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.

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