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!".

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