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.

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