Thursday, August 21, 2008


After staying up late to eat swordfish we made New York early the following morning. I had the approach to the remnants of Ambrose Light (Now a pile of wreckage after being toppled by the bow of a tanker this past winter) and the channel up to the Verazano Bridge. I missed passing my brother's ship by just a few hours, I could see them sixty miles to the south on the AIS. The pilots boarded us from a small pilot boat which is launched from a pilot cutter just as they do in Germany. The cutter has been sitting at anchor these days with the cost of diesel, a precarious situation for a boat full of resting pilots as the north and south bound ships pass up and down either side day and night. They ask each ship for a half mile minimum CPA.

We cleared the Verazano at sunrise and docked in Bayonne for a quick discharge of only 400 cars. The dock usually called on in Newark was canceled on account of a lack of cargo. I was grateful to be headed to Baltimore, my port of discharge, as quickly as possible.

The last watch of my hitch was making the approach to Cape Henry. It was another immaculate summer morning. I slept during the daylight transit up the 150 miles of the Chesapeake Bay to Baltimore after calling my relief who unfortunately had tropical storm Fay making her way over his house in Tampa adding to my anxiety about getting home on time.

Adding on to my sleep deficit was an evening docking. Shortly thereafter I was on watch again and spent the early morning hours packing up my gear in preparation for my turnover and exodus in a short twelve hours. Cargo started at eight in the morning and for four excruciatingly long hours I watched Baltimore's finest longshoremen "Pitch and catch" plywood boxes with forklifts and trailer trucks.

My relief arrived just on time, the storm hardly impacted the Tampa area, and had all ready sailed a trip on the ship making for a simple and quick turnover. I was elated to be headed home and pleasantly surprised to find I was booked business class on a non stop to Portland (Free Heineken!).

Being discharged from a vessel, any vessel, is a wonderful experience. It's like the last day of 8th grade before summer vacation. You feel completely liberated (Despite the extreme state of exhaustion) and ready to begin the adventures you've been waiting two months for. As they say, the two best days in a sailor's life is the day he signs on the ship, leaving the worries of the world behind, and the day he signs off the ship, leaving the hardship of the sea at the side of the pier.

Now to just acclimatize myself back into society...

PS - I've got a few good pictures I'll be putting into past blogs when I have the time so have a look.

Monday, August 18, 2008


We crawled onto Georges Bank this morning, dodging fish boats with
trawls out for hours. Going 10 knots doesn't help getting past groups of
fishing boats. Instead you're a captive audience to their meandering
circles and sudden stopping to haul back gear. I was anticipating some
FM radio and my NPR fix all morning long but had to wait for most of the
day to get anything. The cell phone finally got a signal off of
Nantucket Island. We have time to kill waiting for our berth in the
morning so the Captain has us taking a dogleg up into Narraganset bay
for the evening.

I was thrilled to get my younger brother on the phone this afternoon. He
was headed down the Hudson River on a heavy lift ship bound for Norfolk
Virginia. If we were heading into New York this evening we probably
would have passed one another in the channel. He is making his first
trip as a full fledged able bodied seaman and explained to me his pains
coming up the Hudson, his first trick at the wheel with a pilot onboard.

I guess he got a little overzealous checking the swing after a turn and
the first down bound ship, swinging past his course twice getting him
removed from the helm. If it had been be I would have felt the exact
same amount of shame and embarrassment but the Captain, knowing it was
his first shot at it, put him back in as soon as the oncoming traffic
was clear. His confidence was boosted by getting a second chance and he
steered the rest of his watch flawlessly. Shortly after getting back on
the wheel the second mate pointed out the city up river, my brother's
first glimpse of Manhattan, lit up in all its grandeur, just like the
first time I saw it, from under the Verazano Bridge. It is an awesome
sight. I couldn't be happier to know he's employed and making a good
impression on his crew, not to mention headed for Rio de Janeiro again

We had some much need distraction yesterday when a fishing boat asked us
to drastically change course to avoid the long lines he was picking up.
The Captain had earlier issued a standing order that if we saw any
schooling fish to call him so he could get his lures in. The mate let
him know that these guys were baiting sword fish and he was soon on the
radio with the boat.

The Captain soon saw the opportunity for a sword fish dinner and in no
time had us swinging a lee for the sword boat to come along side so we
could purchase some of his catch. The Captain asked for fifty pounds and
when he asked if it was fresh the Atlantic Offspring replied "Is
yesterday fresh enough for ya?" I guess it was because the captain paid
out of his own pocket.

