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.