Thursday, December 31, 2009


Instead of fighting tens of thousands of people for a proper vantage point for tonight's fire works in downtown Singapore it looks like the crew will be watching them from the private and serene vantage of our very own ship. Of course we all would certainly prefer to be reveling on shore this final night of 2009 but all three permits came through today which means we sail on the second hour (ZD-8) of 2010.

Just having a job this year is a good enough cause to celebrate New Years Eve at work. Besides, I've found enough merrymaking this week than I ever thought I would experience during the holidays at work.

Christmas Eve began with the roasting of one of the two suckling pigs stashed away in the meat reefer. After lunch each of the officers threw 50 dollars into an envelope so the unlicensed could party with full pitchers of beer at their favorite bars all night long and still afford little shots of tequila for the hosteses.

In addition to lechon for lunch another Filipino Christmas tradition was observed. Buena Noche was served as a midnight feast, normally intended for after Christmas Mass. The crew who came back to the ship were greeted with stir fried noodles and the left over pork but had to wait until morning to sober up for the special launch to attend their mass.

On Christmas day I made my way to see a few friends docked once again in Sembawang where I received expert instruction in the concoction of eggnog and watched a riveting horshoe tournament. It turns out that a little amaretto in the nog knocks out any taste of the rum which left two of us in high spirits for the return train ride to downtown.

Today the second pig was roasted over our custom charcoal grill. The boson mates took turns diligently rotating the stainless steel spit crossing their fingers the whole while that we wouldn't depart until tomorrow morning. Though they didn't get their wish at least we'll all save some money over the next week or two as we head towards the South China Sea for this next repair. Tonight after the fire works the other traditional midnight meal will be served of the same ingredients but this one is called Buena Noche instead.

I asked the Captain for a relief today which means I'm beginning to come down with the symptoms of channel fever. Once again I am imagining myself in my own wonderful bed where not a wake up call will be heard. As far as 2009 is concerned it was more of a roller coaster ride than I cared for but that's part of the journey and I'm still here and if you're reading this than you are too so have a Happy New Year! It's time to test gear.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Trafico Tarifa

To all those passing this night,
Through these waters beneath Tarifa light,

Moving so fast within the lanes,
No time to linger, none to remain,

Working through the dark, our vessels together,
On top of the water, amidst this weather,

Missing those who know our middle name,
Who wait ashore persevering the same,

Missing the grass or missing the snow,
Missing the Christmas we will never know,

We share a plight, a common pain,
As each behemoth passes to an engine’s refrain,

For the time spent here is time apart,
As every wife and daughter know by heart,

As a father or brother, a wife or a lover,
Departs on the ocean, our original mother,

To ply this trade and collect a wage,
A burden of necessity to be born with age,

Sometimes it’s beautiful, sometimes a passion,
But tonight it’s a loss better not rationed,

To be at sea this eve as only a sailor can,
We tell ourselves this was how to take a stand,

Controlling our course, apart from the rest,
Finding the horizon, standing out amongst the best,

For ages we have been here on Christmas’s past,
Independent and alone, together held fast

Like the strands of a cable, inseparable and able,

We make this sacrifice together on Christmas Eve,
Knowing one day we will be home, never again needing to leave.

Merry Christmas Radio Tarifa - December 25th, 2006

Another 25th

There are some things you don’t mind leaving behind when going to sea. Filling the car with gas is one of them. Washing your own dishes is another. Holidays though stand out as something most mariners could do without missing. It certainly takes the pressure off of gift shopping for extended family and large family gatherings. On the other hand it’s a painful reminder that you’re absence is being felt yet again by those you are closest to. We’ll at least for some of us there is still holiday pay and a good chance of turkey at dinner but I would trade it any Christmas for my grandmother’s scalloped potatoes and ham.

My first Christmas at sea is memorable because of a blizzard that shut down Texas from Houston to Corpus Christi. Looking out the bridge windows it reminded me of a Christmas Eve snowstorm in Maine. I didn’t mind being at work that night until I made my way down to the officer’s mess after watch to scrounge for leftovers from the dinner I had slept through. The captain, who was from Texas, had gone ashore and bought a real Christmas tree. With help from his wife and kids he had decorated it while we were still in port. Smelling those needles in the soft glow of Christmas lights made me wonder how many Christmas’ I would be spending at sea over the course of my career.

Last year was probably my most memorable Christmas away from home. Like this year the ship was in port, not in Singapore as I am today but in Northern Germany. The Captain had made a few phone calls and finagled our way into a berth rather than a North Sea anchorage for the holiday as was originally planned. Everyone had gotten either Christmas Eve or day off so along with the second assistant and cadet I made my way by train to Bremen hoping all the way for spiced wine and girls in lederhosen.

In the old city square we found plenty of hot wine but the lederhosen was sparse. It didn’t matter though as we imbibed and mingled with the locals who were well on their way to red-faced renditions of German Christmas carols. The food, drink and décor were festive and exactly how I had always pictured Christmas in a medieval city.

The following morning as the sun rose over the bell ringing steeples of Bremerhaven a small brass band arrived at the gangway and asked if they could put on a Christmas concert during lunch. As the trumpets and French horns played Mozart’s Greensleeves the crew opened the care packages I had put in front of everyone’s door on the mid watch.

These small hand sewn bags had been stuffed a month earlier by elderly ladies volunteering for charities from New York to Georgia. They are distributed by Chaplains form the Seaman’s Mission every year to ships that call in U.S. ports. Some had little hand written notes amongst the tubes of toothpaste and socks wishing us happy holidays and God’s protection at sea.

That evening the 3-person stewards department turned out a full spread for the 22 man crew, steamed crab legs included. Eating with a wiper from the engine department I reflected on how sharing a holiday with a group of mostly complete strangers is a very unique arrangement. Most people would never think of spending a holiday away from their family whereas merchant mariners at best get half of their holidays at home over the course of their career not to mention birthdays and anniversaries.

Usually a Christmas at sea passes just like any other day on the calendar. The 25th though seems hardest on the men and women with children at home. Growing up with a dad at sea I remember how my mother would explain why dad wasn’t going to be around this year to open presents. Somehow it seemed normal to have a dad who went to work for four or five or six months at a time. That was until I started to realize that my friends dad’s only worked while we were in school.

I especially remember how every time the phone would ring on Christmas it would cause every one to put down their new toys and come running to the receiver to see if it was him. If we were lucky and he was in port then he could talk to each of the four boys in turn where as if it was a single side band call patched through a shore station the conversations were much shorter.

Today any one of us can pick up the satellite phone and call our loved one’s whenever we please. This has made it easier to communicate but in a way harder on the families because we seem so close but are still an ocean or two away. In the past when a sailor went to sea he was gone save for a letter or telegram.

This year I’m glad to be in port and not pushing a bow wake. I’ve now spent four Christmas’s at sea and still wonder how many more I have to go. This isn’t the holiday I miss being home for the most. New Years holds a significance that makes me really yearn to be among my friends and family rather than standing a watch at sea. It just isn’t the same when you are wishing a stranger over the VHF radio a happy and prosperous New Year. Something I’ve also done four times.

Deep Water Sailor December 24th, 2009

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


After more than a month at anchor we’ve moved 20 miles to the east for a short cable survey and burial. I have gotten used to this stretch of Malaysian coast where a white strip of sand 2 miles distant lines the feet of two prominent hills to the north.