Two young hands and a grizzly mate nimbly clambered over the wheelhouse
onto the short bow of the boat and tied two giant fish on the line I
tossed to them. We pulled up a gutted swordfish without head or fins
plus a whole Mahi with its sparkling head and fins still intact. On top
of that the boys scampered down to the deck and handed over a couple of
the swords, I guess so we could grind them up and make a soup for our
virility, not likely needed after 70 days at sea.

I carefully tide the cash the Captain had given me to a heaving line and
tossed it over in payment. The deck hands were pretty wide eyed and
didn't say a single word the whole time they were along side but the
mate was curious about where we had come from, how long our trip was,
and if the pay was good. I told him how many crew were aboard and that
the money was good enough to keep coming back. I asked where they were
out of and he said Shelburne Nova Scotia so they weren't that far away
from home. They were just ending a ten-day trip and the boat was full
and down with swordfish, something he said didn't happen often these

We parted ways extremely pleased to have fish onboard that hadn't been
frozen at some point in its shelf life. The guys on the Atlantic
Offspring were pleased to already have sold some of their haul and were
probably a bit awed after pulling up to a Ro/Ro out at sea after ten
days of fishing. They wanted our email address so they could send us the
pictures they had taken of the ship.

As happy as we all were, there were seven crew down at the pilot port
when we brought the fish on, the steward cussed us all out as soon as he
saw how much friggin meat we had bought for him to cook us. The Captain,
being a team player, was soon down in the galley with him hacking the
swordfish into 26 huge meaty steaks for tonight. The prospect of fresh
fish for dinner is keeping me up past my bedtime tonight.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Force Twelve's

We've crossed the Grand Banks of Newfoundland and are less than a hundred miles south of Halifax under a full moon. We saw a pod of long finned Pilot Whales, fifteen or twenty adult males and females on the prowl a few days ago. They were on a crossing course with us but unlike Dolphin turned away at the last moment to avoid the hull. They are a peculiar looking animal in large groups, their big round dark heads bobbing in and out of the water, curved dorsal fins popping up on each dive.

The issuance of NAVTEX warnings from Virginia Capes to New Jersey to Gray Maine last night of a quick moving front with heavy thunderstorms was a prelude to this morning's severe weather. When I took the watch the wind had just died down from a gale as we were enveloped in the fog typical for Newfie waters. 

When I was relieved six hours later the glass had fallen from 1007 to 991 millibars. During the course of the watch three separate squall lines passed over us unleashing torrents of rain and continuous lightning. I unplugged my iPod from the stereo for fear of it getting fried.

By eight in the morning the barometer had bottomed out at 986 millibars dropping almost 30 millibars in ten hours! The wind again picked up as the day started, veering from the southeast to the northwest and increasing to a hurricane force of seventy knots. The 70 metric tons of ballast water I had pumped to port to compensate for 5 degrees of starboard heel had to be pumped back with an additional 80 tons for the port heel.

Fortunately the blow only lasted for a few hours so the confused seas never had a chance to build as we passed under the lee of Cape Breton Island and away form the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. It was pretty exceptional weather for an August day ruining any hopes of fishing.

I'm making the last push to get all my responsibilities onboard wrapped up and ready for a turnover. Relief notes are a headache but if you plan on coming back to the same ship next time than they are vital to keep things flowing the way you hope they do.

I never count days until the last week when the anticipation becomes real. There's nothing like knowing you're days left are getting down to the single digits. The feeling is probably akin to waiting to get out of jail, except I get a paycheck at the end of my confinement from society.

The 4 to 8 AB this morning addressed me by my surname, an unusual formality, but it made sense when he later asked me if I had a brother that sailed. I said I did and then he asked me if he was a chief mate and triathelete and I immediately knew he was asking about my father, who yes, in his leaner meaner years was in fact a triathelete. Lydell, a Designated Engine Utility at the time, had worked with my dad on an old chemical tanker and had nothing but good things to say. I think that had been was my dad's first Chief Mate job running chemicals from the Gulf of Mexico to the East Coast and Puerto Rico. I love having those encounters out here with people who've run across the seafaring members in my family. My dad made a lot of friends over the years who continue to profess their loyalty, even to me. It's not such a big world, especially when you have the monosyllabic last name I do.

