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.

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