Thursday, December 31, 2009

Predeparture

Instead of fighting tens of thousands of people for a proper vantage point for tonight's fire works in downtown Singapore it looks like the crew will be watching them from the private and serene vantage of our very own ship. Of course we all would certainly prefer to be reveling on shore this final night of 2009 but all three permits came through today which means we sail on the second hour (ZD-8) of 2010.

Just having a job this year is a good enough cause to celebrate New Years Eve at work. Besides, I've found enough merrymaking this week than I ever thought I would experience during the holidays at work.

Christmas Eve began with the roasting of one of the two suckling pigs stashed away in the meat reefer. After lunch each of the officers threw 50 dollars into an envelope so the unlicensed could party with full pitchers of beer at their favorite bars all night long and still afford little shots of tequila for the hosteses.

In addition to lechon for lunch another Filipino Christmas tradition was observed. Buena Noche was served as a midnight feast, normally intended for after Christmas Mass. The crew who came back to the ship were greeted with stir fried noodles and the left over pork but had to wait until morning to sober up for the special launch to attend their mass.

On Christmas day I made my way to see a few friends docked once again in Sembawang where I received expert instruction in the concoction of eggnog and watched a riveting horshoe tournament. It turns out that a little amaretto in the nog knocks out any taste of the rum which left two of us in high spirits for the return train ride to downtown.

Today the second pig was roasted over our custom charcoal grill. The boson mates took turns diligently rotating the stainless steel spit crossing their fingers the whole while that we wouldn't depart until tomorrow morning. Though they didn't get their wish at least we'll all save some money over the next week or two as we head towards the South China Sea for this next repair. Tonight after the fire works the other traditional midnight meal will be served of the same ingredients but this one is called Buena Noche instead.

I asked the Captain for a relief today which means I'm beginning to come down with the symptoms of channel fever. Once again I am imagining myself in my own wonderful bed where not a wake up call will be heard. As far as 2009 is concerned it was more of a roller coaster ride than I cared for but that's part of the journey and I'm still here and if you're reading this than you are too so have a Happy New Year! It's time to test gear.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Trafico Tarifa

To all those passing this night,
Through these waters beneath Tarifa light,

Moving so fast within the lanes,
No time to linger, none to remain,

Working through the dark, our vessels together,
On top of the water, amidst this weather,

Missing those who know our middle name,
Who wait ashore persevering the same,

Missing the grass or missing the snow,
Missing the Christmas we will never know,

We share a plight, a common pain,
As each behemoth passes to an engine’s refrain,

For the time spent here is time apart,
As every wife and daughter know by heart,

As a father or brother, a wife or a lover,
Departs on the ocean, our original mother,

To ply this trade and collect a wage,
A burden of necessity to be born with age,

Sometimes it’s beautiful, sometimes a passion,
But tonight it’s a loss better not rationed,

To be at sea this eve as only a sailor can,
We tell ourselves this was how to take a stand,

Controlling our course, apart from the rest,
Finding the horizon, standing out amongst the best,

For ages we have been here on Christmas’s past,
Independent and alone, together held fast

Like the strands of a cable, inseparable and able,

We make this sacrifice together on Christmas Eve,
Knowing one day we will be home, never again needing to leave.

Merry Christmas Radio Tarifa - December 25th, 2006

Another 25th

There are some things you don’t mind leaving behind when going to sea. Filling the car with gas is one of them. Washing your own dishes is another. Holidays though stand out as something most mariners could do without missing. It certainly takes the pressure off of gift shopping for extended family and large family gatherings. On the other hand it’s a painful reminder that you’re absence is being felt yet again by those you are closest to. We’ll at least for some of us there is still holiday pay and a good chance of turkey at dinner but I would trade it any Christmas for my grandmother’s scalloped potatoes and ham.

My first Christmas at sea is memorable because of a blizzard that shut down Texas from Houston to Corpus Christi. Looking out the bridge windows it reminded me of a Christmas Eve snowstorm in Maine. I didn’t mind being at work that night until I made my way down to the officer’s mess after watch to scrounge for leftovers from the dinner I had slept through. The captain, who was from Texas, had gone ashore and bought a real Christmas tree. With help from his wife and kids he had decorated it while we were still in port. Smelling those needles in the soft glow of Christmas lights made me wonder how many Christmas’ I would be spending at sea over the course of my career.

