Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas in Germany

I watched the sun rise this morning over a city silently sleeping below the clear winter sky. At nine oclock the church bells began ringing loudly so even on the deck of my ship they could be heard. A brass ensemble from the seaman's mission came onboard to play Christmas tunes for a half an hour later in the morning and the steward put out Christmas dinner early which most of the crew slept through after last nights celebrations. Besides a Finnish ferry we are the only vessel left in the Ro/Ro basin and all the unlicensed have been given the day off from day work and watches. Tonight there is a Christmas Ball that a few of us will be attending and then at 0800 we'll sail for Antwerp to restart our load back and head for home. I can't wait to put the setting sun squarely over the port quarter. Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


Good milk is cause for celebration for anyone who loves their coffee the color of a brown paper bag. Having a store of fresh dairy in the bridge ice box is a blessing and the milk in Germany is on the top of my dairy list rivaled only by Oakhurst, a delicious hormone free brand known for fattening my brothers and I up at young ages and putting the fire out in “Burnt Trailers” all over Maine (Allen’s Coffee Brandy and whole milk that is).

I mention the “millche” here on account of its necessity in tempering the espresso shots it will take to keep me awake after yesterday’s cultural sortie up the Weser River. Choosing to go ashore after a full day’s work over sleep is a hard decision but this morning I’m left with no regrets. The shuteye I missed out on was well worth the hour long train ride out of the port and into Bremen, a city of 550,000 people on the Weser River. Together with my counterpart in the Engine Department and the always socially inclined cadet we made our way to the Christmas Market in the old city center.

We spotted the twin spires of a massive (Lutheran) church that had it’s origins in 800AD and followed them to the market square wherein hundreds of vendors had erected a temporary village for the month long Christmas Market. Glittering with holiday decorations and the sound of caroling street choirs the mood was pure Christmas everywhere you looked. There was a Santa Claus reading holiday fables to a dozen children in front of a North Pole back drop next to shops selling thousands of hand made wooden Christmas ornaments. Christmas trees were hoisted on top of roofs and utility poles and a huge fir had made it into the Church waiting for tomorrow night’s lighting service.

There was traditional German holiday fare being grilled, fried, roasted and brewed and happily consumed with complete abandonment by the young and old. The 14 inch Bratwursts were cooked over a huge circular grill and served with a comically small roll that wouldn’t accommodate a burger. This served as a grip for dipping the sausage in hot mustard. Potatoes were fried as regular straight cuts or mashed into a cake and eaten with different sauces. There were crepes and candied nuts and gingerbread galore. My favorite meal though was a bowel of garlic oiled and dill sauced mushrooms for only 2 euro.

To compliment the affordable food were twenty or so glühwein stands. This magical spiced red or white wine beverage was served hot in a mug which we were free to walk around the city with. The best drink was a variant of gluhwein whose unpronounceable name included the words fire and bowel. Cooked in huge copper pots, a brewer would flash a pan of white rum into blue flames and then carefully pour it into the kettle giving a boozy and sugared kick to the sweet red wine. After a few mugs of this the chill winter drizzle no longer seemed to matter as much.

There is something wonderfully satisfying in getting a grape buzz on as you gaze up at a 600 year old town hall (Now a UNESCO world heritage site) surrounded by crowds of merry Germans whose holiday merrymaking predates the Hanseatic League. Imagining the generations of Germanic peoples drinking hot wine in this square around Christmas time before Christ had even come into the picture is true pleasure. These rare moments when you’re whisked away from work and dropped off in another country and another culture have to be appreciated because it just doesn’t happen often enough.
A statue of ROLAND bearing Durendart, the "sword of justice" and a shield decorated with an imperial eagle.

Solstice in the North Sea

It was a long morning on watch in what seemed to be interminable darkness in the southern portion of the North Sea. I couldn’t help but work out the time of sun rise and sun set on this, the shortest day of the year. I’m sure this is to blame for my feeling like a zombie come eight o’clock just as the sky was beginning to lighten. I can’t imagine how it is for the crews of the feeder ships and work boats that never make it out of the North or Baltic Seas all winter. They must be conditioned to the long nights and short days where as I depend on the sun’s timely arrival to get a boost of energy to finish off my day.

