Wednesday, December 23, 2009


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.

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