this on it became eerily apparent that we were about to
bear down on a buoy so I quickly switched to hand steering and with the
rudder lever under one hand and the toggle for the light in the other I
wiggled through the mine field for the next half mile and passed clear
of the gear.

The fisherman, whom I thought was conked out, saw the searchlight and
inquired if I was a research vessel or someone else with a tow behind
me. He was glad to hear I wasn't and I was glad to learn he was bottom
fishing. It's nice when the fishermen actually call you, and even nicer
when they speak English. It's almost impossible to raise a fisherman in
France or Japan or Korea on the VHF.

Shortly after we had sounded Georges Bank did the sun start to rise. The
water was glassy calm, the wind still, and the sky mostly clear. It was
another great sunrise at sea and soon the light was hitting the water
and making apparent how shallow the depth was. With the first fishing
boats we began to see more birds and then the Dolphins. As if they were
just starting their daily commute they swarmed towards our bow, one
school after another, getting a push from the bow wake.

I was quite excited by all the dolphin because for the first time I
actually had a field guide on the bridge from which I could pick these
guys out from their 25 species of cousin. It's hard to get a good look
at them from 80 feet above the water as they leap out in pairs and trios
but I could tell that they were beaked which narrowed down the choices.
I also could see they weren't spotted or yellow so I got it down to two
of the most common cetaceans, the stripped or the bottlenose. One good
glimpse through the binoculars and I could see the stripe running from
eye to tail and had it pinned.

Next came a whale off in the distance which was only about thirty feet
in length which I decided was a Minke whale. The third mate later said
he had seen a few the night before sticking their heads out of the water
or siphoning. A little later I spotted a long finned pilot whale getting
his breakfast along with the dolphins. Thinking I had just about had my
fill of whale watching for the trip I was pleased when along came a very
large, probably a meter in diameter, sea turtle who seem somewhat
distressed. His head was extended a little ways out of his shell and
angled down while one flipper was paddling him around in circles. When I
went over to the bridge wing to watch him pass down the side I saw what
was causing his discontentment. A dark, finned and lengthy fish was
circling just beneath him which could only have been a solitary shark
looking for his breakfast too. I wonder how their encounter ended. It
was apparent the turtle had had a long life to grow that big so it
probably wasn't the first shark she had contended with.

We are now approaching Cape Cod. The captain has decided to change our
voyage plan having me put in a few extra waypoints to take us ten miles
off Martha's Vineyard this evening so the crew can get cell phone and so
that our T.V. receiver will have better reception. Crew welfare is
always a priority, if you have the time to kill that is and we've had
plenty to kill this trip. Our service speed outpaces the rest of the
fleet with an amply powered B&W down below, so we've been running at a
reduced RPM for most of the crossing. This will become standard now as
our fuel consumption is cut sharply by slowing just a few knots. We are
also going to be taking the C&D canal from now on, the cost of pilots
being cheaper than the extra miles going around Cape Henry to get to
Baltimore. This is better for the bottom line, good for the environment,
and great for the pilots but shitty for the old man's beauty rest.
That's the job though so we won't complain too much about it.

We should be taking our pilot at Ambrose at 0500 tomorrow morning and
begin the discharge by 0800 starting another onslaught of a coast. I'm
all fired up for it. Well that and trying to get my hands on an iPhone.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Fog and Phantoms

We passed over the Flemish Cap yesterday finding it on the depth
sounder. The voices of Portuguese fishermen could be heard on the VHF as
a Canadian Coast guard cutter provided medical assistance to a fishing
boat somewhere nearby. The Portuguese have a history of fishing off the
Canadian Maritimes but I didn't realize they were still at it. The
Flemish Cap and the Grand Banks of Newfoundland 120 miles to the west
are known for the large amount of fish that they support in their
relatively shallow waters. The Grand Banks maintains a depth of between
50 and 70 meters over its breadth creating a fertile breading ground for
fish who love the cold nutrient rich waters provided by the Labrador
Current that rounds Cape Race and wells up on the banks. This is the
same current that collides with the northerly most arm of the Gulf
Stream and creates eddies that sword fish search for and makes for ten
degrees of set to our compass course. Besides the water being cooler,
full of deep northern ocean nutrients, and denser it also smells very
different from the water typically encountered mid ocean. Anyone who has
ever been several hundred miles from shore on a sunny day knows the
clarity and blueness of water that is void of most microorganisms and
run off from rivers. That's the water I like to snorkel and scuba dive
in because it's usually warm. The water today though smells just like
the beaches at home, cold, murky, and full of life. It's a smell that
sticks in the air and has that aroma known so well on the shores of
Maine. I first noticed it early yesterday when I was out reading the air
temperatures and saw my first stars for what seems like weeks. Thinking
it would be a nice day ahead and knowing we were amongst an abundance of
marine wildlife I thought it possible to sight some whales on the banks.
No sooner had I started brushing up on my marine mammal identification
in a book the third mate had brought along did the fog sock in reducing
our visibility to nothing beyond the bow. It was then that I remembered
what cold water and summer brings, fog, thick unrelenting fog. And so
that's all we've seen on the Grand Banks so far, a white shroud hemming
us in on all sides day and night. It even blotted out the sky as the day
went by leaving it up to the imagination to convince your self that we
are moving along at twenty miles an hour. Only the radar and AIS can
look ahead picking up the fishing boats scattered around which is why I
am continually amazed that my lookout, an AB I'll call the Rain Man,
persists to use the window wipers throughout the fog staring intently
into nothing! I am completely perplexed at this behavior. Maybe he's
been out here too long or maybe he'd prefer to put on a rain jacket and
stand on the bow so we can truly comply with the wording of the
collision regs. It's true that it's impossible to maintain a lookout by
sight and by hearing from the comfort of an enclosed bridge. At least it
provides something to gossip about amongst the mates as we run out of
things to keep our minds occupied. The monotony of ocean crossings is a
real thing. Scrimshaw and rope work has been replaced by the paper work
for a functioning safety management system and overtime. (P.S. - the
rain man is now washing all the bloody windows on the bridge, and using
the wipers, in fog where you can't see ten feet! I've just got to roll
with it. It's hardly worth trying to make a point at this stage). 