My mind is full of to do lists and scheduling for the first hectic month back at home. I have a dozen ideas of how I want to spend my first 48 hours of freedom. On the top of the list is breakfasting at Bentliff's American Cafi in Portland after an all nighter. The hash and/or waffles are out of this world and the Bloody Mary's wicked stiff. I'd also like to have a proper dinner, at dinner time, rather than sleeping through it, seventy nights of the midnight shift is enough. Then, after eating all that food I'd like to jump on my road bike and put twenty or thirty miles under the tires zipping up and down the hills around my house. After that I might get to the to do lists, or maybe I'll just go swimming and get ready for my own triathalon.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

North Channel

Three days prior to departing Southampton the weather forecasts were
predicting a sizeable low pressure system moving into the English
Channel. Considering the forecasted sea state the Captain decided we
would deviate from the usual west bound track passing south of Bishop
Rock and instead hang a right after Lands End passing East of the Isles
of Scilly and due north into the protected waters of the Irish Sea. I
also think that after twenty years of traversing the exact same
waypoints hitch after hitch the Captain looks for any excuse to change
the voyage plan.

The deviation worked well, the low pushed 8 meter seas into the mouth of
the English Channel for a day and a half while we rounded Northern
Ireland only encountering 6 meter seas for less than 18 hours. Winds
maxed out at gusts of 50 knots. The Irish Sea was uneventful, the only
memorable aspect being the names of certain towns, mountains, and
peninsulas. Giant's Causeway, Bloody Foreland, Muckish Moutain, The Oa,
and Balley Galley stood out on the chart. It was night time when we
passed our final two lighthouses so the scenery unfortunately wasn't

The sky cleared shortly after loosing sight of land and for the first
time in a week I felt incredibly energized after sleeping for a solid
nine or ten hours. This has got to be the most gratifying part of the
voyage second only to getting paid off and on a plane. You've just
busted ass for the last eight or ten days to the point of exhaustion and
finally can get away from the hassle of pilots, harbors, stevedores, and
port state control authorities to sleep without interruption. It's
always a quiet ship after a coast, hardly anyone is up for breakfast,
the Captain and Chief avoid checking emails and keep their door's shut
for a full day.

All this may change though. Internet is making its way into the deep
water merchant fleets of companies like mine. The Scandinavian Flagged
portion of the fleet is already fitted with broadband which is a
wonderful addition for the crew but a curse for the Captain and Chief.
Rather than linking to a satellite two or three times a day to send and
receive the latest batch of emails the ship will be continuously
connected, 24 hours a day. Uninterrupted communications with the home
offices in New Jersey, as well as company headquarters in Oslo and
Stockholm, means that any question or order by email will be immediately
received and an immediate response will be expected.

There was a day when ships received their orders through radio telex
only when it could be received from a transmitting coast station.
Communications with the office were limited to certain times of day and
geographic location. I remember as a kid getting phone calls from my dad
which were over the single side ban radio and patched through a coast
station at an exorbitant cost. With satellites the telexes could be
received almost anywhere in the world and with satellite telephone the
ship's had a phone number in addition to their radio call sign which
meant no longer having to wait for my dad to key the mike when he was
calling on Christmas Eve.

All that was good for enhancing safety and letting crew keep in touch
with family but with email, and shortly internet, the authority of the
Master and the fleeting autonomy of a ship at sea is quickly
disappearing. Well, at least there will be the weekends when the office
is out playing golf and having barbecues leaving the ship in peace.

This crossing is taking us on a Great Circle from the northern tip of
Ireland to a waypoint 25 miles south and east of Cape Race Newfoundland.
The ice edge has retreated to the coast of Labrador over the last two
months allowing for this. Otherwise we would have to head for a point
further south and away from the hazards of icebergs. From Cape Race
we'll parallel the Canadian Maritimes passing through French territorial
waters south of St. Pierre and Miquelon islands, over the Laurentian
Trench, north of Sable Island, over the Fundian Trench and then to
Georges Bank.

Our speed is again reduced to about 80 rpm to conserve fuel; another
Captain in the fleet set an all time record for fewest tons of fuel
consumed in a North Atlantic crossing so now there is a heated
competition to run as slow as possible. It will also give us a chance to
throw a couple of lures over the stern tomorrow as we cross the Grand
Banks in hopes of jigging some dinner. I checked out the galley and we
have an ample store of soy sauce and wasabi paste thanks to our Swedish
predecessors. Sashimi always tastes the best with the heart still

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


My eighth day of the eighth month of the eighth year was spent in the
riverside port of Southampton, England. The port is at the head of
Southampton Waters, a river stretching north of the Isle of Wight, where
the town of Cowes is. There must have been a thousand sail boats tied up
in the harbor or moored in the Solent as Cowe's race week was just

Despite the absence of a lock in Southampton, docking usually takes an
excessively long amount of time. This is due to the innate ability of
the Southampton pilots to stop a ship's lateral motion and hold position
fifty feet short of quay side. What should take fifteen minutes takes
thirty here. That is because rather than gaining lateral momentum to
close on the dock while coming alongside they instead slow the ship to
dead in the water, exerting her to all the environmental forces at hand,
most notably the wind, and creep up to the dock using the tug boat to
PULL rather than push with it's wire.