Last year was probably my most memorable Christmas away from home. Like this year the ship was in port, not in Singapore as I am today but in Northern Germany. The Captain had made a few phone calls and finagled our way into a berth rather than a North Sea anchorage for the holiday as was originally planned. Everyone had gotten either Christmas Eve or day off so along with the second assistant and cadet I made my way by train to Bremen hoping all the way for spiced wine and girls in lederhosen.

In the old city square we found plenty of hot wine but the lederhosen was sparse. It didn’t matter though as we imbibed and mingled with the locals who were well on their way to red-faced renditions of German Christmas carols. The food, drink and d├ęcor were festive and exactly how I had always pictured Christmas in a medieval city.

The following morning as the sun rose over the bell ringing steeples of Bremerhaven a small brass band arrived at the gangway and asked if they could put on a Christmas concert during lunch. As the trumpets and French horns played Mozart’s Greensleeves the crew opened the care packages I had put in front of everyone’s door on the mid watch.

These small hand sewn bags had been stuffed a month earlier by elderly ladies volunteering for charities from New York to Georgia. They are distributed by Chaplains form the Seaman’s Mission every year to ships that call in U.S. ports. Some had little hand written notes amongst the tubes of toothpaste and socks wishing us happy holidays and God’s protection at sea.

That evening the 3-person stewards department turned out a full spread for the 22 man crew, steamed crab legs included. Eating with a wiper from the engine department I reflected on how sharing a holiday with a group of mostly complete strangers is a very unique arrangement. Most people would never think of spending a holiday away from their family whereas merchant mariners at best get half of their holidays at home over the course of their career not to mention birthdays and anniversaries.

Usually a Christmas at sea passes just like any other day on the calendar. The 25th though seems hardest on the men and women with children at home. Growing up with a dad at sea I remember how my mother would explain why dad wasn’t going to be around this year to open presents. Somehow it seemed normal to have a dad who went to work for four or five or six months at a time. That was until I started to realize that my friends dad’s only worked while we were in school.

I especially remember how every time the phone would ring on Christmas it would cause every one to put down their new toys and come running to the receiver to see if it was him. If we were lucky and he was in port then he could talk to each of the four boys in turn where as if it was a single side band call patched through a shore station the conversations were much shorter.

Today any one of us can pick up the satellite phone and call our loved one’s whenever we please. This has made it easier to communicate but in a way harder on the families because we seem so close but are still an ocean or two away. In the past when a sailor went to sea he was gone save for a letter or telegram.

This year I’m glad to be in port and not pushing a bow wake. I’ve now spent four Christmas’s at sea and still wonder how many more I have to go. This isn’t the holiday I miss being home for the most. New Years holds a significance that makes me really yearn to be among my friends and family rather than standing a watch at sea. It just isn’t the same when you are wishing a stranger over the VHF radio a happy and prosperous New Year. Something I’ve also done four times.

Deep Water Sailor December 24th, 2009

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Distraction

After more than a month at anchor we’ve moved 20 miles to the east for a short cable survey and burial. I have gotten used to this stretch of Malaysian coast where a white strip of sand 2 miles distant lines the feet of two prominent hills to the north.

Lush tropic foliage covers the hills where trees still stand and red clay earth where they do not. The waters are turbid blue and brown being churned by 3 knot rotary currents that stretch the anchor chains of dormant tankers. A small reef bound lighthouse flashes twice every three seconds off the southern most tip of Johor. It all looks so much as it did two months ago.

The only change is the number of ships at anchor and a steady wind pushing a swell from the opposite side of the South China Sea. It’s hard to imagine ten inches of snow at home as the sun shines down on the palms and sky blue waters.

This spot happens to be the origin of many inter-Asian fiber optic woes. Though the number of ships at anchor has reduced since the last repair we did here, a positive sign for the economy, there are still dozens that haven’t moved for months. Some of which are anchored right on top of a bevy of cables tempting the fate of millions of Internet customers.