Lush tropic foliage covers the hills where trees still stand and red clay earth where they do not. The waters are turbid blue and brown being churned by 3 knot rotary currents that stretch the anchor chains of dormant tankers. A small reef bound lighthouse flashes twice every three seconds off the southern most tip of Johor. It all looks so much as it did two months ago.

The only change is the number of ships at anchor and a steady wind pushing a swell from the opposite side of the South China Sea. It’s hard to imagine ten inches of snow at home as the sun shines down on the palms and sky blue waters.

This spot happens to be the origin of many inter-Asian fiber optic woes. Though the number of ships at anchor has reduced since the last repair we did here, a positive sign for the economy, there are still dozens that haven’t moved for months. Some of which are anchored right on top of a bevy of cables tempting the fate of millions of Internet customers.

I have been distracted lately thinking about home, roommates, vacation plans, relationships, missing holidays, and understanding why I persist to be at sea when the world seems ready to move on without me.

It must be different for the guys on here with families. The absence of my dad at home, which I remember so well from my child hood, seems justified as I watch these dads putting food on the table and kids through college. When I think about why I’m spending another day putting what seems like the rest of my life on hold I have to wonder.

Of course it’s true when I say I like the job. I’ve been exposed to a completely different aspect of the industry here. My job description has changed three times from safety officer to dedicated watch stander to navigator/surveyor. For the last month I’ve been immersed in a computer based survey program that compiles all the cable information during repairs. This software has become my primary responsibility and with only two days of formal training it’s a real showstopper when it crashes.

That’s one of the best parts of doing this job. Your responsibilities on a ship vary so widely. I have worked as a cargo mate, safety, security and medical officer, radio operator, navigator, educator and now cable surveyor. I have to be versed in meteorology, navigation and propulsion systems, international regulations, emergency preparedness and ship stability to name a few topics.

You also work with a group of people that come as varied as the seas. Some are outgoing and boisterous, others introverted and awkward. Some captains will teach you all they know while others hoard knowledge as if it helped their job security. Some sailors are professionals and others overgrown kids. Your lives can depend on one another in a heartbeat, not to mention your sanity, so you do whatever it takes to keep things amiable.

Being in Singapore has been a rocking good time as well mostly on account of the crew. Working until five and then heading out for the night with a group of like-minded individuals is something I’ve only had working on schooners, not the commercial ships. Gone are the days of four hours ashore in Bremerhaven or Charleston where I would have to do my solo bike riding and beer drinking at the same time, a precarious arrangement after stepping off a rolling ship.

I was talking with the mess man who makes up the officers rooms the other morning. Jojo has been going to sea for about the same amount of time as I. He told me about working for Carnival Cruise Lines and how the wages and travel benefits had been consistently cut year after year.

When the company started a no tipping policy to garner more in drink sales he left and started working here. When I asked him what he did before sailing he told me that after business school he was an assistant manager at a bank in the Philippines. I couldn’t believe that they guy who serves up dinner and waxes floors was once an assistant manager at a bank in Manila.

Jojo explained that he could make more here in the Stewards department working twelve hours a day than he could at a bank in the Philippines. With three kids and a wife at home he is willing to sacrifice 9 to 10 months of the year working at sea to provide for them. That really put my situation into perspective.

It is actually normal for the Pilipino crew here to stay on for two or three times the duration of their four-month contracts even though they stop getting paid! They still get overtime for any hours worked in excess of eight but only get their base wage for the first four months. A couple of the single guys have explained to me that the food and living conditions on board are better than at home so they stay on for a tiny bit of money which affords them just enough for buying beers and cavorting with the girls ashore.

Thinking about this I appreciate my fortune be employed as an American even more. Most of the world’s seafarers spend far more of their lives at sea than they ever will ashore and like the guys I’m working with now they don’t seem to mind all that much.

Monday, December 21, 2009


It’s been a dull couple of weeks at work riding the port anchor in downtown Singapore. Day work is a new phenomenon for me just as working on a foreign flagged ship, having Internet access and working with a crew of more than two dozen. It would be foolish to complain though as the latest thrill has been to see how close the pilots dare bring us to the breakwater at Marina South Pier where immigration clears sailors going ashore.

The Captain’s repeated attempts at getting the pilot to place us a mere four minute launch ride from the emerald city rather than the customary fifteen has been on the return end of several trips to Sembawang. Best known for the massive shipyard and smaller American naval base Sembawang lies on the northern edge of Singapore. Fifteen miles up the Johor Strait the trip could easily be confused with going up a river if it didn’t empty out onto the other side of Singapore.

Maybe it’s poor planning but we have visited this dock three times to swap cable and a fourth time to provide tours to sixty attendees of a cable protection and policy conference. The conference ironically focused on expediting working permits for cable ships. The entire reason we had the time to steam thirty miles to give ship tours and refreshments is because we are still waiting on permits! The tours actually proved to be a good time fielding questions from government officials and cable company executives about our profession while showing off a very sophisticated lady of a ship.

Sembawang is just a little ways past Johor, one of Malaysia’s industrial centers. On either side of the strait massive oil production and storage vessels were being constructed. At Sembawang an LNG tanker was having the finishing touches put on while an American flagged Polar tanker was on the floating dry dock having her hull repainted. Right next to the cable depot at the navy base a good friend and classmate’s Lewis & Clark class MSC supply ship was docked but he was home on vacation or I would have gotten the nickel tour.

The most impressive sight was an absolutely massive 738 foot pipe laying vessel. Appended to the bow was a pipe laying stinger which almost doubled her length used to install 60 inch diameter oil and gas piping in deep water. She is dynamically positioned and berths 240 people not to mention mile and miles of pipe. Check out her website here.

Also in the yard at Sembawang was a tanker that had been in a collision not too long ago. The collision as explained by our pilot occurred just outside the anchorage in Singapore. A bulker hit the tankers port side at the break between the cargo block and the house. The collision immediately caused an explosion that melted off the bridge wing and killed nine crew most of who were sleeping. It was a very sobering sight to look at the burnt out shell of ship which used to look just like so many you’ve slept on before.

Docking on this ship is a new experience in ship handling. Unlike docking conventional single screw vessels when we come along side the Captain takes the conn from the pilot and give orders directly to the Chief Mate who handles the throttles. Rather than a propeller, rudder and maybe a bow thruster, which is what I’m accustomed to, the ship has two azimuth stern drives, and two thrusters forward. One a conventional tunnel thruster, the other a swing down azimuth Z-drive.

Five Rolls Royce diesel electric generators power the propeller’s rotation while hydraulic pumps control the direction of thrust. Each azimuth thruster has a 360 degree range of motion and can thrust the ship fore n aft at up to 12 knots. This makes for a very maneuverable vessel which docks independent of tug boats and given the unique propulsion arrangement exclusive of pilots inexperienced with podded propulsion.

The cable depot at Sembawang is a large sheet metal building with a cable tanks on either side. The cable runs out an opening at the front of the building and supported by a high wire crosses over the road and receiving ship’s transom. As the cable is pulled by a transporter on our “cable highway” it enters one of the three circular tanks. Inside the tank a team of A.B.s constantly walk the cable in circles turning it clockwise neatly stowing it in flakes just as it’s been done for a hundred years and more.