You know you’ve reached the English Channel when all of the FM radio weather reports are tailored for sailors and goes something like this;

“Faeroe northwest 7, increasing to 8 later, poor, 3 miles in haze.”

By using only succinct marine terminology the BBC broadcasts the weather for the entire nation hourly informing mariners of the wind condition, precipitation, visibility and short term trend in short order. It reminds me how much of a seafaring nation the U.K. remains to be. Of course at the top of the hour and the end of the forecast they have to play “God Save the Queen”, the tune of which is obviously a total knock off of our ancient and most solemn patriotic hymn “America" also know as "My country, 'Tis of thee."

Our passage through the Strait of Dover was typical for rush hour on a marine highway. The only place I’ve ever sailed that was more crowded with ships than it is here is the Strait of Korea where orderly use of traffic separation schemes, or sea lanes, is not maintained and no fisherman speaks the English tongue. At least in the English Channel in between Dover and Cap Griz Nez the traffic is constantly being monitored by a Vessel Traffic Service. Utilizing land based radar stations to monitor the flow of vessels 24 hours a day the VTS acts just like Air Traffic Control does at any airport.
(Disclaimer: I'm not the one using relative trails in this ph0tograph, a practice I do not endorse)

The main difference with a VTS is that they do not assign flight patterns to ships instead relying on each vessel’s bridge team to navigate through their surveillance areas safely. If a dangerous situation emerges, perhaps when a panicky third mate does something brash without calling his captain as a Dover/Calais ferry making 24 knots cut’s across his bow, the VTS will intervene informing both vessels of their impending doom.

The Dover Strait Coast Guard, who maintains the English side of the Traffic Separation Scheme, also has a reputation for mailing fuming letters to shipping companies who’s vessels were not paying attention to the collision regulations. They nailed one former mate’s ass to the wall at my company for standing on with a crossing ferry when he should have been giving way and not replying to the distressed radio calls from the approaching vessel.

We arrived in Germany after a ten day crossing, which all hands agreed had seemed laboriously long, just after dinner and had a straight shot through the lock. We swapped out places with an outbound car carrier and moored snugly against the quay with the wind fortuitously on the offshore side. Given the immensity and shape of the ship, a wind blowing us off the dock is cause for keeping the bow thruster warm all night and little sleep for the Captain.

Once the ramp was down a mass exodus occurred in which all the day workers trounced off in a pack intent on beginning their own financial bailout plan for the bars of Bremerhaven. You wouldn’t think there was a slowdown in the E.U.’s biggest economy though after surveying the docks. Rows and rows of trucks, busses, cars, heavy machinery and all kinds of other brand new machines span from one horizon to the other. Not to mention the worlds longest (Not the largest) container quay is still piled with boxes which are hurriedly shifted from ship to stacks to ship by spindly legged carriers 24 hours a day.

Tomorrow will be Christmas Eve and the Captain has arranged for the American Seaman’s Club to open for dinner. Out of the goodness of their hearts the owners are going to make Christmas Dinner for all attending hands and the Captain is going to pick up the tab on all the drinks. I’ll be absent from the festivities instead sleeping before my mid watch and more importantly, attending to my Santa Claus duties in the early morning hours. The Captain has tasked me with putting out the dozens of welfare gifts donated by seaman’s mission all over the East Coast containing toiletries, pens, envelopes, stamps and hand knitted caps and stockings thanks to grandmothers all over the greater Baltimore metropolitan area.

Threats On The Sea: A View From A French Warship

If you haven't all ready heard enough about the ongoing scourge of pirates in the Gulf of Aden give a listen to this program on NPR aired a few days ago. Great coverage and audio clips on what's going on this holiday season in the worlds most hostile waters. As a side note, my company just sent out an ABP asking all their vessels plying these waters what measures short of arming the crew with AK-47s and molotov cocktails the Captains would like to see. The replies included recommendations such as Kevlar helmets and flak jackets, more UHF radios, a second LRAD for the opposite quarter, and my personal favorite, painting the location of points of ingress on the weather deck so bins of scrap metal can be "lightered" onto the thwarts of the boarding dhows. For once this Christmas I'm somewhere besides the Persian Gulf and glad for it.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Sugarplum Fairies