I have been distracted lately thinking about home, roommates, vacation plans, relationships, missing holidays, and understanding why I persist to be at sea when the world seems ready to move on without me.

It must be different for the guys on here with families. The absence of my dad at home, which I remember so well from my child hood, seems justified as I watch these dads putting food on the table and kids through college. When I think about why I’m spending another day putting what seems like the rest of my life on hold I have to wonder.

Of course it’s true when I say I like the job. I’ve been exposed to a completely different aspect of the industry here. My job description has changed three times from safety officer to dedicated watch stander to navigator/surveyor. For the last month I’ve been immersed in a computer based survey program that compiles all the cable information during repairs. This software has become my primary responsibility and with only two days of formal training it’s a real showstopper when it crashes.

That’s one of the best parts of doing this job. Your responsibilities on a ship vary so widely. I have worked as a cargo mate, safety, security and medical officer, radio operator, navigator, educator and now cable surveyor. I have to be versed in meteorology, navigation and propulsion systems, international regulations, emergency preparedness and ship stability to name a few topics.

You also work with a group of people that come as varied as the seas. Some are outgoing and boisterous, others introverted and awkward. Some captains will teach you all they know while others hoard knowledge as if it helped their job security. Some sailors are professionals and others overgrown kids. Your lives can depend on one another in a heartbeat, not to mention your sanity, so you do whatever it takes to keep things amiable.

Being in Singapore has been a rocking good time as well mostly on account of the crew. Working until five and then heading out for the night with a group of like-minded individuals is something I’ve only had working on schooners, not the commercial ships. Gone are the days of four hours ashore in Bremerhaven or Charleston where I would have to do my solo bike riding and beer drinking at the same time, a precarious arrangement after stepping off a rolling ship.

I was talking with the mess man who makes up the officers rooms the other morning. Jojo has been going to sea for about the same amount of time as I. He told me about working for Carnival Cruise Lines and how the wages and travel benefits had been consistently cut year after year.

When the company started a no tipping policy to garner more in drink sales he left and started working here. When I asked him what he did before sailing he told me that after business school he was an assistant manager at a bank in the Philippines. I couldn’t believe that they guy who serves up dinner and waxes floors was once an assistant manager at a bank in Manila.

Jojo explained that he could make more here in the Stewards department working twelve hours a day than he could at a bank in the Philippines. With three kids and a wife at home he is willing to sacrifice 9 to 10 months of the year working at sea to provide for them. That really put my situation into perspective.

It is actually normal for the Pilipino crew here to stay on for two or three times the duration of their four-month contracts even though they stop getting paid! They still get overtime for any hours worked in excess of eight but only get their base wage for the first four months. A couple of the single guys have explained to me that the food and living conditions on board are better than at home so they stay on for a tiny bit of money which affords them just enough for buying beers and cavorting with the girls ashore.

Thinking about this I appreciate my fortune be employed as an American even more. Most of the world’s seafarers spend far more of their lives at sea than they ever will ashore and like the guys I’m working with now they don’t seem to mind all that much.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Sembawang

It’s been a dull couple of weeks at work riding the port anchor in downtown Singapore. Day work is a new phenomenon for me just as working on a foreign flagged ship, having Internet access and working with a crew of more than two dozen. It would be foolish to complain though as the latest thrill has been to see how close the pilots dare bring us to the breakwater at Marina South Pier where immigration clears sailors going ashore.

The Captain’s repeated attempts at getting the pilot to place us a mere four minute launch ride from the emerald city rather than the customary fifteen has been on the return end of several trips to Sembawang. Best known for the massive shipyard and smaller American naval base Sembawang lies on the northern edge of Singapore. Fifteen miles up the Johor Strait the trip could easily be confused with going up a river if it didn’t empty out onto the other side of Singapore.