I learned an interesting fact from the Chief Mate the other day while
walking around a group of eight Rolls Royce Phantoms. He mentioned it
because there were two more Rolls Royce's on the deck than are usually
carried during a voyage. I asked him why this was and wasn't surprised
that to limit a potential loss Rolls Royce only allows any ship to
normally transport six at a time in case the vessel is lost. This makes
since when the starting price of one of these hand crafted motor
carriages is in the neighborhood of 300,000 dollars! These cars get the
royal treatment when in transit. Unlike all the Beamers, Mercedes, and
Range Rovers these are left locked, the keys being kept by the chief
mate rather than left in the ashtray. All are stowed with a minimum one
meter clearance of other vehicles and obstructions whereas a BMW is
allowed to be parked mere centimeters from another vehicle. They are
also loaded last and discharged first diminishing the chance of a driver
side swiping it with another vehicle. The cars also receive three times
the amount of lashings and a tire chock for every wheel, regular cars
are never chocked unless on an internal ramp. The last thing a shipper
wants is an insurance claim from RR. They are pretty wild looking cars.
Only two of the six are designed for chauffer less operation, the other
four being straight out of a Grey Poupon commercial. Tells you something
about their intended market.

Sometimes I am reminded of the movie Ground Hog Day with Bill Murray
when I wake up and realize that today will be just like the day before
and stands a good chance of being mimicked again tomorrow. Consitency is
good, ocean crossings let the crew get work done that's impossible in
port, and Captains always prefer to be away from the hassles of port but
it can grow tedious nonetheless. As a Chief Mate put it one time, "The
first rule of shipping is you are responsible for your own

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Back to Sea

My day started dark and windy but warm. I was happy to have enough time
prior to all hands to drink two cups of coffee while getting the bridge
set up for our departure from Southampton to sea. I also got a final
quick cell phone call in to home which was cut short when the Captain
rushed up to the bridge as the wind began gusting to forty knots and
stretching the soft line we had added to our standard "Two, two and two"
configuration for the bow. When we heard the line on the bow pop loudly
from inside the enclosed bridge we investigated from the wing and saw
that it was about to come off the small bollard it encircled on the
dock. Once I arrived at the mooring station my guys slacked this line
first and the residual tension caused it to shoot off the bollard and
pop out of the chock on deck startling the cadet and once again spooking
my  non-able bodied seaman almost to the point of once again being
unwilling to operate the winch. A timid sailor is as bad as an
overconfident one.

After the additional breast line had been taken in and the anchor I had
set under foot (Just incase the Force 9 winds had set in while alongside
the dock) was secured in the hawse pipe we began dropping the rest of
the lines. Before the spring lines were completely out of the water the
captain began thrusting against the quay peeling the bow off the pier
and passing the ship through the eye of the wind. With a tug keeping
tension on an after lead the Schilling Rudder was put hard over (70
degrees) and a slow ahead bell turned the prop into a stern thruster
lifting the stern off moving us away from the dock. As soon as we had
the bow secured for sea, it was expected to be a little chunky in the
channel, I was up on the bridge engaged in a pretty good conversation
with a personable and imminently proper British Pilot on the differences
between raster and vector electronic charts. His opinion that charts
were generational, the older pilots preferring the well studied raster
charts, the younger generation of navigators preferring the customizable
vector charts made sense. I still havn't seen an offical UKHO electronic
chart of British waters.

To recap on how we got to Great Britain I'll start where I left off in
Bremerhaven. The extended stay in Germany thanks to labor premiums, a
large load of break bulk crates, subway cars, and BMWs ended late on a
Monday night. It wasn't until four in the morning on Tuesday that we had
dropped off the Jade & Weser Pilot and turned west to sail out of the
North Seas in the area termed the German Bight.