A sailor rarely boasts about how fine the weather has been for fear of
the sea's reprisal but I must say, it's been marvelous this past week.
Just as it was last month, the jet stream has again formed a large arc
over the mid North Atlantic keeping the eastern seaboard busy with
Nor'easters and the shores of Europe fraught with huge swells
originating from the waters south of Iceland. We've stayed under it all
crossing close abeam to Bermuda and then over the Azores amid a blocking
or Omega high-pressure system. This has ensured a constant flow of warm
air from the more temperate latitudes and lighter winds towards the
center of that high. And the wintry weather that blew over Ireland this
week has been pushed over Central Europe just as were arriving at the
English Channel making for a clear passage.

Today the skies opened up as I had been hoping for. We've had a cadet on
this trip who has shown a genuine interest in his on the job training.
This is a marked contrast from the last couple of midshipmen that have
spent their 90 days onboard with me. Rather than standing watch
oblivious to the outside world and immersed in sea projects this fellow
has left most of his project to his off hours and instead has been
meeting the expectations I very clearly set for him as I do with every
cadet out here the first watch we stand together on the bridge.

This morning was a success because the stars were finally out and the
horizon ripe for the shooting just as we were both coming up from
breakfast. We got enough down for a fix and more importantly the cadet
was able to see why the math works in practice which I hope will make
his next two semesters of Celestial Nav a little more interesting.

It's surprising how much work it takes to instruct a cadet through a
round of stars for the first time but I think that person-to-person
exchange is critical for any student who really wants to give sailing a
shot. The wallflowers whose presence all too often graces the bridge
make me reluctant to go out of my way, i.e. cut into my schedule, to
help them with things that they genuinely seem indifferent to. Those are
the third mate's I'd rather not see coming up the gangway.

Sprits are high onboard as we all found out that our coast schedule
includes a solid five days in Germany followed by an overnight in
Antwerp and Southampton. This amount of time for a ship in our trade to
be alongside is unheard of, and is due in part to a flexible schedule
and as the Captain put it "Low friends in high places."

Now that the crew knows we'll be alongside for a week of overnights the
draw list has been put out and a few record amounts of cash are being
taken against wages earned. I prefer not to exchange money at bars and
will just hit up the ATMs if in need of Euros but all the same, it might
be an expensive port stay. It's pretty common in cases like this for a
seaman to have next to nothing at payoff after blowing it like a rock
star in port. "You can always make another trip but can't always go back
to Rio" is the mindset for many.

Bets are already being laid as to who will end up in some sort of
trouble ashore, the known gas hounds taking the lead. So far the police
have investigated a few crew/local interactions since I've been to
Germany. The most memorable being when the 3A/E was shook down for 400
euro while his "Girlfriend" distracted him with her bare chest in the
red light district. That turned out to be an expensive date. The story
actually gets better when the Police arrived to question the offended
victim in the Captains reception area. As the third assistant reenacted
the event with boisterous animation in a thick Down East accent for the
attentive and attractive female detective, the Captain's face turned
redder and redder. Being very keen in maintaining good relations with
the local authorities the Captain later reported that he was looking for
a hole to crawl into out of embarrassment.

This time he has assured that any social misbehavior (Besides getting
robbed blind) ashore will be met with stern discipline aboard. This much
time in port for us is more of a privilege than a right. It would have
been easy enough for the company let us swing on the hook for a night or
two off Flushing.

(If you've read the front pages of the Official Log Book for Merchant
Ships lately you know that the Captain still retains the right to
restrict a sailor's rations to bread and water and may confine them to
quarters for disobeying direct and lawful commands until they can be
handed over to authorities in America)

Being in port will surely take some of the sting out of being at work
for Christmas. Just having access to cheap phone cards and a place off
the ship to talk with family will make a difference for us, especially
the crew with children at home. Until then I'll be dreaming of sugar
plum fairies in the form of the St. Pauli's girl on beer bottles and
hearty winter Sauerkraut. A large and long northerly swell born a few
days ago from some hellish storm is slowly rocking the ship and soon me
to sleep.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Dead slow ahead

We've made it off the coast, the tall lighthouse at Saint Simon's Sound
the last vestige of civilization we'll see for the next eleven days and

it's not a moment too soon. Everyone was getting a little crispy around

the edges as we arrived and departed our last port during a nine day

coast replete with arrivals, departures, gear tests, cargo watches,

class inspections and a few walks on shore.

