Monday, June 30, 2008
It is our third day in the riverside port of Bremerhaven Germany. Our inbound cargo was discharged on Friday making room for a large load of Mercedes Benz, BMW, Land Rover, and House Hold Goods that will begin at 0600 this morning. The labor situation for today does not bode well for an on time departure around midnight. Not only does it look like there will not be enough drivers to get the vehicles onboard in time but Germany lost to Spain by a lone goal so the pace of the disappointed and hung over Bermerhoovians will probably be slow.
The landscape here around the river delta is flat. The river is very wide with large mudflats and wetlands. The skyline is dotted with huge wind turbines that you can see silhouetted even at night with the never ending semi twilight of dawn. We are at 53.5 degrees north latitude, which is as far north as Labrador so the sun’s day is long in the summer. The city has retained some of its old architecture among its modern shopping and business district including a brick signal station erected in 1854.
I was glad to meet some friendly Germans in town yesterday. When I was last in Europe I had a day to visit a small town in Breven Belgium and the reception of an American in their midst was not very warm. With the exception of three women working in a butcher’s shop that were nice enough to recommend a restaurant and enquire about how we had ended up in their little town, the Belgians were outright rude. It was a different story today though which is nice in a port this ship visits once a month with time to go up the street.
The first stop after canvassing the down town was a sailor’s bar replete with black and white photographs of the port in the days of sail. I made the mistake of ordering a Heineken bottle in a bar full of Germans and received some epithet of disgust from the bar tender. After embarrassing my self in front of the locals I ordered three of the only beer they stocked in bottle or draft, Becks which is brewed nearby in Bremen. Apparently Dutch beers aren’t very popular in this neck of the woods.
From the bar we walked down to the harbor locks and observed the Boson of the Dar Mlodziey, the Polish training ship, instructing a mainmast full of green cadets how to bend on the lower topsail to the yard they were nervously leaning over. The town was swarmed with older Polish Cadets who had the day off. It appeared that the ship was just beginning its summer program having probably motored into port with no sails in her rigging.
Bremerhaven is a city that appears to be closely tied with its port. The longest (Not to be confused with largest) container terminal in the world is situated here on the Weser River measuring in at 4.8 kilometers. Something the pilot proudly pointed out on our way in. The Ro/Ro port or Autokaje is accessed by a lock allowing the ships to lie alongside without regard to the fluctuations of the river like the container ships must. This is great when you must have a ramp lowered to work cargo and is a feature in three of the four ports we call in Europe.
(This is a ship of our same class probably just a few years younger than our own, lovely)
In the last three days I would guess there have been close to fifteen car carriers that have been berthed in the harbor close to us. That is a lot of tonnage loading and unloading cars, busses, boats, and heavy equipment all day long. The quay here is packed end to end with rolling stock. The car capacity of the terminal is at 60,000 cars that are stacked on top of each other in four story car garages. The port must be a huge employer in a country with very high unemployment. I’ve been told that unlike long shoring unions in the United States, it is very easy to get fired here with so many applicants waiting to take the next open spot.
On the way back to the ship I tried to get online and call my girl from the German Seaman’s Mission. Unfortunately they were throwing an all out summertime extravaganza after they had driven the bus around the port picking up as many of the seafarer’s as they could. There were probably 150 sailors, 90% from either India or the Philippines getting their drunk on. The phone booths and computers were packed and when I did finally get online the keyboard was German and I couldn’t write an A with out the umlaut. I got frustrated with that and finally got a call through to the states but couldn’t hear a thing even after hiding in the very empty chapel with my bottle of Hefwiezen. After a few frustrating minutes of trying to relate why it was so loud over the phone I gave up, said goodbye and quickly extricated myself from the Seaman’s Mission. I returned to the ship very tired but happy I had gotten to see a little of the country I just spent the last fourteen days sailing to.
Naturally not everything went smoothly for all hands. One crew member was almost repatriated for health reasons, another robbed and a third beat up. Alcohol and shady parts of town were to blame for two of the three incidents.