Normally a tug boat makes up on the offshore quarter, and pushes to get
the ship along side, only pulling on the line if it's needed to slow the
ship. In the UK it appears to be forbidden for a tug boat to push with a
line up. Instead they try to encourage the stern alongside by indirectly
pulling on the wire and angling themselves towards the dock. Then, when
there is sufficient momentum to come alongside they decide to slingshot
the stern off to slow it down, twenty feet short of being alongside.

This process is aggravating, time consuming, and hazardous, especially
if the wind is of considerable strength. It necessitates excessive use
of the bow thruster, back and forth, trying to balance out what the
after tug is doing. The pilot in this instance almost got himself
throttled by the captain because he was actually lecturing the old man
on what the "Unseen forces" were doing to his ship. The Captain,
outwardly cool and composed, refrained but afterwards filled me in on
the episode. I wanted to know if the pilots knew that it shouldn't take
half an hour to edge a ship along side by pulling the stern towards the
dock, than away, then towards over and over again. Apparently they feel
that they do a bloody good job each and every time in accordance with
time tested methods pre-dating the Titanic.

I'm no expert on this topic but I have seen several hundred dockings
from the bow, bridge, and stern of ships and only the Japanese compare
in ineptitude once coming alongside. (It should be known that tugs here
use Voith-Schneider or Z-Drive propulsion and that surely has to do with
their methods of maneuvering them, whether it works or not is

To add to the headache, once the head lines were on and the stern
alongside the Captain pleaded with the pilot to have the tug let go and
simply push on the stern to keep it alongside while the third mate could
run his after lines. The tug, unaware of where mid ships actually is
(the middle of the ship) started pushing on the forward half of the ship
once again levering the stern off the dock with lines already fast. Not

Once that fiasco was completed we soon had our ramp down and the slowest
4 stevedores in the UK were running forklifts discharging in two hours
what it took 2 Germans half an hour to load. I finished up my watch
busting a couple of sixteen year old car lashers smoking out the bow.
They started giving me lip, professing they weren't smoking anything but
a fag despite the lingering odor so I said I'd have them all shackled
and taken by the local constabulary for being in a restricted area and
they scrambled back into the holds convinced I was going to have them
sacked from their summer jobs. It was then that I suddenly realized I
had become 'that guy'.

I went ashore for my first time in the UK and was pleased to find a sim
card that would let me call the states for 2 pence a minute. I was
really surprised that cell phone rates were so low when everything else
here costs so much. A gallon of gas retails for 12 US dollars! The
captain likes to burn Yankee Candles in his office so he asked me to
fetch him a pair. I was blown away when the cashier charged me almost US
$55 for a Candied Apple and a Sun and Sand scented candle.  I realize
that they are imported from Massachusettes but still. Indlcuded in the
reciept was a 17% VAT tax. I guess it is a good thing we became
independent when we did.

After I had hidden my Yankee Candle shopping bag in my rucksack I
perused the open air market set just behind the medieval city gates. The
stands of farm produce, woolens, and art were a stark contrast with the
two huge American style malls just outside the old city walls a block up
High Street. I then joined some locals for a pint of Courage, the local
cheap ass brew, and some unintelligible conversation. I think German is
easier to understand than the flavor of English spoken in these parts
after a couple of pints.

There was free wi-fi at the pub which made up for the rubbery chicken
curry. On my way back to the docks I stopped in the Maritime Museum but
found the display on the Titanic, which sailed from the abandoned berth
across from ours, very small. I did catch the opening ceremony of the
Olympics at the Southampton Seafarer's Mission but wasn't too impressed
by China's grandstanding.

I'm definitely opposed to China's hosting the games this year. Maybe it
has something to do with restricting 90% of all automobile traffic in
Beijing so we can't see the normal pallor of industrialization that
hangs over the city. Or perhaps it's just their complete disregard for
religious and political freedoms. It's the same message Russia in
sending to Georgia over South Ossetia right now; we're world powers and
we will get what we want. Welcome to the team boys.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Belgium in a blur

We were called out to make up the tug on the stern and enter the locks
at 2200. The lock wasn't available until midnight and we weren't fast at
the dock until 0200 making it a four hour mooring operation. Not a big
deal during the temperate summertime temperatures of August but come
winter this will inevitably become an arduous task for the eight guys
split between the bow and stern mooring stations. I now understand why
the bridge wings are enclosed.