Once around the flat North Western shore of Holland we sailed past the
new and improved traffic scheme to Rotterdam and on to Flushing, the
entrance to the Westerschelde River. Vessel congestion, mostly due to
French labor strikes at the large container port of Le Havre (Something
I understand the French are very experienced in) had diverted the
containers and their gigantic ships to Belgium. Instead of waiting our
turn for the locks we called on Zeebrugge first. Like both Bremerhaven
and Antwerp, Zeebrugge retains the water in its Ro/Ro port by the means
of a lock. This adds a good half hour minimum to the docking process but
ensures that the tides outside the lock gates do not hinder the ramp's
angle or clearance on the dock as cargo is being expeditiously moved on
and off the ship. I had a chance to get off the ship and briefly visit
my fourth and least memorable town in Belgium. At least there was Lefe
beer, one of my favorites.

After Zeebrugge we boarded a pilot and helmsman for the 36 mile transit
down the Westerschelde past numerous refineries, container docks and a
nuclear power plant to the Kalloo locks. The addition of a helmsman to
the bridge team was a first for me. Normally a pilot is embarked as an
advisor to the permanent captain and officers on the ship. In the
Westerschelde the pilot works in conjunction with a quartermaster who
personally steers the ship the entire way never relegating the duty to
any of the ship's crew. It almost seemed as if the navigation of the
ship had been turned over to two Flemish speaking strangers because
essentially it had. The helmsman never took a single break to smoke or
use the head and was never given a single command from the Pilot. He
just knew the river and knew where to point her. We did pull an
interesting maneuver at the onset to the transit when, as is typical and
always a little irking, we were informed to hold position in Flushing
Roads due to lock congestion. This was accomplished in the flooding
current by turning the ship around 180 degrees and putting the engine
slow ahead every fifteen or twenty minutes until we had about two knots
of head way. Then we would set back a ship length and do it again. The
helmsman just feathered the rudder and kept us into the stream as ships
sailed by on both sides. It cause a strange feeling to see the ship
going by but the lights of flushing staying put for an hour without
being tethered by an anchor to the bottom.

Cargo in Antwerp consisted of more crated break bulk termed household
goods which are the personal belongings; lamps, couches, microwaves,
motorcycles etc. of U.S. servicemen, ambassadors, and embassy employees
which are transported to and from the states by the government. The
forklift operators worked like madmen to get us out on schedule doing an
impressive almost choreographed dance with their three-ton machines
jamming box after box against and atop one another until they formed a
complete wall a ship's beam thick.

After exiting the locks I took refuge in my bed but couldn't sleep for
the entire six hours I laid prone dreading the next 12 hours of watch.
Insomnia at advanced stages of exhaustion I find is usually the result
or irregular sleep, meal hours, work hours, bowel movements and just
about everything else in daily working life that gets thrown into the
blender of calling on ports in quick succession. Nonetheless when the
phone range at 2320 I was soon headed up to the bridge and across the
separation schemes to the Straits of Dover, one of my favorite places to
apply my knowledge of collision regulations. The sun rise, which was
reported astern by my odd and almost Rain Man esque lookout, was
particularly memorable as it painted the cliffs of Dover in a pink hue
that stretched all along the shores of Britain. The morning light
combined with some choice classical selections from an FM radio station,
good coffee, and the thrill of averting nautical disasters it soon put
me in an excellent mood and I enjoyed the start of another day on planet
earth with immense satisfaction.

I woke up coming into Southampton and at once noticed the lack of big
industry, which was a change from the Belgian countryside. The port
there is small and filled with sailboats yachting about from side to
side, a constant bane of the deep draft ships coming up and down the
river. I wanted to get off and step foot for the first time in the
United Kingdom adding it onto my list of countries visited but logic
called and I was soon making up for my prior episodes of insomnia.

And so you have it, my 4th of July holiday week where the only fire
works I saw were from the flares of Total Oil refineries. But the
weather was fine up until leaving Southampton and the sunrises in the
English Channel and North Sea magnificent. The company hasn't been bad
either. I've got a few good colleagues onboard, some of whom I've worked
off and on with for several years at this point so life could be worse.
Today the wind picked up to a gale as we pitched out to the Casquests.
We are heading northeast this evening to make Lands End and pass close
to shore, crossing the Celtic Sea and then to the tip of Ireland, which
we will pass in the dark of night. Then its on a great circle route past
the ice edge near Newfoundland, down Cape Breton, across the longingly
close to home Gulf of Maine, and on to Nantucket and the Eastern
approach to Ambrose.

New Jersey will be our first port of call. We have a total of 7 docks
scheduled for this upcoming coast from New York to Georgia so it should
be busy. The ENTIRE unlicensed deck crew will be signing off so there
will be a lot of new faces and OJT (On the Job Training). I tried to get
my brother on here but he's ready for something besides picking up
lashing chains and watching the paint jobs on new cars dry. I do believe
this is the most I've written at once for a quite a while. As the pilots
in the UK say, "Thanks, lovely, Cheers!".