In other news I've received my Marshal Islands license which is actually an impressive little green book complete with my picture and a half dozen of my scribbled signatures. You might be wondering what I had to do to earn this additional certification? Nothing much. Just submit an application and physical, pass a drug test and viola, I'm now a Marshal Islander! We'll at least I'm entitled to sail as an officer on any ship flagged out of the remote and miniscule Marshal Islands which probably has more deck space under registry than combined land mass. And they do have a decent looking flag unlike Monrovia.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Mitigating the threat

I was very interested to learn that shortly after the Maersk Alabama was a second time attacked by pirates, this time thwarted by armed security, the vessel made the news again. Now a number of crew, some wielding lawsuits, are lodging complaints against the master and former hostage turned national hero. This is an interesting turn of events for the ongoing story of the Alabama and worth paying attention to.

The seizure of the Maersk Alabama has had profound ramifications for the crew, the company and the industry. First of all it brought to light the hazards merchant mariners are facing at this very moment in the Indian Ocean and their limited options at self-protection when boarded by Somali militias. Until the Alabama was seized very little attention was being paid to this issue, especially by the media in the United States.

The event also precipitated a major reversal in the stance on arming merchant vessels from one of the largest shipping companies in the world. I remember reading somewhere about Maersk Line’s stance on arms the last time I went through the Gulf of Aden just as things were beginning to heat up. I knew that when ship’s were getting hit a couple hundred miles ahead and astern of us how much more comforted I would be with a few well trained and armed mercenaries standing watch instead of a can of pepper spray and an LRAD. It appears that the A.P. Moller Group now shares my sentiment.

The Alabama also spurred the adherance to allready adopted corridors for shipping traffic through the Gulf of Aden in conjunction with timed convoys under naval surveillance. As the threat of piracy now extends to South Africa and the Seychelles only a concerted naval response will disable the Somalis profiting from this lucrative business. Securing the shipping lanes will also allow the Somali people to focus on a more constructive and sustainable means of securing their future.

It was after the rescue of Captain Phillips that a Captain at my former company approached the owners to insist that armed security had to be provided for the fleet of 8 U.S. registered vessels. In his view, and mine, the only real deterrent for pirates at this point in the game is to meet them with more potential firepower than they are already bringing into the Indian Ocean. Aided by the dramatic media aftermath of the Alabama, something else I’ll mention shortly, the company took this Captain’s heartfelt request for safeguarding his crew into consideration.

After conferring with lawyers and government advisers in Washington my former employer decided to contract a security service out of the Carolinas which would provide small teams of very seasoned Special Forces to provide security for all points in between Egypt and India. The legality and liability of the arrangement was very thoroughly researched to enable this action but in the end I’m positive and grateful that the company made the right decision.

I became aware of this arrangement when I was sent to a security conference hosted by the company and the security contractor along with all the officers employed on the Middle East run. The company made it very clear that they were arming our ships to protect us from Piracy and to eliminate the chance of one of our vessels, laden with government cargo, falling into the hands of the Somalis.

The security service made it clear that the very last thing they wanted to do was to actually use the “Tools” they would be breaking out in conjunction with the master every time the ship left a port. This was no Blackwater but instead a professional company that only hired veterans and law enforcement professionals that had been exposed to combat and were the absolute opposite of trigger-happy.

Everyone at the conference agreed that the escalation of force and use of weapon systems was under the authority of the security team. It was emphasized that deadly force was only used if the pirates were aiming their weapons and that the master’s presence on the bridge, not the firing position precluded him or her from making that decision. Otherwise the weapons would only serve as deterrents hardening the defensive posture of the vessel when swarmed by skiffs full of RPG touting thugs. All of my colleagues supported this policy and had Captain Phillips misfortunes to thank.

We also agreed that after any incident involving pirates the only external communications made would be to government authorities and the company. In the case of the Maersk Alabama as we learned from a former manger at Maersk now working for my company, the event was a media fiasco. According to him some members of the crew were on the phone with parents and news agencies before Maersk was even consulted. I can understand the urge to let your family know you’re all right after being held hostage in the steering gear room of your ship but to be talking with CNN while your captain is being held at gunpoint is not a good idea.

I actually knew more about the sequence of events on the ship than the media knew shortly after the fact because of one email that was sent by a crew member on board to a friend ashore which then wound up being circulated around the union. Another email reached my inbox originating from a crew member I knew from school that was in the same vicinity of the Alabama on another Maersk ship. She gave a blow-by-blow account to all her friends via email as the Alabama was being attacked and her own ship was being assessed by another group of pirates.

This former Maersk employee didn’t mention either of these emailers but both messages highlighted the reasons that my company was asking us to use discretion until the situation was known and a response prepared. There was a massive amount of confusion initially at Maersk. Besides creating a media circus the uncontrolled flow of information jeopardized Captain Phillips precarious rescue. A fact the speaker new firsthand and justly emphasized to us.

The last day of the conference the company staff and officers got together on the shooting range for an unlimited ammunition test firing of the weapons systems that were being deployed to the fleet. After firing a couple of magazines from a .50 Caliber Barret sniper rifle I was convinced that while the LRAD is a wonderful means for determining intent and discouraging approach only an expert marksmen could stop the engine of a pirate’s skiff.

Looking back at the Maersk Alabama it is not hard to criticize the Captain for not giving the reported pirate activity a wider berth. But it also is not very hard to criticize the Captain of a grounded ship. I think a wider context is needed in this case. At the time Maersk was not willing to arm their vessels, the Navy was not willing to allocate sufficient patrols and the world was not ready to acknowledge the voracity of the Somali’s perpetrating these crimes.

Sailors from all over the world are being shot at, captured, wounded and killed. Companies are paying millions of dollars to get their ships out of Somalia. If anyone regrets the events on board the Maersk Alabama it’s the Captain himself more than anyone. Hopefully we can learn from the mistakes he may have made, which merit study, and as an industry prevent this from ever happening again. Something I hope for as the schedule here is looking more and more like West Africa for the spring.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Shark Fins

This weekend the chandler took all the officers out to dinner as is his custom once a month during our prolonged stay in Singapore. To satiate our appetites he ordered tender barbecued skate, spicy pepper crab and garlic crusted farm raised prawns the size of small lobsters. It was an array of seafood I had never seen and being such a glutton for local fare I tried it all. The only thing I wouldn’t have touched was the shark fin soup, which because of the exorbitant price he decided not to order. The reason I dislike shark fin soup is because it encourages the slaughter of shark solely for that highly sought appendage creating a horrendous amount of bycatch and is responsible for wiping shark out of the oceans.

So it was an ironic moment yesterday at a Chinese wedding when I found myself most unceremoniously slurping up non other than the wicked and detestable shark fin soup. Being the only non-Chinese guest at the wedding I felt obliged to partake in the gelatinous dirt tasting liquid. I was afraid to offend the couple and all the hard earned money I knew it cost the bride to serve this revered and healthy, so I’m told, delicacy.

The rest of the food, served from large platters in eight courses, which everyone dug into with their chop sticks was phenomenal. Baked fish in chili sauce, whole broiled chickens with heads intact, a mushroom cap and leak salad, fried jelly-fish and prawns, pork rolls and a pile of dirty fried rice wrapped in a huge leaf were among the more substantial plates served.

The wedding itself was simple and informal. As I quickly found out today’s younger generation of Chinese working in Singapore all come from single child families. This combined with the bride and groom’s parents still living in China meant the guests were exclusively friends and co-workers. How might one end up attending the wedding of two complete strangers? A little bit of charm and a lot of randomness at the local Kampung chicken rice shop wound up with me getting an invite by one of the brides’ friends.

The actually marriage consisted of an officiator reading an oath in Mandarin to be repeated by the bride and groom whom then signed the marriage certificate. There were none of the aspects of a western wedding nor any religious overture, just a simple transaction under the law and a lot of little red envelopes.

