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.