The highlight of the last week was seeing my younger brother for the
first time in 15 months in the Port of Baltimore. The sheer chance that
our ships would cross paths was utterly remote but just like when he was
assigned to my first Ro/Ro as an apprentice it seemed to work out. Of
course we only had an hour together at an Irish pub in Fells Point but
with our common life styles you take whatever you can get when it comes
to being with family.

Another plus was our server finally received a make over. Once again
the multiple workstations onboard are linked with the printers as well
as the security cameras, stability program, maintenance and
requisitioning system and of course email. The IT guru spent almost an
entire week tweaking at a daily rate rivaling that of our good captain

(What are the incentives of going to sea again when compensation equates
the risk of crashing a computer with that of a ship?)

Now with communications restored and the third mate's XM radio he so
selflessly leaves on the bridge I'm settling in for a lovely crossing
below the fine weather a massive high pressure system is providing us.
Of course the approach to the channel looks a little chunky, maybe very
chunky, but that's more than a week away so I'll just enjoy the
70-degree days in the strong and warm Gulf Stream.

Listening to all that XM though keeps reminding me of the financial shit
storm we are only beginning to comprehend. I'm a news junkie and can't
tune out the reports of the highest rates of unemployment in 26 years
and re-defaulting home mortgages even after defaulting borrowers
received aid.

Given the interconnectivity of globalization, shipping is feeling the
pinch as hard as hedge fund managers. With the exception that shipping
is a little more vital to keeping the wheels of commerce greased than
mortgage backed securities and credit default swaps were.

As Lloyd's list reports, car carriers are of no exception. "Owners are
set to axe 25% of car carrier fleet as auto sales slump," reads the
headline of one copied and pasted email that made it across my desktop
recently. The article goes on to report that Ro/Ro tonnage, which only a
year ago was in such high demand that shipyard orders were booked
through 2012, may be reduced by 200 ships in the near future. A large
number for a very specialized and small component of the total shipping

Owners are honing in on ships built in the 70's and 80's to be sent to
the breaking yards. This will be even more necessary to meet the
shrinking demand as the world's total car carrier fleet is set to expand
by 50% in the next four years as ships ordered as far back as 2003 are
built. Hopefully these new vessels won't meet the same fate as one ship
headed for Sweden; That of being turned into a floating parking garage.
That particular vessel, most likely hired by Saab or Volvo, is destined
for Gothenburg's harbor to provide shelter from the winter for unwanted
exports sitting on the docks.

This may be necessary in Baltimore as well where I was told that there
were 13,000 Chryslers sitting on the dockside terminals with nowhere to
go. Right now it is thought that the majority of automobiles now
underway are without buyers leaving the owners of PCTC's wondering if
they'll be paid for the cars that they are contractually obligated to

Over the ocean in Germany BMW and Mercedes are shutting down their car
plants longer than usual over the Christmas holiday. Normal operations
are to shut down and retool the factories for the year's upcoming models
which lasts for a few weeks lessening loads for our vessel. But this
year the plants will be closed indefinitely until market conditions
improve. Now with the bail out bill for the 3 American car makers
failing in the Senate, not only are German autoworkers facing an
uncertain future but so are the thousands of workers in Michigan.

I can only hope that this recession is no more than a painful correction
for the world's over inflated economies and not the beginning of the end
of globalization and all the conveniences it brings us. If managed
correctly we're just sounding the bottom of an economy that still has a
way to grow; just a little slower with more restraint focusing on
longevity, efficiency and sustainability rather than rapacious greed.
Either way it's going to be a small Christmas for a lot of people,
shipping companies included.