Yesterday’s wedding was an unexpected climax to two very untypical weeks at anchor. Since the next repair cannot take place until all the permits have been granted the ship is in a fully crewed standby period which means light duty for the crew and because I’ve been graduated to a day worker a lot of time to roam the Island.

Besides being a part of the most important day of two complete strangers lives I’ve seen the aquarium on Sentosa Island, climbed the cliff at Labrador Park and located the biggest Buddhist monastery in the land. I’m finally able to tell if the cab driver is ripping me off by driving ten blocks out of his way though this is a rarity in Singapore. One of the most enjoyable aspects of visiting, or as it is living in the anchorage are the people. Singapore has to be one of the safest places on earth and that security means people maintain an easy and happy demeanor. The flip side is a heavy handed penal code and a very intense work ethic, six days a week for most of the folks, but when it comes to small talk at the bar, asking for directions or being invited to weddings people are very amiable.

A huge part of the recreational culture here is shopping. Despite being surrounded by water Singapore’s beaches are icky and most of the island is developed so the usual hangouts at the end of the business day are restaurants and malls. At night this moves into a number of huge and packed bars and clubs which cater to all sorts of different cultural themes and, as prostitution is legal here, varying level’s of sleaziness. Whatever your preference there is always a party to be found.

This week the ship will be moving to the north end of the island to receive a load of cable lent to another repair vessel. This will entail a 36 mile voyage, the lengthiest of my hitch, out of the anchorage, past Johor Malaysia and then to Sembawang shipyard. A welcomed respite from too many ATM receipts and not enough sleep. Hopefully the next repair will start in early 2010 unless something breaks sooner.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Ferry Sinks

The seasons have changed. Rather than each day being hot and humid they are now hot, humid and around two in the afternoon, liquid. The rain storms that break out as if on a schedule are brief and violent. The wind kicks up out of the northwest, the clouds grows ominously gray and the rain obscures the ships anchored all around us. If the scuppers are left in like they were yesterday the water swashing up to the fishplate heels us over a good degree.

It was in one of these tropical deluges last week that a ferry began taking on water and eventually sank thirty miles to the west of our position. The Dumai Express 10 was traveling between two islands off Sumatra when large waves reportedly damaged the bow and she began to take on water.

As is so commonplace on board ferries in Asia the passenger manifest was falsified claiming that there were only 240 people on board when there were close to 300. The last count I heard was 29 dead and 17 people still missing with the ferry completely submerged south of the shipping lanes.

What struck me about this casualty was that it didn't occur somewhere remote and removed from help, nor did it occur swiftly. When I received the Sat-C request from the Rescue Coordination Center in Singapore to keep a lookout for bodies in the water I plotted the position of the sinking. It was right next to the busiest shipping lanes in the world.

With the amount of traffic in the area the confusion amongst the crew, all 14 of whom were rescued, must have been extreme for such a loss of life to occur. The ferry took half an hour to sink which means that there must have been a complete breakdown in the crew's handling of the emergency. Passengers were most likely never shown what to do or where to go in an emergency.

This incident is a common occurrence in Indonesia, a country with 17,000 islands. Had this happened in the United States or Singapore the reaction in government and law enforcement would be monumental but just across the strait overcrowded ferries and unprepared crews are the norm. Despite international regulations like SOLAS this is a reminder that the standards for life and safety at sea still vary widely from country to country.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

All I want for Christmas

As you might all ready know I have a soft spot for the hardy lasses of the merchant fleet whether they sail on harbor launches, schooners or super tankers. I'm sure it stems from a news paper article written when I was a toddler about my mother taking me with her to work in Los Angeles.

Those black and white photos taken by a local reporter showed her steering the STAR, a double decked passenger ferry, with her feet as she tried to shove a bottle in my face and are among my most treasured possessions. I didn't know it then but later in life I would be proud to relate to friends that at the time my mother was the only licensed female captain working the harbor in Long Beach.

She was well known around the waterfront for not only her prowess at scuba diving and good looks but also having a baby on board while giving tours to the public. My crib was situated in the back of the pilot house and I frequently wound up on the laps of old ladies while she docked the STAR. One of my earliest memories is of that harbor, going under the bridges and watching trains pass overhead.

So it is not with too much surprise that the second edition of Jack Tar Magazine's Sexy Girls of Maritime Calendar is at the top of my wish list for Christmas. Featuring twelve pages of the West Coast's "Sexy, strong and accomplished women who live, play and work on boats" it is the ideal gift for a lonely sailor at sea.

Hopefully next year Kim will fill a few months with the ample seafaring talent we have on the East Coast as well. Until then check it out on Cafepress and stick one in a bottle for me while your at it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Cable Ops

This morning may have been the closest sunrise I’ll get to a true day’s beginning at sea this entire trip. The sun was poised over Horsburgh light ever so illuminant behind a hedge of cumulus clouds scattered above Indonesia. The orange radiance wasn’t meant to linger at 77 nautical miles north of the equator. It was there just long enough to remind me how much I love that quiet moment at sea when the position has been fixed, the coffee is set for the next watch and I settle my mind to observe the earth begin another day as the water rolls by. It's something to be thankful for each time I see that.

Of course the six steel beasts gliding noiselessly by the bridge windows quickly reminded me that I was still on a Dynamically Positioned cable ship working in the traffic scheme that might never make it out of sight of land for the entirety of my hitch. Yet that is the nature of the job and I think I can deal with it as long as the work holds my interest, an essential part to my participation in this industry.

The last week has been nothing short of interesting. I’ve finally been released from the glass prison that is the bridge to participate on the aft deck and cable highway. As everyone has promised none of the work is rocket science. Mostly common sense and experience with a good dose of luck will get any piece of cable on the sea floor without a “Non-conforming bend” or series of assholes in it.

My role as a second mate (I got a bump up last week) is primarily supervisory. The unlicensed crew, all from the Philippines, handles the cable. Whether it’s loading, discharging, stopping off or cutting under the direction of the Bosun or Bosun’s Mate they get the job done with alacrity.

My duty is to observe the operation and watch for danger plain and simple. When the pressure is low the Chief Mate will allow me the Cable P.A. to direct the payout or pickup of the cable drums. Apart from the UHF radio each officer carries, the Cable P.A. is a loudspeaker hardwired in to the drum operator’s headphones. One operator for each drum adjust the speeds as I give the commands stationed over the stern sheaves to keep an eye on the cable leads as they enter the water. So you might understand better how this I’ll works I will quickly explain the steps to a repair job. Keep in mind that in shallow water things happen much faster than they would in deep water repairs.

First off the cable has to be broken to necessitate our departure from safe harbor and a considerable expenditure of funds, equipment and Star Bucks whole bean French roast. This usually is caused by a fisherman’s trawl, an errant anchor or an earthquake and is easily detected by tests ashore measuring the distance from the beach manhole to the break. Once on site, with all necessary work permits, the ship can deploy the Remote Operated Vehicle for a survey pass. Using a sensor to detect a signal tone sent from shore the R.O.V. team verifies the reported cable position and any obstructions on the bottom that might foul our gear.

Once the break is pinpointed and the cable studied, which in the Strait of Singapore means dozens of other cables crossed over our objective, we can do two things. One is to use grapnels which is the only method available in deep water. This can be a laborious, and in water with so many cables, a disastrous process. So far I’ve seen one cable drag and it only took five passes to snare our cable while missing all the others. This was quick and luckily a clean job.