I made it back to the Seaman's Mission in port by sacrificing a little more sleep to get these posted. The ship is seen docked in Brunswick Georgia and to the right is the picture of the pilot/co-pilot set up we have on the bridge. The Captain brings this ship into port without a helmsman preferring to have the mate, himself, or the pilot steer if they are familiar with the EMRI auto pilot system. I've noticed that most pilots working ports that are frequented by these types of ships are very familiar with the EMRI. There is also a picture of the centerline gyro repeater and the unrestricted view provided by a well designed bridge. Somewhat of a new concept to me. Lovely.
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
We just made landfall this afternoon and expect to be past Land's End UK
this morning when I get up for watch. We will spend all day tomorrow
transiting the English Channel and are due to arrive in Germany at a
reasonable eight AM on Friday morning. The Channel is a pretty
incredible body of water when it comes to shipping. So much cargo moves
from the North Sea to Lands End everyday coming in and out of all the
ports in between. Not only is there deep sea shipping, including the
behemoths that can call only on Rotterdam in this part of the world but
there is also a huge amount of Short Sea Shipping plying the coastal
routes as well as fast ferries, fishermen, and recently the protesting
French fishermen. The Captain laid down some ground rules based on
personal experience and past casualties for the third mate and myself.
We have both handled traffic in the Straits of Korea, Malacca,
Gibraltar, and Hormuz but this will be his first and my third run at the
Channel. I get a little excited when I contemplate all the scenarios
that could arise as I'm on watch for the next two days.
We've received our working schedule delineating the hours the
stevedoring company has been hired for. Most of the cargo onboard, BMWs,
Jeep Cherokees, shrink wrapped boats, and what are called house hold
goods are destined for our first port of Bremerhaven, so we will be
spending the most time of our four ports in Germany. Cargo will run all
day Friday and the discharge should end on Saturday making room for the
cargo that is slated for shipment back to the United States. Luckily for
us the crew, our company would rather not pay the premium rate for
Sunday labor and will instead keep us idle at the berth until Monday
when we will resume and finish loading. This means four; count them,
four full days in Germany with only two and a half days of cargo
operations. For a Roll On Roll Off vessel this is absolutely unheard of!
I'm stoked for some sight seeing in Coastal Germany this weekend, a
country I've never been to in a continent I've hardly visited. On top of
that, if the Germans make it into the Euro Cup this week and play this
weekend it's more than likely there won't be anyone in the port of
Bremerhaven Monday morning to work cargo anyway so we may get five days!
Yes it's the little things in the shipping life that make a difference.
Between my twelve-hour watches in port and getting just enough sleep to
get up and do it again I'll probably max out my shore time at about six
hours per day. This is enough time to get one or two of the Red Star
Heinekens I've heard so much about and still get some shopping and
emailing in before having to hike back to the ship and crash out. Hiking
in fact is my favorite thing to do when I'm off the boat for such short
amounts of time. I'm constantly disappointed when my walking buddy walks
right into the first bar and I'm left to trek an unknown city alone but
I'll still do it solo knowing that bars always look the same when cities
rarely do. I've covered some ground in three or four hours in places
like Ulsan, Kobe, Singapore, Abu Dhabi, and Livorno. Having six or more,
and a few days at that makes me feel like I'm going on vacation. Hope to
send some pictures of the ship and our first port from the American
Seamans Center. Until then, good sleeping.
Sunday, June 22, 2008
It looked like a lovely day in Boston yesterday from the satellite
newspaper the Captain puts on the intranet for us. Highs in the
eighties, plenty of sun, a nice reminder that summer has officially just
begun. A few thousand miles away in between the Azores and the Flemish
Cap it's a different start to summer. Weather at sea has a way of
sneaking up on you. Two days ago the weather program we use for our
voyage routing was predicting 10 knots of southerly wind for today but
the weather report I just submitted to NOAA reported an observed wind of
30 knots with gust up to gale force. It's still a mild day for the North
Atlantic. Five degree rolls and sloppy summer weather is nothing
compared to the hurricane force winds and freezing spray of January. The
bridge is creaking though every time we heel over and our chances of a
Sunday barbecue and pool party are greatly diminished. It's ironic that
I often would get bored of the empty blue sky and the still blue water
we would encounter day in and day out while steaming to and from the
Middle East. Now that I'm on a liner run in the North Atlantic it's very
possible that summer and winter will consist of gray skies and gray seas
more often than any other kind of weather.
