Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The icing on top

The electric loom of Halifax at night was the first sign of civilization since leaving Bull Rock, Ireland. For the last five days there has been a constant blow out of the west. We have logged a force 9 or better each day and only this afternoon have the white horses subsided and an on time arrival at Ambrose pilot station seemed likely.

Most of the crew has had trouble sleeping with the incessant pounding we've experienced during this blow. I was only bothered on the first night when we took a gravity defying plunge into the trough of two enormous waves. I was woken when my head hit the pillow after being lifted bodily off my rack. Besides that I've had great sleep, retarding clocks always helps.

I had a microscopic moment of pure terror around three this morning. Having cleared Sable Island to the southeast I was coming back to the track line after a night hauled off course for a better ride. I was busily taking care of paperwork, all watch related of course, when the lookout spotted a flashing red light ahead. Nonchalantly I queried if it looked to be close or far away, a radio tower ashore perhaps? As I allowed my eyes to adjust from the dim lights of the chart table I checked the radars for any returns within twelve miles and didn't see anything readily apparent. When I looked up from the glowing screens a large red light was bearing down on the starboard bow. I quickly realized it was most definitely an aid to navigation bobbing up and down in the 5-meter swell, flashing red every four seconds to be precise.

For a split second I contemplated the possibility that the Global Positioning System had finally shit the bed and we were not fifty miles off the rock shores of Nova Scotia but five miles and about to discover the shoal that buoy was marking. Was it really possible that we had strayed that far off the planned route over the last few watches without anyone noticing?

It couldn't be, I reminded myself a moment later looking at the radar and seeing no land within 24 miles even after cranking up the gain. Maybe I had missed a chart correction placing a newly discovered hazard to navigation dead ahead? A quick check of the depth sounder showed a reassuring 140 meters of water under the keel. After putting down a fix I was confident that nothing had appeared in the open water that would pose a threat to us.

Reassuring myself that I wasn't completely lost and still had a grasp on situational awareness I turned on the halogen light to see if I could read a number or name off the buoy. Seeing the blur of a reflector I made the assumption that the buoy had broke it's mooring during the last storm causing it to drift away from the shoal it guarded towards Sable Island. Yes, this was a much better situation I thought changing course to rejoin the track line and avoid running it down.

One last unsettling thought crossed my mind. What if the buoy's light had been damaged and unlit? We would have potentially bought the buoy and perhaps a new propeller along with it. This prompted me to get on the SAT C and send a report to nearby Halifax Coast Guard alerting them of what we had discovered. Half an hour later I was reassured that my message had been received when we heard a safety to shipping broadcast on the VHF locating the buoy where we had left it and warning vessels to stay clear.

Having Thanksgiving, Christmas and the New Years timed so close together is a sure fire way to miss out on all three holidays at home which has been the case for me. Additionally, I have an early January birthday so today marks the fourth annual excuse for overeating and a party spent at sea this year. I can't complain about Thanksgiving though. At least then we had a steward onboard who did a bang up job putting out great food including an entire table filled with pastries, pies and a triple layer chocolate cake.

After crew changes last time in the states everything went down hill. I have to give credit to AB Mac for calling this one out. As soon as our current steward/baker joined the ship he was quick to get on her case and let me know the full depth of his displeasure each morning on watch.

I chastised Mac thinking it unfair to judge someone's food so quickly but experience counts. It wasn't two or three days into the trip when Mac looked up from his hardly cooked hash at the only other AB with as much time on the rolling main as himself. "Jimmy" Mac said, "Even the seagulls are going to starve on this one." Jimmy, an old sailor from Roatan who eats his own avocados for breakfast every day knew he was right.

When any single member of small merchant ship's crew fails to do their assigned job it's potentially felt by everyone else around them, whether it be a QMED taking reefer box temperatures or a third mate checking the EPIRBs. The steward's job affects everyone onboard three times a day and having one who is indifferent to the quality of her work stretches the crew's patience and kills morale.

Our new steward, a recent addition to the commercial, or working fleet, has spent the last eight years either anchored in Diego Garcia or comfortably tied up to a pier in Richmond where the crew always went ashore for meals. She has displeased the crew with more than just her runny eggs and hockey puck cheeseburgers. Caustically stating the she "Isn't paid enough to do icing" after putting out bunt cake with chocolate sprinkles on top was a real crowd pleaser. Her dislike of confectionary glaze hasn't had that much of an impact though as she has only twice in forty-five days baked anything, relying solely on Oreo's and Betty Crocker's pre made pies for dessert.

Her limited repertoire as a culinary professional isn't all to blame for earning the crews displeasure. Hoarding the chocolates from the cadet's mom given to her to put out at meals was another signature move as well as spending as much time in the smoking lounge during the work day as possible.

Today the Chief Mate, a renowned sweets hog, dropped a hint that maybe some birthday baking was in order as a few of us have birthdays this month but to no effect. I appreciated the gesture but was fully aware that he was the main culprit in devouring the two tins of "Chocolate Biscuits" I had bought in England for the bridge due to severe holiday cookie withdrawal.

Luckily for my birthday it's not all bad. Always having the fortune of working with a core of great shipmates, Mike the St. Lucian cook stepped up to the plate. Walking past the galley after lunch I could smell the forgotten scent of Sarah Lee in the oven. Mike, who I've spent several birthdays at sea with (His is the day before mine), was quick to let me know that on top of his other duties it was my own birthday cake he was baking and that he'd save me a piece before the crew finished it off. This one I'm sure will have icing on it.


  1. "Caustically stating the she "Isn't paid enough to do icing""

    That is a discussion taken before accepting the job!

  2. Excellent discussion of the notorious Ms. (because who really knew if she was married) Steward and her skills. I'm glad to hear that the cadet's chocolates were dispersed. I know personally that he was happy with his Sherlock Holmes discovery of the secret cabinet. Nice blog Mate. BTW, I saw that you were mentioned on the Jacktar website, I'm not really a creeper.