For the last two repairs we have used the second method. The R.O.V. is lowered over the side to cut and then grip one end of the cable. The gripper, attached to the ship by a line, is disconnected from the R.O.V. and retrieved to the stern. Once the cable is brought onto deck the crew apply a very sturdy metallic stopper onto the two inch thick armored cable and attach that to a bull chain pad-eyed to the deck. The gripper is cut off and a utility line attached to the end of cable. The cable drum then pulls the line with cable in tow onto the cable highway. Passing down the highway over the three huge cylindrical cable tanks it is guided to the splicer’s shop.

That end is then tested, sealed and lowered back to the bottom attached to a clump weight for retrieval at a later time. In deep water a buoy would be used to save time in the retrieval of this “System end”. The process is repeated, by grapnel or bug to get the other "Fault end" aboard and into the splicer’s shop. In the shop the splicer/joiners take a day to remove the bad spot and splice in enough new cable to replace what was damaged and cut out of the system. A repair job only requires enough new cable to replace what was cut out whereas an instalation may span hundreds of kilometers. For that the three cable tanks onboard can store entire systems for laying across oceans.

The splicing part remains a bit of wizardry to me. Fiber optic cable is a whole lot of protective and conductive material surrounding a handful of silica wires that are fragile and tiny. If anything is amiss in the conditions for the splice the whole job can get botched but you won’t know it until the splice is molded in hard plastic and ready to go back into the water.

Once the initial splice is complete the cable is paid out on one of the two cable drums as the ship dynamically positions herself over the clump weight which is then recovered to deck on the other cable drum. Now both cables are led over the stern on two separate rotating sheaves into the cable highway after running around the cable drums four times each. Another day is spent holding position as they’re joined in the splicer’s shop and then turned over to the deck department.

Next comes the final bight which is often an all hands event. The crew lines up around the crown of the cable (Near the final splice) and the bight is carried down the length of the cable highway and over the drums all the while being lowered to the bottom by two lowering ropes stoppered onto each cable lead. On any cable that is a segment of a potentially active system lineman’s leather gloves must be worn over rubber gloves for handling at this point in case the cable is energized accidentally. The final bight is then raised over the stern sheaves and lowered by another set of ropes to control the crown placing it as gently as possible onto the sea floor. The whole time the Captain is inching the ship ahead at maybe 0.2 nautical miles per hour and ideally the cable will form a V on the bottom if sufficient tension is kept on the leads throughout.

In an ideal world the final bight would always make a V and I would have used a paragraph to explain this process to you. But that isn't the case so in comes the R.O.V. for a Post Lay, Inspection and Burial. The work is looked over and recorded on DVD, the cable tested by the shore technicians and the crew’s cable watches are returned to sea watches. Were not done though. The ROV must now make it’s jetting and burial passes. The PLIB can take a long time if the owner wants the cable trenched deep enough to stay away from those pesky fishermen.

And as anyone in this industry knows something always comes up so scheduling one of these operations is a lot of guesswork and finger crossing. What amazes me the most though is that this work has been going on in just this fashion since the first cable was laid without the added benefit of Dynamic Positioning. Holding station in these currents to give the splicers enough time to get their job done must have been a phenomenal feat of ship handling. With differentially corrected GPS it is just the click of a button. The safety and efficiency introduced by this technology is phenomenal and surely the subject of another lengthy blog post.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Good Reverend

Today is Sunday. Many people will make their way to church this morning. If I happened to be a church going fellow, which I’m not, and the urge for a sermon struck me I would need not suffer a long journey in order to hear one. The 2nd Assistant Engineer living across the hall from me is not officially a man of the cloth but in his church it's not necessary to be ordained in order to give a sermon. The religion of “Reverend” Professor Jesus Rapture is a faith and a church unto himself. And as sure as there will be eggs Benedict in the galley this morning he shows it by wearing a reverend’s habit under his coveralls every Sunday.

Though I did change his name I’m really not kidding about this. Professor isn't his first name and Rapture is not his surname but they are pretty comparable. His actual name has a much better ring to it and was legally changed many years ago. It looks absolutely hilarious on the crew lists that are sent to immigration every time we clear in to Singapore.

The philosophy, of which I have only scratched the surface during a brief theological discussion this morning on the cable highway, goes something like this; the Professor is seeking to convert no less than 144,000 followers to his faith. Loosely based in Christianity it is a mixture of Revelations “For the 21st century”, sex, drugs and rock and roll. Though everyone knows he’s not actually doing drugs at the moment somehow cloud ships factor in to the religion at some point, whatever they might be.

One hundred and forty four thousand appears to be the necessary number of humans requiring an awakening to appease god and save the world from destruction. Any less and the other two-thirds majority, whom are all sinners, would have a quorum. Thus Satan’s reign on earth would ensue which for the Reverend and the rest of us is a bad thing. If this sounds about as interesting to you as Scientology does to me don’t worry, there will be a book coming out shortly.

Working (And living) in close proximity to someone you would probably avoid walking down the sidewalk with gives pause for thought. While the Reverend is actually a good guy I have heard numerous stories about people who were really out there often to a hazardous degree. Stories about a guy who carried throwing knives in his back pocket every where he went or another who took a fire axe to the metal bulkheads in a rage and only surrendered after the captain had him convinced he was a prisoner of war back in Vietnam with a pistol drawn on him.

One captain told me about an AB who put on his shore going rig, packed his suitcase and then informed the mate on watch he would be going ashore before stepping off the bridge wing underway. The same captain worked with a second mate who would spend entire days sitting on the fantail shooting sun line after sun line never to plot one.

And then there is my favorite and the most disturbing story. This one a Chief Mate told me last week while we were out to dinner. She had a radio operator onboard who was well known for stealing dirty socks and other undergarments from the crew for his own olfactory enjoyment. He would actually pay the dancing girls in Guam to remove their boots so he could enjoy them as the rest of the crew watched in horror from the far corner of the bar. Surpsingly enough this fellow spent a career in the Navy and is now the radio opeartor on a Military Sealift Command fleet oiler.

Surely the decrease in tolerance for drugs and alcohol and slight increase in training standards has helped dissuade some of the less stable from careers at sea but not all. Anyone who has been working at sea for a while has surely had a run in or two with inebriated crew on duty, drug addicts fiending for a fix or sock sniffers. As far as the Reverend is concerned, I’m not too worried. He’s surprisingly not too much of a proselytizer and like the Chief Mate said, “He’s a nut, but he’s our nut,” or as my favorite quote goes, "Were all here because were not all there."


Tuesday, November 10, 2009


A cable job in shallow water always requires a permit, or two, or in our case three. When the job involves a repair or installation in the middle of the ocean it’s usually not a problem. No one owns the abysmal plain, unless of course there’s mineral wealth down there, but coastal waters are a different story.

Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia all have territorial claims over the waters that make up the Singapore and Malacca Straits. These invisible borders are guarded secrets and some are contested betwixt the nations. Therefore they are not drawn on our navigational charts which means that when we submit a proposed work area for the necessary permits we do not know which nation has a claim to those waters. And since one of the three nations is infamous for taking weeks and weeks to process work permits the company often asks the navigation second mate to redraw the work area trying to tailor it around that particular maritime nation’s waters. And so we wait…

The last job ended about a week ago with a surprise. We had finished the final splice of the cable and had successfully surveyed the entirety of the work area. Not 24 hours before leaving the “Cable grounds” did the Engineer In Charge receive a phone call informing the ship that a fault had been detected a little further down the line. We investigated by surveying that area with the Remote Operated Vehicle or bug and found that the cable had been devastated by an anchor when it was erroneously dropped a few hundreds meters too far south of the ship’s designated anchorage. (Imagine how the cable owners must have been feeling after paying for one three week repair to have another unexpected break requiring another repair before they could get their bandwidth up and running again).

