Tuesday, April 21, 2009

From me at sea: Recapping the latest events

I believe I'm getting the five year itch. I'm amazed at some people's
tolerance for repetition. I think my lack of it is why I wanted to go to
sea in the first place. To avoid the nine to five and showing up to the
same building or factory or work shop day after day, the only variable
being where I park in the morning. Yet even now on the high seas,
crossing an ocean, I find the prospect of making my sixth trip to the
North Sea somewhat yawn inspiring.

Most of the officers onboard have made this passage countless times
calling on the same 4 foreign ports for a decade or more. The repetition
of a liner service lends to building a familiarity with specific waters
which makes for an efficient and safe operation but it doesn't hold the
same appeal that seeing new ports in new countries does for me.

The most contented I've been at sea was running around the Korean
Peninsula and the Islands of Japan loading and discharging and
transshipping automobiles and heavy industrial equipment in a multitude
of ports, the names of which I couldn't even spell. It kept me on my
toes much like a cargo watch on a tanker does and made for a feeling of
satisfaction once you left the coast.

There was always something to figure out, something to fix (She was an
old ship), and a new chart to pull out. Now the track lines are drawn in
pen, the longshoremen familiar faces and the schedule like clock work.
Enough complaining though, there are perks to a consistent schedule,
civilized work and new ship. Furthermore, just having a decent job right
now in this recession is an absolute blessing.

A few things of note about the recession in Europe, which I can't verify
as fact but do come from credible sources which will go unnamed. First
the Light tax in the United Kingdom has been increased from six easy
payments a year to seven. I have no idea what a payment is but it's
surely a significant number of Pounds. This tax funds the lighthouses
around the shores of England and Wales. Apparently those around Ireland
are in the worst shape and now the tax will also go towards repairing
the defunct navigational aids of the Emerald Isles.

Also, as someone who spends a great deal of time correcting charts, I
have noticed a lot of lights and buoys disappearing from the shores and
coastal waters of Europe. I can only surmise that redundant, frequently
run over and less than necessary navigational aids are being withdrawn
to save money.

In the German port of Bremerhaven I was told that unemployment was
reaching towards 30%. Bremerhaven has a reputation for high unemployment
but this is a lot of people going without jobs, if it's true, for such a
working class town. The port was noticeably quiet, the docks having
hardly the amount of cargo that is normally staged for the ships.

Still construction on Bremerhaven's own multi climate exhibition goes
on. This miniature world is being built inside a glass paneled structure
shaped just like Chicago's "Bean" sculpture but upside down. It's huge
and very out of place with so many modernistic lines contrasting with
the masts and spars of the ships at the maritime museum and brick
drawbridges and signal station right next door.

This attraction, which I'll be able to visit after the grand opening
this summer, is situated right next to Bremerhaven's newest addition to
the mall, a swanky "Mediterraneo" which hosts among other boutiques a
very popular status symbol of an outdoor clothing store where a fleece
zip up costs 150 euros! Yeah, Europe really can get away with being that
expensive. Despite the recession and comically high prices at all the
shops in the new section of the mall it was still thronged with chic
Germans out for an Easter Day ice cream.

In the British port of Southampton the port operator has decided to save
costs by having the pilots only operate a single pilot boat rather than
the normal two. This has already caused us delays when arriving and

When we arrived last week the pilot boat had one outbound pilot to take
off a ship and then another waiting on the dock in Portsmouth for us. If
there had been two pilot boats than one would have been at the dock
waiting for our pilot to come down the street and the two boats could
have passed in the Solent rather than the single boat doubling back
making us wait for an extra half hour as we bobbed around Nab Tower.

When departing the pilot was reluctant to get our ship in front of a
slower tanker undocking from the Esso terminal down river because he
didn't want to have to wait in the only launch for her to drop her pilot
as well before heading home. Thus instead of passing ahead of the 13
knot tanker with tug escort we puttered along astern of her making the
captain increasingly impatient to get out of dodge and put to sea.

Back on board we're in our fourth day of the crossing getting plenty of
inside work done on account of the rainy gray days we've been having.
Crew relations in the deck department have been a little strained thanks
to a temporary boson that is finishing a 60 day relief for our permanent
boson, a fiery but dependable guy with Viking tendencies to plunder and
pillage when ashore.

The temporary Boson has been found to be snitching to the unlicensed
union even from overseas. He's been dropping the dime on crew who have
overstayed their hitches onboard either because they like the ship and
want to keep coming back or they are trying to get their required sea
time for the year. That way they can go home and still receive health
benefits without having to go back to work for six months.

These extended tours are normal on my ship because the sailors don't
exactly clamor for these low paying Ro/Ro jobs. It's basically
overlooked by the hiring halls until a jealous unemployed "Recertified"
boson tries to leverage his A book status into a permanent job usurping
the permanent B book boson that was legally grandfathered onboard (This
is allowed on a new ship) because of his reputation and dedication to
the vessel and old man. Unfortunately this is to be expected as the
economy shrinks and shipping grows tighter.

Being a rat has garnered the temporary boson, who is refereed to as the
"marathon man" for so oft being sighted walking about the ship looking
for various items when he should be getting something done instead, much
ill will. He surely has it coming to him when the permanent man gets
back. He literally started off the trip on the wrong feet by wearing the
permanent's brand new boots which he left onboard, getting paint on them
and then putting them back in his locker without replacing them. This
affront in addition to trying to take his job underhandedly means I'll
put my money of the Viking if their paths ever cross while ashore. 


  1. Question from a VTS guy here in the US

    Somtimes when we ask a ship or unit to wait 30 minutes for another vessel to clear it is not a problem, and others it is a big issue. In general, how are those 30-45 mintue waits like you experinced in the UK viewed by the shipping community or is it more isolated to some ships/flags?
    I can promise you we don't do it for the heck of it. Thanks

  2. VTS guy, the answer to your question has to do with two things, traffic density and natural forces. A ship should always be prepared to heave to and spend a little time waiting for things to clear out before safely proceeding into port or the channel but if a delay is unexpected by the bridge team and your vessel is subject to highwinds, seas or excessive current than maintaining a position becomes challenging. If there is alot of traffic nearby than it becomes even more dangerous in a confined area to kill time. I'm sure that as a VTS operator you take these factors into account when you're holding up ships approaching your port but in some parts of the world they seem to put you in peril on purpose.

    Approaching the Suez canal is a good example. As ships queue up for their spot in the canal Port Control has a habit of manhandling vessels into their position with little regard to where other ships might be stationed. It gets pretty hectic with so many large vessels trying to squeeze into the same channel at the same time.

    Another spot which I've found to be even more trying is when approaching the Red Sea port of Jeddah. Port Control likes to get you right ontop of the pilot boarding station which is about one mile inside a barrier reef (where the
    bottom slopes from 2000 ft. to 15 ft.) and then tells you to wait around
    just outside the inner reef because the pilot won't be there for another hour.

    Those are both extreme examples where on occasion VTS seems to do more harm than good but normally it isn't a big deal if you let us know ahead of time. If not than we may have allready called all hands for the tugs and now we've got the entire deck gang out on deck wishing they were still asleep.

    I'm curious what you would say are the most common causes of delays in your port? Congestion, pilot/tug availability?