To lengthen the duration of the docking the pilot took all the time in
the world getting us across the non tidal harbor and alongside the quay
in Antwerp's "Left bank". I was on watch any way so it didn't affect my
sleep but it was making for a longer day before it had even started for
the rest of the crew. This is all too common of an occurrence on my
ship. The interval between docks in Northern Europe combined with the
amount of crew onboard inhibits our ability to always get what would be
normal and adequate rest for land dwellers in between critical and risky
ship evolutions.

Making up the wire from a docking tug requires the skill of three
people. One AB to operate the winch, another, usually the Boson, to work
the pendant on the wire over the turning winch drum, and myself to
wrangle the inch thick steel cable's eye onto the deck mounted horn.
This is a dangerous operation on it's own but with a foreign pilot on
the bridge talking to the tug driver in Flemish it's a little sketchier.
If that tug puts any weight on the wire while we are heaving it up the
forty feet to the mooring station, or while we are lowering it, we will
loose control of the wire and anything else that might be in between the
eye and the chock.

So far my experiences with the German and Belgian tug operators have
been successful. They have a good handle of what we are doing on the
fore deck when we're taking up their wire and wait until I give the all
fast signal before working the ship. Unfortunately the use of steel wire
is the norm on this side of the Atlantic and I absolutely abhor it.
Modern synthetic hawsers and lighter, stronger, easier to handle and
safer if they part whereas steel wire is heavy and unforgiving if it
parts but it is much cheaper and resistant to wear and chaffing so we're
stuck with it over here. In the United States tugs almost all use fiber

So you can see why having sufficient sleep is crucial when organizing a
mooring operation. Unfortunately the rest of the maritime industry; the
cargo planners, the schedulers, the port, the locks and all other facets
of shipping aren't quite as adamant about ensuring we get our proper
rest prior to docking as the good folks at the USCG and IMO; the
organizations whom developed the regulations we are supposed to be
comply with. Why? Because it doesn't pay to put a ship out to anchor so
the deck hands can get their sleep before tying up. I could go on about
the contradictions endemic to the rules we are required to adhere to and
the reality of the industry but I'll save it for when I'm really tired
after a thirty six hour day, something not to uncommon for a chief mate
around here.

Due to the hour we usually tie up in Belgium the Captain will task me
with clearing the ship with the immigration police. This has so far been
quick and painless. The police are used to seeing the American Ro/Ro's
in Antwerp and Zeebrugge. They do not require 'presents' in the way of
cigarettes, candy, and anything else their hearts may desire as is
typical in most parts of the world with port officials. I provide them a
list of the crew, let them view the passports neatly piled on the
reception room round table, and offer them coffee or tea. A few stamps
later and were legal at which point I start pressing for local
information on the cheapest and quickest way in to Antwerp.

After a full day of cargo we had two more tardy crew members nearly miss
the ship, but this time it wasn't their fault. Initially the Captain had
set the sailing board for 0300 in the morning. The sailing board is a
legal requirement delineated in labor contracts that must be set once
the ship has arrived in port (Usually a chalk board by the ramp). Once
it has been set the crew is obligated to be onboard the ship an hour
prior to the time of sailing. The board can be 'shifted' to a later time
but if it is set back to an earlier hour the crew who has gone ashore
isn't liable if they miss the sailing. This was almost the case with two
oilers who by luck decided to call it quits early, and took a cab from
Antwerp's seedier parts back to the ship. By the time they got home the
stern ramp was closed and the wires on the side ramp were tight raising
it off the quay. The Chief Mate lowered the castle's drawbridge and they
scurried aboard slurring their innocence. We sailed for Zeebrugge with
all hands aboard.

The trip down the Schelde takes a little over six hours. The river is
winding and rimmed by banks which uncover at low tide. There is a
massive amount of refineries and other heavy industry along the river
reminding me of the twisting Mississippi. It's a tedious transit,
especially when you have a pilot like the last one who insisted on
slowing from 12 knots 9 for every damn tug and barge or small coaster we
passed. No one likes a throttle jockey.

We switched out pilots in Flushing, a seaside city on the southwestern
tip of Holland shortly before a squall line of thick brown clouds
consumed us in driving rain and a fantastic lighting show striking the
waters all around us. We lucked out in Zeebrugge having the lock
available on arrival. Otherwise the morning would have been a repeat of
yesterday's locking maneuver only with driving horizontal rain which
even a covered mooring station cannot quell.