Saturday, December 6, 2008


“There was a day when Esso had seventy tankers,” Mac told me one pitch-black morning. “I remember when Rockefeller flagged a few of them out to Panama and laid up the rest.” That’s when he began working on Liberty Ships left over from World War II. “They were the best ships” Mac goes on in his thick Brooklyn accent, “Not all of the amenities mind you, not like we have today, but there was enough room on deck and by god they were good ships, real good ships.”
Most mornings on watch Mac and myself ramble on about current events and the plight of the world since neither of us really pay much heed to professional sports. During these conversations he often reveals something new of his 50 years working on or in close proximity to the sea. I’ve worked with Mac before; he was an A.B with me in the Pacific sailing past the islands where he had spent many of his later years studying martial arts including Tai Chi and Qi Gong which he still practices on the bridge.

Mac’s story began as a first generation Irish American born in Brooklyn. His father died the day before Saint Patrick’s day when he was a boy and three years later his mother lost her fight against cancer. The rest of his childhood was spent in a Catholic orphanage being raised by French nuns. In 1955 at the age of 17, two years after his Aunt took him out of school, there were few options for a orphaned teenager. A close family member was a Boson for Standard Oil Company and Mac soon had an intent to hire letter from the oil major. “In those days all it took to get your Z-Card was your hire letter and an FBI background check to insure you weren’t a communist sympathizer. Not like today with the god damned TWIC, they’ll have more background checks on me once I get it than any one else! Balls!” With his MMD in hand he went down to the docks of Hog Island in Philadelphia and joined the Esso Allentown.

As he struggled up the gangway with his cardboard suitcase the Chief Mate spotted him and rambled over the piping to interrogate his new ordinary seaman. “What the hell do you think you’re doing here?” the Mate asked between spats of tobacco juice. “Well sir, I thought I’d like to try going to sea” was his honest answer to which Chief Mate gruffly replied, “Son, I’ll tell you one thing…this job will either make a man out of you or turn you into a fucking bum! But one way or the other, once you’re used to paying off in hundred dollar bills you’ll never work on the beach again.”

And so Mac began his lifelong career of sailing before the mast, a career that would span more than five decades. He would soon join the National Mariner’s Union, which in those days only required 200 days to become a full book member.

Mac remembers this organization fondly often telling me how you never had to bribe the dispatcher for a job, how everyone sailed off the board and that it was run according to the shipping rules. “It was fair back then. Now it takes eight years of sea time to get a full book”, that is to become a member of the last major deep sea unlicensed union, the Seafarer’s International Union. The old NMU was absorbed by the larger SIU.

One morning Mac told me “I was raised by seaman. They were mostly Norwegians back then that had immigrated to America. They showed me how to tuck a splice, sew canvas, stitch the hatches closed, make a pilot ladder, bell ropes, the works. There were no drugs back then, if they caught you with narcotics you were a goner, but they’d drink. I was a drinker back then too. That was fifty years ago and I’ve been doing it ever since. There’s nothing else I know.” I couldn’t help but think that this guy has pissed more seawater than I’ve ever seen.

Mac moved up to and able bodied seaman quickly and still boasts about being one of the youngest Bosons the NMU ever shipped. He remembers it well. “Mate” he says, “I got my first boson’s job with McCormack lines, stick ship, seven hatches with booms everywhere. We went to West Africa, what a time.” He would later recall working for Export lines before they went bust. Apparently in those days Export Lines was renowned for their zealous use of fish oil. Anchor frozen in the hawse pipe? Lube it up with fish oil. Winch gears grinding, fill the casing with fish oil. “We’d even swab the worse off decks with the stuff before we expected to get weather. This way when the sea hit the rust it would take some of it off.” Mac never did explain exactly how this worked but I suppose it’s just another bit of nautical wisdom lost over the fantail.

At some point Mac took a job in New York harbor with the Local 1814 as a stevedore on the quays of Brooklyn. According to him “I was the only Irish kid on a dock full of , you know…Italians. There were no forklifts in the holds in those days. We had to use handy-billys and tackles. The pilferage was unbelievable.” He goes on to recount the advent of containerization. This eventually would put a hurting on the stevedores and whether Mac saw the writing on the wall or not he was back out on the water working New York’s harbor tugs for the next couple of years.