If you are interested in following the ship's track www.wxinfo.com (I
think that's it) will let you check out reported AMVER positions. Just
input the call sign WGAX to find us. We've been diligent about reporting
weather while at sea but will NOT once along the coast of Europe. Too
much traffic and not enough time.
We had a sanitary inspection last week. This is mandated as a monthly
event by the United States Coast Guard and is required to be entered
into the Captains Official Log Book. This was the first time I had seen
one actually carried out at work and it was a bona fide inspection in
every since of the word. The Captain thoroughly went through every cabin
with tape recorder in hand making audio notes on missing garbage cans,
broken door handles, and shower mold. He inspected the changing rooms,
the gym, the passageways, the offices and lastly the galley. On my last
ship departing crew members routinely would leave their room trashed for
the next guy. This captain personally checks up on each room monthly so
that this would be impossible here. On top of that the company is so
concerned about a MRSA outbreak onboard their ships that a new policy is
being cooked up where every time a cabin in turned over to a relief it
must be disinfected with Lysol. Having had an experience onboard a cramp
and dank schooner with a student getting a skin infection that turned
out to be MRSA I can appreciate borderline obsessive compulsive
sanitation for the sake of health at sea.
A bit of comic relief occurred this morning when one of the watch ABs
insisted on running the window washing sprinklers in the middle of the
aforementioned rainstorm to get the bridge windows squeaky clean. It was
a laughable reminder that plenty of us who put to sea are a few beers
short of a six pack.
Friday, June 20, 2008
The first day of summer and the passing of the solstice will be hard to
recognize in the fog of the Grand Banks. If we had a clear sky it might
be an interesting observation for the cadet to watch local apparent noon
occur with a sextant to measure the sun's maximum northerly declination
for the year. But the cold Labrador Current isn't far off so the air
temperature has moderated the dense fog that stagnates this time of year
off of the Canadian Maritimes has enveloped us. Last night we
encountered one eddy produced by cold water current and were steering
almost fifteen degrees left of course to make our track line for the
English Channel. Before we left the main girth of the Gulf Stream
sometime yesterday I saw a small sea turtle flopping around in the water
near us. The day before we saw two mammals, which were feared to be the
very endangered Northern Right Whale, which would have obligated us to
begin a lengthy and mandatory Right Whale Report. Fortunately for us it
was a mother Sperm Whale with calf alongside. How did I become such an
expert in identifying marine mammal species you might ask? A book the
third mate just brought to work told me so. Just like me, after years of
offering educated guesses as factual information to the guy your on
watch with as to what kind of whale it was you had just avoided striking
by mere meters the third mate desired a more solid form of species
determination. So he beat me to it and bought a mammal ID guide and we
will now avidly consult it every time a resting whale, playing dolphin,
or pod of porpoise appears.
The first week of the trip is just a blur now. The sleepless days in
port have given way to the regimented routine of life underway.
Thankfully that includes a full eight hours of sleep in the afternoon
for me. We are standing a modified or European watch onboard this ship.
When at sea I will wake up at 2320 and report to the bridge at quarter
of midnight to relieve the Third Mate. I stand a navigational watch from
0000 to 0600 and then take two hours off with which I prefer to spend
half an hour on the elliptical and another half hour with the free
weights. Then it's breakfast and back to the bridge at 0745 to relive
the Chief Mate who has just started his day. Two more hours of watch
finishes my 8 total and then I start my four hours of over time. Working
through the lunch hour, taking 15 or 20 to eat rather than a coffee
break lets me knock off by 1400. That gives me one hour to clean up and
wind down before getting into bed at 1500 to read for a half hour before
drifting off into dream land. This schedule works really well in
providing the required rest periods to watch standers in one big chunk.
In the years past the most I would sleep at once on the mid watch was
four hours which isn't as gentle on the biological clock. The unlicensed
watch standers still stand the traditional sea watch, four on eight off.
Once we are in Europe the Third Mate and I will take 12 hour watches
while the Chief Mate becomes a day worker. Overtime here is limited
while at sea to four hours a day. On my last ship I routinely logged
five and sometimes six hours a day. Legally you can continually work a
14 hour day and still meet the mandated 10 hours of rest a day. This
means you could theoretically make up to 6 hours overtime a day
legitimately if it was offered, but that is a rarity and the OT from my
last ship was somewhat exceptional due to her aged condition. Lastly the
12 hours off in port will actually give me a chance to get ashore, one
of the true luxuries of being anyone besides the Chief Mate who normally
never gets off. We expect to arrive off Germany next Friday and if luck
has it and a berth is available then we will have three overnights in
Bremerhaven and all of Sunday without any cargo being worked on or off
the ship.On to the beer gardens!