Antwerp and Zeebrugge are much like Bremerhaven, all being hubs of ro/ro
traffic streams. Both of these Belgian ports are sprawling concrete
terminals, essentially huge parking lots where the cargoes are staged
for loading onto the ships or onto the trains, trucks, and feeder ships
that will distribute them to their final destination in the European

These feeder ships, engaged in short sea shipping, are of real interest
to me. Ro/Ro vessels are most efficient in short sea shipping when
employed on shorter runs, containers take over in efficiency for longer
hauls say from Belgium to the Mediterranean. The coasters link the
trans-oceanic ships like mine which call on the deepwater ports to the
smaller ports and canals around Europe. The ships are built for quick
turnaround, maneuvered without tugs or pilots, and designed specifically
for rolling stock cargoes.

To most who see the modern Pure Car Truck Carrier or their smaller
coastal cousins they would probably regard the boxy structure, rounded
ten-story bow, and lengthy parallel mid body as gigantic and graceless.
They retain few of the classic lines of a merchant ship, no sheer or
tumblehome, no masts and booms, no forecastle or rounded counter. But to
me their unconventional shape is the form of functionality.

For a ship watcher with a propensity for car carriers these ports are
great. I watched two ships in the combined WWL fleet do a close quarters
tug assisted berth swap in Bremerhaven mere meters in front of us that
was absolutely awesome. I was so impressed by their immensity and
appearance that I took video of it. In Zeebrugge I watched a smaller
Kess lines ship shift berths three times in the same port, without a
pilot or tug assisting, in less than six hours. The precision and
timeliness of her maneuvering was really impressive. This was one of the
brand new, dual thruster, compact ro/ro's that I imagine might someday
lend themselves to North America's transportation network.

And, believe it or not, I'm not the only ship watcher out there. In
Germany people pay to take tour boats down the canal, under the swing
bridge and around the ro/ro docks to do the same thing, watch the ships
and take pictures. And they always wave to crew members high above on
the weather decks. Sometimes it's nice to have an audience.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

No steward for the stew?

Cargo operations were canceled on Sunday. This provided some down time
to lubricate the stern ramp, a quarterly job of high importance and to
lower the fast rescue boat for its monthly maintenance. I switched to a
six-hour watch with the third mate so he could get ashore in the
afternoon and planned to do the same on the following day in hopes of
finding a pre-paid sim card to call the states. I'm hoping to avoid
having to shell out any more money to AT&T for international roaming.

Apparently these do not exist in Germany. I must have tried four
different cell phone companies in the shopping district of Bremerhaven
but couldn't find anything better than 1 euro per minute which was fifty
cents more per minute than if I used my own phone. I managed to salvage
the afternoon by catching up on emails at the German Seafarer's Center,
mailing no less than ten post cards (Breaking my trip record of post
cards sent, now at 20), and talking at length with a third mate from the
Horizon Motivator, a containership crewed by the MM&P, a union rival to
my own fraternal order of ocean transportation specialists.

I could write at length of our discussion comparing working conditions,
travel arrangements, port stays and schedules, relief situations, wages,
benefits, and training but I'll spare you. I did come to the conclusion
that there is a reason MM&P has a better reputation for taking care of
their people. I'll give you one example. A former captain of mine had to
join his ship in Kunsan South Korea. Though he had been the master with
the company for fourteen years managing a multi million-dollar money
making machine he was flown coach the entire twenty-four hours from
Florida to Korea.

The last time the third mate from the Motivator flew internationally to
join a ship it was in business class and he was put up in a hotel prior
to signing on so he would be rested and ready to take the watch. My
captain was driven directly from the airport to the ship, no hotel in
between. Why the difference? Because it's in their contract and will
definitely never be in ours.

I also had a good conversation with a cab driver that quelled any
complaints I might have with my own financial compensation or living
situation in the USA. This particular cabbie was of my favorite variety.
Politically attuned and interested in sharing cultural perspectives with
a foreigner. He lamented how ten years ago he needed to only drive 8
hours a day to make a fair middle class German living. Now he had to
drive 12 just to make ends meet. He owns his own cab plus another car
and his home. Since the inception of the European Union the buying power
of his converted Deutschmarks has only diminished.

I noticed this too when buying my most important commodities in a
European country, chocolate and beer. Five years ago as a cadet on a
maritime academy training vessel I visited the city of Antwerp. What I
spent then on white beer and Belgian Congolese cocoa would buy half as
much today. A pity for a tourist but a real problem for a German.