Maybe it’s poor planning but we have visited this dock three times to swap cable and a fourth time to provide tours to sixty attendees of a cable protection and policy conference. The conference ironically focused on expediting working permits for cable ships. The entire reason we had the time to steam thirty miles to give ship tours and refreshments is because we are still waiting on permits! The tours actually proved to be a good time fielding questions from government officials and cable company executives about our profession while showing off a very sophisticated lady of a ship.

Sembawang is just a little ways past Johor, one of Malaysia’s industrial centers. On either side of the strait massive oil production and storage vessels were being constructed. At Sembawang an LNG tanker was having the finishing touches put on while an American flagged Polar tanker was on the floating dry dock having her hull repainted. Right next to the cable depot at the navy base a good friend and classmate’s Lewis & Clark class MSC supply ship was docked but he was home on vacation or I would have gotten the nickel tour.

The most impressive sight was an absolutely massive 738 foot pipe laying vessel. Appended to the bow was a pipe laying stinger which almost doubled her length used to install 60 inch diameter oil and gas piping in deep water. She is dynamically positioned and berths 240 people not to mention mile and miles of pipe. Check out her website here.



Also in the yard at Sembawang was a tanker that had been in a collision not too long ago. The collision as explained by our pilot occurred just outside the anchorage in Singapore. A bulker hit the tankers port side at the break between the cargo block and the house. The collision immediately caused an explosion that melted off the bridge wing and killed nine crew most of who were sleeping. It was a very sobering sight to look at the burnt out shell of ship which used to look just like so many you’ve slept on before.


Docking on this ship is a new experience in ship handling. Unlike docking conventional single screw vessels when we come along side the Captain takes the conn from the pilot and give orders directly to the Chief Mate who handles the throttles. Rather than a propeller, rudder and maybe a bow thruster, which is what I’m accustomed to, the ship has two azimuth stern drives, and two thrusters forward. One a conventional tunnel thruster, the other a swing down azimuth Z-drive.




Five Rolls Royce diesel electric generators power the propeller’s rotation while hydraulic pumps control the direction of thrust. Each azimuth thruster has a 360 degree range of motion and can thrust the ship fore n aft at up to 12 knots. This makes for a very maneuverable vessel which docks independent of tug boats and given the unique propulsion arrangement exclusive of pilots inexperienced with podded propulsion.



The cable depot at Sembawang is a large sheet metal building with a cable tanks on either side. The cable runs out an opening at the front of the building and supported by a high wire crosses over the road and receiving ship’s transom. As the cable is pulled by a transporter on our “cable highway” it enters one of the three circular tanks. Inside the tank a team of A.B.s constantly walk the cable in circles turning it clockwise neatly stowing it in flakes just as it’s been done for a hundred years and more.



In other news I've received my Marshal Islands license which is actually an impressive little green book complete with my picture and a half dozen of my scribbled signatures. You might be wondering what I had to do to earn this additional certification? Nothing much. Just submit an application and physical, pass a drug test and viola, I'm now a Marshal Islander! We'll at least I'm entitled to sail as an officer on any ship flagged out of the remote and miniscule Marshal Islands which probably has more deck space under registry than combined land mass. And they do have a decent looking flag unlike Monrovia.





Saturday, December 12, 2009

Mitigating the threat

I was very interested to learn that shortly after the Maersk Alabama was a second time attacked by pirates, this time thwarted by armed security, the vessel made the news again. Now a number of crew, some wielding lawsuits, are lodging complaints against the master and former hostage turned national hero. This is an interesting turn of events for the ongoing story of the Alabama and worth paying attention to.

The seizure of the Maersk Alabama has had profound ramifications for the crew, the company and the industry. First of all it brought to light the hazards merchant mariners are facing at this very moment in the Indian Ocean and their limited options at self-protection when boarded by Somali militias. Until the Alabama was seized very little attention was being paid to this issue, especially by the media in the United States.

The event also precipitated a major reversal in the stance on arming merchant vessels from one of the largest shipping companies in the world. I remember reading somewhere about Maersk Line’s stance on arms the last time I went through the Gulf of Aden just as things were beginning to heat up. I knew that when ship’s were getting hit a couple hundred miles ahead and astern of us how much more comforted I would be with a few well trained and armed mercenaries standing watch instead of a can of pepper spray and an LRAD. It appears that the A.P. Moller Group now shares my sentiment.

