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.

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