In 1962 he was drafted for a short stint in the Army but was never sent to Vietnam. Instead he would arrive there on a Liberty ship and make multiple trips to the waters of Southeast Asia carrying war goods into combat zones. “We went up the Mekong Delta one night and as we tied up you could watch the tracer rounds arc overhead.” He fell in love with Asia and vows to retire there, maybe Thailand, probably the Philippines or Guam where he can assist one of his sensei’s at his Tai Chi studio.

Eventually he ended up working for the Military Sealift Command from whom he today collects a small pension. After rejoining the NMU years later he became an instructor at Sheep’s Head Bay for a time training kids from his hometown to become A.B.s and join the union.
Mac married his wife later in life and took on the responsibility of raising her children together, moving them from Venezuela to the states. To this day he still provides for his daughter who recently lost her job and is the mother of his grandchildren. If there is one thing I’ve learned about Mac in the few months we’ve spent crossing oceans together it’s his steadfast interest in doing his job right and providing for his family has always been a part of that job.

Like all of us out here he complains some but when his relief is ten minutes late to watch he doesn’t get huffy when they finally show up. He doesn’t play the sea lawyer when he gets the short end of the stick and never puts another crewman down. He remembers the days when the Norwegians that brought him up all took pride in their work and feels that it’s a missing sentiment in most of a sailors work today.

Just the other day I was blown away while we were in England discharging two holds of high/heavy cargo. Each piece had been lashed down with eight 7-millimeter chains and it was the crew’s responsibility to claw through the mounds the stevedores had left us, sorting the binder bars in one bin and piling chains in another. This job took the entire deck crew on overtime half the day and Mac was right there bent over with the rest of us feverishly chucking chain, most of us being less than half his age. My quads are still sore.

Not only does Mac gladly show up for the backbreaking jobs, he still keeps his seamanship skills honed and eagerly wants to learn more. Just this morning we were hemming and hawing about what we’d like to do with life and Mac is still adamant about getting under way under sail. “I need to improve my skills” he says, “You know, learn more marlinspike, learn how to sail, I’ve read about it but never learned how.” It’s a pretty strong statement from a man who at seventy is the first to climb the bulwark and throw a monkey’s fist at the tug and makes it on the first shot.
There are things that make Mac unhappy, like working on ships without two A.B.s and an ordinary to each watch, no ship does that anymore, and not being paid enough. We both know that wages for deep-sea merchant sailors are essentially what they were in 1980. This is more displeasing for someone who has seen his paycheck shrink since then as opposed to myself, a recent addition to the work force. “But what are you going to do?” Mac says, “Half a loaf is better than none.”

If you ever happen to drop into the SIU shipping hall in Fort Lauderdale you might see Mac sitting there with an over sized sea bag waiting for a ship. “I never go out schooner rigged” is his defense for over packing, something I can relate to. He’s quite recognizable; a short and barrel-chested Irishman with a New Yorker’s brogue in a leather jacket with a coal black West Coast Stetson on his head (The rust stained white one he keeps just for overtime) and a bow legged stance from years of compensating for a rolling deck. He won’t be there for long though. Mac doesn’t like to sit around waiting for the big jobs to come along on the board, he’d rather sign on and start earning.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Rules, rules, and more rules

I do all I can to keep a positive outlook on my profession and future
expectations for a rewarding and successful career with logevity in
the maritime industry. I don't know how many times from my first days
as a cadet to my latest hitch I've heard my shipmates and mentors tell
me to "Find another job, your crazy to work at sea" or "Shipping isn't
what it used to be" or "I'm so glad I'm getting out of this now" . This
negativity serves no one who wants to go to sea but lately it's been
hard to tune out those echoing sentiments when the barrage of
regulations and personal liability only increases regardless of the
burden it places on the officers whose shoulders it usually falls on.

There have been a few things lately that highlight the unnerving
feeling that the rewards of working at sea are becoming fewer and
fewer with the ever changing environment we must operate in.