The Alabama also spurred the adherance to allready adopted corridors for shipping traffic through the Gulf of Aden in conjunction with timed convoys under naval surveillance. As the threat of piracy now extends to South Africa and the Seychelles only a concerted naval response will disable the Somalis profiting from this lucrative business. Securing the shipping lanes will also allow the Somali people to focus on a more constructive and sustainable means of securing their future.

It was after the rescue of Captain Phillips that a Captain at my former company approached the owners to insist that armed security had to be provided for the fleet of 8 U.S. registered vessels. In his view, and mine, the only real deterrent for pirates at this point in the game is to meet them with more potential firepower than they are already bringing into the Indian Ocean. Aided by the dramatic media aftermath of the Alabama, something else I’ll mention shortly, the company took this Captain’s heartfelt request for safeguarding his crew into consideration.

After conferring with lawyers and government advisers in Washington my former employer decided to contract a security service out of the Carolinas which would provide small teams of very seasoned Special Forces to provide security for all points in between Egypt and India. The legality and liability of the arrangement was very thoroughly researched to enable this action but in the end I’m positive and grateful that the company made the right decision.

I became aware of this arrangement when I was sent to a security conference hosted by the company and the security contractor along with all the officers employed on the Middle East run. The company made it very clear that they were arming our ships to protect us from Piracy and to eliminate the chance of one of our vessels, laden with government cargo, falling into the hands of the Somalis.

The security service made it clear that the very last thing they wanted to do was to actually use the “Tools” they would be breaking out in conjunction with the master every time the ship left a port. This was no Blackwater but instead a professional company that only hired veterans and law enforcement professionals that had been exposed to combat and were the absolute opposite of trigger-happy.

Everyone at the conference agreed that the escalation of force and use of weapon systems was under the authority of the security team. It was emphasized that deadly force was only used if the pirates were aiming their weapons and that the master’s presence on the bridge, not the firing position precluded him or her from making that decision. Otherwise the weapons would only serve as deterrents hardening the defensive posture of the vessel when swarmed by skiffs full of RPG touting thugs. All of my colleagues supported this policy and had Captain Phillips misfortunes to thank.

We also agreed that after any incident involving pirates the only external communications made would be to government authorities and the company. In the case of the Maersk Alabama as we learned from a former manger at Maersk now working for my company, the event was a media fiasco. According to him some members of the crew were on the phone with parents and news agencies before Maersk was even consulted. I can understand the urge to let your family know you’re all right after being held hostage in the steering gear room of your ship but to be talking with CNN while your captain is being held at gunpoint is not a good idea.

I actually knew more about the sequence of events on the ship than the media knew shortly after the fact because of one email that was sent by a crew member on board to a friend ashore which then wound up being circulated around the union. Another email reached my inbox originating from a crew member I knew from school that was in the same vicinity of the Alabama on another Maersk ship. She gave a blow-by-blow account to all her friends via email as the Alabama was being attacked and her own ship was being assessed by another group of pirates.

This former Maersk employee didn’t mention either of these emailers but both messages highlighted the reasons that my company was asking us to use discretion until the situation was known and a response prepared. There was a massive amount of confusion initially at Maersk. Besides creating a media circus the uncontrolled flow of information jeopardized Captain Phillips precarious rescue. A fact the speaker new firsthand and justly emphasized to us.

The last day of the conference the company staff and officers got together on the shooting range for an unlimited ammunition test firing of the weapons systems that were being deployed to the fleet. After firing a couple of magazines from a .50 Caliber Barret sniper rifle I was convinced that while the LRAD is a wonderful means for determining intent and discouraging approach only an expert marksmen could stop the engine of a pirate’s skiff.

Looking back at the Maersk Alabama it is not hard to criticize the Captain for not giving the reported pirate activity a wider berth. But it also is not very hard to criticize the Captain of a grounded ship. I think a wider context is needed in this case. At the time Maersk was not willing to arm their vessels, the Navy was not willing to allocate sufficient patrols and the world was not ready to acknowledge the voracity of the Somali’s perpetrating these crimes.