This of course means another job for us here in the Straits and the prerequisite permits have to come through first. In the interim the goodly Singaporean pilots have stationed us a mere seven-minute launch ride from the terminal where sailors pass through customs for diversion ashore.
What could be better than being only a few minutes from Tiger Beer and all the Asian culture you can stand? How about working for a company that springs for nine launch trips to and from the wharf daily! That means every day worker and watch stander has a chance to get off the ship. If you’re a night owl there’s a 0230 launch at your disposal and if you push it a little later you can always haggle your way onto another launch to make it in before breakfast. This is a luxury I have never known onboard a commercial ship.

As of late I’ve had the pleasure to explore a few of the eateries and pubs reported in last Sunday’s New York Times about Singapore including a restaurant inside a renovated church replete with stained glass windows and a bar which only for lack of monkeys and the presence of a DJ would've had me convinced I was drinking in the jungle. I also found Singapore’s most expensive drink at the world-renowned cocktail bar Tipple. It was ironically named “F**k the Subprime” and listed for 45 sing, a substantial investment for a little bit of whisky.

My dinner date had a 25 sing cosmo served in a beaker which bubbled over with dry ice induced steam. My favorite drink was dedicated to Ernest Hemingway, who spent time in Singapore, called a “Death in the afternoon”. A simple Singapore Sling, a fruity purple colored staple of Singaporean night life containing just about every kind of booze behind the bar, comes in at an average of 22 sing or 15 bucks.
While reveling with ample time ashore and high priced cocktails I encountered a reminder that all in Singapore is not as loose and easy as one American mariner might believe. While walking through a neighborhood known for it’s fine dining, and one of the quietest streets around I might add, I ran into ten of Singapore’s police. These were not your average beat cops walking down the dark streets of Dempsey Hill. No, these guys in their black fatigues and red berets were wearing studded flak jackets each carrying a Heklor and Koch MP5 sub machine gun. These were well armed paramilitary.
Their laser sights and bandoliers meant business and I half expected some fire works to start going off as soon as they had passed but they were just doing what cops normally do in Singapore; eerily remind you from the dark corners of the island that the republic of Singapore is closer to a dictatorship and that the police state is never far away. Oh, they also make you walk your durians home. Like pets the spiny and smelly durian fruit is prohibited on the Mass Rapid Transit sub way.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Day thirteen

It is the thirteenth day of the repair and it’s looking like another week or so until we’ve completed the job. Normally when I’ve been at sea for more than two weeks it means that port is close ahead. In this case the only reason we need to go to port is for provisions and crew changes. Otherwise our work lies beneath the water and in some instances very far from land.

This job, like the last repair, is in shallow water and close to land. It’s also right in one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world which adds an element of suspense every time a fully loaded Very Large Crude Carrier takes her time in deciding which side of us to pass on. Despite the number of ships current rode off she southern shores of Malaysia there are ten times as many ships still transiting the strait, plenty of those are in ballast or lightly loaded, but there is still a lot of traffic here.

After signing on this ship as a third mate I quickly realized that I was at the bottom of a very steep learning curve. Despite five years of working experience on liquid and dry cargo vessels my knowledge base is solely being used for safety inspections and security calls on the VHF radio. All of the responsibility and decisions regarding the cable repair is left to the master, chief mate and first officer under the guidance of the Engineer In Charge, a company employee.

This work relationship is completely alien to me. Coming from a traditional merchant cargo ship not being allowed to participate in the repair operations has made me feel a new level of uselessness. This isn’t what I was hoping for but I have to take it with a little salt. While repairing cable isn’t that technically difficult, unless you’re a joiner-splicer, experience is the number one factor to doing it successfully. The combined experience of the upper officers making the decisions on this repair is over 100 years and it shows.

Therefore I’ve come to realize that all I need to do is shut up and stick around and eventually I’ll be released from the office, the fully enclosed bridge, and be allowed to work in the field, that would be the aft deck where all the action happens. And of course, being at the bottom of the food chain means I have a lot of things to learn which for me is always a positive in the workplace.

Another positive. We have a barber on board. One of the Filipino crew will give anyone a lunch break mop chop and doesn’t even expect payment. Of course all the officers who use his skilled services pay the going rate but it’s worth double that given the time it saved me from having to go ashore to find a barber who may or may not speak English.

The barber, who’s nickname I haven’t learned yet (Every Filipino on board has a nickname), started cutting hair on cruise ships and found employment through an offshore crewing agency in the Philippines on this ship. He’s now moved out of the stewards department where he started here and is an Ordinary Seaman still practicing, as he put it, his “Main vocation”.

A view of some aft deck Action with cable on grapnel.

I am not in the photo...

Sunday, October 25, 2009


There are three things I really like to do when traveling. One is to eat the local food. The second is immersing myself in hectic throngs of people jostling for goods only available to them in open air markets. The third is to find where the locals worship whatever deity it is that gets worshiped in that part of the world. Last week I had the rare chance to do all three of these things in a single night ashore.

I had made plans to meet a classmate in town for a few catch up drinks. We hadn’t seen one another since my senior year at maritime and admitted that we had hardly known each other then. Since we were both strangers in a strange land it seemed like a great idea to have someone to meet up with. Furthermore I was craving polite company in hopes of avoiding the debauchery that would surely follow my shipmates off of the launch.

My friend, an ABS surveyor living in Singapore, suggested Indian food so after a few pints to melt the ice we headed to little India for Nan and curry. I should first premise that my expectations for food in Singapore were pretty low after my first experience with the local fare here five years ago. That entailed two dishes, a curry and a prawn soup, both too spicy to eat much less smell because of a rancid odor as if the ingredients had spoiled from the tropical climate inside a shipping container a few weeks prior.

Our destination, the “Banana Leaf”, was situated on the outskirts of little India and packed with as many Indian families as British expatriates. Being more familiar with the menu I left the ordering up to my friend who felt confident that her choices would not disappoint. Once the order was in to the kitchen a team of servers placed two green banana leaves in front of us onto which were ladled mounds of rice. Next came steaming piles of bread to serve as eating utensils followed by courses of spinach, chicken and mutton prepared in curry and masala sauces. One of the unique aspects of Singapore is that it is such a mesh of Asian cultures that eating India here, even though you're not in Mumbai, almost counts as local food.

After dinner it was time for some sight seeing in a crowded market place. Seeing that it was the height of Dīpāvali, the Indian New Year festival a crowd was not too far off. Dīpāvali translated means “row of lamps” and In Hinduism, Sikhism, and Jainism the event is celebrated for five days in between October and November depending on the lunar calendar. By lighting small oil filled lamps observers signify the triumph of good over evil within oneself. New clothes are worn, little sweet cakes are purchased from vendors on the streets and homes are decorated with bright jangly ornaments covered in small mirrors.

We found a street lighted with decorations and delved into the heart of the holiday market. Hundreds of families were making their way into and out of the tent city as we pressed past tables piled high with bright silk textiles, toys, pastries and fruits. Above our heads were thousands of long paper and plastic decorations adorned in lights and mirrors. I thought we had walked a mile when our claustrophobia caught up with us. Nudging elbows and pressing hands were a reminder that personal space for people who come from a country of 1.2 billion is very different from westerners accustomed to wide aisles at the supermarket and a disdain for physical intimacy with strangers.