Adding on to this guy's misery was the hike in gas for heating his home.
Only a few days ago I heard on the BBC as we entered the English Channel
that the British Utilities Company was instituting its largest price
hike in history. I'm not sure about the numbers, my fact checking
abilities are limited without Google, but I think the report said it was
in the neighborhood of 50% for natural gas. Yet another nail in the
coffin of the middle class. The situation is similar in Germany which is
getting big into domestic coal with most of their oil being imported;
there is always a lot of mining equipment on the dock in Bremerhaven.
(On a side note, the German's developed coal gasification as a result of
the same problem in World War Two)

As we waited in the cab for a swing bridge to close after letting yet
another car carrier through we couldn't come up with a solution. The
cabbie was a little despondent about the way things were going to end
up. His big complaint was that German companies were keeping less and
less full time employees relegating labor to temp agencies when they
needed warm bodies and letting them go when they became unnecessary. He
felt as I often do, powerless to effect a change in policies that govern
his country and its destination. I couldn't help but try to buoy his
mood by remarking that the port must have a positive affect on the local
economy. The port, he explained, only provided jobs when shipping was
strong and that was always variable and sure to slow along with the
global economy.

After getting myself back aboard I had a few hours of sleep before all
hands were called out for letting go. Each time we depart the officer on
watch verifies that everyone has made it back to the ship. The steward
was still ashore as we reluctantly began letting go the lines.

 This presented a bad situation for the steward and the crew. Worst case
he would be fired, missing a ship's movement is on the list of forbidden
screw ups, and would be getting a bill for his repatriation to the
states from his union. Best case he would join us in Antwerp and be
fined a days pay. For us onboard it would mean having a cook doing the
job of two people and probably burning out. So it was a big relief to
see him sheepishly sitting on a bollard in the locks. He had gotten back
to the dock right after last line and the 'bugsiers' or line handlers
had given him a lift in their truck. He boarded through the pilot port
as we switched out the pilots and awaited the water level to be lowered
to match the tide.

I would have gone to bed after the ship was turned to point down river
and standing by the anchors was no longer necessary but I was already an
hour into my watch so I spent the next seven hours on the bridge. The
extra two were to cover for the Chief Mate so he could get suitable
sleep. The pilot was taken off by helicopter as the pilot cutter was
seeking sheltered waters up river due to heavy weather. The VTS was
directing ships up the first ten miles of the river by radio guidance,
interesting to listen to.  The helicopter is always an impressive sight
and sound when positioned thirty feet above you head. The whole time I
picture the tail rotor touching the aft mast and the whole helo spinning
down onto the top of the ship right where I'm standing. The pilot did
say that in thirty years of using helicopters in rough weather on the
Westerschelde there has never been an incident. It is professed to be
safer than the pilot boat / ladder method.

The transit along the German Bight was thankfully uneventful after the
helo ops. I was disappointed to not have the parade of Polish tall ships
like the last time we were here, a great sight in the rising sun.

After watch I was thinking about getting some more sleep but instead
wound up on the bow with the first assistant and a very hung over oiler
(He was hilarious but only useful as a gofer and for working the chain
fall) trying to figure out how to remove the burnt out brake band on a
fully automated winch drum. It took two hours but we had it off, found
new brake material and the rivets to hold them in place, and by the next
port I had an again functioning offshore headline winch. After that I
slept the sleep of the nearly dead for the remainder of the day.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Short Seas

Cargo operations started this morning in Germany. It's the summer holiday season and another ship had priority so it was slow going. By the time I was heading to bed after going ashore they had started discharging our high/heavy cargoes from the main deck. This always results in a mess of chain lashings, 5 ton straps, wheel chocks, garbage and rubber mats. Standing the mid watch ensures that I get to clean up the gear so the holds are ready to go for the next stevedoring operation. The holds for Ro Ro cargo require a mastery of organization. The securing equipment needs to always be available and out of the way and mustn't be allowed to get over stowed creating a shortage of straps or chains in another part of the ship. The ship's own equipment; forklift, deck sweeper, deck lifters of which we have three, and the John Deer "Gator" have to be dealt with similarly.

Fortunately in Bremerhaven the labor does not work 24 hours a day as in other ports I've encountered so we are provided down time to clean up. Once this is wrapped up in a few hours I can get to the bridge and catch up on paperwork and getting the charts set up for the next leg of the voyage.

Unlike our last stay here the sun was out so I spent the afternoon in town reveling in the summer weather. I spent a good hour and a half hiking around the canals and waterfronts. I happened upon the maritime museum but decided I'd rather sit outside and have dinner for the first time in weeks. This was not a mistake as the egg battered white fish I ordered was great. It had a full cup of small pink prawns dumped on top that were sweet and unlike any other oversized krill I've ever eaten. The entrie came with melted butter, boiled potatoes and a salad with cucumber dill dressing. The meal was 21 euro so not exactly cheap but worth it. I would have a hard time sailing over four thousand miles of ocean and not get to taste the fish on the other side.