Sunday, June 15, 2008
If you have been following along you are now aware that I've spent a lot
of time on ships that rival my years in existence and that the
experience has been mostly a positive one save for the increase in
stress and work load.
With that in mind I'm very happy today, and its not just because I'm
back at work making a wage. It's really that my new home away from home
is just about the sexiest ship I've ever laid eyes on. She is a massive
199 meter, green hulled brute with thirteen decks of cargo carrying
capacity, two easily opeated ramps (side/stern), stern launching free
fall lifeboat, fast rescue boat, pool, sauna, modern non leaking gym,
and interior decorating all thanks due to the swedes. The ammenities on
board are completely unprecedented in my experience. The captains run a
tight ship so the deck is free of cigarette butts, the carpets of
stains, and the walls of grime and dirt. There is very little rust on
the weather decks and the machinery is functioning as if it has acutally
been maintained for the last fourteen years! The bridge is fully
enclosed with bridge wing maneuvering stations, integrated bridge system
(The ship drives itself!), and automatic espresso maker. The navigation
systems are all funtioning as they should and the bridge layout is
actuall designed to be conducive to navigating and conning your watch.
All things that were completely lacking from my last place of
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
As I was throwing out a fridge full of food this morning I was thinking about how nice it would be to have a roommate. Instead of having to sanitize, drape, de energize, and lock my apartment I could simply park my car in the shade and saunter off to meet the train. Of course then much of the freedom with which I spread my stuff out around the place would be curtailed, but still it would be nice leaving my flat in the care of another person for the next two months.
I'm headed north this morning to spend the night before an early flight out tomorrow. The ship is only an hour and a half away by plane. I always prefer to meet the ship in my own country, even better when on my own coast. Anything is preferable to a flight to Singapore, Abu Dhabi, or Los Angeles. Its also nice getting on the ship when she has just begun her coast wise passage ensuring that if my bag is lost in transit it stands a better chance of making it to the next port before we sail overseas.
I stopped to talk to a neighbor this morning just before the taxi showed up to take me into town. She was curious about where I was headed this time and remarked on what a different life it is that I live. I hear this over and over every time I explain to someone why I haven't been at work for fifty-five days or why I won't be home until the ides of August. After almost five years of these reactions I am starting to tire of it. It makes you feel as if you're the only person in the world who spends half of their time away from "home" to make your living. In military communities every one is aware of what a deployment constitutes but in the civilian world seafarers are sometimes the lone ranger spending only half the time around the house getting to know the neighbors. I suppose I might as well just get used to it.
The ship I will be joining this week will be my fourth as an officer. Having been on the same ship for the last three years I've grown accustomed to the working environment that was inherent to her for the last fifteen years of unchanged management. She was sold this winter to a new owner while I was sailing as the Chief Mate. It abruptly ended my first promotion and put me back on shore unemployed.
About a month ago I was informed that I will be sailing as the Second Mate on a new ship that has just been re-flagged from Sweden to the United States and added to my companies fleet of car carriers.
She was built in 1994 for Wallenius Wilhelmsen Lines, has a dead weight Tonnage of 22, 862 metric tones (The weight necessary to load her full and down from her light draft to deep draft including fuel, crew, and stores), 5000 tons more than my last ship. Her car capacity is 5846 units of automobiles, which are based on the "RT43" standard calculated for a 1982 Toyota Corolla with a broken stowage factor of 1.156 cubic meters. She has three lifting decks; my former ship had four, and a stern ramp capacity of 105 tons. All that information was available from the Internet.
As any mariner knows no two ships have ever been run alike in the history of seafaring. The temperament of the Captain on board decides much about how your day-to-day life will be lived. Even within the same company and despite the cookie cutter SMS manuals the personality of a ship's Captain and Chief Engineer set the pace of everything on ship. From how you dress at meals to how the log is filled to how long the fire and boat drills take.