Ducking out of the market past a table of Hindu shrines we meandered up the street and found the entrance to a temple lined by the shoes and sandals of the faithful. Removing our own footwear we quietly walked into the doorway trying not to appear overly curious at the scene before us.

Inside the open air sanctum a dozen deities were housed in individual shrines. Holy men in sarongs with painted faces were blessing devotees. Offerings of food prepared in the kitchen out back were being placed at the feet of elephant headed multi-limbed figurines. Some worshipers were lying prone on the stone floor kissing what I assumed to be the sarcophagus of a holy person underfoot. Another deity was drawing a chanting crowd of parents and children who appeared to be blessing the kids on the eve of the new year.

I don’t know exactly what it is about holy grounds but there is always a sense of solace every time I encounter one ashore. A Lutheran cathedral in Germany, the house of a mannequin god in Guatemala, a Buddhist shrine in the hills of South Korea all provide the same sense of inner quiet that is hard to find here at work and at home. The heavy incense filled air and flickering candles lend to the serenity which gathers the concerns, hopes and prayers of the faithful. I always try to stick around in these places just long enough to stop feeling like an outsider looking into a cultural fishbowl and more like a participant in the spiritual story written on the pages of life. Even I need that from time to time.

After returning to the pile of shoes, none of which seemed to be at risk of walking way on us, we made our way out of Little India and into the night scene of Singapore. By the time we finished our rounds the crew had gathered at the marina waiting for the launches back to the ship. I left my friend at the cab and joined the Filipino crew who had spent their third night celebrating every birthday which had taken place or would take place within a four week time span. We all nimbly jumped from the concrete quay onto the bobbing launch and watched the reflection of Singapore's buildings shimmer in the inky water ready for another three or four weeks on the job. It was a good night to be ashore.

Friday, October 16, 2009

No parking zone

There is an economic irony in the cable repairs my new ship is doing this month. The global financial crisis has caused a drastic down turn in shipping. With less goods being transported globally and the demand for oil so low shipping companies have found that what was a lack of tonnage just two years ago has become a huge oversupply of ships. Now that container vessels and tankers outnumber profitable cargoes shipping companies have been left with few options for these empty hulks.

Like my former 30 year old vessel, the eldest of ships can be driven aground and hacked up for scrap. Newer ships, symptoms of the last few years’ capitalistic optimism, are harder to part with. They represent large investments and will hopefully be needed again once trade comes around so owners are finding places to squirrel them away for better days.

One of those places is in the waters between Indonesia and Malaysia. The holding ground is soft clay, the depth 30 - 40 meters, the latitude (One degree north) means no typhoons and the proximity to Singapore's marine services ideal for ship storage during a financial crisis. The straits are also geographically at the center of commerce plying the Eastern Hemisphere between Asia, the Persian Gulf / Suez canal and Europe.

This choke point, all ready crowded by the traffic around Johor Malaysia and the island nation of Singapore is also one of the busiest waterways in the world. Now adding to the congestion are hundreds of ships without cargoes which are being parked in a narrow strip of unregulated water between the traffic lanes of this marine highway and the port limits of these two shipping hubs.

Looking out the bridge windows it's apparent that shipping is down. In between us and the white strip of beach that is Malaysia's southern shore there are scores of boats either swinging around their anchor, or as the case is with two massive brand new APL container ships, rafted together stem to stern in line with the strong currents. Ships of every type and size are waiting here. LNG's, VLCCs, container ships, bulkers and offshore support vessels stretch all the way from Horsburgh light to Singapore.

This strip of water also happens to be where numerous fiber optic cables have been laid under the seabed. It’s normally a cheaper route to have them laid along the side of rather than in the middle of the traffic scheme, or at least it was. Now each time a tanker's anchor is let go the unfortunate cable buried a few meters below can be disrupted, crushed or broken. Or when the ships anchor is finally weighed to fill up on that cargo of crude oil it’s anchor flukes, which have dug deep into the soft clay can yank the cable right out of the sea bed prematurely ending some one's Myspace session in Taiwan.

Thus the number of empty ships anchoring here is giving my boat a lot of work to do. There are dozens of out of service cables running along the bottom but lying on top of those are newer in service cables linking Singapore with the rest of the world and they are being crushed and broken all the time. It will take anywhere from 7 to 14 days to carry out a single repair so from the looks of this marine parking lot we could be here for a while. One of the drawbacks of mending these broken wires near the traffic scheme is having to work in very close proximity to ships swinging on their anchors or steaming past us.

For safety concerns the port authority in Singapore has restricted our operations to daylight repairs only. This should double the time we have to spend dynamically positioned in the midst of one of the worlds busiest traffic schemes. It may mean working in a precarious spot for a couple of weeks but it also means job security in very insecure times.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Starting at the bottom

The first humid blast of air on the boarding ramp was refreshing after 22 hours of flying. In a jet lag induced haze I was shuttled from the airport past massive skyscrapers in down town Singapore to a bustling launch terminal. Even at midnight the climate at one degree north latitude was making me sweat whenever the air became still.

I crammed into a rickety wooden launch with my guitar and sea bag, which must have weighed twice that of the other crew’s gear that I was signing on with, and 15 minutes later was eyeing the smallest motor ship I had ever joined as an officer. The first thing I noticed about this cable repair vessel, besides being registered in an unknown town in the South Pacific, was the amount of gear on her, both forward and abaft the midships bridge.

Cranes, winches, spools of thick wire, two very large foam buoys and even an R.O.V. were scattered up and down her 139-meter length. When I made it to the top of the gangway the main deck looked like a long garage with a door at the after end. Dozens of black cables covered the deck all running up and out of three large cylindrical cable tanks that disappeared below the plating.

If it was change that I was looking for than I’ve come to the right place. Everything is different here…everything. For starters the ship is designed not to get from point A to point B but rather to arrive in between at point C which could be anywhere with a telecommunications cable underfoot. Once in position the ship holds station using a Dynamic Positioning system to very slowly and methodically inspect, retrieve and mend fiber optic cable. The only time we’re underway is to either get to a job, lay a new cable on the seabed or to arrive at our next port to standby for a future repair.

Another difference is the amount of time spent in port. Rather than being designed for the efficient loading, stowage and discharge of cargo this ship is configured to kill time while in port. Unless were loading cable for the next job (Which takes weeks) than we’re essentially stood down and the crew assumes their reduced duties with enthusiasm. There are two hoistable racks stowed in the garage area or ‘Cable Highway’ with ten bicycles apiece. There are card-keyed doors to the gangway and a revolving duty mate. The officers are only obligated to put in an 8-hour day while moored so there is ample time for work, rest and play.

The crew is massive. Rather than the 18 or 20 person crews I’m accustomed to there are between 60 and 80 on board during a job. The unlicensed on this vessel are all from the Philippines (It is a foreign flagged ship) and are reputed as some of the best seaman and karaoke singers around. There are a number of technicians to drive the Remote Operated Vehicle or make the actual repairs and splices in the cable. We have an electronic technician (A modern day radio operator), a doctor, a Boson and Boson’s mate, two extra second mates and a purser. The additional deck and engineering officers are necessary to double the watches when doing a job due to the orchestration, albeit usually a slow one, of getting the cable safely off the bottom and on board. The large unlicensed crew ensures ample hands to handle the cable and keep all of the equipment in good order.