First the TWIC. It wasn't a big deal having to get one. I'm young and
don't have any felonies on my record. I've grown quite accustomed to
shelling out cash to keep my job; licensing fees at the coast guard,
union dues every quarter, baggage surcharges at the airport etc. (I
will say that writing a check to Lockheed Martin still doesn't sit
right with me. I don't see how corporate profit helps homeland
security). And personally I had no hassles getting the card besides
locating the center down a back alley in south Boston. What irks me is
that this increased scrutiny, this vetting of anyone involved with
vessels and ports, should not only increase security at our ports but
also make our jobs easier, not harder. Doesn't this card ensure I'm
really truly and finally not a terrorist and should be allowed to
come and go at the port without the hassles and gate guard
interrogations? Why do I still need to be on a crew list? Why are
there terminals that still won't allow citizen mariners access to a
Walgreens and haircut ashore?

(Foreign crews are really the ones being affected by the U.S.'s
overbearing security rules which is now causing reciprocal scrutiny of
Americans in other countries. Anyone who has had a retina scan in Abu
Dhabi or called on Canada lately with ANYTHING on their record can
attest to this)

This whole system is going to be yet another complete sham unless
there is coherent leadership in determining what rights a TWIC holder
is allowed to posses in all maritime facilities nationwide and if the
ports will actually allow the card holders the freedom we deserve as
lawful citizens just trying to live and work without constant
government scrutiny each time we leave the boat.

Secondly there is a new EPA ruling being imposed this month on all
vessels measuring 79 feet or longer within 3 miles of the United
States coast. This regulation is another strict and confusing
paperwork burdensome rule that heightens a vessels operator's
liability with stiff fines for noncompliance. The National Pollution
Discharge Elimination System requires a record to be maintained
on board the vessel tracking all discharges incidental to normal
operations such as; Ballast water (There is all ready is a record
keeping and reporting requirement for ballast), deck wash down, cathodic
protection, reverse osmosis brine, elevator pit effluent and gray
water just to name a few of the 28. Of course there is a permit
required which will assuredly cost whale watch outfits and shipping
companies alike a pretty penny. This new edition to the rule books
will certainly open the floodgates of more shore based, vacation eating
training with additional on board drills and log book entries just
like all other well meaning, poorly implemented obligations.

My conclusion is simply this. While every one is screaming about the
lack of qualified Mariner's domestically and internationally
regulatory bodies need to operate with a level of sobriety
commensurate with maintaining a functioning pool of willing merchant
mariners. TWIC cards and port security affects our personal lives. An
AB had to leave his wife and kids at the gate the other day because
they didn't have TWICs and was told to walk to the ship a good mile
down the quay, sea bags slung over his shoulders kicking off his four
month trip even though technically he should have been able to be
their escort!

Environmental regulations are necessary but more paperwork and
liability for the few officers on board ship all ready over tasked with
safety, security, GMDSS, medical, fatigue management, crew tracked
training, ISO/ISM and oh yeah, cargo responsibilities, is creating an
unsustainable and unrealistic work environment.

My brother has just started out on his own seafaring career and has
every intention of hawespiping his way up. If this country values the
men and women that play a vital role in Jones Act shipping, national
defense and perpetuating our maritime heritage into the future than
the maritime industry and it's stewards must maintain an environment
in which young able hands like him can develop a professional career
without constant shortsighted obstacles. Otherwise how will I ever be
able to recommend this job to anyone else let alone my kid brother?
And aren't jobs what this economy needs right now anyways?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Dundalk Sunrise

Tight Fit

While waiting for the onslaught of hard hat wearing briefcase toting
Coast Guard inspectors this morning we received some good news. The
Coast Guard canceled our COI preferring to wait until the actual due
date. The port engineer had scheduled the annual inspection two months
early in order to have it coincide with the annual classification
survey to simplify planning and preparations for us on board. Now the
other rotation will have to gather all of the safety and lifesaving
equipment for inspection in another eight weeks for the actual COI. A
little practice doesn't hurt I guess.

The coast guard did make an appearance though. It was more of a field
trip out of the office for the four attending officers. They were
interested in having a look at the Fast Rescue Boat davit arrangement,
a system unique to our vessel. This same set up will be installed
on board the other ships in our fleet over the next year. After
verifying the inspectors photograph I.D.s and assigning "Escort
Required" visitor badges I led them to the elevator. Unfortunately
another crew member was intent on wrenching the elevator door open on
another deck hoping it would magically appear for him. This locked the
lift half way up stranding me with four impatient servicemen who began
suspiciously eyeing every detail of our defunct elevator and chuckling
to themselves about getting the 835 book out. Luckily the 1st
Assistant was near a phone and soon had a rescue operation mounted. A
few minutes later and we were extracted and instead used the ladder
well to ascend the 7 decks out of the holds.