It's natural to feel a little bit of the nervousness still today that I felt when I clambered up the gangway of my first ship, a very haggard chemical tanker, when I was a cadet with too much gear and not enough common sense. Luckily I had just enough to survive but even today a new ship, a new captain, and a new way to tuck a long splice will keep me on my toes for the next two months. I'm looking forward to it.
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Thursday, June 5, 2008
In my first five years of sailing in the United States Merchant Marine as a junior and more recently as senior officer in the deck department, I have worked on three commercial ships. Two were tankers and the most recent a Roll On / Roll Off vessel. Their suboptimal condition resulting from long hard years at sea has had a formative influence on my career so far.
The first ship was a Suez Max tanker of 136,000 DWT. She had been built by Mitsui shipbuilding of Japan in 1974 making her 8 years my senior. Of the three ships she had been cared for the best, a testament to her 25 years sailing under the American ensign. On an interesting side note, and as a dating method she was featured in the original film King Kong as the giant apes' transport to NYC.
Unfortunately for me her days of running Alaskan North Slope crude oil abruptly came to an end shortly after I had joined her. My first voyage became her last as we sailed west from the United States to the scrapping yards of Asia Minor. It wasn't all bad though. Being an older ship she had been built large. Large accommodations, large officers mess, large pool. And the company was top notch providing as much in the way of diversion and entertainment on board as possible. An important thing for a voyage to Singapore that lasted 24 days.
The second ship was a chemical tanker of 48,075 DWT. Having been built just one year shy of my first birthday she was slightly younger but her age showed in a multitude of rust, stress cracks, and wasted deck piping.The sheer amount of cargo piping and headers for the 43 segregated cargo tanks created a maze of steel running down the entire cargo block.
With the addition of 43 individual electric hydraulic Framo cargo pumps, inert gas system piping, an efficient Pneumatic stripping systems, Shand & Jurs tank level indicators, center line fixed tank washing machines, a longitudinal electrical tunnel cutting the deck in half a maintenance disaster was built right into her design.
Like the crude oil tanker this ship was also operated by an American oil major for most of her life. Only recently had she been sold and it soon became obvious to her new unionized crew that the former owner had been fiscally conservative at her ship yards opting out of any large life span lengthening expenditures.This lack of maintenance on a very specialized ship led to a hazardous situation from an operators point of view. During my six months on board split between two hitches, I remember watching the cargo control board and having neither the S&J nor the less reliable back up float gauge correspond with the MMC reading during critical cargo operations.*As a side note for those to never set foot on a tanker - when moving a liquid cargo on or off a ship several methods are available for accounting for the amount of product in a cargo tank. Radar systems are among the more modern and accurate but on my older ship a spring loaded tape with a float resting on the liquids surface would send an analog signal to a needle gauge in the cargo control room. To back this up was another float system but this was much less accurate. The safest and surest measure was to have the Able Bodied seaman standing by at the tanks ullage cap with a hermetic sounding tape or MMC.
Not a big deal if you are topping off a product tanker but when simultaneously loading and discharging multiple products with only two or three working MMCs and three crew on deck it was difficult to keep accurate flow rates without making the crew do laps around the 600 foot ship all night long. But doing laps, and abusing a few cadets along the way was the only way to get the job done.
It was during my first trip on the chemical tanker that I realized how the ship was as old as most of the officers I was working with. It was evident in the look of amazement a vetting inspectors showed the Captain when he saw the crew's training synopsis record. The vetting inspector (A third party hired to evaluate the quality of the ships operation in minute detail) was a Master Mariner from India with decades of experience on similar ships. He was astounded because at the time the oldest member of the deck department, the Captain, was a mere 28 years. The Chief Mate was 27, and the junior officers including myself between 23 and 26. Our cumulative experience on this ship didn't add up to what was normally encountered in sea time and experience for a chemical tanker's Captain. We still passed the vetting, barely.
After two trips of wrestling with inadequate gauges, bursting pipes, and leaking low point drains along with the pleasure of working with naphtha, para xylene, methyl ethyl ketone, and a host of other petrochemicals I found myself looking for a different and hopefully newer place of employment. As luck would have it I found a fleet of car carriers that include several recent new builds trading internationally. I was elated to be joining a different ship and in my naivety thought how wonderful it would be to worry no more about oil leaks, cargo spills, and carcinogens.