The three things I’m most enthused about though, besides the selection of Filipino dishes at meals, are the massive gym, Internet access and cheap phone cards. The last being ironic because the first time I actually have the ability to make affordable calls home everyday there isn’t really anyone who cares to talk to me that often. That aside having a killer gym and the ability to Face Book is wicked decent.

The past week has been spent on the hook in a very crowded Malacca Strait. We received our work permits this morning and will depart tomorrow to traverse the 8 miles to our first repair sight. I’m pleased because my first cable repair will take place in only 30 meters of water. Rather than waiting hours and hours for each evolution to take place, as would be the case in water five kilometers deep, this repair should keep a much faster pace. The process is complex and it will be a completely new experience for me.

A not so new experience is sailing as third mate. To once again be responsible for checking fire extinguishers and cleaning life boats is not a bad thing, just unexpected. I’m a plebe when it comes to this new line of specialized work so I can accept my station. Hopefully the change will pay off.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Plane Ride

A certain level of Zen is necessary to endure a transpacific flight to
meet a ship on the other side of the world. My itenerary calls for one
eighteen hour flight, Chicago to Tokyo, followed by another seven
hours aloft to arrive in Singapore the day after tomorrow.

The last three years meeting my former vessel in such not so far flung
places as Beaumont, Baltimore and Charleston have spoiled me when it
comes to the commute. Compared to most jetters of today I probably
don't spend all that much time flying but I bet they usually have a
hotel waiting at the other end of the jetway wheras I will have a

I'm sincerely relieved to be on my way though. The last two weeks of
waiting for a plane ticket have been strenuous. I finnally found a
receptive company that could give me a full hitch at sea and a shot at
a new permanent home which, if the fit is right, I'll take. It just
required being put on 24 hour notice to fly out three times and then
having to stand down due to a scheduling error, a typhoon delay, and a
persnickety Captain not interested in hiring a green mate. 24 hours
ago I was under the impression that the job wouldn't happen for
another two weeks and now I'm fighting the jetstream in cattle class.

The last month has been a real challenge to endure for many of
reasons. I'm very thankful for the great support I have received from
family and friends, especially from my left coast cousin. Crashing at
my place for several weeks he not only put up win my incessant whining
and doubtful doldrums but also instructed me in the arts of surfing
and golfing and provided the best lecture in guitar theory I've ever

The next several months should be interesting. The work will be
different from anything I've been exposed to before. Hopefully I'll be
able to keep you informed on what I'll be involved in. But first I've
got to get there.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

If it isn't one thing...

I can't remember exactly when I convinced myself that life would start to get easier once I had put some money in the bank, bought a modest apartment, and started my climb up the paper ladder. I suppose I just assumed, given my predisposition to plan things way in advance, that
all would fall into place just as I had planned for.

If there is anything I've learned this year it's that the world has little regard for even the best of my intentions. Instead of letting the unexpected get me down any more than it all ready has I'll just re-cap this roller coaster of a summer.

It all started at the Seafarers Mission in Southampton. While checking email there I agreed to do
a short fill in job on one of the schooners I had worked on board after college. This was a ship I had wanted to sail on again but had been too busy the past three years working on merchant ships, taking upgrade courses and license exams, plus maintaining a long distance relationship, to fit in sail training.

So when the opportunity arose I excitedly signed onto the schooner even though I knew that thirty days of youth education would burn me out to the max. I had just come off my regular rotation on the ro-ro and contrary to good judgment still had the knack for cramming more sea time into my off time than could possibly be good for me.

Despite some heavy weather the trip to Bermuda and back went well. Just before the end of the passage, as we made landfall off one of my favorite places in the world, I received a phone call from my employer that a practically brand new ship was going to be re-flagged from the good folks in Norway later in the summer. After being passed up for a promotion a couple of times I was now first on the list for the Chief Mates spot.

Naturally I was elated. The last three years of company loyalty and the last five of being a faithful fraternal dues paying union brother, a four thousand dollar investment (Not including the dues), was about to pay off. Besides I had gotten complacently accustomed to the not so burdensome responsibilities of second officer and was in dire need of again sailing as Chief Mate (I had all ready sailed as a fill in Chief Mate for the company in early 2008).

I packed my sea bag, took a fast rescue boat course, attended a two day security conference and took my girlfriend out to dinner to celebrate. At the security conference my colleagues and I were told about the impressive measures the company was taking with the help of a few former Navy Seals to ensure our security in the Gulf of Aden. We even got to test fire the "Weapon systems" they would be employing leaving my right shoulder badly bruised.

A week later I found out second hand that the re-flag was being shelved indefinitely for mainly economic reasons. Of course by this time I had missed my permanent rotation on my usual ship (Though I was thankful for the extra time home) and was left scrambling for a job in the worst recession my generation has ever seen.

The company tried to assuage my suffering by putting me out as a temporary second mate on the oldest ship they had which was headed for India. I turned down the chance for two back to back 25 day sea passages and was glad I did when the ship never left the dock, again due to the economy.

My next step was calling the union dispatchers who told me that despite being registered for work for over two months I was still number 39 on the hiring list. Naturally I started toying with the idea of seeking unorganized labor mainly because my chance for upward progression in the union was stifled. The two sweetest retirement deals around had just been shut down by the pension plan trustees in order to save what was left of the the once healthy pension fund. This meant that every Captain, Chief engineer, Chief Mate and First from the ages of 45 to 65 who missed the big buyout or early retirement were now going to stay at sea until all five of their kids had graduated college and the lake house was paid off.

After sending dozens of resumes, cover letters and C.V.s only three companies replied all saying the same thing; their hiring needs had been fulfilled. Realizing that I might be a long way off from a paycheck I spent a week working on a day sailing schooner. Despite the repetitiveness of hauling sail four times a day for a boat load of bored cruise whip passengers to do a two mile loop in Casco Bay it felt great to be sail and working up the calluses. Getting a wad of cash for your twelve hour day, though it barely equaled minimum wage, was a good feeling too.

A few days later I finally got a bit of work through the union. The Maritime Administration had authorized a number of "Turbo breakouts". This is when ships in the Ready Reserve Fleet are activated on short notice to test the capability of the operating companies, unions and permanent skeleton crews to staff, start and sail these "Grey Hulls" off the dock in less than 72 hours. The vessel is then put through a series of sea trials to make sure they're ready to go for the next time. The ships, which spend years being laid up in places like Charleston, Baltimore and San Francisco, ensure a surge shipping capability for the government in times of conflict or crisis.

My ship, a late 70's model Norwegian ro-ro, was berthed in downtown San Francisco and had not been underway for two years. It was only a mile seaward of the SF buoy when we had to turn around due to breakdowns in engineering. This meant the sea trials would take twice as long as expected but the work hungry crew didn't mind that at all.

After a week of lashing down loose gear for sea and throwing out garbage bags filled with expired hospital equipment I paid off and spent two days roaming the bay area. I hiked the Golden Gate bridge after breaking up with my girlfriend of four years and found irony in all the crisis hot line phones along the way discouraging people from taking the long plunge.

I felt like I could use some advice being five years into a career where I've stagnated without a promotion, or a job, plus ending the longest and best relationship of my life (The dog, a wife and a house in the woods seems more like a fantasy now).

Naturally assuming I was just another bankrupted businessman one step from the edge of eternity they most likely wouldn't have told me what I really needed to hear, something my younger brother would tell me a few hours later; "Suck it up man!"