Later in the day we shifted across the harbor to finish up a
noticeably brief day of cargo operations. While doing so I made note
of the presence of not one but three American ships in the harbor at
once. One was moored next to us at our fist berth, a recent addition
to the vital Maritime Security Program and like my vessel, a Pure Car
Truck Carrier. The other ship was moored at our next dock, a car
carrier long flying the stars and stripes. Currently I'm excitedly
watching the arrival of another U.S flagged vessel passing under the
Francis Scott Key bridge. I've been tracking this particular ship on
for the past few days as she's approached Cape Henry arriving from
Brazil. My younger brother has been aboard her for the past four
months as the 4x8 AB and one of the two designated jumbo crane
operators. This was his first trip as an AB having finished his
training program this past summer and he is now a crack crane operator
having participated in dozens of high stakes heavy lifts ranging up to
300 Tons and is now a shell back having crossed the line or equator
while headed to the sunny and always eye pleasing Brazil.
It looks like he'll be tying up in close proximity to Fells Point and
hopefully he's got his TWIC card. Without it you are now officially
S.O.L. In the Port of Baltimore if you plan on entering any marine
facility to return to your ship (A blog in itself).

Note-due the complete meltdown of our server on board Ive been posting
to the blog by use of my most miraculous iPhone which has become the
latest addition to the growing list of technologies I couldn't live
without. Unfortunately this inhibits my spell checking capabilities
and is quickly inducing carpel tunnel so please forgive any blatant
typographical errors. Additionally, in case Steve Jobs is one of the
four fans of this blog, might you please design the iPhone so they can
be used as a modem so I can just blog from the computer? I will say
that having the ability to zero in with google maps to bookmark the
dock my brother's heavy lift ship just tied up to after watching them
dock on the Electronic Chart System is pretty incredible. One click
and I'll have directions for the cab to cart me over there after
lunch. Very nice!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Chesapeake Bay

We arrived at Ambrose pilot station early yesterday morning. It was a
busy start to the week for the apprentice pilot running the pilot
cutter and orchestrating the delivery and retrieval of the pilots.
There were 27 total ships coming in or out of New York, most being
inbound after the long holiday weekend. The infamous Ambrose light
tower was absent from the approach to New York. Originally a manned
light vessel, it was reduced to a twisted pile of metal by the bow of
a wayward tanker earlier in the year and finally removed this fall.
Naturally this wasn't the first time the tower or the old light ship
had been physically visited by a passing ship. In the old days of RDF
or radio direction finding every now and then an inbound ship in fog
would zero in on the ship's radio beacon and forget that it was
originating from an actual vessel either terrifying the crew or
running smack in to it. The new pilot boarding area has been expanded
allowing for more room to maneuver for the pilot and ample time to
line up for the channel prior to the "Bailout point" or your last
chance to exit the approach before your are committed to the channel
and the depth limitations of either bank. Cargo operations were quick
and we were passing under the Verazano bridge for probably the last
time well before dinner. Due to a change in scheduling the remaining
vessels in our fleet will no longer be calling on the fair city of
Bayonne New Jersey. Today we're headed up the 150 miles of inland
waters to Baltimore for a three day port stay. Day one, tomorrow, will
be hectic with a discharge of automobiles, the annual US Coast Guard
COI and our annual classification survey by Lloyd's. Every one is
making sure that their paperwork is in order, enough signatures in all
the right places and that equipment is ready to be inspected. The
annual certificate of inspection is commonly a cause for heartburn
among Mariner's which is only natural for one of the most heavily
regulated industries in the world. Day two and we will have shifted
across the harbor to discharge our high and heavy cargoes. Day three
should be spent idle at the berth allowing the crew some time ashore
to get the Christmas cards sent out. Then we'll be headed for
Charleston South Carolina.