When I joined my new home in the port of Houston I was not excited to find out that I had joined the oldest ship in the fleet and probably one of the oldest Roll On / Roll Off ships afloat. As I would learn, this particular vessel was a prototype for the modern day car carriers in world wide service. She was designed with hydraulically lifted decks maximizing cargo flexibility. This was a new approach in the 1970s to moving mechanized and rolling cargoes. She would be used in trade routes all over the world, most interestingly carrying paper products from the Pacific Northwest, including rough timber to Japan in the early 1980's.
Much like my last ship she too had seen several years of neglect and the problems were compiling quickly when a new operations company had taken over. The hundreds of hydraulic cylinders that moved the lifting decks up and down and secured them in place were leaking profusely. It took the crew two years to stem the flow and keep the oil from damaging cargo.
The mooring winches forward would frequently blow out putting hydraulic oil onto the fore deck and nearly over the side on several occasions. Miracle red hand patches kept us calling on our ports without delay. The accommodations would rain inside on the engineers quarters any time there was rain outside. The bridge and engine room had issues I'll decline to mention in this forum.
Built in 1978 she turned 30 this year and was just recently sold to a foreign operator and re-flagged back to her original Norwegian colors. I with the rest of the crew were somewhat relieved to pass on her mountain of issues to a larger crew with a ship yard in her near future.
For several reasons the United States Merchant Marine operates some of the oldest ships in the world. I for one look with envy upon the brand new ships I see in ports all over the world. I peer through my binoculars sizing up all the differences between what was slid down the ways three decades ago and what are being built today.
I always am reading about new ships have ergonomically minded bridges with enclosed wings, 360 degree visibility, and integrated chart systems. As so many of us who work these older ships know, as long as we are sailing deep sea we may not see such brand new things for quite some time. For me the problem solving, maintenance, and work load of older ships is a source of pride, but it would be nice to keep ahead of the rust for once. Crews of 18 can only do so much in a day at sea.
Lastly I should mention another vessel I had the pleasure of working on for a short stint. In between college semester I was able to get a mates job on a schooner in New England. This vessel was over a century old. One hundred and sixteen years to be exact. She was a two masted schooner, originally used as an oyster scow on the Chesapeake bay and eventually left to rot on the shore. She was salvaged and refit in Rockland Maine thirty years ago to join the growing number of Windjammers along the coast. This, the oldest ship in the passenger fleet, was home to some of my fondest working memories. So not all things old are a total pain in the sailor's ass. Just the ones that are neglected.
Tuesday, June 3, 2008
The canyons of Zion National Park were dark by the time we were headed up the winding road to the park hotel. My uncle had reserved a cabin, of which I pictured a rugged log hut, at the hotel for the night. It turned out to be a hotel room built out of logs with carpet and running water. I immediately got the impression that we would be road tripping in some semblance of luxury for the week, I wasn't one to complain about that. As the moon rose and arced over the canyon wall the bottom filled with silver light which highlighted the fibrous seedlings of dogwood trees sifting down through the air. It looked like snow.
Early the next morning we rose to beat the heat and the crowds to the top of our destination, Angels Landing. My uncle had attempted the summit, a 1488 foot ascent up a very narrow trail, with my cousin who at the time was but a small lad. He made the safe decision and decided to stop at the lookout where the trail runs up a ridge where footing gets to restricted to a mere two or three feet of rock with thousand foot cliffs on either side. The National Park Service fitted chains and stanchions in these spots to decrease the number of unplanned rapid descents.
As it turned out, my primary purpose in accompanying my uncle on this road trip was to provide him with a witness in case he too succumbed to gravity on this climb. Once we made it to the top of Angel's Landing though we both realized how much of the trepidation of setting out across the ridge was mental. As long as you watched where you put your feet, kept a hand for the chains, and didn't go too fast as a boyscout had made the mistake of doing once, than it wasn't nearly as bad as it looked. The worst part was going back down around nine thirty in the morning and facing the swarms of fanny packed tourists headed up in the rising heat. It became necessary to fend off large groups so the people descending from the more precarious parts could do so safely and make room for the upward bound groups.
I highly recommend this park to anyone passing along the southern border of Utah. Unfortunately, not having gotten to see the Grand Canyon I can't compare but some have said that Zion canyon is naturally more splendid than the G.C., just not as massive. You be the judge.