Sailors from all over the world are being shot at, captured, wounded and killed. Companies are paying millions of dollars to get their ships out of Somalia. If anyone regrets the events on board the Maersk Alabama it’s the Captain himself more than anyone. Hopefully we can learn from the mistakes he may have made, which merit study, and as an industry prevent this from ever happening again. Something I hope for as the schedule here is looking more and more like West Africa for the spring.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Shark Fins

This weekend the chandler took all the officers out to dinner as is his custom once a month during our prolonged stay in Singapore. To satiate our appetites he ordered tender barbecued skate, spicy pepper crab and garlic crusted farm raised prawns the size of small lobsters. It was an array of seafood I had never seen and being such a glutton for local fare I tried it all. The only thing I wouldn’t have touched was the shark fin soup, which because of the exorbitant price he decided not to order. The reason I dislike shark fin soup is because it encourages the slaughter of shark solely for that highly sought appendage creating a horrendous amount of bycatch and is responsible for wiping shark out of the oceans.

So it was an ironic moment yesterday at a Chinese wedding when I found myself most unceremoniously slurping up non other than the wicked and detestable shark fin soup. Being the only non-Chinese guest at the wedding I felt obliged to partake in the gelatinous dirt tasting liquid. I was afraid to offend the couple and all the hard earned money I knew it cost the bride to serve this revered and healthy, so I’m told, delicacy.

The rest of the food, served from large platters in eight courses, which everyone dug into with their chop sticks was phenomenal. Baked fish in chili sauce, whole broiled chickens with heads intact, a mushroom cap and leak salad, fried jelly-fish and prawns, pork rolls and a pile of dirty fried rice wrapped in a huge leaf were among the more substantial plates served.

The wedding itself was simple and informal. As I quickly found out today’s younger generation of Chinese working in Singapore all come from single child families. This combined with the bride and groom’s parents still living in China meant the guests were exclusively friends and co-workers. How might one end up attending the wedding of two complete strangers? A little bit of charm and a lot of randomness at the local Kampung chicken rice shop wound up with me getting an invite by one of the brides’ friends.

The actually marriage consisted of an officiator reading an oath in Mandarin to be repeated by the bride and groom whom then signed the marriage certificate. There were none of the aspects of a western wedding nor any religious overture, just a simple transaction under the law and a lot of little red envelopes.

Yesterday’s wedding was an unexpected climax to two very untypical weeks at anchor. Since the next repair cannot take place until all the permits have been granted the ship is in a fully crewed standby period which means light duty for the crew and because I’ve been graduated to a day worker a lot of time to roam the Island.


Besides being a part of the most important day of two complete strangers lives I’ve seen the aquarium on Sentosa Island, climbed the cliff at Labrador Park and located the biggest Buddhist monastery in the land. I’m finally able to tell if the cab driver is ripping me off by driving ten blocks out of his way though this is a rarity in Singapore. One of the most enjoyable aspects of visiting, or as it is living in the anchorage are the people. Singapore has to be one of the safest places on earth and that security means people maintain an easy and happy demeanor. The flip side is a heavy handed penal code and a very intense work ethic, six days a week for most of the folks, but when it comes to small talk at the bar, asking for directions or being invited to weddings people are very amiable.

A huge part of the recreational culture here is shopping. Despite being surrounded by water Singapore’s beaches are icky and most of the island is developed so the usual hangouts at the end of the business day are restaurants and malls. At night this moves into a number of huge and packed bars and clubs which cater to all sorts of different cultural themes and, as prostitution is legal here, varying level’s of sleaziness. Whatever your preference there is always a party to be found.

This week the ship will be moving to the north end of the island to receive a load of cable lent to another repair vessel. This will entail a 36 mile voyage, the lengthiest of my hitch, out of the anchorage, past Johor Malaysia and then to Sembawang shipyard. A welcomed respite from too many ATM receipts and not enough sleep. Hopefully the next repair will start in early 2010 unless something breaks sooner.