The auto terminal is an impressive place. My view from the bridge looks out over the river with the southern end of the world's longest container quay in between. I counted forty gantry cranes! The lock sits to my left adjacent to a swing bridge which allows entry to the canal that runs closer to down town Bremerhaven. The container terminal is accessed from the river, the non-tidal basin reserved for Ro/Ro vessels with ramps that would become unworkable at the extremes of the tide. You can fit five ships in the basin at a time and there is rarely less than three. The smaller coastwise, Short Seas Shipping vessels enter the canal and moor closer to town.

The coast wise traffic is prolific. There is so much in the way of shipping activity here it makes me envious. Dozens of small Ro/Ro ships ferry automobiles and lorries from ports all over continental Europe. Instead of having massive highway and bridge infrastructure allowing large scale trucking as we do in the U.S. Europe transports its freight by sea and inland waterways as much as possible. It's more efficient and environmentally friendly as well as cheaper with out the wear and tear on roadways. And though these coastal freighters are crewed much like our tug and barge fleets in the states, they still provide a large amount of maritime jobs for the masses. Europe is very similar to Japan in this regard. I think the only industrialized maritime nation missing out on the action is my own. This topic interests me immensely and is something I'd like to learn more about. There is a rising volume to the discussion of increasing our maritime infrastructure and encouraging Short Sea Shipping in the United States. The sooner the better given how quickly our delapitaed bridges like the one that was in Minneapolis are being repaired.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Eight Bells

I'm sick to my stomach from the shock of unexpected loss. I was just
getting around to writing something down, probably something about the
weather being gray as we are now back in the Northern European "Summer",
or about the non-eventful transit through the Strait of Dover when my
phone started buzzing. I wasn't expecting a call, I didn't even think
I'd be getting any reception as we are edging up the Dutch Coast but I
answered and heard the voice of an old friend thousands of miles away.
He asked me where I was, the coast of Holland was my reply, and then in
a grief stricken voice told me that a good friend of ours, a very close
friend of his, had died two nights ago.

As I start to write more in this forum I am asking myself if I should
keep it strictly related to sea-faring, being my profession and general
focus of my life, or if I should delve into the personal and share
things like this with the world. I just finished contemplating this once
again and feel that if I'm writing to let my friends, family, and others
know what occurs in life when working at sea than this, even the
personal side, is part of it.

Dealing with death from the confines of my cabin is not ideal. The
passing of someone you cared for greatly is hard enough, but answering
that phone call from thousands of miles away adds to the sheer gloom of
the event. You feel isolated and helpless. All you want to do is rush
out and help or at least be present for the friends and family of that
lost person. I won't even be able to make his ceremony and show my face
like he did at my graduation party four years ago. The finality of not
being there is horrible for me but fortunately I'm the only person who
will notice. This was such a sudden event, so accidental and tragic that
the amount of grief being shared in that small home in Maine is beyond
my comprehension.

I suppose I can briefly share what I know of this person, how he
influenced my life, and how I will remember him. Shane was one of the
first friends of mine to pick me up in his Toyota and drive my
fifteen-year-old ass around town introducing me to his older and much
cooler friends. He would pick me up after cross country meets and ensure
I got my fill of homecoming insobriety. He would park at the top of my
road on 213 and fill me full of Eastern philosophy as the sun sank
behind the hills of Newcastle. When I got my own car he would be the guy
to pull my Subaru with too little ground clearance out of the woods on
the Indian Trail.

He was the first and one of the only real "Hippies" I will ever know and
took his calm, accepting outlook with him wherever he went. Along with
the help of the friend who just called me to tell me this news he shaped
my spiritual outlook on life teaching me that it was alright to
challenge the accepted notions of god and hell and to find independence
in my beliefs, away from western influences. He also showed me that
authority, in our case that of high school and the Lincoln County
Sheriffs department, couldn't deter our right to do as we saw fit with
our time before, during, and after school.

Shane was the first friend of mine to get his Captains license and
encouraged me to do the same saying it was the best day of his life when
he walked out of the REC in Boston. He fell in love with the waters
around the town where we grew up just as I did and stayed there sailing
on them, skippering power and sail vessels summer after summer out to
the islands. He was a sailor and he was a good one.

He was never pretentious, never insincere, and treated the world in
accordance with his beliefs and I don't think he ever faltered in this.
I have only prayers to offer his parents whose loss is beyond
description and I know that he will always be remembered by all who knew
him sailing on the rivers and bays or driving the back woods trails of
Maine. God he's going to be missed, he really was one of the kindest
people I have ever known.